Bennelong Papers

Indigenous Rights, Indigenous Obligation

oz dotIn 2007 the United Nations General Assembly adopted its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Two years later the Australian Government formally agreed to support this Declaration. Article 43 refers to the specified rights constituting minimum standards for survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous people.

The recently published summary of the Australian Declaration, which re-words the Declaration’s 46 articles for local application, has done a comprehensive job of spelling out rights but does not refer to responsibilities.

There is a need for clarity and agreement on the implications of the current Declaration’s intent when using the following 30 phrases:

1. Self-determination
2. Right to be treated equally
3. Live according to our values and beliefs
4. Employment Rights
5. Traditional health practices
6. Free from cultural destruction
7. Determine our own political status
8. Extra assistance for vulnerable people
9. Right to revitalise our culture
10. Decision-making powers through informed consent
11. Better engagement
12. Control over our own lives
13. Compensation for land loss
14. The goals of the Declaration
15. Right to maintain our own laws
16. Right to determine how and if our country is developed
17. Right to spiritual connection to country
18. Right to assistance to ensure we can enjoy the Declaration Rights
19. Rights apply equally to men and women
20. Respect for cultural differences and values
21. Wrongs of the past that continue to affect lives
22. Declaration will enhance relations
23. Using the language of Rights
24. Effectively engage based on mutual respect
25. Right to determine Indigenous membership
26. Binding treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
27. Declaration is for survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous people
28. Use the Declaration to lobby for policy reform
29. Action should be taken to make sure Indigenous people can realise the Rights in the Declaration
30. Right to protection of the environment on our country.

There is scope for serious disagreement, even polarisation, on the practical implications of virtually all the above concepts in the Declaration of Rights. What follows is a consideration of the way in which logical interpretation of each of these concepts could form the basis for a Declaration of Responsibilities of a people who are largely urbanised and out-married.

1. Self-determination.

Acceptance of self-determination and self government require a clear understanding of the self-sufficiency implications of this form of autonomy. The idea would be more acceptable if it could be assumed that the self-determined people gained the respect of the nation through the pride which comes from economic independence and productive self-sufficiency. Self-determination should never be taken to mean land and community development determined solely by Indigenous interests and values.

2. Right to be treated equally.

This equality has two sides; the one is equal opportunity, the other equal responsibility to use and benefit from equality. If it means ‘treated equally and not specially favoured because of past disadvantage’, such equality could be a positive challenge to personal advancement.

3. Right to live according to our values and beliefs.

The acceptability of this culturally appropriate approach requires clarity and agreement on the extent to which the said values and beliefs are beneficial to future generations for both Indigenous and other groups. Enough Indigenous leaders have called for an urgent updating and modernising of cultural mores to give momentum to this matter. The extent to which negative stereotyping of abusive males has damaged the nobler view of Indigenous values needs urgent rectification. Similarly, the use of sorcery and certain spiritual beliefs could benefit from a rigorous identification of the most appropriate beliefs for emerging generations. In addition the place of secret business in modern law may warrant reconsideration. Acceptance that ‘The Law’ is, in fact, not immutable  becomes an essential element of moving forward.

4. Employment Rights.

This is a contradiction in terms since employment in Australia is almost totally dependent on competence. While isolated cases of discrimination are still reported, its origin in a history of alleged unreliability should not be overlooked. The development of a dependable work ethic has long been regarded as the key to employment. These are not rights to employment of individuals who don’t deliver the goods output-wise, and this applies to all job-seekers.

5. Traditional health practices.

Indigenous medicine is of great interest to health authorities and the wisdom of the millennia is respected where outcomes justify the treatment. The fundamental base of the physical benefits of Indigenous medicine is, of course, the extent to which actual healing occurs, compared to the rates achieved by Western medicine. This measurable outcome must be distinguished from the psychological comfort which particularly older people gain from Bush medications even in the absence of wellness results  – a sort of Blackfella’s placebo effect. Some traditional treatments may even be shown to be detrimental, especially to infants’ health. A thorough longitudinal study may identify positive, neutral and negative cures among the current Indigenous practices as a basis for support or otherwise of this form of alternative medicine. The same applies to Asian and Eastern alternatives. Until then, snake-oil will prevail in remote communities.

