Social Justice Report 2003
Chapter 1: Introduction
This is my fifth Social Justice Report as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
In the course of this report I look back at developments over the past
five years to ascertain the extent to which we are moving towards achieving
long term, sustainable improvements in the situation of Aborigines and
Torres Strait Islanders and the extent to which government policy making
and program delivery is inhibiting such improvement.
As I have prepared this report, I have had
a number of questions in mind such as, when we look at the current approaches
and priorities of governments to Indigenous policies and programs, what
is working well? What is not? Where are we making progress? Where are
we going backwards? And ultimately, what needs to be done?
In addressing these questions, I have not
sought to provide a comprehensive overview of every area of life of Indigenous
peoples and of governmental activity. Not only is such a review beyond
the scope of the resources available to me, but we already have a number
of processes in place which provide us with partial answers to these questions.
In 2003, we have had the release of 2001
Census data and various analyses of that which provides a clear picture
of the level of progress in improving the material conditions of Indigenous
peoples' lives. We also had the first report of the Steering Committee
on the Provision of Government Services on overcoming Indigenous disadvantage,
which has drawn this and other statistical information together within
an integrated, multi-dimensional framework. Other significant processes
included the annual report on government services (or 'Blue Book') by
the Productivity Commission, which provided an overview of expenditure
and programs for Indigenous peoples; and the report of the Senate Legal
and Constitutional References Committee on national progress towards reconciliation.
Instead, I have approached these questions
in three ways. First, I have provided an overview of key developments
in relation to Indigenous well-being and socio-economic status based on
recently released data, including the 2001 Census.
Second, I have approached the issue thematically
by examining progress in relation to the following key themes: accountability
(including monitoring and evaluation frameworks, benchmarking and measuring
progress within a human rights framework), participation (including representation
of Indigenous peoples in decision making and service delivery, and the
role of ATSIC), moving beyond welfare dependency (including sustainable
development and capacity building), and reconciliation.
Third, I have examined some critical issues
that raise significant challenges for governments in the short, medium
and long terms, such as the responsiveness of governments to specific,
urgent issues relating to family violence and petrol sniffing.
Overall, this report concludes that there
are a number of recent initiatives which are moving us in the right direction,
as well as small gains being made in some areas. Of particular note are
recent developments in implementing the Council of Australian Government's
commitments to reconciliation through the finalisation and first release
of the national indicators on overcoming Indigenous disadvantage and the
whole of government community trials.
There is also a lot of talk from governments
about the need to change the way they interact with and provide services
to Indigenous peoples and communities. There is a level of optimism created
by the determined words of senior government members to pursue a changed
approach, particularly through their efforts in the eight Council of Australian
Governments whole-of-government community trial sites.
Processes for moving towards such change
are, however, still in the preliminary stage and action or results are
yet to be achieved. Developments over the coming year in relation to support
for capacity building, corporate governance reform of Indigenous organisations
and reform to ATSIC will be critical issues in this regard.
What is not yet entirely clear is whether
the emphasis of governments is on doing better exactly what they
do now or whether it involves a more radical transformation of the relationship,
with governments instead attempting to do what they currently do differently.
This optimism that there might be change
in the air is accompanied, however, by a level of uncertainty for Indigenous
peoples. This uncertainty relates in large part to the upheaval that has
centred on the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
(ATSIC) over the past year.
During the year, the federal government
has issued directions to ATSIC aimed at preventing conflicts of interest
in funding decisions by ATSIC's elected officials, and from 1 July 2003
stripped ATSIC of over $1 billion in funding through the creation of a
new executive agency to manage ATSIC's programs. The newly created Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS) was declared by the Minister
to be an 'interim' measure pending the outcomes of the review of ATSIC
announced in 2002 by the Minister. The ATSIC Review Team produced a discussion
paper in June 2003 expressing significant concerns about the way ATSIC
currently operates and in November 2003 released a final report with recommendations
for reform. In between these events, the Minister took the first steps
towards suspending the elected Chairman of ATSIC.
Addressing this uncertainty, principally
through renewing the role of ATSIC, is a critical issue that is dealt
with at length in this report. It is a central feature of an agenda for
change in Indigenous policy.
These developments are also accompanied
by serious concerns that the pace of progress, where it exists, is too
slow and may not necessarily be sustainable into long term. The release
of Census data from 2001 shows that such progress is in fact minimal.
Overall, it is difficult to see any progressive trend towards reducing
the level of inequality experienced by Indigenous peoples compared to
non-Indigenous people (even in areas where there might have been some
marginal improvement in absolute terms).
There is an overwhelming sense that the
crisis situation that Indigenous peoples face is highly likely to worsen
substantially over the next decade due to the faster growth rate of the
Indigenous population (in other words, that government programs will not
be able to keep up with the growth of the Indigenous population with the
result that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the status
quo or prevent a further deterioration in key areas of well-being). The
absence of a clear accountability framework for governments, including
benchmarks and targets, is a matter of great urgency in addressing this
Consequently, rather than having an overwhelming
sense of optimism that there is a consistent forward trend in addressing
Indigenous disadvantage and well-being, I feel apprehensive that the genuine
efforts being made by governments at this time may not be sufficient to
overcome the significant legacy of Indigenous disadvantage and marginalisation.
