Editorial: Indigenous People and Human Rights

By André Dao
Mabo

Twenty years on from the Mabo decision, and fifty since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people won the right to vote, Right Now is focusing on Indigenous People and their human rights. Our content for this month attempts to strike a delicate balance between the positive and the negative. On the one hand, a simple statistic such as the fact that Indigenous life expectancy is 11.5 years lower for males and 9.7 years lower for females tells us how much work needs to be done. On the other hand, there are beautiful and life-affirming stories coming out of Indigenous Australia every day. The reality is that the question of human rights and Indigenous people in Australia is incredibly complex, and it would be easy to be overwhelmed, to put it in the “too hard basket”. But to do so would be to forget past victories, like Mabo and the right to vote, and deny the sense of hope required for upcoming campaigns, like Constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples. Our coverage this month attempts to hold onto that sense of hope without averting our gaze from hard truths.

First up, we have a wonderful piece from Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen AM QC, junior counsel in the Mabo case, reflecting on the past twenty years in native title legislation and the need for reform. Right Now Radio also recorded an interview with Dr Keon-Cohen, and it’s well worth a listen. And we have this review of Rachel Perkins’ moving and insightful film, Mabo, which had a red carpet screening at the Sydney Film Festival and recently aired on ABC.

The imprisonment rate for Indigenous prisoners is 14 times higher than non-Indigenous prisoners. Most alarmingly of all, Indigenous juveniles are 22.7 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous juveniles.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders winning the right to vote in federal elections, both the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program (IEPP) and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) are using art to encourage Indigenous people to enrol to vote. Sticking with art, we’ve been lucky enough to be able to feature some of the beautiful images from Ngaanyatjarra: Art of the Lands, a book which celebrates the connection to the land of the Western Desert Mob, as well the striking street-art based work of Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi man Reko Rennie. Finally, we have a review of Sarah-Jane Norman’s Bone Library, an “intimate exploration of Australia’s lost Indigenous languages”.

One of the most distressing facts about Indigenous disadvantage is their over-representation in prisons. Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples only make up 2.5 per cent of the population, they make up 26 per cent of the full time prison population. The imprisonment rate for Indigenous prisoners is 14 times higher than non-Indigenous prisoners. Most alarmingly of all, Indigenous juveniles are 22.7 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous juveniles. We spoke to Sarah Morgante from Whitelion about the benefits and pitfalls of Koori courts for young Indigenous offenders.

Editor Erin Handley spoke to Indigenous author Nicole Watson about her crime novel, The Boundary, and Right Now Radio spoke with former police prosecutor Ian McKinlay about cognitively impaired prisoners, his work as a guardian for three prisoners in Alice Springs and the disproportionate impact on the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal population.

Finally, Associate Professor Alexander Reilly explores the principles of recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution, and Ilona Nicola looks into the often vexed question of acknowledgement of country – is it simply tokenistic, or is it something more meaningful?

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  • Bruce R

    We need some means of recognising and protecting Australia’s First Peoples as First People’s which also acknowledges their rights to their “treasures” (as is the case for Maori in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi). These treasures include language, culture, cosmology, Ways of Being, etc which truly belong in this country unlike the one language which the ‘experts’ seek to entrench. A spirit of genuine bi-cultural partnership needs to replace the ‘English only’ thinking of 1901.