Stronger Futures: UN says not enough community participation in decision

UN Commissioner Navanethem Pillay
UN Commissioner Navanethem Pillay

Lisa Martin AAP Herald Sun August 01, 2012

The United Nations human rights commissioner fears the continuation of a federal government intervention program in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities won't benefit indigenous people.

The Labor government's Stronger Futures legislation, passed by parliament in late June, continues for another 10 years the program begun under the Howard coalition government to address abuse and drunkenness.

But the laws have been widely opposed by Northern Territory indigenous communities.

A March 28 letter obtained by AAP under freedom of information laws, from UN Commissioner Navanethem Pillay to Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, also reflects concerns.

Ms Pillay said the government's consultation process for the legislation "may not have been sufficient to elicit meaningful participation of indigenous communities in the review and devising of new legislation".

"Without the genuine participation and support of indigenous communities ... the measures contained in the legislation may not achieve their full potential to improve the lives of indigenous peoples in Australia," she wrote.

Ms Pillay said laws aimed at improving the lot of indigenous people should encourage communities to "take control of decision making about their own development goals".

The intervention program, which began in 2007, attracted criticism from the UN human rights arm at the time.

Ms Pillay said in the letter some measures included in the original legislation had a "disproportionate and discriminatory impact on indigenous communities" and would continue under the updated regime.

She urged the government to commission additional studies and provide credible evidence to justify the education, alcohol management and compulsory income management policies.

"In particular, the education measures in the bill seem to be of a punitive nature," she wrote.

"(Welfare payments) would be withdrawn from entire families if just one child in the household is not attending school."

In response to Ms Pillay, Ms Macklin penned a letter on July 11, defending the legislation.

"The Australian government's commitment will see continued investment on making communities safer and families and children healthier," the minister wrote.

Ms Macklin said there had been extensive consultation with communities in the Northern Territory, which had provided a strong base for the Stronger Futures laws.

"The government's commitment to Aboriginal people being able to put their views on Stronger Futures forward included ensuring the legislation process allowed time for effective parliamentary scrutiny," she said.

The government had been clear from the outset of developing the legislation all measures in the bills would be designed to be consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act, the minister said.

"In developing the Stronger Futures legislation, careful consideration has been given to Australia's human rights obligations..." she said.

Front row, left to right:
Catholic Bishop Pat Power
Margaret Bearlin (Quaker representative)
Barb Shaw from Alice Springs
Gabrielle Russell-Mundine (Aboriginal Catholic Ministry)
George Pascoe from Milingimbi/Maningrida.
Back row, left to right:
Ivan Roberts (UCA)
Vanessa Kernow (Congress)
Damien Curtis (Our Generation)
Mark Blumer (National President Australian Lawyers Alliance)
Graeme Mundine (Aboriginal Catholic Ministry)