6. Freedom from cultural destruction.

Such destruction must be considered within the considerations suggested under issue #3, which proposes taking only the best from the past and benefiting from leaving some less positive elements of culturebehind. All cultures have strengths to be built upon and Indigenous culture has several laudable attributes, notably those cultural mores which provide a shining example to non-Indigenous people of childcare and family networking, nurturing and responsibility. There is, however, increasing confusion on what exactly constitutes Indigenous culture and its contemporary strengths. Once this clarification of “the right stuff” is agreed, the actual disbenefit of the “destruction” referred to can be evaluated. It should be noted that the proponents of non-Indigenous Australian culture would have similar challenges in clarifying and codifying their values in a diverse nation of individuals.

7. Determine our own political status.

This sentiment is found in virtually all cohesive peoples with a common identity. The political reality is that sovereign states have the power and the responsibility to develop the level of inter-group cohesion required for a functioning democracy which values diversity, tolerance and equity. Over-emphasis on group identity and separateness based on distinctive tribalism has been shown throughout history to fragment national cohesion and fracture productive co-operation. South Africa’s apartheid system demonstrated this outcome in an extreme form.

Indigenous Australians are required to weigh the benefits and dis-benefits of separateness if that is what high political status implies. The value of societal cohesion, unity of purpose and productive co-operation, must not be underestimated by group leaders intent on progressing their group, irrespective of ethnic distinction.

8. Extra assistance for vulnerable people.

This principle has been virtuously used in many countries, including communist ones, because of its humanitarian correctness. The Declaration mentions the elderly, women and children as vulnerable, but the general health situation of adults in remote areas begs the question of how the vulnerable will be defined. This matter gets to the heart of the goal of self-sufficiency. Ill-conceived support for irresponsible adults can easily encourage the wrong behaviour. In this context the real causes of self-disadvantage need a rigorous examination.

9. Right to revitalise our culture.

As referred in #6 above, the cultural elements which warrant revitalisation require consensus to ensure that the nation builds on the best, drops the unhelpful and de-emphasises those traditions and beliefs which future generations can well do without. The same applies to other cultures and religions, so there is no discrimination in this proposal.

10. Decision-making powers through informed consent.

The idea of involving Indigenous people in decision-making through availability of full information and community consultation is sound and long overdue. The addition of consent as an essential element of negotiation is less straight-forward since it presumes powers which may not, and should not, be allotted to the local community. This is the case with all landholders as citizens of a democracy in which Government holds certain “Crown Rights” which relate to natural resources and compulsory acquisition of land for public purposes.

Holders of Native Title land have yet to come to terms with the power of the state over all land, including Freehold. At the same time the lack of financial equity and thus of fungibility for fund-raising purposes of so-called Indigenous Freehold tenured land needs correction.

The state powers referred to here are no excuse for insensitive bureaucratic attitudes toward land-use, infrastructure or service provision. This is particularly so in regard to “clan country” holding ancient spiritual significance related to respected ancestors.

It can be safely predicted that the ownership/consent/compensation issue will not be easily solved by government edict. Meanwhile, Indigenous landholders would do well to accept that certain historic laws are, in fact, not as immutable as the elders may have presumed.

11. Better engagement.

As a motherhood statement, better engagement can’t be faulted. However the practical implication appears to be that the lack of consultation by others has disadvantaged Indigenous people.

Good engagement with other groups and government is clearly a two-way process which is centrally dependent on trust, agreement of objectives, clarity of procedures and reliability of partners to fulfill their side of the engagement.

Engagement is re-visited in #24.

12. Control over our own lives.

This implies that Indigenous people have lost control of their aspirations and choices, apparently due to discriminative policy and government procedures. All citizens accept a certain amount of control within the democratic process. Choices and behaviours are justifiably constrained by laws and regulations which focus on the common good — the greatest benefit to the largest number for the longest time.

