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NTCOSS Conference 2017

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Larrakia yani u. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani. Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

Good morning everyone.

I stand here today on the lands of the Larrakia People.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land upon which we meet, the Larrakia peoples and I pay my deep respects to their elders both past and present, and the generations to come.

Thank you Shanel for your warm welcome.

I also want to acknowledge and thank the conference organisers for all their efforts in putting this together. These gatherings are hard work and depend on skilled people to organise.

I come from the Bunuba people, and Warangarri, my traditional lands in the Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia. Today I address you as the first Aboriginal woman appointed to the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission in 30 years.

As the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, it is my role to raise awareness of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to provide guidance to Government on how to promote and protect these rights

I look forward to bringing my experiences from living in community to this role and to elevating the voices of our people, throughout my term to address the various challenges facing our communities.

Human Rights

When I was first appointed to this role, and before I made the long journey from my home in Fitzroy Valley, I had many people ask me about where I would be going and what my new role as Social Justice Commissioner would entail. I had people coming up to congratulate me but not quite understanding the role and the significance of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission? What was this thing called human rights?

This is a comment that struck a chord with me because although our communities know concepts around justice and equity well, found in our protests and marches, and in our stand offs with police and welfare- we don’t necessarily know about the language of human rights. I have said since my appointment this April that I will work hard to ensure that the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples are more than just words on a page and a part of our lived reality.

Earlier this month, we commemorated the 10 year anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[1] The Declaration was developed by and for Indigenous peoples across the globe and is the most far-reaching comprehensive instrument concerning indigenous peoples. The Declaration has 46 articles and incorporates four guiding principles: self-determination; participation in decision making and free, prior and informed consent; respect for and protection of culture; and non-discrimination and equality.

The Australian Government formally adopted the Declaration in 2009.[2] Bringing full effect to the Declaration has been a challenge for many states around the world, but it is obligatory under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[3]that each nation takes key steps towards the realisation of our human rights. I therefore share the frustrations of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who visited Australia earlier this year and recently released her Country Report,[4] that many of the recommendations that her predecessor made in 2010[5] to help guide Australian policy towards this end have not yet been implemented. In particular, it is disappointing that there is currently no active and coordinated national plan in place to give full effect to the Declaration.

It is my great hope and ambition to help to make Declaration a useful tool for our mob so we know to expect and demand, and how to negotiate and participate in, equitable partnerships into the future. And, I look forward to working with the Australian government in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples so we can together breathe life into the Declaration through what we hope will become a National Implementation Strategy.

Later this year my team and I will launch a national human-rights-based engagement process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls which is being supported by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Our aim will be to elevate the voice of our people, assess what the immediate needs of our women are in line with the Declaration, and to guide and influence governments to implement those policies and practices that will foster agency within our communities and provide the enabling conditions for positive change.

Stronger Futures Legislation

The topic I will speak about today is: ‘rights, resilience and rebuilding: imagining a new future for Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory’

I first of all, I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the enormous strength of my countrymen and women in the Northern Territory, and the impressive resilience you have shown in the face of successive challenges. It is not for me, nor anyone else, but your right alone to imagine a new future for yourselves, and to rebuild your communities in that image. It is my role to support you in that journey.

While everyone can agree that we need to bring about a future that is stronger for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Northern Territory, there is far less consensus as to whether this is what the Stronger Futures legislation[6] is delivering.

When the first iteration of the proposed legislation was issued in 2011, the Commission provided a submission identifying a range of human rights concerns, and making thirty-three specific recommendations to the Government to improve the Stronger Futures Bills including calls appropriate resourcing and the prioritisation of programs that facilitate community governance structures.[7]

The Commission placed a particular emphasis on the need for both a higher standard of consultation to facilitate the meaningful participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in decisions that affect them, and a government-wide cultural competency audit to ensure that the Government had the capacity to implement the measures appropriately.

It is frustrating that many of the human rights issues that were raised have still not been addressed adequately. I note that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights reported on the Review of Stronger Futures measures on in March last year.[8] The Review focussed on three key measures: the tackling alcohol abuse measure; the income management measure; and the school attendance measure.

The Review recommended that the existing blanket alcohol restrictions be reviewed and amended within a reasonable timeframe to ensure a transition to locally developed Alcohol Management Plans. This echoed my predecessor, Mick Gooda’s concern at the lack of tailored measures, and his assertion that “so long as blanket bans continue to operate there will be limited incentive for the government to engage fully with communities”.[9]

The Committee’s Report also suggests that persons be individually assessed as not being able to appropriately manage their income support payments before income management is imposed. This supports a recommendation made by the Commission five years’ ago that there be an external referral mechanism to allow Centrelink to make its own determinations after considering the merits of each case.

Lastly, the Committee urged that truancy sanction regimes differentiate between voluntary disengagement and non-attendance resulting from causes or factors outside the child or family’s control, a measure which, again, aligns squarely with the Commission’s earlier recommendations to the Government.

Clearly, there is a pressing need for the Government to heed the Committee’s recommendations, and to appreciate with the upmost seriousness that no lasting positive outcomes will come from measures which are not community-driven and which do not give adequate priority to human rights.

Resilience and Rebuilding

But how, some might ask, can there be community-driven change where communities are faced with such a myriad of complex challenges that work to undermine their capacities?

A few years ago, my community in the Fitzroy Valley, was not in a position to unite our voices over a common agenda. Our societal cohesiveness had almost broken down through the impact of wide spread alcohol abuse, unresolved historical trauma, and the continued marginalisation of Indigenous voices from structures of civic governance and seats of power. The denial of our histories and knowledge in the public arena, served to erode individual and communal self-worth and pride.

