Talking about Race

12 Sep 2017

On September 13 the United Nations will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Australia was initially opposed to the Declaration, but now supports it. Bidding for seat on the UN Human Rights Council, our government also promotes itself as a model human rights citizen.

On September 13 the United Nations will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Australia was initially opposed to the Declaration, but now supports it. Bidding for seat on the UN Human Rights Council, our government also promotes itself as a model human rights citizen.

However, the recently released report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples found that the policies of the Australian Government do not respect Indigenous rights to self-determination and effective participation; continues to contribute to the failure of meeting targets in the areas of health, education and employment; and fuels the escalating incarceration and child removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In the past few months alone we’ve seen the government’s reaction to calls to shift Australia Day away from the divisie date of 26 January, to debates about colonial memorials, to constitutional reform, and to the case of Elijah Doughty.

Of course, we no longer allow the kind of race discrimination permitted in my mother’s generation, where racial segregation and forced assimilation was official policy, but too often it feels as though the Commonwealth hasn’t progressed very far either. Take a look at Western Australia (WA), for example:

In 1967, Australians were asked to vote whether Aboriginal people should be counted as part of the national census and treated properly as citizens of the Commonwealth. The majority vote was overwhelmingly ‘Yes’, but WA recorded the highest ‘No’ vote in the nation.

Today, WA has the highest rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people and the highest rates of Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia too. It removes more Aboriginal children from their mothers now than any other state, and more than it did at any other time in the history of Aboriginal child removal. Successive state governments of both persuasions have also refused to enact Aboriginal land rights even though it has always been Australian Labor Party policy.

Race has played a prominent part in Australian history, but non-Aboriginal society is still too reluctant to talk about it. In fact, any talk about race often seems to make white people feel too uncomfortable to get very far. This silencing of race does nothing to overcome racial inequality, instead it likely perpetuates it.

In the 1970’s, when my mother took me along to land rights protests, our leaders knew the Noongar lands were stolen from us and that nothing was given back. Even then it was clear that we were regarded as second-class citizens. Racist language and attitudes were shameful and commonplace.

As a young student I travelled to Sydney to protest the 1988 Bicentenary that celebrated Australia’s wrongful dispossession of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal sovereignty. We also rallied against deaths in custody, like that of John Pat who died after being bashed in the streets by off-duty policemen who were later acquitted by an all-white jury. John Pat’s killing was not that different to that of Ms. Dhu, who died in the Port Hedland lockup as she begged for help.

Recently, Aboriginal musician Dan Sultan – who has ties to the Kimberley region which has the highest youth suicide rates in the world – asked why we should celebrate Australia day when it signified the start of the genocide of Aboriginal people?
Back in January, the Fremantle City Council bravely decided to hold a ‘Not Australia Day’ concert that drew a crowd of 15,000 people. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people came together and truthfully acknowledge our past and our shared commitment to a nation built of racial respect and inclusivity. Then came the White Commonwealth back-lash, which could be observed again only last month after two city councils in Melbourne, Victoria moved to abandon official January 26 “Australia Day” celebrations in a show of respect to First Nations people.

Fortunately there are many within the next generations of Aboriginal people, and people of all backgrounds, willing to ‘wave the flag’ for Aboriginal justice and human rights.

In 2017, 50 years after the historic 1967 referendum, Aboriginal people met at Uluru to consider how Aboriginal people should be recognised in the Constitution. The report of the Referendum Council called for an Aboriginal Advisory body to the Commonwealth Parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution to advise on laws relating to Indigenous people.

Not all Aboriginal people have supported this recommendation, arguing that an Advisory body will not guarantee or lead to self-determination. And remember, the right to determine our own future is an inherent right recognised by the UN Declaration.

Presently, there are calls again for a Makaratta, or Treaty. Treaty remains outstanding because Australia was colonized illegally. The High Court in the case of Mabo v The State of Queensland (1992) denounced the colonial acquisition perpetrated on the basis of a racist doctrine known as Terra Nullius as ‘the darkest aspect of the history of this nation’.

Elsewhere, treaties with Indigenous peoples were made in Canada, the United States and New Zealand. Such agreements have constitutional status and allow for “government to government” relationships between Indigenous people and the State.. Aboriginal people in Australia deprived of Treaty agreements continue to be at the mercy of governments who don’t have regard for their human rights.

It’s clear that government cannot keep saying it supports Aboriginal people and human rights when the evidence tells another story. Talking about Race and institutional systemic discrimination is hard work, but we won’t achieve justice and equality without this honest dialogue. This year is a good time to start.

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