Broadly, self-determination for Indigenous means a right to determine their economic, social, political and cultural development. The self-determination is the ability to have self-government. The Indigenous people should be allowed to govern themselves without external forces influencing them. It involves Indigenous peoples making decisions that affect their communities and an entitlement to practice ones culture. Self-determination means that Indigenous peoples can have control, can participate, negotiate, consult, communicate and most importantly have choices. The recognition of self-determination for Indigenous Australians is fundamental for improving the relationship between the Commonwealth of Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The recognition of self-determination is also essential to recognising Indigenous peoples rights.
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Self determination is a right for all people as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Self-determination is also specifically a right for all Indigenous peoples as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Malezer, 2009). However, Australia voted against this Declaration (Korosy, 2008:88). During the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the Australian government urged for the use of self-determination to be abandoned and instead self-management or self empowerment be used (McGlade, …). This was due to the concern that self-determination could challenge state sovereignty. Australia never announced their support for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples until 2009 by the Rudd government.
In the 1970’s the Whitlam Labor government introduced a policy of Aboriginal self-determination in Australia (Maddison, 2009: 485).The definition and idea of self-determination in Australia has not been defined specifically but instead is used in a broad and inspecific manner. This had lead to many dilemmas that revolve around matters of equality and rights (Austin-Broos, 2012: 19). Self-determination has been closely linked to the practice of sovereignty. There can be two types of sovereignty, internal and external (Robbins, 2010:258; Korosy, 2008:87). External sovereignty would be creating a new state of Indigenous peoples whereas internal sovereignty is having laws, land and institutions with no interference from outside states (Korosy, 2008: 87). Internal sovereignty would allow Indigenous communities to make decisions about political, social and cultural development without secession from Australia. Australia’s reluctance to acknowledge Indigenous peoples right to self-determination stems from the fear that it will separate Australia (Whall, 2005). Howard endorsed this view that self-determination for Indigneous peoples would divide Australia and his focus was on one nation (Graham, 2011:13; . The Howard government worked against self-determination and instead focused on ‘practical reconciliation’ (Robbins, 2010:267).
Indigenous Australians idea of self-determination is not focused on separatism but rather on autonomy and self-government (Whall, 2005). Many Indigenous peoples do not desire to be separate from Australia but want to be an independent autonomous group within Australia (Behredt, 2003:102). Indigneous Australians want to remain as part of Australia but with their own self-government. This would give them control over their own economic resources, social and cultural values and political institutions.
Behrendt (2003) identifies five key features that are necessary in achieving self-determination. These include the recognition of past injustices, autonomy and decision making powers for Indigenous Australians, property rights and compensation, protection of cultural practices and customary law, and equal protection of rights (Behrendt, 2003). Acknowledging past injustices and the impact that it continues to have on Indigenous people today is the first necessary step to recognising self-determination. The effect that colonisation had on the Indigenous peoples was detrimental to their culture and identity and is still affecting them today. Until the Commonwealth acknowledges the mistakes that it made, Indigenous people will not be able to exercise their rights fully. The period of self-determination began in the 1970’s with the Whitlam government, however, neither the Whitlam or Fraser government acknowledge past-wrong doings towards the Indigenous peoples. In 1995, the Keating government commissioned the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) to inquire into the separation of Aboriginal children from their families (Reilly, 2009:97). This resulted in the Bringing Them Home Report. These measures taken by the Keating government are based on self-determination and make way for recognising the rights of Indigenous Australians. The Bringing Them Home Report plays a key role in acknowledging the past injustices towards Indigenous people.
