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Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Knowledge Conference

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Knowledge Conference

Indigenous Knowledge with specific focus on the UN DRIP

3rd July 2008

Lazenby’s at the Sandy Bay Campus of the University of Tasmania in Hobart

Our Culture: Preserving the Legacy

Speech by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma.

Good evening distinguished guests and friends

I begin by paying my respects to the Mouhenenner people, the traditional owners of the land where we gather today.  I pay my respects to your elders, to the ancestors and to those who have come before us. 

I would like to thank Maggie Walter and Clair Anderson of the Ria Wuna Centre for inviting me to speak tonight and I would like to acknowledge the challenging and lead role you are performing to preserve Indigenous cultural understanding.

The subject I am speaking on tonight is: Our Culture: and Preserving the Legacy.

It comes as no surprise that all societies argue for sustaining their cultures and systems of knowledge.  There are good reasons for this.  Culture is fundamental to identity – it is our past, our present and our future.  Culture is also part of the key to a healthy life.  In recent years, the Medical Journal of Australia has published research that shows that a connectedness with spirituality, religion and culture is associated with better health, with a lowered chance of drug abuse, alcoholism, depression and suicide.    

We need our culture to sustain us and to keep us well.  But importantly, we need culture because it tells us who we are.

We Indigenous peoples have been struggling on the margins to sustain and resource our cultures in hostile environments that have variously sought to eradicate or assimilate our languages, our belief systems and our ways of living. 

And in an interesting reversal of thinking, we are living in times where some core values of Western society are being questioned.  Some of the world’s best thinkers now argue that aspects of Western culture seriously threaten global ecologies.  And we are witnessing global efforts to rethink some of these Western value systems  –  these very same values that have been imposed on our people to the detriment of our cultures and our systems of knowledge. 

This evening I will talk about the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its role in supporting our right to practice and perpetuate our cultures.  But first, let’s look at why this international human rights instrument is necessary. 

There are some serious shortcomings in our current system which means that protections of Indigenous rights in Australia can be seriously compromised.  Last year in my Hyllus Maris Oration I said the following:   

Australia [has] the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only country in the world whose Constitution contains a ‘races power’ that allows the Parliament to enact racially discriminatory laws.  In other words, in 1967 we missed the opportunity to insert a non-discrimination clause into the Constitution, or to at least ensure that any laws made for Aboriginal people would have to be for our benefit and not to our detriment.   

We have witnessed a number of occasions where the federal government has introduced laws that are discriminatory to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.  Most notably perhaps, the Ten Point Plan amendments to the Native Title Act which extinguished native title in favour of some non-Indigenous tenures.  More recently, discriminatory laws were applied in the Northern Territory.  The federal government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act in order to impose a regime on our people that would not be tolerated by non-Indigenous Australians.  And it was the ‘race power’ that allowed them to do it.   All this tells me is that Indigenous peoples are acutely vulnerable to the policy positions of the federal government of the day.   

We rely on the parliament to protect our rights and interests in the absence of a treaty, or any Constitutional recognition of the distinct status, laws and cultures of our people.

When you are a small percentage of the population, one of the problems in relying on governments is that they are accountable to, and mandated by, their electors.  The more powerful or prominent interests in society usually take precedence.  And this means that the cultural needs of the majority are reflected in all areas of government services – such as the way our health and education systems are run, the scheduling of public holidays, the fact that English is the language of transaction in all circumstances, and so on.  Moreover, the capacities and willingness of governments to advocate and resource minority groups is changeable, and their policy positions usually deliver outcomes that are at best, approximate, and more often miss the mark. 

The reason that human rights frameworks are important is because they emphasise process and participation.  Human rights frameworks provide an accountability tool to guide governments in the development of laws and policy.  They provide a framework for ensuring equality and fairness in both the procedural aspects of policy making as well as in resource allocation.  A fundamental goal of human rights is the provision of equality before the law and non-discriminatory treatment. 

As well as being proactive, a human rights framework can provide corrections to government laws and policies when they disadvantage or discriminate.

In terms of our right to practice culture, there is increasing recognition in international human rights arenas that the situation of Indigenous peoples is unique.   