It will be useful to ascertain which controls are currently perceived by Indigenous leaders as affecting their life choices. Examination of real-life cases may indicate that incapacity to make positive choices originates more from personal motivation than preventative policy or the attitudes of others, notably employers. There is no doubt that racial discrimination still occurs in some spheres of Australian society. What Indigenous leaders need be wary of is the real danger that, any day now, their over-emphasis on racial distinction and rights could be interpreted as racist. This perception is strengthened by insistence on rights and entitlements based on race, rather than on need.

13. Compensation for land loss.

Over the years the fundamental concept of land ownership has brought a wide range of perceptions at the United Nations Working Group for Indigenous Peoples. In the Australian political arena, there have been several attempts by different government’s to regard differential spending on remote infrastructure and services to Indigenous citizens as a planned form of compensation. Doubt about the probability of responsible spending of cash compensation may well be justified by past experience, including the way the Rudd Government’s $900 global downturn incentive to all taxpayer families was applied to public spending in 2009.

There is no way monetary payments can appropriately compensate for land lost and, as a result, the chances of reaching of an equitable consensus on such payment remains near zero. This matter should be finalised by offering tangible long-term benefits to remote communities.

14. Goals of the Declaration of Rights.

The objectives of this document are not clearly spelt out although its uses are described. The basic goal seems to be to clarify what rights Indigenous people desire to be encapsulated within Australian governance, if not within the Constitution.

It will strengthen the achievement of rights if the current Declaration is either read in parallel with this author’s proposed Declaration of Responsibility or, ideally, the Declaration of Rights document is comprehensively expanded to include the positive actions which indicate how the exercise of each Right relates to non-Indigenous citizens and the responsibilities and limitations of encouraging a distinctive Indigenous identity.

15. Right to maintain our own laws.

Of all the rights demanded by the Declaration, Indigenous law is the most contentious. The reason for this is plain to most in the legal profession, and it centres on the need for one legal system for all citizens within the Australian democracy. This presumed self-evident truth is far from accepted by many Indigenous leaders, based on their personal experience of the white legal system and its bitter outcomes for them.

Attempts to operate parallel Westminster and Indigenous legal systems have met with mixed results. The rate of re-offending is no better under magisterial/elder courts. The comparatively lenient penalties imposed by these courts are currently being regarded as insufficient deterrents. However, this hybrid justice system is not what many Indigenous leaders have in mind when demanding their own customary law. Opponents of such law compare it to attempts by some Australian Moslems to legitimise Sharia law in their communities. Such attempts have failed to date, due largely to the abhorrence of some practices to mainstream ethics. A distinction needs to be made between the ethical acceptance of practices and the inherent problems of operating dual laws within a national justice system. In essence, the acceptability of Indigenous law cannot be evaluated as a generality and requires examination of specific offences and penalties.

16. Right to determine how and if our country is developed.

This right goes to the heart of the concept of land ownership in Australia. How land is developed is subject to environmental impact regulations which must apply to all Australian land. This is of particular importance where endangered biodiversity is threatened. Under local government procedures all land is subject to zoning which restricts the use for residential, agricultural, industrial or biological-reserve purposes. Without such zoning, orderly planning for population growth and conservation cannot proceed.

Government has a triple responsibility of providing residential land, food-production land and bio-reserve land. Within these goals, independent Indigenous land-use decisions may be in conflict with the government responsibilities and, as such, would cause unacceptable inequity and irresponsibility.

As to if the land is developed, the non-use of food-production potential of agricultural land has serious implications, especially when Indigenous population growth is twice the national rate. Under such conditions the preservation of large tracts of productive land for spiritual purposes is unlikely to gain approval of either planning authorities or pragmatic Indigenous leaders.

17. Right to spiritual connection to country.

As with Indigenous law, the right to land-links needs evaluation in the light of contemporary reality while respecting historic spiritual connections.

The central proposition here is the extent to which ancient religious beliefs could be, should be or must be proclaimed as immutable truths without which future generations will be the poorer. This spiritual grounding finds a parallel in the modern trends in Western religion, where dependence on faith has steadily diminished. Whether the emerging, diety-free value system is serving mainstream society will continue to fuel the moral debate.

