The Guardian March 29, 2000

UN report condemns the stench of mandatory sentencing

by Peter Mac

Australia has now become the first advanced Western nation to be asked by 
the United Nations to explain its race policies. The UN Committee on the 
Elimination of Racial discrimination has expressed astonishment that 70 per 
cent of those in jail in the Northern Territory are Aborigines, whereas 
Aboriginal people only constitute 25 per cent of the Territory's 

In discussions with the Federal Minister for Reconciliation and 
Immigration, Phillip Ruddock, Committee members expressed deep concern that 
the mandatory sentencing laws effectively put Aboriginal people in a most 
unequal position and exposed younger members of the Aboriginal community in 
particular, to criminal influence.

A humble Mr Ruddock admitted to the Committee that "the greatest blemish on 
Australia's history is our treatment of indigenous people", and that "The 
Australian Government has firmly committed itself to address the 
unacceptable level of disadvantage suffered by Australia's indigenous 

And in a remarkable act of "double speak" The Prime Minister, the Federal 
Attorney-General and Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Immigration Phillip 
Ruddock himself have all expressed their disapproval of mandatory 

However, the Government still adamantly refuses to use its federal powers 
to override mandatory sentencing legislation in Western Australia and the 
Northern Territory, even though they used the same powers to override 
"States' rights" with regard to the issues of euthanasia and safe injecting 
places for drug addicts.

Needless to say, the Government is less than comfortable under the UN 

Federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams described the Committee's attitude 
as "one-sided", in view of the Committee's statements and previous UN 

(The Committee last year found that the Government's amendments to the Wik 
legislation on native title breached the 1969 Convention on the Elimination 
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Government subsequently refused 
to suspend the 1998 amendments and as a result Australia is now subject to 
"early warning" monitoring by the UN for acts of racial discrimination.)

Federal Minister Ruddock has also described UN criticism of the Government 
as "unbalanced and inaccurate", but Greens' Senator Bob Brown says that 
this better describes the Minister's own actions.

Another UN committee is also examining Australia's performance regarding 
its treatment of Aboriginal people.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), has presented 
a submission to the UN Committee on Human Rights, and the Commission's 
Chairman, Geoff Clark, is currently engaged in discussions with the 
Committee, concerning the treatment of Australia's Aborigines.

The ATSIC submission to this committee argues that racism still pervades 
Australia's political and legal institutions.

It also maintains that the rights of Aboriginal people are being overridden 
or ignored in matters such native title, the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal 
deaths in custody, and the general refusal to recognise Aborigines as a 
distinct people, and the original owners of the land and its resources.

In the latter respect the submission quotes former ATSIC chairman Mick 
Dodson, as follows:

"In my view there has been an insidious, sometimes even unconscious, 
process of appeal to a notion of equality which denies any rights which 
attach to cultural differences and, particularly, the identity of 
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the indigenous peoples of 
this country.

"The claim to human rights which attach to such identity are regarded, 
ironically, as racist and discriminatory. Hence we arrive at a situation 
were `equality' and `non-discrimination' are converted into instruments to 
strip Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of appropriate 
recognition and protection of our rights.

"In the process grossly racist attitudes find apparent shelter."

The ATSIC submission to the UN Committee on Human Rights also specifically 
refers to the policy of mandatory sentencing as an infringement of rights.

The Federal Government's refusal to act on this issue appears to have, by 
default, encouraged the emergence of tacit (and in some cases overt) 

The NSW town of Coraki recently witnessed the burning of several wooden 
crosses outside the homes of Aboriginal people.

The Mayor of Cobar, Councillor Peter Yench, who favours the introduction of 
mandatory sentencing, claims that the issue is being widely discussed in 
his constituency.

"You go in the pub and have a beer at night  people discuss it and say 
`We need mandatory sentencing.'"

Mayor Yench has moved for the matter to be discussed at a meeting of 
western NSW councils in June. However, the Mayor of Broken Hill, Ron Page, 
has opposed the councils even putting mandatory sentencing on the agenda.

The issue of mandatory sentencing is increasingly being seen as in itself 
essentially racist.

The Victorian Attorney-General, Rob Hulls recently stated that mandatory 
sentencing "is racist, it is unethical, it is immoral and it is 
deliberately targeted at a particular group within our community".

The President of the NSW Law Society, John North, agreed recently that 
councils should not be considering the issue.

He commented: "the view of the Law Society is that mandatory sentencing is 
indefensible and the Federal Government should do everything in its power 
to make sure it's overridden."

The government, of course, does not appear to be fired with enthusiasm over 
these suggestions. However, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

In view of the Federal Government's obdurate refusal to act, and with the 
support of the Federal ALP, Democrats and Peter Andren, MHR, Senator Bob 
Brown has now introduced a private Member's Bill to override NT and WA 
mandatory sentencing laws in relation to children.

Senator Brown commented that: "Australia is rapidly gaining a reputation as 
racist against Aborigines.... 

"The fact that the PM, the Attorney-General and the Ministers for Foreign 
Affairs and Immigration all say mandatory sentencing is wrong compounds the 
absurdity of not only the Government's stand, but its stand on 
parliamentary debate of this Bill."

Senator Brown's Bill was passed by the Senate last week but so far the 
House of Representatives has failed to deal with the Bill, debate on it 
having been gagged on more than one occasion.

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