One-hundred people gathered at Brisbane's Riverside Centre on January 27 to discuss Indigenous self-determination and the United Nation's draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is expected to be ratified this year.
Les Malezer from the Federation of Aboriginal and Islander Research Association (FAIRA) and chairperson of the Global Indigenous Caucus has spent the last two years in Geneva working on the draft declaration. He told the gathering that the Australian government has tried to exert pressure within the UN to water down the declaration. Malezer commented, "No democratic government should fight the rights of its citizens".
Specifically, the federal government has opposed articles that ensure indigenous peoples have the right to use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages and traditions; to participate in planning laws that may affect them; and to have treaties and agreements respected by the state recognised. Malezer noted that since the declaration cannot be enforced through Australia's courts, the challenge will be to pressure state and federal governments into meeting the standards.
He also highlighted the systemic racism in Australia and called for the reestablishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a return to the reconciliation process, the development of parliamentary and judicial tribunals to discuss Indigenous rights, and the removal of the anti-discrimination act's application in native title legislation.
Jacqui Katona, CEO of the Lumbu Indigenous Community Foundation, told the gathering that as soon as the UN declaration is ratified, Australia will be in breach of it. She highlighted how the Australian economy is geared to deny Indigenous rights and how the Australian government protects racist policy through international forums. This was exemplified by the millions of dollars the government spent to prevent Kakadu National Park from being listed as "in danger" in order to allow the Jabiluka uranium mine to open in the park.
Katona urged non-Indigenous Australians to counter the propagation of colonial attitudes and to listen carefully to Indigenous people in order to bring about change. She also called on everyone not to rely on the government to achieve Indigenous rights, and to actively challenge racist governments and institutions.
Lex Wotton is facing the possibility of an 8-10 year jail term for being the supposed ringleader of the Palm Island "riot" in 2004 following the death in custody of Mulrunji. He told the meeting that the incident on Palm Island was not a riot but an act of resistance to the daily oppression faced by people there. He reiterated the other speakers' calls for non-Indigenous Australians to get behind the Indigenous struggle for justice.
Wotton said he hoped that his version of the events on Palm Island come out clearer than the police's, but vowed that, even if the worst happens, "jail won't stop me". The diverse audience gave him a standing ovation.
Political parties were invited to present their perspectives on Indigenous rights and self-determination, and members of the Democrats, the Greens, the Socialist Alliance and the ALP spoke. The Socialist Alliance's Paul Benedek received a warm response for highlighting the need for everyday, grassroots commitment to the fight for Indigenous rights, and for the rights of all oppressed people here and internationally.
"Socialist Alliance's parliament is the parliament of the streets", he said, noting the success of the Justice for Mulrunji campaign, in which "the alliance fought every step of the way with the Murri community". The Socialist Alliance is calling for all deaths in custody cases to be re-opened and for charges against those who rose up in grief and anger on Palm Island to be dropped.
While all the party speakers advocated greater Indigenous representation in parliament, the Socialist Alliance was the only party to run an Indigenous candidate in the last state election. Sam Watson will stand again as the lead Socialist Alliance candidate for the Senate in the federal election later this year.
The group decided to continue to meet to discuss the progress of the UN declaration, and to raise awareness about it and all the struggles of Indigenous Australians.