SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
CLOSING THE GAP
9 AUGUST 2021
Last week Australians learnt that, just a year after the Morrison government announced it was resetting the Closing the Gap targets, only three of those 17 targets are now on track. So I do welcome the government's announcement last week that it will now provide substantial resources to try to get these targets back on track, and all the more so if this is new money that is being allocated and not simply existing commitments being taken from one vital program and being redirected to others.
Of course, I believe I join with the vast majority of Australians in welcoming the decision to at last fund a redress scheme for the surviving members of the stolen generations. I've had a long personal connection to many members of that group, having acted for them in the test case we brought to the Federal Court and the High Court, and which the Howard government then threw all the legal resources of the Commonwealth at in defeating. I hope that this new redress scheme is rolled out quickly and smoothly to deliver a measure of justice for surviving members of the stolen generations and to help address some of the intergenerational trauma those terrible policies of the federal government caused over those years.
For this redress program to be effective, it is important that the government does not repeat any of the multitude of mistakes it has made administering the redress scheme for victim-survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. With many members of the stolen generation already, sadly, having passed away and many others now approaching the end of their lives, I call on the government to recognise that, in this case, justice delayed is justice denied absolutely, and that the government must approach this redress scheme with a true sense of urgency. Labor made clear that, while we welcome justice targets, the justice targets set by this government are not ambitious enough. But to achieve even these unambitious targets will require significant action to be taken, because the relationship between First Nations people and the Australian justice system is an ongoing area of great difficulty. This government needs to start listening to Indigenous Australians about how to change that relationship.
In this context, I note that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have long played a vital role in mediating and, to the extent they can, ensuring just outcomes for First Nations people who encounter the justice system. Until last year, ATSILS operated with a significant degree of autonomy in carrying out their vital role. But last year the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services were, against the strident objections of their leadership and the communities that they serve, folded into a newly established national mechanism by the former Attorney-General.
This decision directly contradicted not only the clearly expressed views of the Indigenous community but also the very first recommendation of the government's own review of the Indigenous legal assistance program that was commissioned and received by the government last year. That first recommendation stated:
To facilitate a sustainable, community-controlled Indigenous legal assistance sector, Commonwealth Government funding should continue to be delivered through a standalone, specific purpose funding program with minimum five-year funding terms.
Indigenous groups expressed outrage at this decision by the government. In an open letter, some 100 organisations stated that the Morrison government's decision to ignore the key recommendation of the ILAP review was 'disappointing', not least because the federal government has been committed to and responsible for the funding and administration of ATSILS since their inception almost 50 years ago. This began after the 1967 referendum in recognition of the Commonwealth's special responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is important to retain this Commonwealth leadership. The organisations continued:
All evidence and research show that working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and ACCOs is the best way forward. The Federal Government should honour its long-standing commitment, keep ILAP and adequately fund ATSILS to close the justice gap.
I trust that this misconceived approach to Indigenous justice shown by those actions last year is now behind us, and that the government will now seek to engage more respectfully and more constructively with First Nations communities on how to achieve the Closing the Gap justice targets.
To that end, I welcome the specific commitment by the Attorney-General and the Minister for Indigenous Australians of additional funding of $9.3 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services for expensive and complex cases and to support criminal justice reform through coronial inquiries, $8.3 million for culturally safe and appropriate dispute resolution for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and $7.6 million to establish and support the justice policy partnership between all Australian governments and Indigenous representatives. As always, we need to see this announcement matched with delivery and, if we are to even come close to reaching these new targets, for this money to be rolled out quickly.
There is a great deal more I could say about justice targets and about the commitments that Labor has already made to improve justice outcomes if we win government, including through a commitment to expand and strengthen justice reinvestment programs. But justice is about far more than just court cases; justice is about far more than keeping people out of jail, so I want to say a little bit about what I feel is this federal government's betrayal of justice in its broader sense. In my view, in its undermining of meaningful action on all three of the requests in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, this government is betraying the hopes and aspirations of First Nations people and, in doing that, betraying justice in its broadest sense.
Unlike this government, Labor is committed to honouring the Uluru Statement from the Heart and, through this, to working towards justice and a genuine reconciliation with First Nations people. Honouring the Uluru statement includes working with First Nations people to establish an Indigenous voice to the parliament enshrined in our nation's Constitution. We in Labor are committed to making that happen. The Morrison government is opposed to it.
The Uluru statement also calls for a national process of treaty and truth-telling overseen by a Makarrata commission. Labor has committed to honouring that request by establishing in government as a matter of priority a Makarrata commission. That commission's oversight of truth-telling would include inquiring into matters of national significance from colonisation to the present day as well as supporting local truth-telling projects with local government and community organisations. And the commission's oversight of treaty would include developing a framework for federal treaty-making, taking into account existing state and territory processes.
The government has shown no interest in progressing either truth-telling or treaty. Honouring all three parts of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is vital to redressing deep generational injustices that still impact First Nations people and communities. If the government is serious about providing justice for First Nations people, if the Prime Minister is genuine in what he claims is his desire to work respectfully with Indigenous Australians to close the gap in justice outcomes, he should start by honouring rather than trashing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.