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Whatever happened to reconciliation?

Commission Commission – General

May 2002

Whatever happened
to reconciliation?

Dr Jonas speaks to members of the media at the launch of the 2001 Social Justice and Native Title Reports

Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr William Jonas has expressed
serious concerns about the federal government's commitment to reconciliation
in his annual review of the government's performance, the Social
Justice Report 2001
. This report and his annual review of native
title developments, the Native
Title Report 2001
, were tabled in federal Parliament yesterday.

"It is difficult
to identify any public material that demonstrates that the federal government
has engaged in a good faith process to consider the Council for Aboriginal
Reconciliation's (CAR) recommendations by reviewing current programs and
policies and consulting and negotiating with Indigenous people about ways
to improve them," said Dr Jonas.

"Not only
has the federal government not explicitly responded to the CAR documents,
it has quite deliberately sought to shut down debate and avoid any engagement
about the documents by using its stated commitment to practical reconciliation."

In his review, Dr
Jonas also expressed concerns at:

  • The limited focus
    of COAG's response to reconciliation, which seeks to address disadvantage
    but not rights recognition or other symbolic issues;
  • The 'assimilationist'
    goals of practical reconciliation, which seek to "maintain rather
    than transform the relationship of Indigenous people to the mainstream
    society"; and
  • Limitations in
    the federal government's approach to family violence, which requires
    more holistic and strategic long-term approaches, including recognition
    of cultural rights and self-determination.

"It is reasonable
to expect that at the end of a ten year, multi-million dollar process
Indigenous people would receive a formal response from the government,"
said Dr Jonas. "We should also expect national coordination of reconciliation
to prevent a repeat of the mistakes of the past, especially in ensuring
adequate accountability, transparency, effective monitoring and long term

To address these
concerns Dr Jonas has called for a Senate inquiry into the reconciliation
and in particular into the documents produced by the Council
for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the recommendations of the Social
Justice Report 2000.

In the Native
Title Report 2001
, Dr Jonas expresses concern at the failure of
the Native Title Act to deliver lasting outcomes for Indigenous peoples.

"As an embodiment
of social relations, the native title system places Indigenous interests
at a lower level than non-Indigenous interests, every time. As an embodiment
of economic relations, the native title system removes Indigenous people's
effective control over their only asset: exclusive rights to land and
sea country. And as an embodiment of political relations, native title
fails to recognise traditional decision-making structures," said
Dr Jonas.

The Native
Title Report 2001
expresses concern at the administration of the
right to negotiate provisions by tribunals and governments; as well as
inequitable funding levels within the native title system that disadvantage
native title representative bodies. "Critical functions of native
title representative bodies are not reflected in funding levels,"
said Dr Jonas. "This under-funding limits the options for Indigenous
people in protecting their native title rights."

Dr Jonas also examines
the capacity for framework agreements to be better used to elaborate standards
for co-existing interests in land. "Framework agreements provide
an opportunity for native title parties and non-Indigenous parties to
interact, rather than having a relationship imposed by government policy
or legislation," stated Dr Jonas. "This can provide greater
certainty and stability in relationships and present a viable option for
commercial entities to do business with Aboriginal people."

The Social
Justice Report 200
also considers:

  • Progress
    10 years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

    - noting that while there have been many improvements in the decade
    since the inquiry, the situation generally has deteriorated significantly
    with continuing high rates of over-representation in custody, significant
    increases in rates of imprisonment of Indigenous women, and a nationwide
    trend towards tougher law and order policies that is 'one of the most
    distressing developments since the Royal Commission';
  • Mutual obligation
    and welfare reform
    - finding that the mutual obligation approach
    to welfare reform is over-stretched in relation to Indigenous peoples,
    as it does not give adequate attention to the broader social, economic
    and historical factors that contribute to Indigenous disadvantage and
  • Indigenous
    governance and capacity building in communities
    - providing
    detailed case studies of current initiatives and finding that commitments
    to them have been minimal and require longer-term funding and resources;
  • Diversionary
    schemes for juveniles in the NT and WA
    - noting that the first
    twelve months of the NT's Pre-court Juvenile Diversion Scheme has been
    highly encouraging with some flaws that must be addressed. In contrast,
    the WA scheme is particularly poor and requires urgent change; and
  • Mandatory
    sentencing in WA
    - finding that there remains an ongoing need
    for WA to remove these arbitrary and unnecessary laws.

"The lack
of progress in addressing the concerns of the Royal Commission offers
us a stark reminder of what is at stake in this country with reconciliation,"
Dr Jonas said in his Social Justice report. "As a society we cannot
afford to look back in 10 years' time on the reconciliation process with
the same regrets we now do on the Royal Commission."

Media contacts:

Janine MacDonald
(02) 9284 9880 or 0408 469 347
Jan Payne (02) 9284 9791

updated 15 May 2002.