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World Council of Churches expresses disappointment over the Government's indigenous policy direction, which is being internationally monitored, saying it is downgrading social justice for Aboriginal people

JOHN HIGHFIELD: The World Council of Churches has expressed deep disappointment in the Howard Government's treatment of indigenous Australians, and it says the effects of funding cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services will be closely monitored by international human rights groups. The Geneva-based Council has previously published two reports on the status of Aborigines in Australia, in 1981 and 1991. Both those reports condemned as deplorable living conditions endured by Aboriginal Australians. They described the impact of Australian racism as horrific and genocidal. Now, the head of the Council's program to combat racism says the enunciated policies of the Coalition Government represent a further step backwards and reinforce racism in Australia.

From Geneva, the Reverend Bob Scott has been speaking to P.M.'s Julie Posetti.

BOB SCOTT: We're very saddened by what we hear here in Geneva. We've been following the discussions around the native title legislation and the social justice package that went with it, and so on, and we were very disappointed to hear an intervention by an Aboriginal delegation at a recent UN meeting, setting out very clearly some of the things that had happened since the new Government's come in. We've expressed publicly our disappointment.

JULIE POSETTI: Are you surprised by the direction adopted by the new Government?

BOB SCOTT: When I was in Australia around the time of the debates about the Mabo legislation, the so-called Mabo legislation, I did hear what the Opposition was saying. I was quite shocked at the kind of stereotyping and the kinds of arguments that were being used by some members of the Opposition. So it wasn't any surprise when the present Government seemed to move very quickly to downgrade their .. and that's as I see it - it's a personal reaction - they seem to be downgrading their commitment to social justice for Aboriginal people, so I wasn't particularly surprised at that, having heard the previous stuff.

JULIE POSETTI: In your 1991 report, or the Council's 1991 report, you stated that 'we saw that the social conditions among Aboriginal communities are deplorable, and we saw that the Government has not responded meaningfully to those conditions, and we heard from the people a sense of frustration and alienation about a lack of meaningful control over their lives.' Well, the new Government has announced cuts of $400 million to the Aboriginal portfolio. What sort of impression does that leave you with?

BOB SCOTT: I can just imagine now the sense of frustration, of alienation, felt by Aboriginal people now because, having seemingly made some progress, especially on land issues, and beginning to make some progress in discussions on social justice issues, it's another large step backwards. And I know the sense of frustration that must bring and I can understand if it doesn't bring just frustration, but anger.

JULIE POSETTI: There is though, in Australia, a perception that what's been described as 'middle Australia' supports the new Federal Government's strategy. What do you think that reflects about the problem of racism in this country?

BOB SCOTT: I've always said that the major task in combating racism is dealing with the large middle group in any society because they are the ones who stay silent mostly, they are the ones who reinforce what's happening, most often on the extreme Right, because they don't stand up and they're not counted. And I think that presents an enormous challenge in Australia to counter the fear, to counter the stereotyping, to counter all those easy arguments which were used, for instance, when I was last in Australia by the mining companies, about the loss of your land, your own back yard and so forth. Middle Australia falls easy prey to those kinds of arguments.

JULIE POSETTI: Are you suggesting that the Australian Government reflects extreme right-wing values when it comes to indigenous affairs?

BOB SCOTT: That would seem to be a correct statement.

JULIE POSETTI: Well, Australia does perceive itself as, you know, an open, tolerant and pluralist society. In your view, and from your experience, do you think Australia is actually a racist society?

BOB SCOTT: I'm impressed always with the incredible variety of people in Australia, people from many parts of the world, so it really is a pluralistic society. But the disease in the centre, in the heart of Australia, is that it still has not dealt with that central issue of its relationship with the Aboriginal people, with the first people of Australia. So all the talk about being a pluralistic society and so forth is very encouraging, variety and so on, with respect for all sorts of cultures and where people have come from - that's well and good, but it must be matched, I believe, against the inability, it seems, of the country to come to terms with its relationship with the first people of that country.

Now, the last Government seemed to be trying to do that, or at least some prominent individuals in that Government seemed to be trying to do that. I was incredibly impressed with the former Prime Minister's speech, I think in Redfern, two, three, four years ago, where he spelt out a vision of Australia, and I thought, 'Now, this is a very exciting step forward.' That vision seems, in government circles now, to be gone.

JULIE POSETTI: What are the likely consequences, do you think, if this problem isn't addressed by the new Government?

BOB SCOTT: Well, I can't comment what happens in Australia; I don't know that well enough. But internationally, already there are people in international circles and in United Nations, for instance, who are very well aware of what has been happening in the last two or three months and will very soon pick up on these recent announcements in Australia. We know, internationally, that things are not going well and that will be monitored. So I think what I would say to people in Australia is, what is happening in Australia isn't just concerning people in Australia, it's actually being monitored and known about internationally.

JULIE POSETTI: Will you be lobbying the Government in Canberra?

BOB SCOTT: Yes, we've already let the Government in Canberra know of our disappointment in these latest announcements.

JULIE POSETTI: What message have you sent to Canberra?

BOB SCOTT: We have explained our commitment to Aboriginal rights, especially land rights; we have explained our history of involvement with the Aboriginal struggle in Australia; and we, therefore, because of those things, explained our sense of deep frustration at this backward step.

JULIE POSETTI: Have you received any response?

BOB SCOTT: No.

JULIE POSETTI: On the issue of land rights, in 1991 your report stated, or rather you asked the question: Why is the Federal Government abdicating its responsibility for a national land policy for Aborigines? And we now have the Native Title Act, but the new Government is planning to amend it, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner has actually come out today saying the amendment will make it harder for Aborigines to register a claim and it will curtail their right to negotiate on developments, and he says that it's racially discriminatory and a breach of human rights conventions. Do you have a view on that?

BOB SCOTT: You asked me before if I thought the present policy was racist. I'm always wary of saying, you know, something is racist or not. Well, I'm prepared to say - you see, that's labelling people sometimes without knowing the full facts - I'm prepared to say, and I would agree with Mick Dodson in this, that the behaviour, the kinds of policies they're now enunciating, certainly reinforces racism in Australia. Once again, it says to Aboriginal people: you are not of equal value in our eyes; we are prepared to spend money, some money on you, but not in fact deliver justice to you. And that message is understood overseas.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: On the line from Geneva, the Reverend Bob Scott of the World Council of Churches, speaking to P.M.'s Julie Posetti.