OPEN LETTER TO CONGRESS MEMBERS: 2013 FEDERAL ELECTION

Posted on 3 September 2013

Dear Member

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples remains committed to work for you to promote and protect our rights as the First Peoples of Australia.

During the current federal election campaign, we have taken steps to ask the major political parties – the Australian Labor Party (ALP), the Liberal Party and the Nationals (the Coalition), and the Australian Greens – about their policies and platforms specifically relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. In doing so, Congress sees some progress through the increased attention during these elections to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics and the more prominent involvement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals who seek political office in the Australian Parliament.

Congress has questioned the major parties on their commitment to advancing the interests of the First Peoples, and the attached statement was sent to the political parties, party machinery and political candidates for their attention and response. You will note that we included five questions at the end of the statement. Congress now informs you of our appraisal of the political positions to help you consider the next Australian government. We have identified six major issues.

1. Commitment To The Rights Of The First Peoples
The ALP supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in April 2009, and in 2010 gave moral and financial support for the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. Regrettably the ALP has yet to address the Declaration to any meaningful extent. The Australian Greens have supported the Declaration in its policies. The Australian Greens have stated that $15 million should be given to implement the Declaration. The Coalition, as far as Congress is aware, has not made official announcements on the Declaration or the rights of the First Peoples.

2. Representation Chosen By The First Peoples
The ALP continues to support Congress as a representative body but has yet to commit to Congress’ significant role in future decision-making at the federal level. The Australian Greens have stated support for self-determination, sovereign rights, treaty and property rights. The Coalition has not expressed support for representation and decision-making. The Coalition Leader, Mr Abbott, has instead made commitments to manage Indigenous affairs from the portfolio of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and to establish an Indigenous advisory council headed by Warren Mundine. Mr Abbott pledges to spend time in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as Prime Minister and this promise extends to his Ministers.

3. Non-Discrimination
The Coalition says it will change the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to accede to freedom of speech and remove legal remedy to racial vilification. No party has yet committed to the proposed reforms of the Constitution that were recommended by the ‘expert panel’, particularly to the reform to prevent laws that are racially discriminatory. The ALP and the Coalition remain focussed upon intervention in the Northern Territory through the ‘Stronger Futures’ laws despite strong concerns identified by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights over breaches of Australia’s international human rights obligations under the ‘race convention’. The ALP has reinstated the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to apply to the ‘Stronger Futures’ laws but Congress considers that this is not a sufficient response to end discriminatory provisions. The Australian Greens say they would end the intervention and support an ‘Equality Act’ to address the existing gaps in laws to protect against discrimination.

4. Equal Outcomes
All parties have committed to continuing the ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy. The ALP has given detailed attention to its existing commitments to achieve targeted outcomes in key areas of social policy, such as education, housing and health and has committed to new targets around increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ participation in higher and further education, improving access to disability support funding, and reducing incarceration rates. The Coalition supports the continuing strategy but it is unclear whether the Coalition would maintain or extend existing programs. The Australian Greens also support equal outcomes but provide no program details. The Australian Greens also support proposed justice targets for the ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy.

5. Development With Lands, Territories And Resources
The ALP has made some changes to the Native Title Act 1993 during the last two terms of government but arguably not in ways that improve the return of lands, territories and resources to ownership and management by the First Peoples. In particular, the ALP has not reversed the onus of proof, as has been widely recommended. The Coalition has made no commitment to increasing ownership of lands, territories and resources but Warren Mundine, who would chair a Coalition Indigenous advisory council, has flagged changes to Aboriginal statutory bodies including land councils, regional councils, homeland councils, and corporations. The Australian Greens support redress for those communities unable to regain ownership or control over their lands. The Coalition has committed to economic development of communities but details are not yet determined. The ALP and the Coalition interchange economic development with employment and training and home ownership causing – in Congress’ view – some misunderstanding and confusion over future sustainability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. None of the major parties have provided detailed proposals to advance the land rights aspirations of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

6. Cultural Identity And Dignity
All three major parties have supported reform of the Constitution of Australia to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The details of reform are not elaborated by the ALP or the Coalition. The Australian Greens’ policy states the Constitution must recognise the prior occupation and sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The Australian Greens also support a treaty with the First Peoples. Congress has given priority attention to the protection of heritage, being not only historical and sacred landscapes, but also the languages, Knowledges and biodiversity, and traditional ceremonies and practices that maintain the societies of First Peoples. The ALP has recently increased what remains a minimal amount of support provided for Aboriginal languages. The major parties are mostly silent on the cultural interests of the First Peoples and offer no major policy developments or investments.

By providing this overview to you, Congress does not seek to tell you how or whether to vote in the federal election. It is your decision. We hope that the information that we have provided adds to your understanding of the political landscape and gives you ideas as to how to influence the Parliament of Australia to respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Congress will update its website at www.nationalcongress.com.au on any substantive changes, or additions, to the major parties’ policies and platforms relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples between now and election day. We also recommend that you ask questions and explore the policies and platforms of the major parties – and those of smaller parties and independents – for yourself to help formulate your views. Please contact our office if you want to receive more information about building our relationship with the Parliament. We will continue to value your contribution through ongoing consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

We are pleased to serve you as our member and to stand up for the rights of the First Peoples of Australia.

With respect,

signatures

Read the media release here.

Read the political parties’ responses to the Congress letter here.

“Rights, Respect and Recognition: Congress’ Expectations of Australia’s Political Leadership” can be read here.