IT’S BEEN 40 years since Charles Perkins undertook the freedom ride, but the Australian Human Rights Commission finds there are still plenty of gaps in the legal system having devastating impacts on the life chances of Indigenous people — and they are calling for a Charter of Rights to assist with the process.
Speaking at the 2008 Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma noted some parallels occurring in Western democracies that show Australia has a long way to go in ensuring equality for Indigenous people.
“While we may see the first black candidate elected to the presidency of the United States of America in two weeks time, reflecting on our own progress in Australia presents us with a markedly different picture,” he said.
Calma noted the fact that, unlike other western democracies, we have no Charter or Bill of Rights in Australia. “Not for Aboriginal people, not for anyone,” he said.
“If things were fine just the way they were in Australia, and we had a system of government where we were well represented, well serviced and well protected, then maybe we wouldn’t need to have conversations about human rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” he said. “The reality, however, is much different.”
Calma said that a Charter of Rights in Australia would provide a recognition of human rights consistent with Australia’s international obligations, ultimately strengthening human rights protections in our legal system.
“A major challenge that we face is how we ensure that our commitment to non-discrimination and equality — and to human rights more generally — is not something that is swept aside whenever it gets difficult or inconvenient,” he said. “You cannot turn on, and turn off, protection against racial discrimination whenever it suits.”
Calma said the Federal Government’s current commitment to work in partnerships with aboriginal people, instead of treating them as “passive recipients”, will make the next few years critical.
But currently, he noted, State and Federal Governments were failing to deliver the most basic of services to Indigenous people in Australia, a sure sign of inequality in Australia.
And with limited Government engagement with Indigenous people in developing policy and programs, Calma pointed out that a lack of formal representation for Indigenous people was an indication of the need for further discussions on human rights and equality in Australia.
Meanwhile Calma said that the Federal Government’s announcement that it would modify the Northern Territory Emergency Response to ensure it was consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act was welcome news, but that to delay key elements of the change by at least 12 months was “deeply problematic”.
“Effectively we have ended up with a situation where it took two weeks to design a suite of discriminatory measures, but will end up taking more than two years to remove them,” he said.