Our Indigenous rights deficit

In what could have easily been mistaken as a scene from Cinderella, footage of Prime Minister Gillard being whisked away from the “violent protests” on Australia Day made for a somewhat theatrical evening news bulletin. Politicians, lobbyists, and a handful of commentators have all had something to say about the incident that was sparked by the Opposition Leader’s comments earlier in the day.

Sadly, the media has since been fixated on the wrong questions – whether Abbot’s remarks were taken out of context and whether the protestors acted inappropriately (to which the response has been strong condemnation). And while we shouldn’t ignore the use of aggression in political protest, we also shouldn’t tolerate the neglect that continues to be inflicted on our Indigenous citizens.

Start by tracing the overt racism that has emerged in the aftermath. Yes, The Mercury did actually publish an article titled “Blacks Burn Aussie Flag”. Not to mention the crude images and insensitive remarks that have been found floating around on Facebook. However, derogative remarks aside, the abandonment of our Indigenous population runs much deeper than tabloid headlines. It is hidden in public policy that continues to treat this nation’s original inhabitants as second-class citizens. It is found in the stark and somewhat persistent statistical discrepancies. And finally, it is reflected in the raw emotion and frustration that was witnessed during the recent protests. No nation should have to condone the burning of its flag. But neither should any nation be allowed to send armed forces in response to complex social and economic challenges being faced by one of its minority groups. The Northern Territory Emergency Response continues to epitomise an epic failure of policy.

Regardless, our beaurocracy deserves some credit. Certain policies have, in fact, demonstrated a rarely before-seen degree of cultural sensitivity. Take, for example, the trial currently being run in selected Northern Territory schools. In efforts to increase the deeply-concerning 53% school attendance rate in remote Indigenous communities, the government has facilitated changes to the school calendar so as to better accommodate Indigenous hunting and ceremonial seasons. Nuanced policies such as this provide real opportunities to close the statistical ravines between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens in this country. Nevertheless, bad policies still persist. And for some of these policies, the entrenched paternalism has been downright appalling.

The failure in good policy-making can be conceptualised as a democratic deficit, but not in the strict numerical sense. It’s a deficit arising from the lack of representation. Challenges unique to Indigenous communities do not rank highly on the public policy agenda. And so long as these communities remain a minority, the status quo stands strong. Unless the broader populous starts lobbying the government for serious, sound, and sane policy solutions, chances are not much is going change. Unfortunately, the broader voter base is preoccupied with the budget deficit. Meanwhile, Indigenous rights fall deeper into the red.

Prospects for change can be found in external pressure; critical mass from abroad. International human rights law provides a realm of untapped potential. And while the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is more 1carrot than stick, in the very least it provides a framework within which soft law can eventually evolve into something more enforceable.

Where national governments consistently fail to deliver good policy for Indigenous minorities, international lobby groups need to up the ante. It’s only once we’ve established international tribunals to which individual Indigenous citizens can appeal, will our government really start getting its gears into action. Alternatively, we stop our unhealthy preoccupation with fiscal balances, and start concerning ourselves with our more troublesome deficit in Indigenous rights.