Indigenous leaders generally find it helpful to their land-claim cause to emphasise spiritual connection to country, even to the point of insisting that it is a survival necessity. This claim is, however, disproved by the successful urbanised Indigenous communities. Nevertheless, the purer, culturally-remote communities deserve different transition timelines to achieve comfortable mobility from clan country.

As with other ethnic groups, Indigenous communities have demonstrated how they can develop generational links to new country, as evident for instance at Cherbourg, Queensland, where they have overcome the historic negativity of removal from country and today pride themselves on their motto “Many tribes, one community”.

In demanding continued spiritual connection to country, it behooves Indigenous leaders to confront the question ‘What will be best for the grandchildren?’ honestly and pragmatically. In the same way as the Israelis require a re-think on being God’s Chosen People, or the Afrikaners required modification of their Biblical support for Apartheid, Indigenous leaders need to take growing scepticism on religious claims seriously.

The spiritual strength originating from ancestor landscapes can no doubt be maintained without living on country or even regularly visiting country. Perhaps an Indigenous equivalent of pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Mecca warrants consideration as an interim transition position in modernising Indigenes’ religion, the vast majority of whose members record Christianity as their religion in the census.

It should not go unnoticed that critics of the way spiritual links are used to strengthen land claims reflect a growing cynicism about what outsiders perceive as exaggeration of beliefs which have been demonstrated as non-essential to survival, respect or well-being, as sought by the Declaration.

18. Right to assistance to ensure enjoyment of Rights.

Clearly this right is open to such broad interpretation as to be unhelpful to those seeking to support Indigenous identity. For instance, just where the line should be drawn on taxpayer investment in Indigenous cultural infrastructure and services is seen very differently by various cultural groups and governments. The reasons for this diversity of views are severalfold and include benefits for all groups from ethnic exaggeration, costs to taxpayers, disunity from discreet group loyalties, multicultural competition or even conflict, adverse influence of some Rights on productivity, self-sufficiency and respect from others, and danger of encouraging the ‘gravy train syndrome’.

Whatever level of assistance to enable the enjoyment of Rights is forthcoming from government, unless it is tapered and diminishing in the longer term, it will justifiably be regarded by the Australian population, as artificially propping up an unviable culture. This may sound harsh but unless self-sufficiency is part of self-determination as it is in all other Australian sub-cultures, both respect and support can be predicted to fade. In the meantime special assistance in overcoming disadvantage is urgently warranted, notably in remote communities.

19. Rights to apply equally to men and women.

This demand stands out among all Rights in the Declaration, as perhaps the best example of modernising tradition to meet contemporary expectations. In his 1998 paper “What constitutes a fair go for Aborigines?” this author asked why mainstream feminists were silent on the obvious and most dire need of Aboriginal women: their safety. it is a question which still awaits an answer.

What is different about this claim to a right is that it is perhaps the only one which has no customary base or traditional history. Without inflaming the ongoing debate among the literary culture warriors on domestic violence in traditional Indigenous society, it should be noted by all that much of the problem-solving in the substance and sexual-abuse sphere has been initiated and maintained by women. Informed observers on these matters state forcibly that few community women will miss the declining old patriarchal control system which they suffered previously. Whether ‘secret business’ of both genders has a future under the new deal is for the people affected to decide.

20. Respect for cultural differences and values.

This matter has been touched on in several points above but it is necessary to seriously consider the meaning and ambit of respect as a regularly emphasised demand by Indigenous leaders. Some observers would have the mainstream believe that respect should be automatic for the world’s oldest surviving culture. This antique basis for respect seems to maintain support only up to the point where the culture is perceived to be a brake, rather than a supporting framework, for well-being of its future members. Antiquity is an insufficient basis for respect, to the extent that there is a growing expectation by mainstream Australia that respect actually needs to be earned.

Two responses to perceived lack of respect are called for: updating or modernising the culture and demonstrating through practice of universal humanitarian values, lifestyles and behaviours which embody the Golden Rule by whatever name.

