Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Indigenous Consultation in Australia’s Northern Territory: White Paternalism or Extraordinary Measures Required by Extraordinary Times?

A piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald calls attention to the aftermath of the intervention in Australia’s Northern Territory a few years ago (2007-2008), where welfare payments to indigenous peoples were made conditional upon school enrolment, and strong measures were adopted to try to curb alcoholism and child sexual abuse. More about the background of this intervention can be found on Wikipedia, but, among many measures, the A$ 587 million package included restrictions on pornography access in public computers, restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and, importantly, the removal of consideration of customary law in sentencing practices. When first approved, the plan drew a lot of criticism, but also a lot of support; in fact, enough support to let it go through.

As the intervention officially lapsed in 2008, the Australian federal government has been discussing means to ensure the continuity of the measures put in place (or at least part of them), in the form of what has been referred to as the “Stronger Futures legislation”. To that effect, it undertook consultations with Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory. But, it seems from the SMH story cited above, the consultation process was problematic, and did not actually engage with Aboriginal communities. The piece, which draws on a 144-page report criticizing the consultation process, insists that in many instances the consultation process felt more like a “controlled chat run by departmental officers” than an open forum where Aboriginal people could express their viewpoints, and have them heard.

Importantly, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is an important part of the legal basis for this articulated critique of consultation processes and free, prior and informed consent. The fact that Australia withdrew its initial opposition to the UNDRIP, it seems, does not mean it is ready to abide by its every mandate. But, as long as there is some room for debate, there is hope.

Written by Lucas Lixinski.

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