A motion moved by Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett calling on the government to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people was voted down in the Senate on September 10. This comes at a time when the Northern Territory intervention by the Howard Government has started to put "boots on the ground" in the NT, with few results reported from the mainstream media and serious criticism from Aboriginal and human rights groups.
Bartlett attacked the Howard government for its opposition to the declaration. "The federal government has failed this key test of showing genuine commitment to rights for Indigenous people, rather than just using them as a vehicle for political point-scoring and power grabs", Bartlett said, addressing the Senate. "After a decade of the Coalition government trashing UN conventions and belittling rights, they repeatedly evoked the Convention on the Rights of the Child to justify their Northern Territory intervention", he added.
The UN declaration was passed by the General Assembly on September 14 and has been in formation for the last 20 years. It was planned to be a benchmark for the ways in which nations treat their indigenous peoples but several influential nations, including Australia, the US and Canada, are violently opposed to the declaration.
Aspects of the Declaration are at odds with the NT intervention, which takes over communal property from Indigenous people, discriminates against Aboriginals in welfare payments (by "quarantining" 50% of all welfare payments in Indigenous townships in the NT) and was done without consultation with Indigenous communities or their representatives. The NT intervention was a response by the Howard government to allegations of child neglect and sexual abuse within Aboriginal communities in the NT. At a press conference on June 21 Howard declared he was "taking control" and passed legislation on August 17 that would remove the rights of Indigenous people to control access to their land, ban alcohol in all Indigenous communities (although all tourism sites are immune to this ban) and take control of all Indigenous assets worth $400,000 or more. It went against the recommendations of the latest report into child abuse in the NT, Little Children are Sacred, and, with much of the area potentially rich in resources that the mining industry seeks to exploit, some Indigenous groups claim it is simply a "land grab".
Other groups have particularly focused on the intervention's lack of consultation as a key reason to oppose it. National Indigenous TV CEO Pat Turner told SBS's September 5 Living Black program: "It's an absolute invasion of our people's privacy, their rights. They're not being treated as citizens. There has been no collaboration with Aboriginal people, let alone any level of reasonable negotiation."
Turner is part of the National Aboriginal Alliance which is a new organisation that seeks to involve and represent Aboriginal people in defending their interests. Turner felt the need to be involved in the NAA after the federal government abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). She believes it will succeed because it won't be a government creation like ATSIC or the government's handpicked replacement, the National Indigenous Council. "This is from the community. This is from the people. This is for the people, by the people, about the people. That will be the difference and that's what will make it work."
The NAA met between September 12 and 15 to work out how it will function and to establish a response to the NT intervention. Turner wanted "the CEOs and chairs of Aboriginal organisations from throughout the country to get themselves there. We have a lot of work to do. We will be, of course, briefing on the NT invasion and the complete and utter waste of Commonwealth resources in the way that they're handling this."
Sam Watson, prominent Indigenous activist and Socialist Alliance member, is also backing the formation of the NAA. Watson told Green Left Weekly on September 14: "A very large proportion of the genuine Indigenous political leadership have been sidelined and silenced by the Howard government and his 'Jacky-Jackys'. Anger and frustration has built to a massive level as Aboriginal communities have been forced to stand back and see heavily armed military and stormtroopers invade their communities.
"The genuine Aboriginal leadership is stepping forward to say enough is enough. In the interests of our people, we serve notice on Howard and Rudd, the Aboriginal people are on the march. We will be active in the Federal Election, and in future State and Local elections, and at every point we will be holding the political masters to account for how their actions impact on Aboriginal communities.
"Globally, in the last 24 hours the United Nations has passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada amongst the racist, redneck nations that opposed the declaration. These countries will be judged by history to stand alongside the racist Apartheid regime of South Africa.
"The genuine Indigenous political leadership is seriously talking up mobilising nationally 7 days before the federal election, to put politicians and white Australia on notice. The prosperity currently enjoyed in this country is completely upon Aboriginal land, and from resources ripped from beneath Aboriginal land. We won't be invaded and patronised — we are on the march."