We have a distinct status  –  

  • we are not merely ‘disadvantaged Australians’ or a ‘minority’ grouping.  We are the First Peoples of this land.
  • We have been colonised and yet we continue to seek to practice and perpetuate our different cultures within a colonised context.   

In terms of a rights framework, we retain collective rights as peoples, which are inherent in our status as First Nations Peoples.  These collective rights are unique to us.  They include rights to self-government; to our lands, territories and resources; and to perpetuate and protect our cultural characteristics.   

These rights impose responsibilities on governments.  Governments are required to provide culturally appropriate services as an essential part of the right to non-discrimination and equality before the law.  And the right to culturally appropriate services is an essential component of the right to health, the right to housing and an adequate standard of living. 

So much of the powerlessness of Indigenous peoples is the result of the lack of recognition and respect for our cultural systems and way of life.

Equality does not mean identical treatment, based on one cultural model.  It requires recognition of our cultural difference as a positive contribution to the cultural diversity of our nation.   

This is why I welcome moves by the Australian Government to consult with stakeholders about reversing Australia’s opposition to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Along with Canada, the United States and New Zealand, Australia voted against the adoption of the Declaration.  If we remove our opposition we will join the 143 members of the international community who support the Declaration.  And it looks likely now that Canada will reverse its opposition too.  Recently a majority of the Canadian House of Commons adopted a motion in support of the Declaration. 

Endorsement of the Declaration would send a positive message to Indigenous Australians.  It would herald an intention of the Government to involve and engage us in policy development and law making.  It would signal the Government’s intention to seek our participation in political process in matters which directly affect us.

While the Declaration has no formal, legal status in the Australian legal system, and cannot elevate Aboriginal customary law over Australian law for example, the Declaration recognises our dignity and status as people, within the context of the laws of this nation state. 

The Declaration has moral authority.  Some describe it as an aspirational document because it provides standards to which public institutions and governments should reach.  In terms of International law, the Declaration establishes a framework of those human rights that already exist in international law as they apply to Indigenous peoples.1

So what does the Declaration say about our right to culture.  Article 11 states that we have: the right to practice and revitalize [our] cultural traditions and customs. 

Article 12 tells us that we have: the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach [our] spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to [our] religious and cultural sites. 

Article 14 tells us that we have the right to: establish and control [our] educational systems and institutions providing education in [our] own languages, in a manner appropriate to [our] cultural methods of teaching and learning.  It also tells us that governments should work with us to allow our children: to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.

Article 15 talks about the promotion of tolerance and the right to the dignity and diversity of our cultures.  It tells us that government should take measures: to combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all other segments of society.

If the current Government endorses this Declaration, we will have a platform to negotiate cultural rights, amongst other rights.  The Declaration will provide a framework through which we can argue for corrective action to redress policies that have prevented or impeded us from maintaining and reviving our cultures.  The framework gives us internationally endorsed principles to support our arguments that Indigenous cultures must be supported and protected by Australia’s public institutions.   

Some of you here may know that the focus of this year’s United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was “Climate change, bio-cultural diversity and livelihoods: the stewardship role of indigenous peoples and new challenges.” 

Language and culture

Our representatives at the Permanent Forum made a number of interventions with recommendations for government action on Indigenous cultural rights.
On the theme of Indigenous children, youth and knowledge, the following was presented to the Forum:   

There is no recognition of cultural education and language within our formal education system.  We recognise, and celebrate the diverse cultural identities that exist within Australia’s Indigenous children and youths; however, we are losing our identity in culture and tradition because we are being dominated by Western ideals.2

June Oscar took the subject further with her submission on the subject of Indigenous languages.  She had this to say: 

The devastating affect of colonisation on the traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages of Australia has endangered the cultural knowledge of thousands of years…    We believe, however, it is not too late to try and capture some of the cultural depth of this knowledge while speakers of the languages are still alive…

Because it is not just about language, it is the survival of our cultures, traditions, laws and customs.  It is about the transmission of knowledge and knowledge systems that have sustained us as a group of Peoples from the time of creation.  The place for this teaching and learning is on country.  Formal education and linguistic training needs to support the return of traditional Aboriginal ways of teaching and learning, not compete with it.  Our Elders are our teachers and our Country is the curriculum. 

