Australian panel urged to pay heed to rural Aboriginals

Australian diversity discussed in Brisbane. Almost 25 percent of Australia’s 21.3 million population was born overseas. The country’s ethnic mosaic and its Aboriginal Peoples were the key topics of a recent Global Dialogue event.

Academics, former elected officials, judges and civil servants from across Australia gathered in Brisbane recently to explore the various ways that Australia’s ethnic diversity impacts upon its federal system of government.

The event was a roundtable of the Forum of Federations’ Global Dialogue series on diversity in federal countries.

Although Australia, with its population of 21,305,000 is ethnically diverse, each of the country’s six states has similar patterns of settlement to Australia as a whole. People born overseas account for 23.9 per cent of Australia’s population. In 2001, 15 per cent of Australians spoke languages other than English at home, with the most often spoken being Chinese, Italian, Arabic or Greek.

One important exception to the fairly uniform pattern of ethnic concentration is the relatively high concentration of indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and other remote regions of the interior of the continent. The other exception is the disparity in socio-economic conditions among the states and regions.

Three participants, who live in a remote indigenous community in the Northern Territory, made an impassioned and reasoned appeal to the group. They asked for a greater willingness on the part of mainstream Australians to listen more carefully to the voices of remote indigenous peoples, whose views are not necessarily represented by indigenous leaders living in urban areas.

The most controversial topic discussed by the group is Australian government policy toward its indigenous peoples in particular, the extent to which traditional Aboriginal law should operate in remote indigenous communities and the pros and cons of the recent federal government intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

The intervention began with a special law passed by the national parliament in August 2007. The law puts restrictions on Aboriginals’ rights in the Northern Territory, requiring those who are welfare recipients to spend 50 per cent of their income on food, making alcohol and pornography illegal in Aboriginal areas and opening the way for the government to purchase five-year leases on Aboriginal town land. The law was passed under the previous government of Prime Minister John Howard. Following his election later that year, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in a nationwide television broadcast in February, 2008, apologized to Australia’s Aboriginal Peoples for laws and policies that “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss”.

The most interesting question raised by the roundtable concerned the underlying rationale and purpose of Australian federalism. Australia’s states have similar patterns of diversity, and the basic support for Australian federalism has come from local self-government, which in the past has allowed for the developing of diverse policies. However, this has been considerably eroded by recent High Court rulings on of the division of powers in Australia and the court’s apparent acceptance that the central government exercise primary control over the main sources of government revenue.

Nicholas Aroney of the University of Queensland was the co-ordinator of the roundtable, held on March 17, 2008. Participating in the roundtable were Mr. Billy Jampijinpa Bunter of the Central Land Council; Mr. Martin Japanangka Johnson of the Lajamanu Community Government Council; Mr. Alan Box Jangala of the Lajamanu Central Land Council; Dr. A.J. Brown of the Griffith Law School; Dr. Scott Prasser of the University of the Sunshine Coast; Dr. Gary Johns of ACIL Tasmania; Prof. Suri Ratnapala of the University of Queensland; Prof. Anne Twomey of the Sydney Law School, University of Sydney; Dr. Clem Macintyre of the University of Adelaide; Prof. Greg Taylor of the School of Law of Monash University; Prof. James Allan of the University of Queensland; Prof. John Williams of the University of Adelaide; Prof. Katharine Betts of Swinburne University of Technology; Mr. Kevin Martin of Queensland University of Technology; Ms. Deb Lovely of Griffith University; and Mr. Bill Pincus of the University of Queensland.

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