According to former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the “choice” of indigenous Australians to maintain a connection to their land and culture is “not conducive to the kinds of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.” At a press conference last March, the former prime minister defended the forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities, arguing that it was not the government’s place to subsidize the “lifestyle choices” of Aboriginal Australians who wished to reside on their traditional lands. Cue protests across Australia and worldwide.
This is hardly the first controversial statement Abbott made as prime minister before he was replaced in a party leadership contest in September 2015, but it is a telling one. In September 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). More than two decades in the writing, this declaration established universal standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples. Only four countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (collectively known as “CANZUS”), voted against the legislation, pointing to their already strong track records in upholding human rights to justify their rejection of the convention. These were four liberal democracies that already recognized indigenous rights in their constitutions—why did they need to submit to UNDRIP’s external standards? Abbott’s statement suggests an answer: it is difficult to trust national governments to uphold indigenous rights on their own when their actions display a lack of understanding or respect for the needs of indigenous peoples. Liberal governments may set out in earnest to address indigenous issues, but, as indigenous law expert Anna Cowan has argued, governments’ attempts to help indigenous communities often take one of two approaches: integrationist/ assimilationist (treating equality as sameness) or paternalist/protectionist (deciding what is best for indigenous peoples), both of which are themselves discriminatory. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s attitude towards indigenous issues, apparent in the ongoing controversy over remote indigenous communities, has often displayed a measure of both. While UNDRIP has faced plenty of international criticism since its inception, recent events in Australia are a testament to its necessity and its influence.
In November of 2014, the Western Australian government announced plans to close more than half of the state’s 274 remote Aboriginal communities by withdrawing all essential services. This move would force hundreds of indigenous Australians out of their homes and off ancestral lands. In the wake of a federal funding cut, the state government concluded it was better to force closure than prop up communities facing dwindling populations, a lack of jobs, and an array of social problems.
In fairness, remote communities in Western Australia do face severe social problems, and there are undoubtedly challenges to servicing small, isolated communities. But the government has been hesitant to actually consult with Aboriginal leaders from the communities that face potential closure. The initial announcement came as a surprise to the involved communities, and the government has kept the process opaque, refusing to release details as to which communities will be closed and how they will be chosen. In February, responding to calls for more consultation, the premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, stated that it would be “nonsensical” to go speak with each community, but “consultation in a general sense [would] continue.” As of June, Barnett had only visited one remote community and had not met with either of the main representative bodies for Western Australian Aboriginals. “Consultation in a general sense” does not seem sufficient, especially considering the number of lives the government’s decision will affect.
The plain fact is that Aboriginal peoples do not want to leave their homes, and they have raised strong arguments against closure. Critics argue that forced relocation could actually aggravate existing social problems, as displaced individuals are absorbed into nearby towns that do not have the jobs or resources to accommodate an influx of people. After the remote community of Oombulgurri was closed in 2011, many residents were left homeless, and problems such as substance abuse and high suicide rates worsened upon relocation to nearby towns.
Contrary to Tony Abbott’s statement, living in a traditional community is not an arbitrary “lifestyle choice” for Australian Aboriginals. Aboriginal leaders have explained the spiritual significance of maintaining a physical connection to their traditional homelands. And they have even presented evidence that living on these lands improves social outcomes for Aboriginal peoples; a 2011 Amnesty International report found that indigenous peoples living in Australia’s traditional communities had better health outcomes and lower levels of substance abuse and domestic violence than those living in larger communities. It is the responsibility of the government to heed these arguments—forcibly pushing Aboriginals off their lands by denying them essential services recalls shameful memories of the early 20th century, when Aboriginal peoples were forced into large settlements under the Australian government’s Assimilation Policy with devastating consequences.
The Australian government faced similar criticism in 2007, when it implemented the Northern Territory National Emergency Response. This was a massive set of interventions into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, including compulsory income management for Aboriginal welfare recipients and restrictions on the sale of alcohol and pornography in the selected communities. The intrusive reforms were ostensibly designed to protect indigenous Australians (they came about in response to allegations of child sexual abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities), but they were imposed involuntarily and without consultation. And national legislation offered scant protection, as the government was able to suspend its own Racial Discrimination Act to implement certain discriminatory reforms.
Coercive paternalism is characterized by the claim that policies are in the best interests of indigenous populations... These fictions become more difficult to maintain when policies clearly contradict UNDRIP.
But Australia’s indigenous community has a tool today that it did not have eight years ago. In 2009 the Australian government finally bowed to international pressure and endorsed UNDRIP. The question is—does UNDRIP actually make a difference? The Australian government has only accepted the Declaration as an “aspirational document”, indicating that they do not consider its provisions binding over government policy. On one hand, UNDRIP gives Aboriginal Australians the language and grounds to challenge their government. Consultation is a cornerstone of UNDRIP, which enshrines the right of indigenous peoples to self determination and speaks of “partnership” and “free, prior, and informed consent.” And the Declaration also prohibits any action “which has the aim or effect of dispossessing [indigenous peoples] of their lands, territories or resources.” In April, residents of Western Australia used the Declaration to obtain an official condemnation of the proposed closures from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. This sort of action may not convince the Australian government to abandon the closures, but it leaves them scrambling to save face. And it may have stoked the international response to the closures—recent protests have spread as far afield as London, Auckland, Berlin, and San Francisco.
UNDRIP’s true power is that it undercuts government attempts to assert the moral high ground on indigenous issues. Coercive paternalism is characterized by the claim that policies are in the best interests of indigenous populations: aboriginal Australians are stripped of financial autonomy to save children from abuse and forced off their homelands to rescue them from social problems and a backwards way of life. These fictions become more difficult to maintain when policies clearly contradict UNDRIP. As protests flared in April, Premier Colin Barnett did backtrack somewhat, reducing the estimated number of community closures. This is a small victory in a practical sense. But the outcry over remote communities has also weakened the government’s credibility, domestically and internationally, on indigenous issues. Tony Abbott may claim to be an expert on “doing the right thing by the Aboriginal people of Australia” but UNDRIP makes it far harder for his government to sell discrimination as benevolence.