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Rights are a practical matter, Mr Ruddock

By William Jonas - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2001

Reconciliation Minister Philip Ruddock expressed the view in The Age recently ("Aborigines reach a turning point") that the recent debate about domestic violence, economic independence and welfare dependency among Indigenous people is a move away from a rights-based approach.

He said this "new" focus was consistent with the Federal Government's policies directed at the individual, and so was a victory for a practical approach to Indigenous issues. Against this, a rights-based approach was depicted as being preoccupied with symbolic and semantic issues, such as a treaty, an apology and compensation - which the minister inferred produce no tangible results for Aboriginal people.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, whose statutory duty is to promote and protect the human rights of indigenous people, I am concerned that a rights-based approach is being painted as having no relationship to the wellbeing of the individual.


I am concerned there is a view gaining currency that issues of Indigenous disadvantage and human rights are mutually exclusive. That is not the case. The two are inextricably linked. When I go out into indigenous communities and speak about social justice and racism, what is striking is that, at an individual level, people's experience is fundamentally forged by their being Aboriginal.

What a rights-based approach seeks to do is ask why an individual's experience of being Aboriginal manifests, to a disproportionate extent, as unemployment, bad health, low literacy levels, high incarceration rates and high mortality rates.

Policies based on an understanding of the pattern of discrimination that affects all indigenous people are more likely to result in positive outcomes for Indigenous individuals and communities.

A focus on "rights" does not imply silence on the issues of welfare-dependency, Indigenous empowerment and community violence. It merely means a different approach to these issues from that advocated by the individualist model - a model that ignores historical antecedents and assumes everyone has the same opportunities.

A government cannot and should not rely simply on economic rationalism and individual initiative to transform Indigenous communities. A rights-based approach seeks to understand the underlying and historical causes of unemployment and welfare dependency for Aboriginal people. Without this understanding, government policies simply manage the problem. They do not offer a way forward.

The focus on "practical reconciliation" maintains a situation where indigenous people are subject to the beneficence and good intentions of government. It does not change the unequal basis of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people.


Integral to the shift from welfare dependency to empowerment is the equal enjoyment of human rights. In this sense I agree with Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson when he says: "The substantial agreement has to be that the country is going to respect the rights of Aborigines to autonomy and self-determination and, in turn, it means that Aboriginal people will accept that they need to take responsibility for their own self-determination."

Economic development must take place within the social and cultural context of indigenous values, in which kinship and family responsibility rank alongside the wellbeing of the individual. Aboriginal people must both control and take responsibility for this process.

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This article was first published in The Age on Monday 30 July 2001.

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About the Author

Dr William Jonas is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

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