Living Letters team visit

 MEDIA RELEASE 24 March 2011                                       For Immediate Release
from the National Council of Churches in Australia

World Council of Churches voices its concern over the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People


The World Council of Churches (WCC) has voiced its concern about the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples at its recent Central Committee meeting in Geneva.

The WCC statement follows on from a visit to the Northern Territory by a WCC “Living Letters” Team which visited several Aboriginal communities and heard stories and experiences of the Intervention. The Living Letters team expressed concern about the discrimination, oppression and racism they observed and which many Aboriginal people experience on a daily basis.

The WCC, in its statement, expresses solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of Australia and recognises the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to live in traditional lands; maintain and enrich culture and ensure traditions are strengthened and passed on for generations to come.

The WCC urges the Australian Government to engage in proper consultation and negotiation processes which are genuinely inclusive of Aboriginal Peoples, which will better empower and enable them to identify their own aspirations, issues of concern and which will involve their full participation in creating and implementing solutions.

The statement also recognises that Australia has been criticised for Intervention measures by the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples as well as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and requests the Australian Government ensures that policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples comply with international conventions.

The Reverend. Tara Curlewis, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) and an advisor for the WCC Central Committee said “This statement is very significant as it is in response to the Living Letters visit to Northern Territory communities. Members of the WCC Central Committee were shocked to hear what has happened in Australia in recent years. One leader said ‘Surely this isn’t happening in Australia? I thought Australia was better than this!'”   

Last week the NCCA Executive welcomed the WCC report and statement, the churches hope that Australia will adhere to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and continue to urge the Australian Government to end the Intervention.

The full statement is available at

The Living Letters report is available at


Document date: 22.02.2011

1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are the Indigenous Peoples and traditional custodians of the land now known as Australia. They are diverse Peoples with some 250 language groups and nations and are known as having the oldest living cultures in the world. However, their way of life, identity and wellbeing is under threat from the ongoing effects of colonization and attempts to assimilate them into non-Indigenous “Western” ways.

2. In light of these concerns, particularly those expressed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the churches in Australia, the World Council of Churches (WCC) sent a “Living Letters” team to Australia in September 2010. The team visited several Aboriginal communities and heard stories and experiences of the “Intervention”. The “Living Letters” team expressed concern about the discrimination, oppression and racism they observed and which Aboriginal People experience on a daily basis. They also expressed dismay at the lack of consultation and negotiation by Governments at all levels.

3. Across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are over represented in all areas of disadvantage. In many communities there are people living in extreme poverty without appropriate access to health services, education, employment, and housing. In some communities the effects of dispossession, forced removals from families, inter-generational trauma, racism and poverty manifest as social issues such as alcohol and drug addictions, violence and social breakdown.

4. While the situation is dire for many in all parts of Australia, in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia there are particular challenges for many living in Aboriginal communities. For example, the life expectancy gap for all Indigenous Australians is less than for non-Indigenous Australians, but the gap in the Northern Territory is one of the highest at 14 years. Infant mortality rates are up to four times higher than for the non-Indigenous population. In many NT communities there is a lack of access to health care, housing, clean water, electricity, and education. The more remote the community the worse the situation gets.

5. In 2007, the Australian government introduced the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) which came to be known as the “Intervention”. This was introduced in response to a report on Aboriginal child sexual abuse called Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle “Little Children are Sacred”. The report made 97 recommendations to address the Aboriginal child sexual abuse highlighted in the report. Although this report was commissioned by the local NT government, the Australian government did not wait for their response. Rather, it claimed that this report identified a “national emergency” that required an immediate “Intervention” and announced a wide range of policies which were to be implemented in “prescribed areas”, all of which were Aboriginal communities in the NT.

6. The “Intervention” measures were broad in nature and addressed welfare reform and employment; law and order; education; family and child support; child and family health; housing; land tenure; and governance and management of the “Intervention”.

7. While there was no dispute that the NT needed a significant influx of resources and programs, and it was acknowledged that there had been many years of neglect by government, there were many concerning aspects of the “Intervention”. These concerns included the lack of consultation; the compulsory acquisition of five year leases over Aboriginal owned and operated land; compulsory alcohol and pornography bans; the cessation of an employment scheme called the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP); compulsory health checks for all children; and promises of increased resources for health and education. Also introduced was compulsory income quarantining. This meant that anybody in a prescribed area who was on a welfare payment was given a card to access their money, but they were only allowed to spend this half of their income on food, clothes and other essential items, in certain shops. This applied to all Aboriginal people on welfare whether they were parents or carers of children or not and whether they had problems managing their money and providing for their families or not. Notably the “Intervention” legislation did not address one single recommendation that came out of the Little Children are Sacred Report.