The same requirements for respect apply to all cultures in Australia  – without tolerance, co-operation and mutual appreciation of difference, no migrant culture gains acceptance or respect. By comparison, Indigenous culture has much to contribute to Australian peoplehood but it must be ever mindful of the dangers of distinctiveness becoming intolerant separateness, which loses respect.

Indigenous Australians have a special claim to recognition above and beyond the recognition afforded to migrant cultures but they should be careful not to mistake this recognition as a licence to ignore social unity and to focus on distinctive separation as if it necessarily contributes positively to their own future well-being. To this extent the place and role of culture demands very careful examination.

21. Wrongs of the past that continue to affect lives.

The perception of the extent to which past discrimination really does incapacitate the present adult population of Indigenous people is a serious matter deserving of national consideration. Much of the rationale behind the simplistic view of ‘get over it, get on with it’ ignores the permanent psychological damage to the self-image and self-confidence of affected individuals. An essential caveat to this empathy is that the young need not necessarily inherit these negative historical influences. Through early exposure to a modern, positive education system, Indigenous people have a real opportunity to put the damaging past behind them and allow the coming generations to start with a clean sheet. Self-respect is learned and is not inherited.

22. The Declaration will enhance relations.

This claim should be deleted, as it makes unfounded assumptions on the validity and the acceptability of many of the claimed Rights. It can be stated without fear of contradiction, that relations between Indigenous and other Australians will come only from productive, co-operative ethical behaviour on the part of each population group. No group can demand respect, since respect comes from trustworthy responsible co-operation, and enhanced relations come from the resultant mutual respect.

Enhanced relations emerge from just treatment and recognition of equal opportunity but also from the respect arising from performance. In sport and to a lesser degree in the arts, many Indigenous names have become legendary, not because they are ethnic but because they ‘delivered the goods’. This will happen increasingly in politics, medicine, social well-being, literature and the law where ever larger numbers of Indigenous professionals demonstrate capacity, skills and determination to improve the human condition of their kinsfolk. In time, their pride in being a particular tribal man or woman will be overtaken by their greater pride in humanitarian service recognised globally in the mould of Mandela, who rose above tribal identity to international recognition of the goodness of Man.

23. Using the language of Rights.

This is an unusual phrase, which reflects the concept of primacy of Rights as a pillar of future well-being. The language of Rights is unlikely to impress the outsider unless it is clearly and continuously spoken in association with the language of Responsibility and of Obligation. The apparent need for Indigenous leaders to stress Rights at this stage of their people’s development is understood and appreciated against the background of colonial inequities. At the same time these leaders should not be naive about the reception that the language of Rights can expect from the mainstream who currently are having a hard time financially, compared to what they’d become used to since the Sixties.

It is a well-established historical fact that group cohesion is strengthened more by martyrism than any other factor. Historical hardship is not an Indigenous monopoly and can easily be found in the Australian convict inheritance and in persecuted European migrants. The language of rights has its origins in historic persecution, thus language or religious groups who succeed and prosper all have one thing in common  – a demonstrated capacity to match their rights with their obligations to the broader society. Ultimately the term “un-Australian” refers not so much to what Anglo-Saxon migrants hold dear, but rather to what global humanitarian societies have come to respect.

24. Effective engagement based on mutual respect.

The rules of engagement in a civil society are well understood in advanced countries and have been referred to in #11 above. There is however another context in which engagement requires consideration and that is the extent to which engagement is a two-way process built on mutual contribution and productive input. Engagement cannot realistically be used as a one-way process where the give-and-take is largely take. Engagement is the process by which population groups contribute to the common good. During the 1970’s when certain bureaucrats suggested rather crudely that Indigenous people ‘get over it and get on with it’, this uncalled-for advice was seen as insensitive to the past disadvantage suffered by those concerned. In 2000 when the same sentiment was expressed by an Indigenous leader but in terms of the Right to take responsibility, it was regarded by the mainstream as bold and insightful  – calling it as it is.

