First People’s Voice

More than two years after the end of the United Nation’s (UN) Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, recognition of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of Australia remains un-satisfyingly unfulfilled. Momentum and aspirations to achieve recognition through increased cultural awareness and celebration of indigenous achievements, heritage and connection to the land have certainly created bridges of understanding; however divisions created by centuries of structural disadvantage remain.

Australia’s 2017 NAIDOC (National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee) week celebrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, including the richness of indigenous historical heritage, art, dance, music, story-telling and the importance of diversity in indigenous languages as part of identity. Contemporary indigenous pride is more robust than in previous generations, reflecting active and resilient advocacy for indigenous rights, recognition and respect; yet significantly more needs to be achieved.

The 2014 final report presented to the UN Secretary General at the General Assembly, titled ‘Achievement of Goal and Objectives of the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People’, cited Australia’s 2010 launch of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples as a positive move towards promoting non-discrimination and inclusion of indigenous people.

The independent National Congress provides representative membership, that focuses on raising and protecting indigenous rights through a unified front. Prevailing issues include reconciliation, recognition of identity and cultural respect, the seeking of solutions to on-going multidimensional disadvantage and social injustice, as well as building capacity for empowerment and leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The National Congress’s 2016 Redfern Statement presented findings of poor progress towards narrowing the divide of disadvantage, experienced by indigenous peoples, based on the apparent anaemic will to capitalize on “transformative opportunities for government action.” As a result, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s health, education, economic and social development, as well as political participation remain negligibly suppressed.

This puts Australia in a shameful light relative to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, where it was stated that “indigenous peoples are equal to all other people” with the right to “self determination…(and the right to)  freely determine their economic and social development”. The Declaration called for “the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous people” across the world.

The Australian government’s long overdue action to address issues impacting on indigenous lives, has been to establish a Referendum Council, which in 2015, was tasked to engage in open dialogue and consultation with indigenous community representatives and organizations. Discussion papers were circulated following these engagements, and a Final Report was formally presented to the government on June 30, 2017.

The Referendum Council’s report offered five recommendations for constitutional reform to be actioned and passed, to grant recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the first sovereign people of Australia, whose “sovereignty is a spiritual notion…(based on an) ancestral tie between the land…and the first peoples”.

It was recommended that this recognition be symbolically legislated and that further existing legislations be altered to “guarantee against racial discrimination”. The Council’s fifth proposal sought to establish an Indigenous Advisory Body to occupy a permanent tenure within the parliament and constitution, so as to provide a “national voice” for First Peoples.

While it is acknowledged that constitutional change is difficult to achieve, it must also be understood that living without equal rights and recognition in a land in which the First Peoples are intricately and ancestrally connected, has been an on-going struggle borne across generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Addressing this inequity is not only necessary and well overdue, but the only real pathway to achieve meaningful reconciliation.

Carolina Morison