8. Additionally, many aspects of the “Intervention” were discriminatory and the government found it necessary to suspend aspects of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) in order to pass the necessary legislation to implement the “Intervention”. This meant that nobody had any redress to complain about the discriminatory aspects of it.

9. The “Intervention” policies brought much shame to Aboriginal Peoples. The nature of the policies and much of the discussion at the time implied that they were the cause of their own disadvantage. At a practical level the “Intervention” had a severe impact on day to day life. For example, people were not able to spend their money how they wanted and felt shame at having storekeepers telling them they were not able to buy some items. They also felt embarrassed that much of the discourse implied all Aboriginal Peoples were alcoholics and paedophiles. In fact, one of the first actions the federal government took was to place a sign at the entrance to every Aboriginal community prohibiting alcohol and pornography in those communities. The government used claims of a paedophilia ring in the Northern Territory to justify the “Intervention”, but did not include a sufficient amount of consultation and negotiation with the Aboriginal community in the investigation of these allegations and resolution of the situation.

10. Many human rights advocates, church groups and communities themselves have spoken out against the “Intervention” but not all the criticism has been domestic. Australia has come under international scrutiny of the situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Professor James Anaya, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples visited the Northern Territory and expressed concern about the discriminatory nature of many of the aspects of the intervention and the contravention of many international human rights standards to which Australia is a signatory.

11. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has also commented on the “Intervention” and said: “The Committee regrets the discriminatory impact this intervention has had on affected communities including restrictions on Aboriginal rights to land, property, social security, adequate standards of living, cultural development, work, and remedies.”

12. The “Living Letters” team reported that in every place they visited they were told that life had not improved under the “Intervention” and that it had in fact deteriorated. Their message to those who had so generously shared their lives and stories with the members of the “Living Letters” team was that they do not stand alone. They expressed a sense of responsibility to ensure that their voices do not go unheeded.

The WCC Central Committee, meeting in Geneva 16-22 February, 2011, therefore:    

1. Expresses solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and their right to live in traditional lands; maintain and enrich culture and ensure traditions are strengthened and passed on for generations to come;

2. Urges the Australian government to end the “Intervention” and instead to engage in proper consultation and negotiation processes which are genuinely inclusive of Aboriginal Peoples, which will better empower and enable them to identify their own aspirations, issues of concern and which will involve their full participation in creating and implementing solutions;

3. Requests the Australian government to ensure that policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples comply with international conventions and, in particular, conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization’s Covenant 169;

4. Calls on WCC member churches to continue to raise awareness about the specific issues facing Indigenous Peoples and to develop advocacy campaigns to support the rights, aspirations and needs of Indigenous Peoples;

5. Encourages WCC member churches to support the continued development of theological reflection by Indigenous Peoples which promote Indigenous visions of full, good and abundant life and strengthen their own spiritual and theological reflection.

This past Sunday John Cleary did a very good show on the Northern Territory Intervention. He talked to Malcolm Fraser, Sir Alistair Nicholson, Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM from Galiwin’ku, Djapirri Mununggirritj from Nhulunbuy and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM from Utopia. He was joined by Graeme Mundine and Jeff McMullen. If you missed the show you can listen to it from the website either by podcast, MP3 or windows media.

 From the ABC website.

This week Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered the third Prime Ministerial Speech on ‘Closing the Gap’ on indigenous disadvantage. The tone was one of cautious optimism, but for many, government policy continues to be dominated by the shadow of the intervention, a return to paternalism that threatens the very foundations of indigenous recovery

Today marks the 3rd anniversary of our national apology to indigenous Australians, and this week the Gillard government presented the 3rd closing the gap report. Both events occur in the shadow of the continuing Intervention strategy implemented under the Howard government and continued by Labor. A Conversation with the Elders, brought together from both European and Indigenous Australia, to hear Elders from the Northern Territory and Central Australia, reflect on how government policies, particularly the intervention are affecting their communities. Tonight we pick up the threads of that conversation to share it with you and perhaps get some of your observations. In a few moments we will be hearing from both aboriginal and European Australian elders, including Rev Djiniyini Gondarra, Malcolm Fraser and Sir Alastair Nicholson.