The depressing and numbing effects of alcohol, momentarily silences the pain and resentment of disenfranchisement. In the Fitzroy Valley, alcohol had created a dulled incoherence to our lives – where the voices of our ancestors became muffled, and a sense of where we had come from, was becoming clouded. We had to define and understand the crisis we were suffering, to recover our histories and collectively imagine our future.

The women in our community came together with incredible courage and resilience. We formed a platform of vocal advocacy, lobbying the director of liquor licensing to restrict the sale of full strength Alcohol. The relative calm and societal stability which ensued, has been the basis for our societal reconstruction.


But what has worked for my community in the Fitzroy Valley works not so much because of the particular measures we have taken, but because they are our measures. It is simply not realistic to expect one model rolled out across all of our communities to generate widespread success. The only measure that will bring about lasting outcomes is to provide a platform to support each community to be their own agents of change, to ‘imagine a new future’ and to be supported to bring that future into being.

Respect of Culture

The Theme for this conference is ‘Lead and Change: exploring alternatives to challenge our practice’. This is a very important theme for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Our rights, our well-being and our access to a brighter future all rest on the capacity and willingness of governments and service providers to work with us in a radically different way than has been the norm over the past several decades. It is good to hear the Prime Minister’s commitment in May this year “to do things with Indigenous Australians, not do things to them".[10] These are nice words which come from a place of genuine intent. However, ensuring that this promise can be delivered will require very significant changes to the way government does business, and to how services are structured and supported in our communities.

In order to be effective and have any real chance of closing the gap, governments and service providers must acknowledge the critical importance of culture to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, must commit to principles for working with our communities, and must deliver on their accountabilities to implement plans of action which are agreed to by, and implemented with, our communities. There are now countless reviews which make exactly these recommendations. But in order to implement these measures, governments and service providers must understand what they really mean, and translate this meaning into action.

I have spoken already today about three important ‘R’ words – ‘Rights, Resilience, Rebuilding’. Let me add another. ‘Respect’.

What does it mean, to respect another culture? For those within the mainstream culture, it is very important to understand that ‘culture’ is not just about song, art or ceremony. It is true of all groups that our entire worldview, every thought, every interaction we have, is culturally-based. Many from the mainstream culture take for granted the privilege of immersion in their own culture, and that the society built around them reflects and reproduces that culture. This is their ‘normal’. But it is not ours.

Unlike most other Australians, our culture is not generally reflected in the society around us. To acknowledge the critical importance of culture, is to reflect on this and put oneself in our shoes. To ask, what if the situation were reversed? What accommodations would I require to feel whole, to feel valued, to retain my dignity, to have control over my own life?

All too often respect for culture is interpreted as politeness towards Elders and ensuring that there is an acknowledgement of country before a meeting. These are good, but meaningful respect for culture goes far beyond this. Respect means entering into the space between our two worlds that we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must inhabit every day, listening to us, and demonstrating a willingness to fundamentally alter structures and processes to accommodate our needs and aspirations. Respect is about equitable partnership, about working with us on shared goals from start to finish, and about providing accountability to our communities. It is only this level of respect that will underpin effective Indigenous policy and the realisation of human rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Some important progress towards this end has been made. It is very encouraging to see how many organisations have adopted the APONT partnership principles[11] and the ACOSS principles[12] which took their lead from APONT, and I urge any organisations working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that are yet to adopt these principles to make it an urgent priority. I would also like to make the point that, like with any set of principles, there is always risk that they default to window dressing, and that they do not ultimately reflect the way organisations behave in practice. It is therefore imperative that organisations abide by these principles even when it is highly inconvenient to do so. To deviate is to do a disservice to the communities organisations are seeking to benefit.

Accepting Complexity

It is also important to be cognisant of the fact that many of our communities represent highly complex spaces for service delivery. Our communities and the organisations charged with providing services to them are frequently confronted with ‘wicked problems’[13] - those problems that are very difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. When looking to effectively tackle such problems, linear project models are impotent. Nonetheless, all too often, when faced with these problems and the pressure of funding agreements, organisations panic and default to models that have worked elsewhere but inevitably fail to deliver outcomes for our communities.

Make no mistake, the alternative is hard work, it involves grappling with the unknown and for communities, organisations and governments to take on significant risks together. But we must summon the courage to cut new paths together, to accept that we may stumble or wander before we find the right track. These are the journeys we must undertake if we are to stop doing what we know doesn’t work, and to start working out what will.

Thank you.


[1] UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295.

[2] Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Statement on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Parliament House Canberra, 3 April 2009.

[3] UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171.

[4] UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on her visit to Australia, 11-29 September 2017, A/HRC/36/3.

[5] UN General Assembly, Report on the situation of indigenous peoples in Australia, 1 June 2010, A/HRC/15/37.

[6] Australian Government, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012.

[7] Australian Human Rights Commission, Submission to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and two related Bills, 6 February 2012.

[8] Australian Government, Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2016 Review of Stronger Futures measures, 16 March 2016.

[9] Australian Government, Opening statement to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the NTER (Stronger Futures) Bills, 1 March 2012.

[10] Australian Government, Closing the Gap - Prime Minister's Report 2016, February 10, 2016.

[11] Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory, Partnership Principles for Organisations working with Aboriginal organisations and communities in the Northern Territory,

[12] Australian Council of Social Services, Principles for a Partnership-centred approach for NGOs working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organisations and Communities,

[13] Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning", Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169.

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

See Also

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

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[Introduction in Bunuba] Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani. I want to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and to their elders both past and present. I also want to thank and congratulate the organisers of this event – everyone at...

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Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Inaugural National Indigenous Women’s Leadership Symposium

[Introduction in Bunuba] Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani. I want to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and to their elders both past and present. I also want to thank and congratulate the organisers of this event – everyone at...

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