What is Australia doing to promote an Indigenous voice in Parliament?

Image Source: Parliament of Australia

By Rebecca Copeland | @beccopeland 

Indigenous Australians live vastly different and largely unpublicised lives in comparison to their white Australian counterparts.

In the 2016 Census, two-thirds of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived outside capital city areas.

Since many Australian capital cities have a low Indigenous presence, there is a lack of empathy and understanding for Australia’s first peoples.

Australia claims to be founded on the principle of Terra Nullius, meaning the land was legally deemed to be unoccupied and uninhabited.

This is incorrect and has never been corrected or acknowledged in the Australian Constitution.

If British colonisation was recognised as an invasion, a treaty would have been negotiated.

Australia remains one of the few Commonwealth nations not to have a treaty with its Indigenous people.

New Zealand has the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed by Maori chiefs and British representatives in 1840.

The United States has signed treaties with Native American tribes, the first being the 1778 Treaty of the Delawares, and the US Constitution also recognises tribal sovereignty.

Australia, in comparison, has refused to sign a treaty or give constitutional recognition to Indigenous Australians, and has done little to promote an Indigenous voice within parliament.

To make matters worse, the largest Indigenous organisation is going into voluntary administration due to a lack of funding.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was created in 2010 to advocate for the self-determination of Indigenous Australians.

The Congress represents more than 180 Indigenous organisations and 9000 individual members.

Although initially financed by the Federal Government, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott cut funding in 2013.

Since then, it has relied on community and volunteer contributions.

The Congress has since been taken over by insolvency firm Cor Cordis, and in a letter sent to all members, administrators Alan Walker and Andre Lakomy said the organisation “is likely to become insolvent”, which means the organisation’s future will be in the hands of creditors.

The pending insolvency of Australia’s largest Indigenous advocacy organisation does not bode well for prospects of installing an Indigenous voice to parliament.

In a political climate of high hopes and expectations, how the Coalition Government responds to The Congress’s financial crisis is very important.

Linda Burney, the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, told NITV that if the government was serious about supporting Indigenous communities and an Indigenous voice, it would fund The National Congress as soon as possible.

“The National Congress represents an important representative platform for First Nations people,” Ms Burney said.

“If it is serious about taking a bipartisan approach to Indigenous affairs, they will restore funding for Congress.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women is 8.6 and 7.8 years shorter than non-indigenous men and women respectively.

The difference is even more prominent for Indigenous peoples living in remote areas: 13.8 years for men and 14 for women.

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only make up three per cent of the population, they represent 27 per cent of people counted in prisons according to the 2016 Census.

In other words, one in 60 people who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander were counted in prisons, in comparison to the rate of non-indigenous incarceration of one in 749.

This is why Indigenous organisations are advocating for an Indigenous voice in parliament.

At the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention, a 16-member Referendum Council appointed by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull presented the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The aim of the Uluru Statement was to advise the government on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples could be recognised in the Australian Constitution.

The Uluru Statement calls for a Makarrata Commission or “First Nations Voice” to be enshrined into the constitution, so a “fair and truthful relationship” can with fostered with the people of Australia.

This kind of advisory body has been rejected, both by Malcolm Turnbull when the statement was first made, and by Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year when he said an Indigenous advisory body would result in a “third chamber” of power.

Co-chair of The Congress Rod Little said Mr Morrison’s outright rejection at the time was “disrespectful” and “hypocritical,” considering the advisory body was still in the final design process and had not submitted its final report.

“I don’t understand because if in one breath you’re saying you want to have a conversation with First Peoples about a number of things; this should be one of those things,” Mr Little told SBS News in September last year.

Makarrata is a complex Yolngu word which describes a process of conflict resolution, peacemaking and justice.

Funding Indigenous organisations like the National Congress and acknowledging the Uluru Statement would foster a healthier, more honest relationship with our country’s Indigenous population.

The Uluru Statement itself recognises that the spiritual sovereignty Indigenous people have with the land can co-exist with the sovereignty of the Crown.

But we must also recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes have had this connection for more than 60,000 years and it was never ceded or extinguished.

They were here, Terra Nullius was wrong, and the statistics about Indigenous peoples represent generations of their cultures being marginalised and repressed.

Labor believes that in order to truly incorporate an Indigenous voice to parliament, a referendum on constitutional reform needs to happen as soon as possible, and the agenda of the Uluru statement needs to be advanced in a bipartisan manner.

“Our nation is diminished by not recognising first Australians in our constitution. And while Indigenous Australians are the most disadvantaged in our nation, Labor stands ready to cooperate on how we advance the agenda of the Uluru statement,” Labor leader Anthony Albanese told the The Guardian in May.

Indigenous Australians remain hopeful for a voice after the appointment of Noongar man Ken Wyatt as minister for Indigenous Australians.

Mr Wyatt is the first Aboriginal person to hold the position, and the first Aboriginal person to sit in cabinet.

Mr Wyatt has met with the administrators appointed to manage the affairs of The National Congress.

The organisation is hoping for renewed federal funding so they can continue their work, such as the Closing the Gap campaign, and advocating for indigenous Australians on housing and health.

The Federal Government has set aside $7.3 million for co-design.

Co-design is a word used to describe the partnership between goverments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when creating policies and programs affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The concept of co-design acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement must be more than evaluation—involvement in the design and implementation of policies is needed.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said work will start immediately, but no deadlines have been set, and a timeframe for a referendum on constitutional reform has not been given.

In addition, Mr Wyatt has avoided commenting on whether the Federal Government will resume funding for The National Congress.

“I will work with all Indigenous organisations on an outcomes basis to support self-determination, empowerment and representation for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians,” Mr Wyatt said in an official statement.

It is hoped that empathy, understanding and recognition can be given to Australia’s first peoples.

Acknowledgement is the first step toward makarrata.

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