In studio are Jeff McMullen, a distinguished former foreign correspondent and reporter for both 4 Corners and 60 minutes, who for many years has been actively engaged with indigenous issues, and acted as the facilitator at the recent Conversation with the Elders. Also in the studio we welcome back Graeme Mundine, who has recently taken up a role as indigenous advisor to the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

The Prime Minster yesterday released the Closing the Gap report, 2011. The existence and release of this report early in the new parliamentary year is a positive development over the past three years and highlights a sustained effort on the part of Government to focus attention on Indigenous disadvantage.

There is certainly an impressive list of resources invested by the Government. More teachers, doctors, houses and so on. But the Prime Ministers’ speech also highlights many of the issues for which NATSIEC has criticised Governments of both persuasions over the years. For example, despite the Prime Minister’s claim of evidence based, accountable and transparent close the gap efforts there remains a distinct lack of benchmarks, goals and measurement of effectiveness.

The Prime Minster also said Close the Gap is a “call for changes in behaviour. A call to every person, to every family, to every community”.

What about Government? Does it not have to change its behaviour and challenge its own fundamental philosophy on development and change? Indigenous disadvantage has not only been caused by years of neglect. It is also a result of years of ineffective and failed policies, of structural racism, of inappropriate delivery of services and so on.

Take as an example the commitment to close the life expectancy gap within a generation. Yesterday, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, released a media statement commenting on the Government’s report. He also commented that Minister Warren Snowdon and Minister Nicola Roxon have agreed to begin developing a long term national plan to close the gap in Indigenous life expectancy by 2030. As Gooda also points out the Government signed a Statement of Intent to close the Indigenous life expectancy gap in March 2008. It’s now almost March 2011 – three years later and the Government has only now committed to begin to develop a plan to increase the life expectancy of Indigenous peoples. 

How do we reconcile what we hear in this speech with a three year gap between a statement of intent and a commitment to begin planning? How many years will it be before action arises from the plan? How do we reconcile the Prime Ministers’ claims with what we heard this week from NT Elders about the lack of consultation, the disempowerment felt in their communities, the increasing depression that many are suffering from, the tragic suicides in communities?  The same issues that were raised with NATSIEC during the Living Letters visit last year.

Despite the talk of working together, the tone of many of the Prime Minster’s comments about individual responsibility suggest that if, after all these resources are thrown at the “problem”, goals haven’t been achieved then it’s because individuals have failed to take responsibility. There is no doubt that in some places, some things are changing for the better, but if these changes are to be sustainable; if these changes are to really close the gap, then there also needs to be more and urgent attention paid to proper negotiation, proper consultation, partnerships, respect, culturally appropriate programs, empowerment, human rights. All those concepts that can sound a bit airy fairy, but in fact are the bed rock of ending Indigenous disadvantage. Without paying attention to these vital aspects the work may go on, but so too will the failures.    

The Close the Gap report 2011

Julia Gillard’s speech –

Mick Gooda’s media release

The first event in the Living Letters Team visit program took place tonight at an informal dinner with NT Church leaders. The team was welcomed to Larrakia Country by Elder Cathie Wilson.

Good Evening and welcome to Larrakia Country. My name is Cathie Wilson. I am an Elder of the Larrakia Clan.

 A warm welcome to members of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and distinguished guests.

 First off I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me here.

 I thank you for the respect you show us, the Traditional Custodians of the Land we stand on today.

 The Larrakia People are the Traditional Owners of the Land and Waters of the Greater Darwin Region, including Darwin Peninsula, the Cox Peninsula, most of Gunn Point, Channel Island, Rural Darwin, Darwin Harbour and adjacent Islands and land west of the Howard River and although our boundaries extend up to 50 kilometres in land we are often referred to as saltwater people.

 I wish you well for your Living Letters visit, and your endeavours.

 We thank and praise God for the gift of this beautiful country and for its first inhabitants.

 May we care for this land and for one another in a way that is pleasing to God our creator.

 In the words of another Larrakia Elder, Wally Fejo;

“You have come by way of the Larrakia Land.

You will hear the voice of the Larrakia Ancestors

And you will go taking something of the Larrakia Spirit with you”.

 On that note I welcome you to Gwalwa Daranigki – our land.

 So Mumuk!