10 June 2016
by Helen Davidson

'We vote too': Indigenous groups warn both parties they want action

Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups release Redfern statement calling for health, justice and education commitments

Dozens of Indigenous peak bodies and organisations released the 2016 Redfern statement on Thursday, outlining their call for government action on Indigenous affairs, including health, justice and education.

They also warned the next government to reinstate funding for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, said was unrepresentative.

“What we’ve got done here today has been a united voice where we all come together and we don’t want to be marginalised,” Jacqui Huggins, the congress’s co-chair, told media in Redfern.

“They’ve said to us and we say to government clearly: ignore us at your peril, because we vote too.”

The Redfern statement called on government to reform health, justice and disability, and to commit to refunding the congress, and establishing national Indigenous representative bodies for education, employment and housing.

Damien Griffiths, head of the First Peoples’ Disability Network, said disability among Indigenous people remained “largely an untold story”.

He said 9.1% of Indigenous people have a severe or profound disability, and he called for at least $1bn of the NDIS to be directed towards Indigenous people and communities.

The group also want health funding for Indigenous people to be quarantined, and social determinants of health to be adequately addressed.

It also called for reform of the much-maligned Indigenous advancement strategy, although Huggins said realistically the government needed to go back to the drawing board on how it distributed funding to Indigenous groups.

Government engagement with Indigenous groups was key, the group said, and urged both parties to sit down with leaders and representatives.

“Engage with us in a very real and meaningful and genuine relationship that we have been screaming out for for years,” said Huggins.

Rod Little, the fellow co-chair, said government and political cycles were a big factor.

“When there’s a change of government there’s a change of relationship every time,” he said. “What we’re saying is we want a longer-term arrangement … with the parliament of Australia so we can look at some long-term, long-lasting arrangements that are going to benefit generations to come.”

Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, said at the moment they did not have a relationship with government.

“We need a relationship, whether it’s in the form of a treaty or not,” he said.
“They’ve defunded congress, the only representative organisation we have. That’s our organisation.
“They’ve appointed an Indigenous adviser council who only represent themselves – and they’ll tell you that.

“What we need is this relationship between our peoples and government, not with our peoples and government agencies and departments.”

The statement called for both parties to commit to justice targets as part of their Closing the Gap strategy, to address the “disgrace” of the over-representation of Indigenous people in prison.

The statement noted the safer communities building block of the Closing the Gap strategy was the only area without targets.

“This is a clear gap in the failure to acknowledge the root causes of imprisonment and violence rates, including social determinants such as poverty and socio-economic disadvantage,” it said.

“We are calling on the political parties to [fund] specialist family law units, to [fund] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services to help us address some of the issues in the child protection space and the family law space, and also to reduce those gaps so we can continue the work we’ve been doing,” said Wayne Muir, of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

The Coalition has consistently dismissed calls for targets, suggesting it was a matter for state and territory governments.

“Don’t [the federal government] play in the health area and the education area, and aren’t they administered and delivered by the states?” countered Muir.

“It’s not different. I think it’s a furphy.”

Muir told Guardian Australia that aspirationally the target would be zero instances of Indigenous incarceration, but “if we could set a target of reduction … by at least 50% over a five- or 10-year period I think that’s a starting point.”

He said most Indigenous people who had come into contact with the justice system came from a background of underlying “extreme trauma and grief” and if that was not addressed the circumstances would never change.

“We need governments to ensure people have the sort of therapeutic responses that allow attention in those areas of intergenerational trauma and grief, intergenerational poverty, but also, and critically, legal representation in the justice system. Participation in the justice system shouldn’t be reserved purely for the rich.”

Labor has pledged to introduce justice targets, albeit without specific detail. When asked what specific targets they would like to see, Muir said the first step was getting political parties to “sit down with us and do it with us not to us”.

Muir said they had had some initial discussions with people from all sides of politics.

Antoinette Braybrook, the head of Aboriginal family violence prevention and legal services Victoria, said specific targets were needed to address the rate of incarceration among Indigenous women, as well as the dramatically higher rates of violence against Indigenous women.

Indigenous women are the fastest-growing demographic in Australian prisons, 34 times more likely to be hospitalised and 10 times more likely to die from a violent assault.

The Victorian royal commission into family violence returned 227 recommendations, and the state government promised to act on every one. It is yet to do so, but Braybrook said it was “encouraging for us to see that Aboriginal women were front and centre in the royal commission’s report”.

“We’re waiting to see how that will hit the ground with our services,” she said.

All 14 Aboriginal family violence prevention and legal services Victoria centres have funding agreements which end within the next two years, and are operating on funds not fixed to CPI.

Braybrook said it was unclear how the organisation seeks funds under the next round of the Indigenous advancement strategy. She said there was an “urban gap” in their current services, where women outside regional areas did not have equal access.