LITTLE BLACK DUCK: We are a lot poorer for ATSIC’s absence

NATIONAL: NICOLE WATSON* searches the archives of ATSIC’s website and laments the fact we have no national independent voice.

Recently, I took a trip down memory lane and perused the old ATSIC website, now stored in our national web archive, PANDORA.

When ATSIC was disbanded seven years ago, I had no real grasp of what it was that we were losing.

Perhaps, I was sick and tired of the media’s focus on particular individuals in leadership positions. Looking at the ATSIC website, however, it struck me that we are a great deal poorer for its absence.

ATSIC’s platform, that was largely forward looking, is a powerful reminder of the devastating impacts of the Howard era, which saw the contraction of public debate.

ATSIC sought to advance our rights in a variety of ways – through participation in United Nations forums, sponsoring legal test cases, and advocating in favour of a Bill of Rights.

With the exception of the recent push for constitutional recognition, most of today’s debates are depressingly regressive and often revolve around coercive welfare measures.

ATSIC not only reacted to government policy, but it also set its own agenda. Its Treaty campaign that began in 2000 publicised an issue that was and remains vitally important to our people.

That ATSIC fought for a treaty in spite of opposition from the Howard government affirmed that it had grown into a fiercely independent voice – one that is sorely missed.

ATSIC also produced some ground-breaking reports that are still relevant today. In my opinion, one of the most crucial was Recognition, Rights and Reform; a considered roadmap for achieving genuine self-determination.

The report was produced in 1995, upon the request of the Keating government, in order to provide a framework for its promised ‘Social Justice Package’.

The report sought to modernise relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments.

The major tool for this transformation was ‘Principles for Indigenous Social Justice’; to be given the force of law so that they would be binding on all levels of government.

The report also recognised that greater inclusion of black voices in mainstream political processes was essential. It made a series of recommendations designed to achieve that end, such as speaking rights in legislatures and financial incentives to local governments to lift Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation on Councils.

The report recognised that social justice for our people was meaningless in the absence of redress for earlier destructive policies, and in particular, a national compensation scheme for the loss of land.

Recognition, Rights and Reform made it very clear that existing services designed to overcome disadvantage should not be characterised as compensation.

Rather, reparations should have entailed access to revenue derived from non-Indigenous land use; such as mining royalties, land tax, rates and ownership of revenue-generating property.

The report also aimed to facilitate a genuine appreciation by the Australian public of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. To that end, it made recommendations designed to revamp Australia’s symbols – advocating for a new flag, anthem and national day.

The role of education was crucial and consequently, the report recommended that Commonwealth education funding to the states and territories be conditional upon the development of anti-racism curricula.

Many other issues were canvassed in Recognition, Rights and Reform, such as constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the negotiation of a Treaty. Regional agreements were also promoted as vehicles for service delivery and self-government.

Finally, one of the hallmarks of ATSIC’s report was its demand that the Commonwealth itself be more accountable.

The report was critical that neither the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody nor those in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report, Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Law, had been implemented.

We all know that little progress has since been made in this respect. Nonetheless, I think that we are poorer for no longer having a national voice such as ATSIC, which was willing to censure the Commonwealth when circumstances required it to do so.

While Recognition, Rights and Reform conceded that some of its recommendations could only be implemented in the long-term, ATSIC was confident that social justice for our people could be achieved by 2001.

Tragically, the Howard government was elected to power in 1996 and refused to engage with this groundbreaking work. In spite of the passage of seventeen years since the report was released, many of its recommendations have retained their currency.

Tragically however, ATSIC’s successors have ignored Recognition, Rights and Reform, just as they have allowed the ALP to get away with reneging on the promised social justice package. But there is no reason why we should not be demanding that the Gillard government make good on its predecessor’s word. It’s not as though they have put anything more compelling on the table.

*Nicole Watson is a Murri lawyer and researcher with the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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