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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 171

Senator BARTLETT (6:11 PM) —I would also like to speak to the report of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. It is a very important and comprehensive report, and I urge people to look at it. The section I would like to focus on tonight is the one dealing with developments in recognising and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples internationally. We had a debate at the start of the week in this chamber, on an urgency motion which the Democrats initiated, about the need for the Australian government to support the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I think that is being voted on in the United Nations General Assembly today—perhaps even as we speak. It is a matter of great disappointment that the Australian government has indicated that it is not willing to support the adoption of this declaration. If people want to learn the facts about this declaration, what is involved in the substance of it and what is involved in the purpose and the meaning of it—as opposed to the disgraceful misinformation and spin that has come from the federal government to justify their appalling lack of support for this important step of adopting an international declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples—then I recommend that they read this report. The report sets it out in a very straightforward way, in unvarnished language, unemotionally and very factually.

One of the things I have found so frustrating, even with Australia’s own social justice commissioner clearly detailing the benefits to Indigenous peoples in Australia as well as internationally in going down this path and in setting in place some benchmarks and standards for us to seek to measure up to—non-binding and even ‘aspirational’, to use one of the federal government’s current buzzwords—is the misinformation. One of the key reasons the federal government has put out in the public arena, as well as in this chamber, as to why they will not support the UN declaration as it stands is that they are still worried about the meaning of some of the words. As this report details, the process of developing this declaration has taken literally decades, and the report outlines, on pages 230 and 231, both the key features of the declaration and the process of it being developed. The Australian government is, sadly, one of just a small number of governments around the world which are seeking to frustrate the adoption of this declaration. There is no other possible motivation that could be behind the federal government’s position. It cannot continue to say, ‘We are just trying to reach consensus’ when clearly the consequence is to just hold it up—and now, if it is going to be adopted anyway, to just not support it.

The federal government has expressed concern about the lack of certainty about what ‘right’ might mean, because the convention recognises the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, and has suggested that somehow that might mean an opportunity for separatism, a nation within a nation or Indigenous people having the right to break away from Australia. Firstly, that is clearly and deliberately a misrepresentation of what self-determination under international law is about; secondly, the draft convention that is being put forward for adoption specifically and explicitly rules out any such interpretation of the meaning of self-determination; thirdly, the right of all peoples to self-determination is already recognised under international law and Australia is a party to the relevant convention that recognises that right, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 1, part 1 states: ‘All peoples have the right of self-determination’—except, it appears, as far as the Howard government is concerned, Indigenous peoples; their only pathway to self-determination is to lose their identity and their culture and go through assimilation.

That goes to the second part of the total furphy the federal government is putting around about this UN declaration: that somehow or other it puts customary law above national law. It does no such thing. It is simply dishonest and divisive for the federal government to be putting out this sort of propaganda. It is old-style, ridiculous, hard-line, arch-conservative propaganda that does nothing other than play on people’s total misunderstanding of international law and total misunderstanding and ignorance of the nature of customary law in Australia. If we are genuinely wanting to see Indigenous people progress, as the Prime Minister and others in his government keep saying, then let’s stop the furphies, stop the misinformation and actually recognise and support some basic, fundamental rights for Indigenous peoples. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.