It’s not just about ‘Change the Date’

Words by Adrienne Ringin

As evidenced by the thousands who flocked to rallies in the major cities, changing the date of ‘Australia Day’ is a significant issue for all Australians. January 26th is not a day to recognise national unity;  It’s day to remember Australia’s first peoples who never signed a treaty or ceded their land. It’s day to remember the violence of colonisation which tore cultures and families apart. It’s a day of mourning.

Support for the campaign to Change the Date has increased over recent years. Indigenous voices and allies have been effective at raising awareness throughout all facets of society. Backing from athletes, musicians and even government parties has been attained with various local councils (Yarra, Darebin and Moreland) demonstrating their support by moving citizenship ceremonies to an alternate day. Such success is the result of serious targeted campaigning from dedicated individuals. As understanding increases, it is possible that in the near future, January 26th will be a day commemorated for the right reasons.

Continual advocacy for this particular issue is important but as January 26th has passed for another year, now is the time for all who care about the state of equality in this country to shift energy and re-engage with some other crucial campaigns which have been lost from the public view while the Change the Date campaign was prominent. If the same passion and fervour are ignited for the following issues, there is a greater chance that real, systemic and lasting change will follow.

Indigenous Imprisonment Rates

According to the 2016 Census, there are 786, 689 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders currently residing within the territorial borders of Australia. This equates to only 2 per cent of Australia’s entire population. In the correction system however, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders account for 27 per cent of the prisoner population with 76 per cent having experienced previous imprisonment.

This overrepresentation continues in the juvenile justice system. Between 2015-2016 there were 5,500 ten to seventeen-year-olds under youth justice supervisions which includes supervision orders and detention. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were the majority of both of these categories: Indigenous children made up 49 per cent of those under supervision and 59 per cent of those in detention. Australia made international headlines when the restraint mechanisms used on Dylan Voller were made public, and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory revealed further stories of systematic abuse and neglect of children in detention.

The inquiries into this state of affairs over the years have been numerous, and in October 2016 George Brandis announced yet another investigation, the Inquiry into Indigenous Incarceration. The final report was tabled in Parliament in March this year but does not reveal anything that was not already well known – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are 14.7 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous men while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 21.2 times more likely. What we now must ensure is that the thirty-five recommendations from this inquiry are actually enforced and adequately funded rather than consigning this most recent report to the pile.

Constitutional Recognition and Treaty

In stark contrast to its contemporaries such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, Australia is one of the very few former colonies which does not have a treaty with its First Nations people. Constitutional protection is similarly not afforded. Two separate but associated movements have gathered momentum lately which seek to rectify the position.

The First Nations National Constitutional Convention was a historic event which saw Indigenous leaders from across Australia present a united consensus demanding constitutional recognition – The Uluru Statement from the Heart. This would be realised through a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous representative body providing a voice to Parliament on Indigenous issues. Constitutional recognition allows for permanence and stability, feats not possible through a legislated body which can be scrapped with a change of government. Malcolm Turnbull’s dismissal of such a body featured spurious mistruths including that such a body would create a third chamber of government (wrong: it’s a voice to the parliament not in the parliament), that it would not have the backing of the Australian people (false: even conservatives approve the plan) and that it undermines equality (incorrect: it gives an Indigenous voice to Indigenous issues). This movement needs supporters to prove Malcolm Turnbull wrong.

The Convention also saw the resurgence of the call for a Makarrata Commission. A Yolngu word which has multiple connotations, it is often employed to mean ‘treaty’ but also ‘captures the ideas of two parties coming together after a struggle and healing the divisions of the past’. This movement has been around since the 1970’s, but the success of the Convention has stirred it again. The difficulty of this movement is the uncertainty around what a treaty would entail as well as the ongoing ramifications should one be enacted. This uncertainty has led past campaigns to stall but now is the time for its revival with passionate, informed supporters.

Black Lives Matter: Australia

This movement is just as crucial here as it is in the United States. The tragic death of Elijah Doughty and the subsequent sentence imposed illuminates that access to justice in Australia can still depend on the colour of your skin. Elijah’s death is one in a long line of Aboriginal deaths that have been met with reports of ‘suspicious’, unknown’, ‘accidental’ or ‘inevitable’; where murder has been changed to manslaughter; where the murderers enjoy the privilege of remaining unnamed ‘for their protection’; where Black witnesses are tagged as unreliable. It’s time to change this narrative; it’s time to care about all of us.

Change the Date is a visible campaign and one of great importance to this nation but each of the campaigns mentioned also need support. Each work to rectify the damaged state of equality which Australia finds itself in. While there is no single element which will immediately improve Indigenous Justice in Australia, by uniting on these fronts, there is a greater possibility that improvement will be felt in the near future.

Take action

Interested in creating change? Sign the petition and show your support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.  .

You can also ‘like’ the BlackLivesMatterAU Facebook page to keep up to date on that story here.

Get involved with Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Justice campaigns.