Australia falls behind world trend on Indigenous empowerment

3 July 2018

Australia is running counter to established international trends in its glacial approach to constitutional recognition of its indigenous people, a landmark forum on indigenous governance and constitutional recognition has heard this morning.

And experiences across the globe have shown there are many paths to self-determination but Australia seems paralysed by the "dead hand of history" including its track record of only eight out of 44 referendums being passed since 1901.

"Through legislative and other means, (many) countries have sought to be inclusive rather than merely tolerant," Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues told the opening session of the First Nations Governance Forum at Old Parliament House. 

"They've gone beyond the mirage of one nation, one language and one culture and attempted through constitutional legislative and practical means to reflect the reality of their history and their populations by acknowledging they are made up of different populations and different communities."

The opening session, chaired by Stan Grant, also featured presentations from Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People and ANU Distinguished Professor of Law, Hilary Charlesworth.

The Forum heard while countries as diverse as Peru, the Philippines, Mexico, Nepal, Ethiopia, Belgium and Switzerland have all managed to progress human rights, self-determination and issues of indigenous sovereignty, Australia seemed unable or unwilling to move forward.

Professor Charlesworth said Australia tended to be insular and immune to international standards and while it wanted a seat at the table in regard to human rights in other countries, it tended to be surly and dismissive in relation to what was happening in its own backyard.

"We can talk of the Janus-face of Australia: when it looks to the international sphere it tends to smile, look welcoming and seem like a good global citizen, yet when it looks inside it is sceptical anxious and worried about introducing international standards," Professor Charlesworth said.

She noted that Australia was alone among advanced democracies in not having a bill of rights and there was a strong overriding belief among politicians of all colours that the Westminster system was sufficient to protect the rights of all.

However, she said, this was patently not the case. A quick glance at our history revealed how willing governments are to "whittle away at the rights of minorities". 

She said refugees, prisoners and First Nations peoples were three obvious examples, with the Northern Territory intervention in 2007 being the most blatant abuse of human rights.

Asked by Mr Grant why there was political resistance to being open to international innovations, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, Professor Charlesworth responded that she felt there was something deep within the Australian psyche that saw all people as equal, even when the evidence clearly contradicted such a position.

"Australia has always had a deep ambivalence as to what goes on internationally. On the one hand we like to participate and have a seat at the table - we have a seat on the Human Rights Council - but we have this deep sense that human rights are for other countries and we can use them to berate our neighbours but they don't belong to us," Professor Charlesworth said.

"It's deep in the Australian psyche, but it can be changed."