The Guardian 11 May, 2005

Denying land rights "the real injustice"

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma has used his first Social Justice Report to put the Howard government on notice that provision of services to Indigenous people will be closely monitored now ATSIC has been abolished.

The Social Justice Report 2004 outlines the challenges which lie ahead in protecting the human rights of Indigenous peoples in Australia and how the Commissioner intends to ensure these rights are observed.

The Report focuses on two main issues the needs of Indigenous women exiting prison, and the new arrangements for the administration of Indigenous affairs at the federal level. The report makes recommendations to government on these issues and follow-up actions planned over the coming 12-18 months.

The report also outlines a number of issues including Indigenous health and mental health, the international processes for the recognition of the Indigenous rights and a focus on reconciliation.

"This is a time of great uncertainty for Indigenous peoples, with significant changes underway in the federal government's approach to Indigenous affairs the abolition of ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission] and the movement to new arrangements for designing policy and delivering programs and services to Indigenous peoples raises many challenges "

Mr Calma said Indigenous rights would be undermined if Indigenous people did not have a voice at the national level or if local developments and services were provided selectively or based on "coercive measures".

Mr Calma said that the changes will leave the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) as one of very few mechanisms remaining that are able to independently monitor the activities of governments.

Walking with women

"The lack of attention to the distinct needs of Indigenous women marginalises them and entrenches inequalities in service delivery", said Mr Calma.

The report's main findings were the importance of housing and emergency accommodation options for Indigenous women when released from prison; the importance of being able to access a broad range of programs upon release, including healing; and the lack of coordination of existing government and community services.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests that Indigenous women have difficulty in accessing support programs upon their release and are left to fend for themselves, sometimes leading them to homelessness, returning to abusive relationships or re-offending", Mr Calma said.

Native title

Commissioner Tom Calma said much work needed to be done to ensure meaningful land rights advancements are realised within this generation.

"The native title process, as it is presently constructed within the legal system, often fails to deliver substantial outcomes for Indigenous peoples."

The price of a native title determination is too high and many cases run for years and involve complex issues of law and fact, with legal tests too difficult to satisfy. There was also an emotional cost with Indigenous people of having to prove who they are and whether they have lived their lives in a "traditional" way.

"We need to recognise that the real injustice of denying Indigenous people their traditional land for so long lies in the economic and social degradation that this causes."

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