How we are falling short when it comes to First Nations Australians in a big way
Sunday 13 September
Despite the world coming together at the United Nations on 13 September 2007 to enshrine rights that “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world”, Australia is still falling woefully short in meeting some of the most basic human rights of its First Nations peoples.
There was reluctance from the Australian Government then to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and today this reluctance remains when it comes to meeting the needs of Indigenous Australians.
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to travel to Geneva to intern at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and although my experience was overwhelmingly positive, it did reinforce my view of Australia having a non-committal stance on meaningfully progressing human rights, especially for First Nations Australians.
As a member of the Human Rights Council with its term finishing at the end of the year, Australia has failed to highlight and address the needs of Indigenous people at either a local or international level.
This was epitomised for me recently with the Australian Government requesting that the UN dismiss a landmark claim from a group of Torres Strait Islanders asserting their fundamental human rights obligations had been failed by a failure to take adequate action to reduce emissions or pursue necessary climate change adaption measures on the islands.
This is just one in a litany of human rights failures towards First Nations Australians. There have been countless reports, studies and even royal commissions that have highlighted multiple government’s shortfalls, yet the recommendations remain largely ignored.
Take child protection, the focus of article 7 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The recent Family is Culture review in NSW brought to light a plethora of failings, including some that violate the very rights laid out in the globally agreed declaration.
The review noted widespread noncompliance with legislation and policy among caseworkers, a lack of transparency and effective oversight, poor and unethical newborn removal practices, “care-criminalisation” exacerbating the risk of criminal offending and a continued resonance of the current child protection system with historical practices used against Aboriginal communities.
For many Aboriginal people, this felt like a rehash of the Bringing them Home report from 1997. This begs the questions, how much evidence is enough and how many reports are required?
The response to the Family is Culture review by the Minister, a three-and-a-half page document that has been described throughout the sector as vastly inadequate. We try to remain hopeful that the initial response was only the beginning of a much-needed acceptance of all of the recommendations. However, given the number of reports gathering dust on shelves, we also maintain a rightful level of scepticism.
Despite this, there is still hope for meaningful change in the NSW child protection system, a culmination of pressure built by the Family is Culture review, the Their Futures Matter Auditor General’s report and the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap. The evidence is clear that the system is failing to meet the needs of First Nations Australians and the recommendations for change and building blocks for a better future have largely gone ignored.
How can we accept the status quo when it comes to our children and young people as adequate and let ongoing Stolen Generations continue through a broken statutory system?
In the absence of government action, AbSec, the peak organisation for Aboriginal children, families and communities in NSW, has shown that it is possible to meet the needs of the community.
Over the past two years, AbSec has continued its support in developing the Aboriginal community-controlled child and family sector with great success. Notably, AbSec has supported the development of the first Aboriginal community-controlled foster care provider in Far Western NSW, a notoriously underserviced area. The significance of this, as well as our broader work across the state, cannot be underestimated, placing the care of Aboriginal children in the hands of Aboriginal communities is something Aboriginal communities have been fighting for since the first of our children were stolen.
By enabling Aboriginal community-controlled organisations to take charge of the establishment of Aboriginal service delivery, it provides not only a more effective but also a more efficient use of existing funding and an opportunity for Aboriginal people to deliver their own services in a more culturally appropriate way. AbSec has shown this through its work. This can be replicated for not only out-of-home care but also early intervention services and community support services, better meeting the needs of our children and families.
However, this cannot occur across the whole country without government support. There is an acknowledgement of this need in the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap as both an act of self-determination and a way to achieve better results.
Moving forward, jurisdictional agreements for Closing the Gap will have to be ironed out between the states and the responsible peak organisations and Aboriginal communities. It is this process that we must ensure is an equitable negotiation, with self-determination and social justice principles at the forefront.
Aboriginal communities have the capability, expertise and organisations to meet their own needs. Governments must now finally put them in the driver’s seat and commit to properly fund the solutions. Thirteen years ago the countries of the world agreed upon fundamental rights for Indigenous peoples, now as a nation, we must act on them.
Karl Williamson is a proud Wiradjuri man and a Project Manager at AbSec