Engagement in its productive sense cannot be achieved without respect. Respect in turn, cannot be achieved without positive performance and positive performance cannot be achieved without sufficient work ethic to gain economic self-sufficiency. A much more structured effort is required to ‘get over it’ than is currently applied to remote communities. It is more complex and time-consuming than the quick-fix experts realise.

25. Right to determine Indigenous membership.

It is not without good reason that politicians tread cautiously on the subject of who should qualify for Indigenous benefits. Politicians are well aware of the traumas caused by the race classification used under the Apartheid system and for good reason avoid such tests as the pencil-through-hair abomination.

As a result of the sensitivity of this issue and the inherited guilt complex arising from it, Australia has arrived at the internationally unique system whereby prospective recipients of Aboriginal and Torres Strait benefits need only tick the box at Centrelink. The fact that this option is selected by over 80% of mixed marriages in urbanised communities has led to ‘gravy train’ accusations which in turn have led to Hansonite comparisons, both of which require a more nuanced view than the simplistic good guy/bad guy choices.

Nobody blames individuals for using whatever benefits the law provides for and non-Indigenous beneficiaries of other welfare schemes are similarly judged. However, the sooner benefit approvals are based on need and not race, the sooner pride and equity will return and motivation toward self-sufficiency will be encouraged.

Apparently the law accepts anyone as Indigenous if they can show at least minimal inheritance and acceptance of membership by a clan or family. There are many instances of white sympathisers since colonial times being accepted into tribes, sometimes through a traditional initiation ceremony, sometimes through marriage. What is required today is to discontinue race-based benefits which are both discriminatory and demeaning.

26. Binding Treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Australian governments have a history of avoiding binding treaties or declarations. The most recent was the present U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which New Zealand, Canada and the US also declined to sign when it was first put up in September 2007 – a position which Australia reversed in April, 2009.

While the Commissioner for Indigenous Social Justice regards this declaration as “the most significant achievement in the protection of Indigenous people’s Rights….” celebration of its implementation in Australia should be postponed until a number of practical and equity issues have been agreed upon.

Similarly, the extent to which the U.N. Elimination of Racial Discrimination actually affects Indigenous well-being is both variable and one-sided. It has become a common perception that racial discrimination refers to blacks oppressed by whites, despite the global evidence indicating that racism comes in all colours.

At its most fundamental level, racism is a tribal xenophobia based, apparently, on fear of others – of those who are different, usually in religion and language, but not necessarily in colour. In Australia’s case, as in the US, colour difference has prevailed as the basis of racism since colonial days.

Sensitivity on racial discrimination in Australia has reached the point where logical decision-making and appropriate benefit provision has become irrational. Fear of being seen to ‘play the race card’ has discouraged mature policy formulation at least since the 1980s. The response of the Howard government to Pauline Hanson’s easy win as an Independent demonstrated the shallow double standard of political convictions on appropriate racial policy in modern Australia. The political silliness associated with even sensible questioning of the equity of some race-based payments seems to be reflected in the simplistic and unfounded assumption that, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us”. This childish polarisation finds a parallel in the present-day Climate Change debate where the moderate middle-ground between the true believers and sceptics has disappeared.

Indigenous leaders today have a special responsibility to help break down what appears to be a rising level of racism within their people. The equity situation is complex in the present transition phase of modernisation of Indigenous lifestyles  – a process which will take at least another generation. Perhaps Indigenous people are not sufficiently aware that racism goes beyond policy-makers or mainstream power-brokers and includes exaggerated self-perception of tribal distinctness and its resultant exclusive attitudes. It follows that inability to practice inclusive co-operative social intercourse can cause others to respond in kind. Outsiders may justifiably ask where the racism starts.

Australians as a nation have gained an international reputation for tolerance and acceptance of people of other races. This acceptance has always been contingent on migrant’s willingness to ‘play by the rules’ and carry their share of communal obligations. Indigenous Australians will do well when proclaiming that they’re different, distinct, ancient, and thus special, to recognise their ultimate dependence on the mainstream and thus their need for social cohesion in a unitary State. The co-operative partnership envisaged does not require a diminution of personal ethnic identity, but it does require a deep appreciation of the enrichment which other cultures can bring to a culture which lacks the literature and advanced arts of others. (Perhaps this is why Noel Pearson is apparently translating Richard III into his tribal language as I write. BR)

While comparisons with South Africa may seem facile, Australian Indigenous leaders can take lessons from the recent deterioration of that country due largely to discrimination against the most skilled professionals and the tragic end to the Afrikaner people resulting from their exclusive attitude to other races.

