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Monday, 22 March 1999
Page: 2976


Senator Woodley asked the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, upon notice, on 9 February 1999:

(1) What is the Government's official position on self-determination both in domestic and international policy.

(2) (a) What was the rationale for moving to `self-management' and `self-empowerment'; (b) on what basis was this change made; (c) where did the impetus come from; (d) which agency was responsible for the preparation of the Cabinet submissions; and (e) which other government departments provided advice on the matter.

(3) What consultation processes were undertaken with indigenous peoples, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and other relevant groups in relation to this change.

(4) Given that ATSIC has been described by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs as the leading national advisory body on indigenous affairs, why was ATSIC not included in the processes leading up to the Cabinet decision.

(5) Has the Government and/or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sought to influence other governments to downgrade the language of self-determination in the draft declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; if not, will they try to do so.


Senator Herron (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —The answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows:

(1) The Government's position on self-determination in the context of the UN negotiations on a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is that it is unable to accept the term "self-determination" as it is used in the Draft Declaration because "self-determination" has no settled meaning and for many it implies establishment of separate nations or separate laws. The Government does not question the legitimate aspirations of indigenous peoples to enjoy meaningful participation in decision-making and political processes and greater autonomy over their affairs, but there is a difference between this and the way "self-determination" could be interpreted in the Draft Declaration. Australia is seeking more appropriate and alternative language to "self-determination" in the referring articles. This position was conveyed by the Australian delegation to the meeting of the UN Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva on 7 December 1998.

(2) At the 7 December 1998 meeting of the UN Working Group, the Australian delegation conveyed the Government's view that it would be more productive for the Working Group to look at alternative language to "self-determination" in the Draft Declaration which would more accurately express the principle of indigenous peoples having greater opportunities to exercise meaningful control over their affairs. The Government believes this to be a more positive approach than the alternative proposal of introducing clarifications or qualifications to references to "self-determination" in the text of the document. The remaining aspects of this question relate to Ministerial and Cabinet advice.

(3) The Government regularly consults States and Territories and interest groups, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, on issues relating to the Draft Declaration.

(4) Because ATSIC has chosen to participate in United Nations forums as a `non-government organisation', it is precluded from internal Govern ment policy deliberations concerning issues to be discussed at those forums.

(5) Over the years many countries in the Working Group have expressed their concerns about the ambiguity of the term "self-determination" in the Draft Declaration. At the December 1998 Geneva meeting, most delegations which spoke on this issue expressed concern that the term "self-determination" was ambiguous and ill-defined and required further discussion. The Australian delegation discussed its approach to the Draft Declaration, including the use of the term "self-determination", with other delegations involved in the Working Group, including the delegations of Canada, New Zealand and the USA.