Indigenous Law Bulletin
The Federal Government’s response to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report, National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Bringing them home (`National Inquiry Report’), was presented by Senator Herron, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, in a statement to Parliament on 16 December 1997. The response was generally inadequate and disappointing as, once again, the Federal Government passed up an opportunity to address crucial issues facing Indigenous Australia in a substantial and considered manner.
The response allocated $63 million to provide `practical assistance’ in the areas of family reunions, health and other linked services. To date, there has been no official document detailing how this money is to be spent and from where it will come, and while the amount promised may appear to some to be considerable, the response is problematic in a number of areas.
Firstly, and most importantly, the response does not contain an official government apology. Secondly, it does not deal with two thirds of the recommendations in the National Inquiry Report. Thirdly, the amount of money is not enough to create more than a ripple of change in a sea of despair.
Much has already been written about the significance of an official Federal Government apology to the Stolen Generations for the harm which has been done to them. By all accounts except the Government’s, there are two steps required to acknowledge this harm and to address the problems which have resulted from it. The first step is the symbolic act of apologising which, in its formal acknowledgement of the suffering of the Stolen Generations, is an essential element of their healing process. The second is the provision of practical measures to alleviate the effects of the harm. The second step can have no lasting impact without the first since an apology gives validity and strength to any subsequent practical acts.
Secondly, given the weight of the historical evidence presented to the National Inquiry, it was hoped that the Government would take a more positive approach to its recommendations. But of the 54 recommendations, only 17 relating to mental health, counselling and family link up services have been addressed. The recommendations relating to contemporary Indigenous child welfare have been ignored, as have those relating to various forms of reparation and compensation.
A number of recommendations are also either regarded in the Government’s response as `non–applicable’ or as `properly matters for the states and territories’. Such a response is remarkable in light of amendments to the Australian Constitution as a result of the 1967 Commonwealth referendum which gave the responsibility for Indigenous Peoples to the Commonwealth and which also gives it the power to make special laws for the people of any race. What better opportunity to use this power than in response to the horrific facts and history related to the Inquiry?
While the areas of health, housing and education, upon which the Government’s response generally focusses, are worthy of consideration, the fact that it turns a blind eye to recommendations concerning self–determination and return of land reflects the Federal Government’s lack of understanding that all these issues are interconnected and are directly related to Indigenous well being.
Thirdly, the promised figure of $63 million is misleading. It must be shared between six States and two Territories over four years. That amounts to approximately $2 million for each jurisdiction a year—nowhere near the amount required to address the myriad of complex and sustained social and political problems. Neither does the amount necessarily represent additional or new funding. Part of the $63 million has already been committed to existing Indigenous projects, a number of which are being run by government organisations, raising concerns that, as bureaucracies flourish, individuals will not experience any direct benefit from the money.
Moreover, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has already had its budget severely cut by approximately $400 million in the last four years—mostly in the areas of youth and community development programs. Funding being promised for family support, parenting and family link up services could also be seen as the refunding of old programs under new names. Similarly, the Government says that the Social Justice package which was recommended by the National Inquiry, is `being addressed through existing policies’.
Whilst the Federal Government’s response may not be as bad as some had expected, it fails to grasp an historic opportunity to move Australia into the next millennium with a clearer conscience and an open heart and mind. Unlike the Canadian response to its Royal Commission into Aboriginal Peoples, it did not use its response to reassess its fundamental attitude to Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders. Instead, it took the easy way out by providing funding for problems identified long before the Report was commissioned, without fully accepting the responsibility and consequences of past government actions. The worst possible result of this whole ‘sorry’ saga would be for the National Inquiry Report to be placed on a shelf next to the reports relating to Aboriginal deaths in custody, and for another National Inquiry to be established into Aboriginal health in ten years time.
Melissa Abrahams works as a solicitor for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and for the Public Interest Legal Clearing House (PILCH).
 The Australian Constitution, s51(xxvi).
 Bringing Them Home, recommendations 41 and 43.