Campaign for Bill of Rights

The speech by Senator Christine Milne is well worth taking the time to read, reflect on … and act upon.

It has some well chosen quotes. The quote from Nicolas Rothwell takes us some distant to the heart of the matter.

Senator Milne mentions a campaign for a Bill of Rights – to amend the Australian Constitution to ensure that the Racial Discrimation Act cannot be set aside.

There is also the need for a campaign to amend the Constitution to endorse the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Read on for more:

From Senate Hansard (Proof) Friday 17 August 2007
(Quote marks added for Mick Dodson, Nicolas Rothwell and WEH Stanner quotes)

Senator MILNE (Tasmania) (12.07 pm)—I too rise
at the conclusion of the debate to express my grave
concern about the government’s decision to suspend
the Racial Discrimination Act as it pertains to the areas
in the Northern Territory that have been designated by
this legislation. Mick Dodson said in 2006:
“There are abundant statistics that speak to the desperate living
conditions endured in so many remote Indigenous communities.
We are convinced of the need for real, sustainable
economic development, access to clean water, sewage, roads,
housing, education, medical care, and all of the basic human
rights that most other Australians are able to take for granted.”
But he went on to say:
“It is salutary to remember in this context the findings of the
Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which
concluded that:
dispossession and removal of Aboriginal people from their
land has had the most profound impact on Aboriginal society
and continues to determine the economic and cultural wellbeing
of Aboriginal people.”
That is what is so fundamentally wrong with the government’s
approach to this legislation. The Greens have
argued for more than a decade—for years!—that we
should be putting a lot more financial assistance into
Indigenous health and Indigenous education. We certainly
support the maintenance of Indigenous culture
and language. We do not share the view that was expressed
by former Minister Vanstone, when she talked
about remote communities being cultural museums.
We believe in the maintenance of Indigenous language
and Indigenous culture. The problem with this
legislation is that it has come at the end of a decade of
dismantling Indigenous culture and Indigenous land
rights. We all know that land, language and culture are
intertwined in a way that is absolutely fundamental to
the maintenance of Indigenous culture and community,
and Indigenous people’s wellbeing. As a nation, we are
failing to recognise that in 1996, in the Howard government
first took $400 million out of Indigenous programs
and has systematically since that time dismantled
land rights.
As I mentioned, the former Senator Vanstone talked
about a quiet revolution and a total reshaping of Indigenous
communities, and she went about doing that
in an administrative way, particularly undermining the
Aboriginal land rights act. Now we have an end to
what people have campaigned for decades for—
Aboriginal land rights, self-determination for Aboriginal
communities and reconciliation. That is why this is
such a profoundly sad moment for people in Australia.
Absolutely nobody wants to see child abuse continue.
No-one wants to see the levels of homelessness,
poverty, illness and so on, continue in Indigenous
communities, but we do not have to suspend the Racial
Discrimination Act in order to spend money on those
programs—on sewerage and so on. We can do all of
that without getting rid of Aboriginal selfdetermination
and respect, by virtue of the suspension
of the Racial Discrimination Act.

This is treating the symptoms whilst worsening the
underlying cause of the illness, because the underlying
cause of the illness is the profound sadness and dislocation
of Indigenous people at having their culture so
seriously undermined. If you take away their land, culture,
dignity and self-respect you will leave them as
people with a lost identity. The journalist Nicolas
Rothwell said recently:
“Many of the observers of this other Australia—
referring to the remote communities—
have come to the conclusion that its problems lie much
deeper than economics and education, and relate more to loss
of hope and purpose, to an almost subterranean ailment of
the spirit that besets many small cultures overwhelmed by
the outside world; an affliction that may require as much care
and compassion as administrative guidance and financial
The government is rushing in at the last minute before
an election, having taken away funding for so many
years, and putting a huge amount of money in, but
without looking at the other side. You cannot come
rushing in with money to deal with education and
health if you do not consult with Indigenous people,
because you need the consultation and collaborative
As Senator Crossin said earlier in relation to education,
rather than having a punitive taking away of people’s
social security we should be injecting into schools
the capacity for cultural officers to be there and for
maintenance of language. Those are the things that will
increase attendance, not punitively forcing people into
schools which are not providing what Indigenous people
value—that is, language and culture. It is an entirely
different way of looking at things. If you take
away the connection between Indigenous people and
their land—their country—then no amount of money
for health or education is going to heal the spirit.

