Date: 
Friday 13 December 2013

On 13 December, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda launched his 2013 Social Justice and Native Title Report. This is an edited version of his launch speech.

Equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is possible if we recognise rights as well as relationships and responsibilities. 

It’s been a long time coming, but it seems that Australia is beginning to realise that the issues confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people transcend party politics.

We have a high level of bipartisan commitment to addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage. That’s evidenced by recent progress in health equality, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation through the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the path to constitutional recognition.

But the challenge is to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are sitting in the driver’s seat for this journey. We don’t want to be passengers taken for a ride.

Achieving real change often takes a generation or more. After all, we are dealing with entrenched problems with long histories, and we need to recognise that our issues will not be resolved within a single funding or election cycle.

Achieving positive change in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people takes sustained commitment. It also requires governments to adequately ask communities where they want to go and involve them in the decision-making.

Basically, our communities must be in control of their own destinies. The way to achieve this is by improving relationships and realising rights.

There have been a number of Social Justice Commissioners before me, and each of them has consistently advocated for a relationship between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities built on mutual trust and respect. We want our voices to be heard, we want to be treated as equals with government, and we want to be allowed to say both yes and no.

Governments must be prepared to let go of many of the decisions that affect our lives; national policies and programs must be designed in a way that allows the greatest flexibility for implementation at the community level.

We must also pay attention to the relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australian population. Again Social Justice Commissioners have consistently argued that reform of our constitution has the potential to reset this relationship.

Once this reform occurs, this relationship will change forever for the better. A constitution that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will signal to the world that this nation has come to terms with its past.

In Australia, we generally have a proud history of advocating human rights. In 1948 we were represented on the committee tasked with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we were one of the first countries to franchise women in our elections and we have committed to seven of the most important international human rights conventions and treaties.

I believe we need to build on that narrative so that an understanding and acceptance of human rights underwrites sustainable improvements in our communities and families. As part of this narrative, we need an approach where rights and responsibilities stand side-by-side.

Rather than focus exclusively on our demand for rights, I want us to also think about our responsibilities and the opportunities that we can grasp. When we do this, we can reframe self-determination not only as a right but also as a call to our people to take responsibility and control over our internal and local affairs. As I have said many times, Government can’t give us self-determination; we need to exercise it.

Ultimately, I want to see our communities organise themselves in ways that they choose, in accordance with the principles of good governance and in ways that ensure our most vulnerable, our elders, our women and our children, and not just the strong alone, are being heard in our communities and organisations.

I want these structures to be recognised and respected by governments, built on relationships of mutual respect and good faith, and I want community and government engagement to take place at a more localised level.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has recognised the need to shift the focus from Canberra to the community. “The real challenges,” he told Parliament, “are in the country, the communities, the suburbs and the regions of our nation. Real change does not happen in this building, although it may start here. Real change happens in places where Australians live.”

When we connect with the communities where our people live, and when we empower these communities to exercise self-determination built on mutual trust and respect, real and long-lasting change becomes more than a dream.