27. The Declaration constitutes the minimum standards for survival, dignity and well-being.

‘Standards’ is probably not the best word to describe the essentials of racial survival and dignified well-being, although the intended meaning may be clear enough.

The Declaration by no means ensures achievement of any of these goals, while the proponents of survival need to be clear on what it is that survives. If it is a proud people with their culture and traditions intact, then the value system which characterises these people needs to be understood by all in its updated modern format. With 75% urbanised and over 70% out-marrying, the essential values and attributes of the surviving people requires spelling out.

Dignity as an outcome of Rights is hardly a self-evident consequence, since dignity comes as much from personal effort as from Rights. Rights enable but don’t produce. Similarly with well-being, Rights simply set the stage; the performers have yet to produce the motivation, skills and acclaim necessary for success. Any examination of the attributes making up the national Well-being Index shows that under the present combination of policy, regulation, Rights and mainstream attitudes, Indigenous families can succeed and do succeed. The successful families are not held back by the lack of a Declaration of Rights. The opposite is also true, i.e. that a Declaration will do nothing for the individuals who choose to escape the real world of economics and to seek refuge in unproductive tradition. Examples abound in both camps.

28. Use of the Declaration to lobby for policy reform.

Are the proponents of the Declaration seriously suggesting that the basic shortcoming of present policy is the lack of Rights? They would be hard put to identify a single instance of policy which is detrimental to Indigenous well-being caused by the lack of Rights. A wide range of informed opinion seems to agree that if Indigenous policy needs reform, it is not in the Rights department but in the group equity department where reverse discrimination is currently the weak link. Not that the policies underpinning housing, health and education could not benefit from review of implementation procedures. In addition, policy relating to land use planning and economic development, clearly could benefit from urgent attention. None of these need more Rights, just more responsibility and acceptance of democratic obligations.

29. Action to ensure Indigenous realisation of Rights.

It is true that action is required, not only to ensure realisation of rights but also to ensure acceptance of obligation. Australians have become used to the political cost-shifting game between levels of Government. In the present case we have the game of responsibility-shifting in which one societal group pretends that Rights can only be enjoyed when the authorities take action to ensure that this happens. Clearly the onus is on the Rights-holders to make policy work in their favour. Invoking the nanny-State only encourages dependence and the negative vibes of victimhood.

30. Right to protection of the environment on Indigenous land.

The origin and intent of this claimed Right is not clear. If it relates to mining, the normal Impact Study procedure is applied. In each case, the community benefits are weighed against the environmental disbenefits. Since mining is the only large source of potential wealth in the Native Title lands, vision and balance are required by those Elders in decision-making positions. Compulsory acquisition should never be seen as discriminating specifically against Indigenous landholders since it applies to all landholders including mainstream freeholders as referred to in #16.

Perhaps this author has misunderstood the intent of this Right but it appears juxtaposed to the current Wild Rivers conflict over the negative effects of protection on planned Indigenous economic development.

The rationale of the above response to the 30 issues is embedded in the attached Declaration of Responsibilities.

In 2011, Noel Pearson commented at length in the press on Julia Gillard’s speech to Parliament on citizens’ responsibilities. The burden of his message is his long-held view on the right to take responsibility. Pearson has often referred to the Left’s propensity to stress Rights and the Right’s focus on responsibilities. Once again Pearson criticises government for usurping Indigenous leadership and responsibility, so robbing Indigenous leaders of the opportunity to exercise precisely the responsibility which Gillard is calling for.

As a focus for future well-being of Indigenous people, their leaders should consider actions based, not on the UN Indigenous Rights Declaration, but on the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow

Leave a Reply