Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
9 Mar 2012
Bishop Christopher Saunders, Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council is adamant the Government's intention to extend its controversial Intervention Policy in the Northern Territory for a further 10 years is a "travesty."
"At the heart of this travesty is a mentality that believes the opinions of Aboriginal people simply do not matter. Any notion of a right to self determination of their future by Australia's Indigenous people has been overwhelmed by an expediency that promises neither a just outcome nor a fair one," he says.
Bishop Saunders, who is also Bishop of Broome, has worked closely with Aboriginal communities throughout his sprawling Diocese for more than 30 years.
An outspoken critic of the Government's Northern Territory Emergency Response (ITER) when it was first introduced by the Howard Government in 2007, he is dismayed at the Gillard Government's plans to not only continue the policy for another 10 years, but to extend its reach to other regions of Australia, including Bankstown in Sydney's west.
"This is a repeat of history that says white people know best," he warns and slams the lack of consultation with Indigenous communities when preparing its Stronger Futures Legislation 2011 which has now passed in the Lower House and is currently before the Senate.
With almost no debate and only three dissenters (Greens MP Adam Brandt, Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie and MP Bob Katter) the bill was passed the same day Caucus held their ballot to determine whether Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard should be Labor's leader. Consequently it received very little coverage at the time.
Under the new legislation, there are no protections for Aboriginal identity, culture or language and many Indigenous people are expressing very real concerns their culture will suffer with many of their languages lost forever.
Critics claim another ten years means an entire generation can go through school without being taught or speaking their own language and celebrating their heritage.
In a bid to prevent this, the Aboriginal Catholic Mission has joined the Sisters of St Joseph, the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, the Order of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH), and the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) in a submission to the United Nations.
"Our submission argues that building strong language and culture is THE WAY to protect and promote the rights and identity of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples," the submission has told the UN's Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and points out that the Catholic Church has long recognised the importance of working to help language and culture survive.
The submission also accuses the Australian Government's 2008 decision to enforce an "English only policy for the first four hours in the classroom" at Indigenous schools of breaching the UN;s Convention of Rights of the Child and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
"Where the government and education system promotes only the national language and does not make space for or actively discourages the legitimate roles and use of locals languages, this has been shown to significantly contribute to lack of self worth, marginalisation and for some, active resentment. These actions also contribute to anti-social behaviour," the submission states.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is equally concerned with the Government's plans to extend the Intervention with its Stronger Policies legislation.
"I think 30 years ago we were ahead of Canada, North America and perhaps New Zealand. But we are light years behind today," he says describing the policy of Intervention "as our nation's single greatest failing."
In Melbourne last night to launch "Listening but not Hearing," a report by the University of Technology, Sydney's Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, the former PM said that 30 years ago Australia had led the world on some aspects of Indigenous policy but was now "light years behind."
He was also concerned at the lack of Government consultation with Aboriginal communities affected by the Intervention. Instead as the Jumbunna Report found, the Government focussed on dysfunction and despair, characterising Aboriginal people as responsible their own misfortune.
Successful community-led initiatives were also ignored.
The "Listening but Not Hearing" report, a critical assessment of the Government's consultations with NT Indigenous communities based on filmed consultations with 10 such communities, described the the consultation process used as preparation for the Stronger Futures Bill as little more than "a tokenistic mechanism for providing affected people with information about decisions already made."
Malcolm Fraser said when visiting remote communities Canberra-based officials appeared not to have the capacity to "talk to Aboriginal people with respect or to treat them as equals" and believed the "saddest thing in 2012 was the fact that the Australian government has not learned to communicate on a reasonable basis with its Indigenous people."
From the start the Intervention policy has been strongly criticised and was condemned last year by a team from the World Council of Churches as well as by the UN's Human Rights to Commissioner, Navi Pillay.
After her visit to NT Indigenous communities in May 2011, Ms Pillay spoke of the "enormous anger, pain and humiliation" the Intervention had caused and accused the Government of "failing to recognise the right to self determination for Indigenous people."
Despite the criticism and an increasing amount of evidence the Intervention has made life even more difficult for Indigenous people, the Government is pressing ahead with its Stronger Futures legislation.