The head of Amnesty International has strongly criticised the federal government’s efforts to improve living standards of Aboriginal Australians, saying it could learn from New Zealand’s dealings with its Maori people.
The human rights agency’s secretary-general, Salil Shetty, said the government’s “top-down externally driven” efforts to close the gap on Aboriginal socio-economic disadvantage were instead having the opposite effect.
Mr Shetty, who is the middle of a tour of Australia after a visit to New Zealand, said Amnesty was appalled that current policies had effectively “forced evictions from their traditional homelands”.
“They’re stripping funds for essentials services from these communities, effectively driving people away,” he told AAP in an interview.
Mr Shetty was to spend Saturday at the homeland communities of Utopia, 260 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, before heading to Canberra next week to meet with Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin.
Far from what the name suggests, most Utopia communities are more like Third World slums.
An Amnesty report, released in August, profiled Utopia and claimed Aborigines were being driven off their homelands and herded into “hub towns” where the federal and Northern Territory governments were splashing out cash for resources and services.
Mr Shetty said there was strong evidence that indigenous people had “better health and a better state of mind” when they lived on their own lands.
The Amnesty chief praised New Zealand for its treatment of Maoris, saying the government there had done a “much better job than Australia”.
“There’s a lot to be learned from them, given the way they have given Maoris a voice in the political process and in decision-making,” he said.
“Aboriginal people need to be empowered to make their own choices.”
Mr Shetty said part of the problem was mainstream Australia’s lack of understanding about the extent of the disadvantage gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
“There’s a lack of political will,” he said.
Mr Shetty said Australia was one of the richest countries and should be able to find solutions “unless deep down we’re dealing with a lot of prejudice and discrimination”.
He is also concerned that the benefits of Australia’s mining boom are bypassing struggling indigenous communities.
“Where the benefits and revenue are going to is disproportionately in favour of large corporations, at the cost to Aboriginal communities,” Mr Shetty said.
In Canberra next week, Mr Shetty will urge Ms Macklin to end discrimination of homeland indigenous people and call on the government to ensure money is distributed equitably to include the homelands and address an under-investment in housing.
Amnesty has been a staunch critic of the Howard government’s Northern Territory Intervention plan, which has continued under Labor but is now under review.
Mr Shetty said the government should be looking at the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred Report and its obligations under the United Nations declaration for indigenous people when planning its next move.
However, he applauded moves to recognise indigenous people in Australia’s constitution.
“There’s nothing wrong with symbolism as long as it doesn’t end there,” he said.
“What we need is accountability and justice, it’s not just a question of words.”
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