The HREOC presented the Bringing Them Home report to the Howard government in 1997. John Howard disregarded the findings of the Bringing Them Home report and rejected the idea of ‘intergenerational guilt’ (Reilly, 2009:97). The Bringing Them Home report recommended an apology to the Indigenous people of Australia but the Howard government considered an apology to be a symbolic measure that would have no real difference on Indigenous people. The Howard government focused on practical forms of reconciliation rather than symbolic (Robbins, 2010:269). The Howard government undermined self-determination preferring practical reconciliation, and as a result impeded the advancement of Indigenous Rights. In 2008 Kevin Rudd gave a formal apology to all Indigenous Australians (Reilly, 2009:97). The apology was central to recognising the past injustices toward Indigenous peoples. It was an acknowledgement of the mistakes of the Commonwealth and provided a moral recognition of Indigenous rights. The apology developed from the idea of self-determination but was unaccompanied by any policies of self-determination. The apology could have been strengthened by a guarantee that past injustices would not be repeated and compensation for those affected by past injustices (Reilly, 2009:101). Regardless of the lost opportunities to strengthen the apology it still had significant impacts on Indigenous rights as it recognised past injustices and that Indigenous people have certain rights based on these injustices. Without to concept of self-determination the apology may have never been given, and those Indigenous rights never recognised.
Behrendt’s second requirement for self-determination is autonomy and decision making powers for Indigenous Australians. Maddison (2009:487) highlights that Indigenous disadvantage and rights can be improved when Indigenous people are given control over the decisions that impact their lives. When the policy of self-determination was introduced by the Whitlam government the assumption was that Indigenous people would make their own decisions socially, politically, economically and culturally (Maddison, 2009:486). However, the Commonwealth government was more focused on organisation and community management rather than giving Indigenous people’s political and economic power. The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) was established by the Whitlam government to empower Indigenous people at the local and community level (Robbins, 2010:264). The NACC was established based on the policy of self-determination; however, it did little in expressing Indigenous peoples right to autonomy and self-government. The lack of autonomy of the NACC was due to the face that it was only given an advisory role even though it requested to have executive powers over Indigenous people (Robbins, 2010:265).
In 1989 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was established. Self-determination was a major concept underpinning the creation of ATSIC. The objectives of ATSIC included the co-ordinating policies affecting Indigenous people, promotion of self-management, and further control over economic, social and cultural development (Anthony, 2010:5). ATSIC was also given control over a significant amount of the budget for indigenous programmes (Robbins, 2010:266). ATSIC had the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to “internal or local affairs” (McGlade, 129). This meant that ATSIC had power over matters concerning culture, education, employment, economic activities, land, resource management and health. Although ATSIC had gained significantly more power and control over Indigenous Australians it could not be considered a complete accomplishment of self-determination. ATSIC capacity for autonomy was limited due to ongoing audits, performance evaluation and reporting requirements (Anthony, 2010:6). The Commonwealth was constantly scrutinising ATSIC. Despite these limitations the creation of ATSIC is considered a major step towards autonomy for Indigenous peoples and the recognition of their right to have decision-making powers.
John Howard expressed his opposition to ATSIC from the outset due to its separatism. John Howard argued that ATSIC was promoting separatism and special rights for the Indigenous people (Robbins, 2010:267). Howard believed that it worked against the unity of Australian people. Once the John Howard was elected of Prime Minister he immediately went to work on abolishing ATSIC. In 2004 the Howard government successfully abolished ATSIC in favour of practical reconciliation (Anthony, 2010:6). The Howard government replaced ATSIC with the National Congress of Australia’s First People’s, which is a purely advisory body (Anthony, 2010:6). The Howard government had replaced a fairly autonomous body that had power over the implementation of services and policies with a body that had a purely advisory role. The National Congress of Australia’s First People’s can be compared to the NACC and similarities can be found. The Howard government had taken a step backwards in the self-determination process, which in return was a step back in the recognition of Indigenous people’s right to autonomy.
The Howard government continued to work against the policy of self-determination in favour of ‘practical reconciliation’. The full force and meaning of ‘practical reconciliation’ was realised with the introduction of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, more commonly known as the Northern Territory Intervention. The Northern Territory Intervention was implemented as a response to the Little Children are Sacred report (Altman, 2007). With the introduction of the NT Intervention came many restrictions on Indigenous Australians lives. There were restrictions on alcohol, pornography, quarantining of 50% of welfare payment, outlawing of customary law and the dismantling of community services and building that were built under the self-determination policies (Altman & Hinkson, 2012; Altman, 2012). The NT Intervention was the ultimate violation of not only Indigenous rights but Human rights. The NT Intervention took away the right to autonomy and decision making at the most basic level and worked contradictory to self-determination. The Howard government had replaced self-determination policies with neo-paternalistic policies, the same type of paternalism that marginalised Indigenous Australians (Altman, 2007; Maddison, 2009:487). Up until the implementation of the NT Intervention, self-determination had helped Indigenous begin to claim their right to autonomy, however, after the NT Intervention was implemented this right to autonomy was pushed to the side along with self-determination.
