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Social Justice Commissioner calls for Government to re-commit to Indigenous affairs

Commission Commission – General

20 March 2003

Social Justice
Commissioner calls for Government to re-commit to Indigenous affairs

The Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr William Jonas today
called on the federal Government to put reconciliation and native title
back on the national agenda.

Dr Jonas' annual
Social Justice and Native Title reports for 2002 were tabled in Federal
Parliament yesterday.

"The Government
has adopted an antagonistic and adversarial approach to Indigenous policy
and has undermined bi-partisan support for reconciliation through its
limited approach," Dr Jonas said. "While reconciliation was
a priority for the second term of the Government, it does not even rate
a mention in recent announcements of the Government's strategic long term
vision for Australian society. Indigenous issues are no longer treated
as a national priority."

"In the past
year the High Court has also settled the governing principles of the native
title system. This confirms that the Government are presiding over a system
that is anachronistic and fails to recognise Indigenous peoples' interests
in land."

Social Justice Report 2002 - Report CoverThe
Social Justice
Report 2002
commends positive developments in Indigenous policy
including:

  • The commitment
    of governments at all levels to partnerships with Indigenous peoples
  • The commitment
    of the federal government to principles for the equitable provision
    of services to Indigenous peoples
  • Recognition by
    governments of the central importance of capacity building of Indigenous
    communities
  • The commitment
    of the Council of Australian Governments to processes for addressing
    Indigenous disadvantage,
  • Support of the
    federal government at the international level to the effective operation
    of the newly created UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

However, the Social
Justice Report 2002
finds that overall it is difficult to see
any consistent forward trend in addressing Indigenous issues over the
past year. "The policy approach of governments remains full of inconsistencies,
ad hoc developments, and commitments that not only remain unmet but which
are not adequately supported by institutional developments," said
Dr Jonas.

"Even the main
issue that the Government has committed to, addressing Indigenous disadvantage,
lacks direction. The absence of an absolute commitment to overcoming such
disadvantage - with short, medium and long term targets - masks the distinct
lack of progress within the framework of practical reconciliation,"
said Dr Jonas.

In addition to issues
relating to reconciliation the report considers Indigenous women in criminal
justice processes and Australia's international advocacy on indigenous
issues.

Native Title Report 2002 -  Report CoverThe
Native Title
Report 2002
finds that there are fundamental shortcomings in the
native title system and that it fails to meet the human rights standards
required at international law.

The High Court's
decisions in Yarmirr, Miriuwung Gajerrong, Wilson v Anderson and
Yorta Yorta crystallise the law with respect to the recognition
and extinguishment of native title.

"What has emerged
from the High Court is a concept of recognition as not simply the law
providing a vehicle for Indigenous people to enjoy their culture and property
rights," said Dr Jonas. "Rather the law becomes a barrier to
their enjoyment and protection."

"The implications
of these decisions are being felt by Indigenous people and a re-evaluation
of the law needs to occur at the political level," said Dr Jonas.
"Human rights principles should be at the forefront of such a process."

"The Court's
finding that the Native Title Act rather than the common law directs
the native title processes of extinguishment and recognition, confirms
the primary role of the Commonwealth in the protection of native title.
Responsibility for the protection of native title can no longer be conveniently
shifted between the legislature and the common law."

"The government
must now accept responsibility for the law as it stands and, equally important,
re-evaluate the means by which the law can be changed to make it consistent
with Australia's international law obligations," said Dr Jonas.

The report recommends
that the Native Title Act be amended to apply the non extinguishment principle,
currently limited to future acts under the Native Title Act, to past activities
that affect native title.

Media contact:
Janine MacDonald 02 9284 9880 or 0408 469 347

Last
updated 20 March 2003.