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Shadow Minister criticises cancellation of government delegation to a UN Working Group on the Convention of Biological Diversity.

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PETER GEORGE: The federal government has been accused of taking its toys and going home to avoid further international criticism on indigenous issues. Just hours before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination handed down its critical report of Australia’s laws on native title and mandatory sentencing, the federal environment minister, Robert Hill, cancelled a delegation to another UN conference on indigenous issues. Three senior public servants were just 24 hours away from catching a plane to Spain for the Working Group on the Convention of Biological Diversity when their trip was dropped by Senator Hill. The conference was focusing on Article 8(j) of the convention which applies to preserving traditional knowledge and practices in relation to the land. The federal government says the minister cancelled the trio as soon as he found out about it. Apparently he thought it was a waste of money, given the same issues were to be discussed at another meeting in Nairobi in May.


But the opposition doubts this version of events and we are joined, now, by shadow environment minister, Nick Bolkus, and he is speaking with Fran Kelly in Canberra.


FRAN KELLY: Senator Bolkus, good morning.


NICK BOLKUS: Good morning, Fran.


FRAN KELLY: The minister denies that the cancellation of this trip has anything to do with the UN racial committee deliberations last week. Do you have any proof that it was linked?


NICK BOLKUS: I think the first thing I’ve got to say is whatever the reason it is the wrong decision. It sends a message of Australia being isolationist particularly at a time when indigenous issues are issues which the rest of the world is looking at Australia. I think, basically, what we do have here is the wrong decision, one way or another. I also think it is not the right reason the minister is giving. I think this government has a long history of spending enormous resources on trying to undermine and subvert processes, for instance, like UNESCO and Jabiluka. For the minister to say he only found out about this conference 24 hours before it happened, to me, says either he was asleep at the wheel in terms of running this department or else the more credible reason, I think, is that he knew that on issues before the conference the government was once again going to be put in a difficult position and he wasn’t prepared to take the flak.


FRAN KELLY: Just in terms of whether it was the right or wrong decision on the merits of the conference, the minister says he did cancel it when he found out about it because the Seville meeting last time on this convention wasn’t much use and there is another international debate on this coming up in a Nairobi conference in May; why spend the money twice? Now, what is wrong with that logic?


NICK BOLKUS: That is a decision that all parties confront and in respect to a process like this, every different stage of the process has a different focus. So other countries have taken the decision they’ve got to be there.


FRAN KELLY: Have they? Do you know that they are there?


NICK BOLKUS: My understanding is that enough countries are there. Australia was quite critical to it and I think a lot depended on Australia’s presence as well, so if the conference has collapsed it would be because of Australia not being present. But I think the important thing to note here is that these processes - whether it is greenhouse or whether it is a conference such as this - have different focuses at different conferences, different steps along the way. And in a sense, given the attention the rest of the world is paying to Australia at the moment, the message we should have sent was not that we’re isolationist and we are taking our bat and ball and going home on indigenous issues but that really we should be there.


It is not Robert Hill’s reputation or John Howard’s reputation that’s at stake here. What they are really doing, what this government is really doing, is trashing Australia’s reputation in fora such as this, and it does have direct consequences, not just in a social sense but also in an economic sense for us. Australia’s reputation deserves better than for Robert Hill, with 24 hours notice, to say ‘Oh, I am sorry; I don’t think we should be here; it’s a waste of money.’


FRAN KELLY: But was Australia’s reputation necessarily on the line in a negative sense here? ASTSIC is over there; we know that; we spoke to Geoff Clark the other day from there; and they’re quoted in the Canberra Times today saying that ATSIC would tell the meeting that the government was making some progress though much more was needed on these issues. Now, that doesn’t sound like Australia was necessarily in for a pasting at this conference.


NICK BOLKUS: ATSIC is in a difficult position but I think the fact that ATSIC is there is an indication that indigenous Australia sees the issue as an important one. And it is important. We’ve got legislation - admittedly on the back-burner in the Senate for the moment because we are trying to work through some of the issues with the government - but legislation dealing with aspects of this conference. And that legislation I think, once again, exposes the government for not having a sufficiently adequate appreciation of indigenous issues. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island heritage legislation before the Senate soon does deal with some of these issues and, in the context of that legislation, we have I think a government which basically presents Aboriginal culture as somewhat of a thing of the past, a stagnant culture rather than the evolving one that it is. And I think on this issue alone the government had something to justify at this conference.


FRAN KELLY: Senator Nick Bolkus, thank you very much for your time.


NICK BOLKUS: Thanks, Fran.


PETER GEORGE: Shadow environment minister, Nick Bolkus, with Fran Kelly in Canberra.