"Working together in new partnerships will set new agenda for Indigenous Australia and build a stronger nation"

Australian Human Rights Commission Monday, 4 May 2009

Momentous events in Indigenous affairs over the last year bode well for a new era in Indigenous affairs but the current economic downturn signals real challenges ahead, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma said today.

Launching this year’s Social Justice and Native Title Reports in Sydney, Commissioner Calma said there was a spirit of optimism for the future of Indigenous affairs in Australia but cautioned the optimism could be short lived.

“I have been buoyed by the federal government’s decisive actions to improve the relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in February last year,” Commissioner Calma said.

“This year’s reports are the first ones in my five years as Commissioner where I can stand here today and say two of the ‘must-do’ recommendations, being the formal endorsement of the United Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the commitment to establishing a national healing body, have already been implemented by government.

“Significant strides have also been made by the Close the Gap Campaign in securing government commitment to achieving Indigenous health equality.

“And of course we are well on the way to establishing a new national Indigenous representative body by the end of this year,” he said.

“But it‘s not boom time anymore and it would be naïve to think that it won’t be more difficult to secure funding and government support for our Indigenous issues when we are competing with a growing unemployment queue in this country.

“We must now consolidate our position and recognise that strong partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can and must be the way forward.

“Partnership has been the cornerstone of the successful Close the Gap Campaign on Indigenous health equality,” he said. “Firstly, a diverse group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous health peak bodies initiated the campaign with me, leading then to the Australian Government embracing our objectives and signing a bipartisan Statement of Intent to close the life expectancy gap by 2030.”

Commissioner Calma called for better rights protection for Indigenous Australians and for urgent action to address the education crisis faced by those in remote areas.

“I think a lot of Australians would be shocked to know that many Indigenous kids living in remote areas only have a teacher come out to teach them three days a fortnight,” he said.

“They would be further shocked to know that these children are being educated in tin sheds with dirt floors. Every child no matter where they live has the same right to education.”

The Native Title Report 2008 called for positive, practical changes to be made to the native title system in light of issues of connection and continuity, extinguishment of native title rights and interests, and the looming threat of compulsory acquisition of Indigenous lands.

Mr Calma warned that the spectre of climate change would significantly affect Indigenous people’s access to water resources.

“As coastal and island communities confront rising sea levels, and inland areas become hotter and drier, Indigenous people are at risk of further economic marginalisation, as well as potential dislocation from and exploitation of their traditional lands, waters and natural resources,” Mr Calma said.

“And the cruel irony is that Indigenous people have the smallest ecological footprint but are being asked to carry the heaviest burden of climate change.”

He said the predicted rise in temperatures, sea levels and extreme weather conditions would potentially affect every aspect of life for Torres Strait Islanders, including the reduced availability of fresh water, destruction of infrastructure like housing, sewerage, power, roads and airstrips, and greater risk of disease from flooded rubbish tips and insect born diseases like dengue fever.

“These things will profoundly affect the ability of these communities to enjoy many of the basic rights that other Australians take for granted, such as the right to life, health, food, water, culture and a healthy environment,” Commissioner Calma said.

“If Indigenous people are going to be hard hit by climate change it is only right that they have a seat at the table when it comes to working out climate change policy and planning.

“Climate change can present opportunities for Indigenous communities,” he said. “Programs like Caring for Country and national park joint management partnership arrangements across Australia are a win-win for communities and the environment.

“We can only be stronger as a nation if we work together to create new partnerships and a new agenda for Indigenous Australia.”

The reports are available at http://www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/sj_report/sjreport08/ and http://www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/nt_report/ntreport08/