… customary laws of Indigenous communities are often in their languages,  if the language is lost then the community may not fully understand its laws and system of governance.  Loss of language also undermines the identity and spirituality of the community and the individual.3

With a Declaration we have leverage to argue for the recognition of cultural rights in schools for example.  We can use the Declaration to support our struggle to retain bilingual and bi-cultural education programs and approaches.  The Declaration provides governments with guidance on these matters. 


Integral to culture and identity for many Indigenous peoples is the land.   Caring for country is a high priority for many of us.  On this topic the delegates at the Permanent Forum outlined the following:

Australia has extremely high bio-diversity value.  The Indigenous land estate in Australia includes bio-regions that are of global conservation significance, with many species found only on our continent and in our marine areas… we as the custodians of the land have a responsibility no only to ourselves and our peoples, but to global humanity to ensure the ongoing maintenance of the integrity of ecosystems on our lands. 

It is time [for]…Governments…to develop a comprehensive policy for Indigenous land and sea management.  However, this must be done in consultation with, and with the full participation of Indigenous peoples.

The adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at all levels of policy and legislation is vital…

The Declaration also requires embodiment through supporting institutions, resources and policies which allow us to have a voice on matters such as education, our languages and preservation of our land. 

Support for our knowledge centres

So I would like to finish by advocating for sustained government support of our knowledge centres.  We have a fledgling United Nations University, Centre of Traditional Knowledge at the Charles Darwin University.  It commenced in 2007 and has been funded by the NT Government at an investment of $2.5 million over the next five years.  Other philanthropic funding has also supported this institution.  I would now like to see the Commonwealth Government get on board.  This institution is potentially a key location for Indigenous training and knowledge.  And to this end, I’d like to read to you General Recommendation 20 of this year’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  It reads:

The Permanent Forum recommends that the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, university research centres and relevant United Nations agencies conduct further studies on the impacts of climate change and climate change responses on indigenous peoples who are living in highly fragile ecosystems, such as low-lying coastal areas and small island States; semi-arid and arid lands and dry and sub-humid lands (grasslands); tropical and subtropical forests; and high mountain areas.4

We need governments to recognise the value of our contribution to the health and well being of this nation.  We are all too familiar with the boom and bust funding arrangements for our programs and initiatives.  With the framework of the Declaration we can work with governments to support overarching policies that will not leave us vulnerable to the latest policy whims of the government of the day.  In this way we might see ongoing support for programs such as the Working on Country Program – a program where the Australian Government purchases environmental services from Indigenous people.  It would provide support for the Indigenous Ranger Program model thereby integrating Indigenous knowledge into strategies to address climate change. 

The principles contained in the Declaration provide a humane moral vision for Indigenous peoples.  Each Article of the Declaration provides recognition of our unique status as peoples, and assists us in working with governments to preserve our languages, our cultures, our traditions and our ways of living.   

We are the oldest surviving continuous indigenous culture on this earth and we must ensure that we survive beyond the next millennium.

Thank you

[1] The Human Rights Law Resource Centre (HRLRC) and the Indigenous Law Centre (ILC),  UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Letter to Prime Minister Rudd and Ministers Smith,  McClelland and Macklin,  May 2008,  Available online at: accessed 31 June 2008

[2] Statement by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth Caucus,  Agenda Item 8,  Ongoing themes and priorities – Indigenous Children and Youth,  Presenter,  Lyndsay Urquhart,  United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,  Seventh Session,  2008

[3] Intervention by the IPO,  Agenda Item 7:   Discussion on Indigenous Languages,  Presenter,  June Oscar,  Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre,  Kimberley Language Resource Centre,  United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,  Seventh Session,  2008

[4] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,  Report on the seventh session (21 April-2 May 2008),  Economic and Social Council Official Records Supplement No.  23p,  11,  available online at: accessed 1 July 2008

Former Commissioners

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