In the 1980s I led a delegation from the Federation of Land Councils to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, chaired by Erica-Irene Daes. The working group’s task was to establish the foundations for an international human rights instrument which would set a global standard for the protection of Indigenous rights. 

In 2007, after more than 20 years of international consultations and discussion with Indigenous nations, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People was adopted by the UN general assembly.  

In recognising the “urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples”, the declaration was brought into existence to enshrine rights that constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.” 

While non-binding, the declaration benchmarks the standards of global respect and efforts by nation states to help reduce levels of disadvantage and discrimination experienced by many of the world’s 370 million Indigenous people.  

There are 46 articles listed in the declaration, which provide clear guidance for advancing reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the light of their tangled and often unsatisfactory histories. The two elements I see as most pertinent to the Australian reconciliation journey are the right to self-determination and the right to free, prior and informed consent (Article 4 and 19).  

We should recall that in the development stages of the declaration the Australian government was supportive – the minister for Aboriginal affairs himself, Robert Tickner, attended the working sessions on several occasions. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their organisations were leaders in the process of crafting the declaration and were diligent participants, offering their insights.  

But despite the hard work and dedicated commitment, in a shameful episode, Australia was one of only four countries who refused to ratify the declaration, claiming it was incompatible with our national laws. The prime minister of the time, John Howard, stated: 

“We do not support the notion that you should have customary law taking priority over the general law of the country.” 

But this was a misrepresentation. This idea that the declaration could cause division within our country ran contrary to article 46 which states:  

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States. 

Despite this, Howard defended Australia’s decision not to sign, boasting:  

 “It wasn’t difficult at all, because it is wrong to support something that argues the case of separate development inside one country.” 

If I recall the political climate of Indigenous Affairs at the time, it is no surprise the government took issue with Australia in signing the declaration. In 2007, the federal government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act in order to roll out theintervention in the Northern Territory.  

The intervention under the Howard government disrespected the collective and individual rights of Indigenous people; it sought to ensure that their ability to pursue their own development was stripped; it discriminated on the basis of race and was imposed without any form of consultation with the Aboriginal communities involved. The international declaration posed a threat to a coercive government policy.  

It was not until 2009 that Australia formally adopted the declaration under the Rudd Labor government. Because of the previous government’s opposition, Australia could not become a signatory, but the Labor government stated their intention to reset relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and to build trust in order to work together to overcome past trauma and build a more reconciled future.  

When it was endorsed by Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, my brother Mick Dodson spoke at the ceremony at parliament house:  

“Human rights do not dispossess people, human rights do not marginalise people and human rights do not cause the gaps in life expectancy. It is the denial of human rights that is the large contributor to these things. The value of human rights is not in their existence it is in their implementation. That is the challenge for the world with this declaration. The standards have been set. It is up to us to meet them.” 

Eight years on from endorsing the declaration, Australia too often fails to meet the standards. 

In September the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz released her report on Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The report describes Australia’s lack of progress on Closing the Gap as “woefully inadequate” and states the policies of the Australian government “do not duly respect the rights to self-determination and effective participation” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

For too long, Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been on the receiving end of policies and programs dreamed up by authorities who do not themselves have to suffer the consequences of their decisions. Increasingly, however, there is clear evidence that the mistakes of the past are being repeated, that the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Australians is not being met and that policies are continuing to be imposed that have not properly engaged Indigenous people in design or implementation. 

Cashless debit card 

Today, compulsory income management is being applied by the Turnbull government in the form of the cashless debit card. It applies to 80% of welfare and payments and can be used anywhere that other debit cards can be used. 

According to the government, the cashless debit card is a success. A report by Orima to the federal government claims 23% of participants said it made their lives better. This is promising.  

However, a less publicised finding is that 32% say it made their lives worse and 42% said it made no change. In moving forwards we need to make sure the information base is robust and the data is carefully analysed 


I am told by people in my region that it is impossible to use the card to go to the local footy, to buy school lunches, purchase things second hand, or send gifts as money. This is a concern that must be addressed by the government as it implements the scheme.  

recognise that there are some Australian communities who may choose to trial the cashless card but this must be on the basis of their free, prior, informed consent. And the card alone will never be a solution to their community problems. The wrap around support services must be community designed, agreed upon and resourced.  

When making policies, laws or undertaking activities that affect Indigenous peoples, governments should listen to the people and negotiate to obtain their consent.  

Malcolm Turnbull has called the cashless welfare card “an act of practical love”. Any such act requires informed agreement. 

I am appalled by the domestic violence in our communities and the abuse of our children. I know that communities want help in addressing alcohol abuse and violence. 

But there is a nexus between the situation these communities find themselves in and the policies imposed upon them by governments – policies grounded in a philosophy of institutional control. Top-down measures which seek to address the behaviour of people who are vulnerable breeds a situation of hopelessness, dependency, and destabilisation in communities. 

There are many people living in communities with great ideas about how to address the issues. But they are not listened to. Indigenous communities need and want to be part of the solution. We need support services that are community generated, implemented and properly resourced.  

Community Development Program 

Another program which demonstrates the government’s disregard for the views of Indigenous people and our right to be listened to is the imposition of the community development program (CDP).  

This program was sold to Aboriginal people in remote communities as a work for the dole scheme similar to the former community development employment program. But the government did not explain that the new program lacks community control and is excessively punitive. 

Labor secured an inquiry into the community development program in March after communities across the Northern Territory and Western Australia told us that this system leaves people poorer, struggling to feed their families and in a situation of powerlessness.  

It was a proud moment in 2009 when under prime minister Rudd, Australia formally endorsed the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples – but eight years on, Australia still needs to work harder to consistently respect and promote the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the eyes of the international community and in the eyes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves. 

The domestication of the declaration into Australian law would give expression to the sincerity of Australia’s commitment to resetting the relationship with Indigenous people. The call at Uluru for a Makarrata commission to deal with truth-telling and agreement making would also be advanced by the implementation of the declaration into domestic law. 

Eight years on from endorsing the declaration, there is only procrastination from government, evident in its lack of commitment to respond to the calls of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.  

Implementing the declaration is a necessary pre-condition for governments to close the gap of Indigenous disadvantage and to reset relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and to build trust in order to work together to overcome past trauma and build a more reconciled future. 

Today, our governments, both federal and state, have much to do to meet the international standards for the protection of Indigenous rights. 

This Opinion Piece was first published in The Guardian on Friday, 22 September 2017.  

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