That is the problem here. If anyone goes to a doctor
and they just get treatment for the symptoms, they will
have to keep going back. It is the underlying cause that
is the problem, and that is why so many of us committed
so strongly to reconciliation with Indigenous people
and self-determination for Indigenous people. That
is why we did it. That is why we so strongly adhere to
the principle that there is no place for racial discrimination
in Australia and no reason to suspend the Racial
Discrimination Act in order to treat Indigenous people
in this way.
That is why at the heart of the Little children are sacred
report the very first recommendation said you
have to consult with Indigenous people, you have to do
this with Indigenous people, you do not do it to and
impose it upon individual people and their communities.
I would argue that it is the lack of respect by this
legislation for culture, land rights and language that is
hurting Indigenous people so much. As Senator Bartlett
said earlier, it is so unnecessary. If you had come in
here with a budget bill to allocate $560 million or
whatever the specific figure is to Indigenous communities
for health, education and so on in collaboration and
consultation with those communities, everyone would
have been delighted. But the fact is you have come in
here arguing it is about child abuse whilst at the same
time undermining land rights and undermining the provisions
of the Racial Discrimination Act. That is what
will also devastate Indigenous communities. They have
a right, like all the rest of us, to clean water, sanitation,
education and health. They have that right; they do not
have to give up things. Which other Australian community
is forced to give up any of its cultural context
in order to have things that everybody else gets as of
right? It is ethically and morally wrong to undermine a
culture, to go in and say, ‘We know what’s good for
you and you are going to have it imposed on you. By
the way, the cost to you is something fundamental to
who you are as people and who you are in terms of
your identity.’
That is what I feel is so gravely wrong about this.
That is why I feel so profoundly sad when I see someone
like Mick Dodson, who has spent his whole life on
this, saying, ‘I’m at a loss as to what to do. I’ve been
fighting racial discrimination all my life. I’ve run out
of ideas.’ I would be devastated if I had done that to
somebody who had given their life to improve the
situation of Indigenous people in Australia. You need
to listen to what Indigenous people say. As you know
yourself, if you feel good about yourself and if you feel
good about your culture—so if you feel strongly about
those things—then you can address other things. But if
your identity is taken away and if you have this ailment
of the spirit, then no amount of medicine is going to fix
that. It is about self-respect and identify. It is about
cultural integrity and the continuance of that Indigenous
Whilst this is an assault on land rights, selfdetermination
and reconciliation, I do not believe that
we cannot get back on track once this government
leaves office, when, hopefully, we can spend the
money in those communities but get rid of the draconian
aspects of this bill. I hope that this will be the last
time ever we see the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia
suspended and gotten around in the way that this
government has done, because there is no place and
there is no justification for that. You can never set aside
the principle that is entrenched here and you have to
recognise that it is an absolute basic principle of the
rule of law—and I for one will be campaigning for a
bill of rights, as I have for a long time. Central to that
bill of rights of Australia will be that you cannot discriminate
against people on the basis of race. It is to
Australia’s enduring shame that we still do not have
that. We need to have that entrenched in our Constitution.
I conclude by saying that we have not really come
very far from the time 40 years ago when WEH Stanner
“There are immense pressures of expediency we all understand.
But they do not answer the ethical questions. The
principles are clear. Is this use of power arbitrary? Is the decision
just? And is it good neighbourly? Rigorously asked,
and candidly answered, (the answers) will leave many people
feeling uncomfortable … There are positive requirements
which compel the Aborigine to give up his own choice of life
in order to gain things otherwise conceded to be his of right.
The ethics of the policy thus seem very dubious.”
That is why we do not support what the government is
doing with this legislation.