It is with respect and gratitude that I acknowledge that we sit today on the lands of the Awabakal and Worimi peoples.
My people are the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland. On behalf of my Elders I also pay tribute to your Elders, both past and present, for their continued struggle for their country and their culture.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. The work that you do assisting tenants is challenging. You are often dealing with a range of complex needs that span beyond tenancy law. Your advocacy is crucial for a group of people who often some of the most marginalised in our community.
Today I would like to extend the way you may view your work and some of the tools available to you. The Tenants Union is part of a long tradition of fighting for housing justice, as I understand, going all the way back to 1910. What I want to add to this robust tradition is a human rights approach.
In my mind, all of you here today are human rights workers. Your work helps individuals realise their rights everyday, in particular the right to adequate housing. I will explain further and introduce you to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a tool to guide your engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
I will also speak briefly about the campaign for constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - one of my key areas of advocacy.
But firstly, let me start by giving you an outline of this position that I currently occupy, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Social Justice Commissioner, and a snapshot of my agenda.
2013 marks the 20th year since this position came into being as a result of the Native Title Act, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and a HREOC Inquiry into racial hatred. Previous Social Justice Commissioners are Professor Mick Dodson, Dr Bill Jonas, Dr Tom Calma and Ms Zita Antonios.
The Social Justice Commissioner role has some statutory duties. I’m required to provide to the Australian Parliament an annual Social Justice Report and I also provide a report on Native Title. I’m also required to:
- review the impact of laws and policies with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- promote an Indigenous perspective on issues and
- monitor the enjoyment and exercise of human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians
But in a real sense, I’m handed these general directions and it’s up to me to sort out my priorities in terms of how I do what the legislation requires of me.
As Social Justice Commissioner I have only six staff, so I quickly realised that it would be unrealistic to pick even one of the myriad of challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - housing, health, education to name a few and expect to fix it by January 2015.
I believe that fixing these issues will require the intergenerational commitment of the whole nation.
After listening and accepting the reality of the limitations of this position compared to the enormity of the task confronting us, at the centre of my priorities is the belief that we need to firstly develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia.
Secondly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all levels of government.
Thirdly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
I believe human rights are one of the most powerful tools to help build good relationships.
Let me be honest, I have worked in Indigenous affairs for all of my professional life and when I was approached about this position as Commissioner I was hesitant at first because I didn’t see myself as a human rights activist. But as one of my closest colleagues pointed out, you can’t work in Indigenous affairs without being a human rights activist. Working on Indigenous issues means that you are working with human rights day in and day out.
One of the main challenges I face as Social Justice Commissioner – and the Australian Human Rights Commission faces more generally – is communicating to the Australian public what ‘human rights’ mean in practice.
Human rights are not just abstract concepts that exist in documents such as treaties, conventions and declarations alone.
Human rights provide governments with a set of minimum legal standards which must apply equally to all people. A human rights framework provides parameters – universally agreed parameters – for a society to foster dignity and equality of all citizens. And equality means substantive equality – equality in outcomes, not just in writing.
Fortunately, most Australians are lucky enough to take human rights for granted. But for those rights to be realised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, additional support and focus is often required.
So what does this mean in your daily work?
I am sure you are all familiar with the human right to adequate housing. The right to an adequate standard of living, including housing, is found in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Australia is a party, recognises the right to adequate housing and commits state parties to take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right.
You may not be as familiar with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007 andis the foundation document in human rights for all Indigenous peoples.
The Declaration contains a number of key principles underpinning the rights it protects. Those key principles can be summarised as:
- First, self-determination
- Second, participation in decision-making and free, prior and informed consent
- Third, respect for and protection of culture
- Forth, non-discrimination and equality.
The Declaration also contains specific guidance around housing. Article 21 provides that Indigenous peoples have the right, without discrimination, to the improvement of their economic and social conditions, including housing.
Article 23 of the Declaration states that Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development. In particular, Indigenous peoples have the right to be actively involved in developing and determining health, housing and other economic and social programmes affecting them and, as far as possible, to administer such programmes through their own institutions.
I think these Articles are very important because they acknowledge two areas of concern in terms of Aboriginal housing. Firstly, the impact of discrimination in housing. I am thinking, for instance, of the work that you do assisting with people who have faced racism in terms of tenancy.
Secondly, the Declaration recongises the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s being involved in the decisions around housing, especially through Aboriginal housing organisations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing organisations can be an important model of self determination. That is, putting our communities in control of the decisions that affect them.
The Declaration is also clear about the role of government in the progressive realisation of rights, such as the right to adequate housing. We all know the Aboriginal housing stock is often run down and inadequate in both remote, rural and urban areas. Governments have a responsibility to improve this situation.
So, once again, how can you use the Declaration in your work?
I think if you keep coming back to those four principles I just mentioned- self-determination, participation in decision-making and free, prior and informed consent, respect for and protection of culture and non-discrimination and equality you get a good idea about the what this means in practice.
I challenge people from all walks of life to apply these four principles to the work they do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
It might be as simple as making sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are involved in your decision making and actively consulted about your services. It might be seriously considering some of the cultural barriers that make accessing your service challenging for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and then developing a plan to address this. It might be thinking of a way you can celebrate the vibrancy and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in your community.
These are just ideas, ultimately, what I am saying is that putting the Declaration into practice is not a program of work, nor is it a tokenistic checklist. It is an approach. It requires attitudinal shift, self reflection and the willingness to actively listen and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
At the big picture level, another way to advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is through the campaign for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australia Constitution.
A referendum to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution is an opportunity to redefine our national identity based on recognition, respect and inclusion and to change the role of government in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives.
A successful referendum will encourage reconciliation among all Australians and can enable practical improvements to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Reforming the Constitution will also provide an opportunity for all Australians to acknowledge and be proud of our histories and cultures that existed – and continue to exist – before the Constitution was written.
In February we witnessed a historic step toward a referendum when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 (Act of Recognition) was passed unanimously through Federal Parliament. The Act of Recognition provides acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ unique place as Australia’s first peoples. It also prescribes that a review will be commenced considering proposals for constitutional change, their likely levels of support in the community and likelihood of success.  This report must be completed by 27 September 2014 and tabled in parliament within 15 sitting days.
The Act of Recognition is a welcome development but it is only a first step. I urge the Government to build on the work of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Expert Panel). The recommendations acknowledge the need to couple recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia’s first peoples with reforms to address the provisions of the Constitution which permit, enable or anticipate racial discrimination.
The success of constitutional reform lies in the hand of every day Australians and the ability to organisations like yours to join this campaign. A public education campaign is being run by Reconciliation Australia.
At the moment, before we know what the referendum question will be, the aim is to try and build popular support and momentum across the community.
If anyone here is looking for resources to do your own bit of community education and campaigning, ANTaR has put together some very useful material on their website and I highly recommend you take a look. The You Me Unity website was established by the Expert Panel specifically as a tool for engaging the public on constitutional recognition. It continues on as a space for this public conversation and also hosts useful educational material. Recognise also have a very informative and engaging website.
There is a long way to go on constitutional reform. But I believe in the innate decency of the Australian people to walk with us on this next important stage of our national journey towards reconciliation.
I want to finish by saying your work helping people secure their housing helps meet some of our most fundamental human rights. I thank you for your work and your time today.
 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2012 (Cth), s 4