Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, announced today at the National Press Club the proposed formation of a new national advisory body to bring the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to the Minister, Parliament, and bureaucrats. Tom Calma is lder from the Kungarakan tribal group and a member of the Iwaidja tribal group whose traditional lands are south west of Darwin and on the Coburg Peninsula in Northern Territory. He has experience in Indigenous education and policy, business, and diplomacy, and he has been the Commissioner since 2004.
The new body will aim to become a marshalling force for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies and community organisations across the nation, with a focus on diverse and marginalised voices including women, people with disabilities, youth, and elders. The announcement follows twelve months of consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, including a 100-member Adelaide congress in March.
Notably, this national representative body has been planned with strict gender equality from the ground up. Not only will the co-chairs be one male and one female person, but the National Executive and each individual chamber of the decision-making National Congress must have equal numbers of men and women. (No reporter asked how this would be applied to trans and intersex people.)
Calma noted that women have in the past felt very marginalised in some “representative” Indigenous bodies. A holistic view of the community can only be gained by setting this benchmark for full equality in all the corporate bodies and structures. Calma went on:
Gender equality is a lesson I think other organisations and the mainstream could learn from.
Calma said that one Aboriginal Land Council has already taken this ball and run with it, mandating equal gender representation in their decision-making structure, and that he hoped more bodies would begin to take this on board.
Stating that the nation has suffered over the past five years from the lack of strong national representation, Calma repeatedly made the point that Australia has no hope of becoming a reconciled nation or closing the gap without robust, respectful partnerships between Indigenous people and government.
The new body, if it gets the go-ahead, will aim to become a self-sustaining company over the next five to ten years, with tax deductible donations and corporate support after government startup funding runs out. Calma emphasised the need for self-sustainability, a consensus-based model of decision-making, multiple levels of consultation, and proactive ethical oversight. He talked about how the conversations we were having now are nothing new, and on the need for a focus on generational challenges to equality, instead of having the same conversations over again in twenty years. The key priority areas at this stage remain housing, health, education, child protection, through a process of respectful consultation and self determination.
Calma criticised the government’s past response to reports on Indigenous disadvantage, emphasising the need to not “cherry-pick” recommendations, but to respect the time, engagement and intellectual effort put into the reports by community members by addressing the recommendations in a holistic and cohesive manner. The discarding of so many report recommendations in the past has led to a community distrust in the process, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders despairing of any action. “Oh yes another report” is the resulting attitude, rather than hope that something may change.
Asked why Noel Pearson wasn’t involved, Calma said that the steering body has gone through a transparent and fair twelve-month process of consultation, focus groups, and submissions, with strong involvement from Indigenous media including radio, television, and newspapers, as well as travelling consultation around the country to urban, rural, and remote areas. He expressed difficult understanding that anyone involved in Indigenous affairs and media might not have known about the steering committee’s process, and said that
If they’ve missed out and not taken up that opportunity, that’s something they have to deal with.
Calma also talked about recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, discarding the preamble idea and talking about a possible Human Rights Act as well as substantive changes within the Constitution itself. The first applause of the day came at this point.
The second came when Calma suggested that a few other entities could do with having a formal Ethics Council. The issue of ethical oversight was particularly fraught. The organisation will include an Ethics Council which will vet all potential National Executive members to make sure they’re a “fit and proper person” for the role. Challenged on whether this may be about censorship, hushing outspoken voices, or silencing inconvenient opinions, Calma reiterated that its role would not be to censor content, but to ensure that the body would be able to withstand criticism. Calma said that the ethics council would not be choosing Congress and Executive members, but would be a shortlisting process so that they may then all present themselves to the Congress and state their claims. The shadow of ATSIC seemed to loom large over this part of the conversation, though it was never spoken.
Calma’s closing words were:
From self respect comes dignity, and from dignity comes hope.