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From ATSIC's demise to deaths in custody, governments fail our people. This is why we need a Voice

Guest Author -

This Saturday it's important we make real progress for Aboriginal rights.

As I see it, the Liberal Coalition has committed to a statutory (yet conservative) Voice and the Australian Greens now want to start with Truth Telling and Treaties.

The ALP is the only major party committed to Voice, Treaty and Truth and supporting the Uluru Statement from the Heart some five year ago.

The Greens' recent reverence for Truth telling over Voice is puzzling.

Surely they know we had a reconciliation process supported by legislation and conducted over a decade?

Dedicated to sharing a more truthful account of our past, it culminated in a final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation recommending both constitutional reform and treaty/treaties.

Like the Voice proposal, this was rejected outright by conservative government.

And for some of us reconciliation was a talkfest that did little to further Aboriginal rights.

Reconciliation action plans became the new norm, but they didn't tackle the hard issues.

Racism remains widespread and even growing; underlining Reconciliation Australia's recent call for brave actions to address systemic discrimination, including a Voice.

The former Voice to Parliament, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a legislative representative body, adopted a rights-based approach to Indigenous affairs and promoted Treaty talks across Australia, highlighting why Treaty is required.

They also engaged at the level of Indigenous rights internationally which is still very important today.

I worked for ATSIC on Treaty across Australia and knew that Constitutional reform was a part of the package we sought for Treaty rights.

The Constitution was a racist document yet it had immense power, and our rightful place as First Peoples was denied in it.

It is ancient history that the Howard government, antagonistic to Indigenous people's rights, disbanded ATSIC and could do so easily as the body had only a legislative base.

What parliament gives it can also take away.

This same government refused to acknowledge and make reparations for the finding of the Human Rights Commission in the Bringing Them Home inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families that the international crime of genocide took place.

Now, twenty five years after such a historic inquiry, apart from Victoria, states have yet to transfer responsibility for Aboriginal child protection to Aboriginal people.

Shockingly WA and Queensland still haven't provided compensation to the surviving members of the Stolen Generations.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was developed from a series of dialogues across the nation led by senior Aboriginal women Pat Anderson and Megan Davis.

They heard people across the country reject symbolic recognition for substantive empowerment and rights.

I recall Noel Pearson at the Perth dialogue asking me what I thought - it didn't take long to respond - "If you can get this in the Constitution then why not?"

We need all the representation and Voice we can get.

The delegates at Uluru later agreed that an Indigenous political voice, protected by the Constitution, be established so Aboriginal people could be heard about government laws and policies - especially those that did not respect Indigenous rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And that any Treaty negotiated at the national level would be developed in a considered manner by a constitutional body.

Constitutional reform is not easily achievable in Australia but Indigenous people have for too long been denied meaningful rights based reforms and human rights violations are widespread and increasing even.

And there is no formal mechanism for us to dialogue nationally, speak out and address what is happening, increasing accountability from government where our fundamental rights aren't being respected.

We can look to countries such as Canada that actually protect Treaty rights in their constitution.

Canada subsequently held a Truth Reconciliation Commission, but many of the calls to action have yet to be implemented and continued denial of the genocidal history is still reported.

The Truth and Reconciliation processes are important but shouldn't delay recognition of our rights, the rights to self determination, political participation, our voice on human rights today.

Last year on December 10 - Human Rights Day - the UN Committee on the Elimination of Race Discrimination invoked its procedures to request Australia answer the complaint of traditional elders and land councils that the Aboriginal Heritage Act WA 2020 facilitates ongoing structural racism to Indigenous peoples.

Aboriginal heritage lands were being routinely destroyed by international mining companies such as Rio Tinto and BHP who failed to respect Indigenous rights to heritage and culture.

We had no constitutional Voice nationally to speak out and support us.

It was left to the land councils, activists and elders, those who still would speak out - notwithstanding the repressive nature of Indigenous affairs.

Dr Hannah McGlade. Photo Supplied Facebook.

The legislation passed with no intervention from the Commonwealth, although the constitution gives Federal parliament the legal right to prevail over states where it wishes and in relation to Aboriginal heritage.

And both levels of governments knew the UN Committee had accepted the complaint and was set to review it formally.

Now in my state we are waiting for a High Court decision on whether or not a new state law (High Risk Serious Offenders Act 2020) that imposes indefinite detention on Aboriginal prisoners is constitutionally valid.

Our people are dying in cells, abused in solitary confinement contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations, but we have no Voice to speak out and condemn such horrific abuse.

I know from my own life experience and work in Aboriginal human rights that people working at the coalface for justice cannot do this alone.

And we need to be using the UN treaty mechanisms when these laws violate our human rights.

Aboriginal Voice, Treaty and Truth-telling are all important and now more than ever we need a strong Voice to speak out about what's happening to our people, whose voices are being silenced, whose human rights are being denied and abused.

It's simple, a constitutional Aboriginal Voice could be very powerful. Why argue against it?

Hannah McGlade is an Indigenous international human rights lawyer and member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples.


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