Political participation is a human right affirmed and contextualised for indigenous peoples under the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Australia was one of four post-settler colonial states to vote against the Declaration in 2007. However, in 2009 it reversed its objection. It had come to accept that the Declaration was not legally binding but an ‘aspirational’ statement. The minister responsible for indigenous affairs remarked that: ‘We do this in the spirit of re-setting the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and building trust’.
In 2015 the Government and Opposition agreed to establish a Referendum Council. Its task was to re-set the relationship by recommending a referendum question to give indigenous Australians ‘recognition’ in the national Constitution. The Council’s report, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, gave aspiration a political substance beyond that which Australia, a newly elected member of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, would entertain. The recommendation was that the Constitution provide for the establishment of a body, representative of indigenous people, to provide a ‘voice to parliament’. It would not be part of the parliament, but would ensure that authoritative and representative policy perspectives could always be provided to parliament in ways that the Australian democracy has never allowed.
The recommendation was rejected, as the Prime Minister explained, because it was neither ‘desirable or capable of winning acceptance’ and that it would ‘inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament’. A survey a week later showed 61% public support for a proposal that made no change to the parliament itself.
Some commentators saw Australia’s election to the Human Rights Council as a sign that prevailing thought might shift; that domestic politics might reflect the Foreign Minister’s vision for Australia to use its position on the Council to promote ‘robust democratic institutions, [and] human rights for indigenous peoples’ that it proposed as two of its five areas of principal concern.
Indigenous Australians comprise 2.8% of the national population. Like the indigenous populations of comparable post-settler liberal democracies such as Canada and New Zealand, indigenous Australian life expectancy is less than that of the rest of the population, they are less well educated, less likely to be employed in well-planned jobs and more likely to be poorly housed or imprisoned. However, when one considers that these differentials are significantly worse for indigenous Australians one might ask if state attitudes to fundamental human rights help to explain the difference.
The contrast with New Zealand is especially instructive. As indigenous Australia’s moderate request for the political system to guarantee ‘voice’ was rejected a New Zealand government was being formed with a Maori deputy Prime Minister and three other Maori ministers in the 20-member Cabinet. This was the product of an inclusive electoral system that has, since 1867, guaranteed Maori voices in parliament rather than to parliament, as the much weaker Uluru Statement proposed.
Political participation matters to the realisation of human rights. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a framework for attending to those rights that is consistent with Australia’s prevailing liberal political order. While liberal societies do exclude to protect what majority populations hold in common, the New Zealand example shows that there are alternative approaches to liberal inclusion. These approaches show that there is a connection between participation and policies that are likely to realise human rights. Yet rejecting structured opportunities for participation is standard in Australia.
For example, in 2009, the Government commissioned a comprehensive review of the public health system. It rejected the Commission’s proposal to establish a Purchasing Authority, comprising indigenous members, to make funding decisions about indigenous health. Indigenous health providers would have been able to make funding bids to indigenous health experts. At every level of the system indigenous people would have been involved in setting policy priorities and expectations on the delivery of health services. This is just one example of liberal inclusivity that Australia cannot find the political will to entertain; just one example of a mechanism for indigenous policy leadership that an indigenous voice to parliament might have advanced.
The Australian decision means that there will not be a structured process for the national Parliament to hear representative indigenous perspectives on policy priorities.
As a member of the Human Rights Council, Australia lacks a plan to secure the human rights of its own indigenous peoples.