For a range of reasons that are outlined
in this report, there is not sufficient commitment by governments at any
level to do whatever it takes to progressively improve the life chances
and opportunities for Indigenous people, in terms of both absolute improvement
in socio-economic conditions and in terms of reducing the level of inequality
that exists compared to the life chances and opportunities for non-Indigenous
Australians. I am encouraged that there is recognition by government of
the scope of the issues faced, within the confines of practical reconciliation,
and some significant movement towards addressing these problems. But ultimately,
we are not progressing as well as we can or as well as we need to. This
needs to change.
Structure of this report
This report is divided into five chapters and three appendices.
Chapters two and three of the report provide
an overview of developments in relation to key themes in Indigenous policy.
They consider current progress in addressing a range of issues in relation
to reconciliation, accountability, participation and moving beyond welfare
dependency. It considers the adequacy of the structures and processes
that have been put into place at the national level to progress programs
and services to Indigenous peoples.
Chapter two focuses on
developments relating to reconciliation and ensuring accountability
of government for their responsibilities. It considers progress in addressing
Indigenous disadvantage within the confines of practical reconciliation;
and COAG initiatives such as the reporting framework on Indigenous disadvantage,
benchmarking and actions plans by Ministerial Councils, and the whole-of-government
community trials initiative.
Chapter three then focuses
on processes relating to Indigenous participation in decision-making
and changing the relationship of Indigenous peoples to government. It
focuses on developments relating to capacity building and governance
reform; ATSIC's proposed integrated framework for capacity building
and sustainable development; and the reform of ATSIC.
Chapter's four to six of the report then
analyse current progress by governments in addressing three critical issues
relating to Indigenous peoples.
Chapter four looks at
the response of the federal and South Australian governments to the
recommendations of the South Australian Coroner following the deaths
of three young Anunga men from petrol sniffing on the Anunga Pitjantjatjara
Lands (AP Lands) between 1999-2001. Petrol sniffing has reached endemic
proportions on the AP Lands and is not susceptible to short term or
quick fix solutions. This chapter examines progress in addressing petrol
sniffing issues within the context of the COAG whole of government community
trial on the AP Lands.
While acknowledging that there are deeply
entrenched problems relating to petrol sniffing and service delivery
in general on the AP Lands, it is essential that governments are able
to respond to an issue of such destructive impact in a timely manner.
This chapter raises significant concerns about the ability of governments
to do so.
Chapter five then examines
the responses of governments to issues of family violence in Indigenous
communities. Despite considerable attention to this issue in public
debate in recent years, commitments and programs to address it are still
minimal and limited in scope. This chapter reviews the current approach
of governments to addressing family violence issues and alternative
strategies that they could adopt to be more effective.
The report also contains three appendices.
Appendix One provides
a statistical overview of the current circumstances of the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander populations in Australians. Where possible
it shows progress over the past five and ten year periods, comparisons
to the situation of non-Indigenous Australians and international comparisons
with so-called 'third world' countries and to Indigenous peoples in
Appendix Two then provides
a detailed overview of the structure of the eight Council of Australian
Government whole-of-government community trials and current progress
in each trial site.
Appendix Three contains
an extract from the findings of the South Australian Coroner in the
inquests into three deaths on the AP Lands from petrol sniffing. The
appendix includes the executive summary of the Coroner's findings, as
well as his comments about compliance with the Royal Commission into
Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the recommendations of the Inquests.
The report also contains a number of recommendations
for addressing concerns raised throughout the report. These recommendations
are reproduced in full at the front of this report, and are also contained
at the relevant sections of each chapter of the report.
Postscript - An annual progress report on reconciliation
In the Social Justice Report 2000, I committed to providing a national progress report on reconciliation
within the annual Social Justice Report. This was in response
to a proposal of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in draft legislation
for promoting reconciliation that was contained in their final report
to Parliament. Each subsequent Social Justice Report has contained
such a national progress report.
In 2003, the Senate Legal and Constitutional
References Committee concluded their inquiry into national progress towards
reconciliation. The inquiry considered the adequacy of the response of
the federal government to the recommendations of the Council for Aboriginal
Reconciliation as well as to the recommendations on reconciliation in
the Social Justice Report 2000 and Social Justice Report
In the course of the inquiry, the Committee
considered mechanisms for improving accountability for reconciliation.
The Committee stated that 'progress towards reconciliation would be greatly
improved if an independent body scrutinised that progress on an ongoing
basis' . The
Committee noted the proposal of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation
that the Social Justice Commissioner report annually on reconciliation
and endorsed this proposal as follows:
Recommendation 7: The
Committee recommends that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner be required by statute to report publicly
on progress towards reconciliation (as proposed by clause 10 of the
Recommendation 9: The
Committee recommends that the Government should be required by statute
to respond to the reports of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner ... 
While the Social Justice Commissioner
already includes reporting on reconciliation in his annual Social
Justice Reports, the Committee notes that the Government's Australian
Human Rights Commission Bill 2003 proposes the abolition of this specialist
position. Earlier this year the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation
Committee unanimously opposed the abolition of the position, and the
Committee endorses that position most strongly. The Committee also considers
that a statutory reference to reporting on progress towards reconciliation
would be desirable, and that the government should be obliged to respond
to the Social Justice Commissioner's reports, as recommended in the Social Justice Report 2001. 
Consistent with the Committee's recommendation,
and in absence of such a statutory requirement, this year's report also
includes a progress report on reconciliation in chapters 2 and 3. Due
to the nature of the issues considered throughout the report, other chapters
of the report are also relevant to progress on reconciliation.