Property rights and compensation is Behrendt’s (2003) third component of self-determination. Land is central to Indigneous peoples as it is their source of culture, it is the “source of their Dreaming and spiritual well-being” (Sanderson, 2007:35). Without Land Indigenous Australians cannot practice their culture or express their autonomy. Behrendt (2003:113) highlights the three main reasons for why Indigneous people need land; it is a way of protecting their culture, it provides economic independence and can provide political autonomy. Since the self-determination policy there has been many advance in Land Rights, most notably is the Mabo decision in 1992 and the following Native Title Acts. The Mabo decision overturned the concept of terra nullius and recognised that there was settled people on Australia before the British colonists arrived (McGlade, 119). It was recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were the first peoples of this land and that there was sovereignty. This recognition was vital to self-determination and the claim to certain rights.
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However, despite the recognition that Australia was a settled land with laws and customs prior to the British arrival, Australia has continued to deny Indigenous Australians their right to self-government (McGlade, 136). The Native Title Act 1993 followed the Mabo decision which allowed Indigenous Australians to claim ownership, as a community, over certain land. To prove native title can be very difficult as the criteria is hard to meet (Korosy, 2008:81). The concept of self-determination is based on allowing Indigenous people to practice their culture and tradition. The Mabo decision and Native Title Act were supposed enhance this potential to practice their culture (Korosy, 2008:89). However, due to the strict criteria the potential impact of Mabo and the Native Title Act was decreased.
Prime Minister John Howard felt that the pendulum had been pushed too far in favour of Indigenous Australians and that this needed to be rectified (Reference). The already strict criteria to claim native title was tightened more by the Howard government with the Native Title Amendment Act 1998 (Reference). This meant that there was a decrease in land claims. The Howard government also introduced the NT Intervention which blatantly ignored Indigenous Land Rights (Altman, 2007; Altman and Hinkson, 2012). Land is central to Indigenous expression of self-determination and the Howard government has reduced the right of Indigneous people to express their self-determination, along with their culture.
Compensation is also considered to be important for self-determination but is one of components that the Commonwealth has continually refused. Monetary compensation is recommended as one of the measures that should have been attached to the Apology given by Kevin Rudd (Reilly, 2009:97). Compensation is a form of acknowledging that the “government acted outside its power and injustice resulted” (Reilly, 2009:101). The apology acknowledged past injustices and should have taken responsibility for repairing the harms caused by the injustices. However, the Apology seemed to ignore taking responsibility. The refusal to allow monetary compensation for past injustices shows a lack of respect and for concern victims and their families and also represents the government as attempting to ignore the responsibility they have for the actions (Murphy, 2011:65). Although monetary compensation for Indigenous Australians has been refused does not mean that there has not been recognition of Indigneous peoples certain rights. The move in Land Rights has increased Indigenous peoples ability to express their rights and has also determined that Indigenous Australians have an extra set of special rights due to being the first peoples of Australia and the treatment that they received due to colonisation. Without the policy of self-determination these recognitions of Land rights and special rights would not have been achieved.
Behrendt’s (2003) last two components include the protection of cultural practices and customary laws, and equal protection of rights. Although this essay will not deal with these two components it is important to note that protection of rights, cultural practices and customary laws is inextricably linked to the other three components.
protection of cultural practices and customary law, and equal protection of rights
Self determination can be recognised but there are necessary resources need to be able to fully express self-determination. Some resources needed include political representations, protection of culture, infrastructure, economic resources, but most importantly land.
Sanderson, J. (2007) Reconciliation and the Failure of Neo-liberal Globalisation, In J. Altman, & M.
Hinkson (Eds.), Coercive Reconciliation: Stablise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia. North Carlton: Arena Publications, pp.31-36.
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