The growing calls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander autonomy and grass-roots informed and led policy have culminated in a manifesto from a large portion of Australia’s peak indigenous bodies. The policy statement is supported by an even larger group of mainstream non-indigenous peak health, law and community justice bodies.
The group, which includes a former deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has called for Indigenous Affairs to be removed from PM&C and a new dedicated department be created to deliver programs for indigenous advancement.
They argue this restored standalone department should be managed and run by senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public servants, and bring together policy and service delivery components to ensure a central department of expertise. Engagement will be strengthened if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are managing their own services, the statement says.
The statement also calls for restored funding to the portfolio in the order of $534 million, including funding the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and new peak representative bodies for education, employment and housing.
“It is time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are heard and respected, and that the following plans for action in relation to meaningful engagement, health, justice, preventing violence, early childhood and disability, are acted upon as a matter of national priority and urgency.”
The statement cites more than two decades of promises since the Redfern Address by the then prime minister Paul Keating, and over that period self-determination, reconciliation and social justice remain elusive.
The indigenous groups’ statement on Thursday says the next government will inherit the same responsibility to right past injustice as its eight predecessors. However, it also has an unprecedented nation-building opportunity to meaningfully Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage: “They have a mandate to act.”
Among the signatories is the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, headed by Pat Turner, the former CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and former PM&C deputy secretary.
Former Aboriginal Affairs minister and long-time advocate Fred Chaney renewed his concerns about the lack of indigenous self-determination during National Reconciliation Week earlier this month.
“Disempowering Aboriginal people does not make them responsible for their own futures, it infantilises them. Working on them instead of with them reduces them to despair. This is the next big adjustment we have to make, learning to work with, and it requires different mindsets and different skills. Post election perhaps we can start to work seriously on that.”