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Social Justice Report 2003: Chapter 1: Introduction

Social Justice Report 2003

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  • 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
    other countries.

    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' [1]. 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
    Reconciliation Bill).

    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 ... [2]

    They argued:

    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. [3]

    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.

    1. Senate Legal and Constitutional
    References Committee, Reconciliation: Off Track, Parliament of
    Australia, Canberra 2003, p120.

    2. ibid, p121.

    3. ibid, p120.