Whitlam Institute
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Presentations and Findings

Presentations & Findings - Indigenous self-determination

Indigenous Self Determination - A One Day Symposium at the Whitlam Institute - February 2018

21 February 2018 | Female Orphan School | A One-Day Symposium on Indigenous Self-Determination and the Australian People, hosted by the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University and  Nura Gili, UNSW Sydney . Co-convenors: Heidi Norman, Whitlam Institute Fellow, UTS; Diana Perche, Nura Gili, UNSW Sydney; and Anna Yeatman, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

21 February 2018 | Female Orphan School | A One-Day Symposium on Indigenous Self-Determination and the Australian People, hosted by the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University and Nura Gili, UNSW Sydney.
Co-convenors: Heidi Norman, Whitlam Institute Fellow, UTS; Diana Perche, Nura Gili, UNSW Sydney; and Anna Yeatman, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University


Session 1: What does democracy and self-determination mean for Indigenous Australians? What is the legacy of the Whitlam Government?

  • Jenny Hocking - Emeritus Professor, Monash University; Distinguished Whitlam Fellow, Whitlam Institute Address
  • Robynne Quiggin - Professor, Institute for Public Policy and Governance, UTS
  • Johanna Perheentupa - Lecturer, Nura Gili, UNSW

Session 2: Realising Aboriginal self-determination through the land estate

  • Heidi Norman - Associate Professor, Social and Political Sciences, School of Communication, UTS Presentation
  • Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh - Griffith University Business School
  • Kevin Cavanagh - CEO, Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council and Stephen Wright - Chief Operating Officer, Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council Presentation
  • Rodney Dillon - Indigenous Campaigner for Amnesty International and former Tasmanian ATSIC Commissioner

Session 3: Sharing power in policy design and development

  • Haylene Grogan - Director of Policy and Reform, NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs
  • Diana Perche - Academic Coordinator, Indigenous Programs Unit, Nura Gili, UNSW Presentation
  • David Coombs - PhD Candidate, Nura Gili, UNSW
  • Elizabeth Ganter - Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU Address

Session 4: “Taking a Rightful Place in Our Own Country” – Reconstituting the Australian People for a Better Future

  • Gemma McKinnon - Associate Lecturer, Law, UNSW
  • Hon Linda Burney MP - Member for Barton Transcript
  • Anna Yeatman - Professor, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University Address
  • Lynda Holden - Lecturer in Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Law, School of Law, Western Sydney University Presentation

* The authors reserve all rights to the content of their presentations. 



The Whitlam Institute is very proud to be hosting this important and timely discussion as part of our effort to bring together people and ideas to advocate for the contemporary relevance of the Whitlam legacy our desire to enhance open engagement in Australian democracy. 
As an international human rights lawyer working across the world for the better part of the last 15 years with the United Nations, I come at this issue of Self-Determination first through learning about the experience of Indigenous Australians, when I worked at HREOC, but then also through the eyes of East Timorese, South Sudanese, Palestinians and Balkan peoples amongst others. The common themes I have understood from these very different experiences are about acknowledgement; ownership; empowerment; inclusivity and respect.
So it won’t surprise you to learn that my frame of reference for today’s Symposium is, two-part: the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and associated international human rights law; and of course the Whitlam Legacy
Self-determination is complex – it is both a venerated and contested idea. Most of you will know that the UN Declaration was adopted by the UN in 2007 after 20 years of negotiation between Indigenous peoples and governments, and that the Australian Government announced their support in 2009.
Article 3 describes the right of self-determination as Indigenous Peoples “freely determin(ing) their political status and freely pursu(ing) their economic, social and cultural development.”
Article 4 declares “autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
We are here today to reflect on progress in self-determination for Australia’s indigenous peoples against these standards, and to look ahead. 
However nearly a decade on from Australia’s commitment to this Declaration, any fair reading of the standards shows that we have much work to do.
The great tragedy of Australia’s failure to realise self-determination for our indigenous peoples is that the burden of that failure has been grossly unevenly distributed. But also, that failure has also not been clearly understood for the stain it has been on our national identity and how it continues to hold us back as a people. 
On the 10-year anniversary of Closing the Gap, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a review of the campaign.  Their report finds that if the current course continues, Australian governments will not succeed in closing the gap by 2030. 
The Human Rights Commission names structural factors preventing this progress, including social determinants, institutional racism, poor quality of housing, and insufficient access to primary health care. But of course the report concludes that these structural factors all come back to the continuing, urgent need for self-determination. 
Self-determination is at the heart of many - if not all – conversations amongst and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. So why is its achievement so elusive in Australia? We hope today’s panels will tackle these and other questions. 
Today we are trying to look back so we can carve out ways to move forward. However disheartening - our limited achievements toward Indigenous reconciliation, recognition and Self-Determination should not become the yardstick for our ambitions. Gough Whitlam’s legacy reminds us that Australia’s goals for self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have in the past aimed higher and achieved more. 
Whitlam’s establishment of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, the Aboriginal Land Fund and Aboriginal Loans Commission were early reforms that moved the nation some way towards Indigenous self-determination. The return of the Gurindji lands and the initiation of the Lands Right Act are also important developments and are perhaps the initiatives that are better known. 
Today the landscape is different – there is a huge trust deficit. The tone has changed. I argued in an article last month that the Australia Day ‘Change the Date’ conversation should only be seen as part of the broader issue of national identity, that includes progress toward reconciliation, recognition and indeed an Australian Head of State.
In his 1972 campaign speech Gough Whitlam said that Australians “ought to be angry – with an unrelenting anger” about the infant mortality rate of indigenous children. 
Today we still have cause for anger. Close the Gap. The Government’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The glaring disparity between the key commitments of the UN Declaration on indigenous self-determination and modern Australian policy and practice. 
I hope that today we can channel our personal and mutual frustration into a spirit of determination to seek new ways to put Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people at the helm of their own futures and brainstorm new ideas about how to seek, and galvanise, every Australians’ support for this overdue progress, that can only benefit us all, as a nation.


OTHER READING From the Whitlam INstitute: 


The Whitlam Institute supports the Recommendations of the Final Report of the Referendum Council, presented with the Uluru Statement from the Heart on 30 June 2017. 

We will continue to support and provide a platform for the national discussion about self-determination for First Nations peoples, linking in with local initiatives of self-determination particularly in Western Sydney.