Letter to Prime Minister on First Nations

Religions for Peace Australia resolved at the recent Annual General Meeting to write to the Prime Minister – and relevant minister for Aboriginal Affairs – with regard to the First Nations Peoples of Australia. These include the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a Makarrata Treaty and a Voice in Parliament for the First Nations.

Monday 10th August 2020

Dear Prime Minister, and the Honourable Ken Wyatt MP,

As Chair of Religions for Peace Australia, I write to request that you consider deeply and act swiftly as Prime Minister of Australia on several outstanding matters of national importance.

Religions for Peace Australia is the largest multifaith network in Australia with groups and/or representatives in each state and territory.

We are one of the 125 member nations of Religions for Peace International, the world’s largest interfaith organization with headquarters in New York, and one of the 21 member nations of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace with headquarters in Tokyo. Religions for Peace Australia has a prominent role in Oceania, as Chair, I am regularly called upon to chair South East Asian regional meetings.

We honour and acknowledge our First Nations, custodians of the oldest continuing culture in the world, and pay our respects to past, present and emerging Elders of this land.

We draw your attention to two motions that were adopted by formal vote at our Religions for Peace Australia Annual General Meeting, held via Zoom on Monday 15th June 2020:

Motion 1. “We urge the federal and state governments and national cabinet to urgently implement all the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 19911 . We request that this be given a high priority and the necessary finances to do so and that it be done in consultation with the appropriate Aboriginal bodies. We further request that special attention be given to the Closing the Gap area of Justice, including youth justice to reduce youth detention and adult imprisonment rates. It is shameful that although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up around 2% of the national population, they constitute 27% of the national prison population according to the Australian Law Reform Commission 2018”;

And in addition:

Motion 2. “Religions for Peace Australia supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart and supports its recommendations2”.

NB. Motion 1 drafted for Religions for Peace Australia by Barbara Miller3 married to and mother of an Indigenous husband and son, at the request of Josephine Lacey, Religions for Peace NSW.

Our national network of faith representatives has ongoing discussions about the plight of the vulnerable and marginalised communities hidden within our lucky country, and the role of faith groups to support and advocate on behalf of disadvantaged groups. Like many around the world, Religions for Peace Australia members were horrified by destruction of the sacred Juukan caves in the Pilbara and moved by the recent upsurge of global concern about systemic racism.

Australia is not immune to racism.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 recommended a formal process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia be undertaken. It gave clear guidance about the key actions required to redress the wrongs of the past, yet many of its well-researched recommendations have still not been implemented, thirty years later.

More recently, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates came together in 2017 to reach consensus on the Uluru Statement of the Heart, calling for three key elements5, 6

  • A Voice to Parliament – Enshrining an elected First Nations voice to the Parliament guaranteed by the Australian constitution, that would empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a say in the laws that affect them.
  • A Makarrata (Treaty) Commission (“coming together after a struggle”) with two roles: to develop a national framework that permits each sovereign Aboriginal nation state to negotiate their own respective treaty; and
  • A Truth-telling Commission in Australia (similar to those already established in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa) to oversee a process that allows all Australians to better understand Aboriginal/Australian shared history7 and move towards genuine reconciliation.

We acknowledge the enormous ongoing efforts to “Close the Gap” between indigenous and mainstream health and wellbeing indicators. On a positive note, we heartily applaud your Government for the new Closing the Gap agreement released publicly on 30th July 20208.

The initial four priority reforms in commitments to formal partnerships, shared decision-making, housing and data transparency will be a step in the right direction towards mutual accountability.

We note the Closing the Gap aim to reduce Indigenous incarceration, in particular working towards moving 30% of young Indigenous prisoners out of detention by 2031. As of June 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners accounted for over a quarter of the total Australian prison population, while some 66% of children in detention are Indigenous and often arrested for minor infringements.

The Black Deaths in Custody recommendations relevant to this issue of youth detention include:

R.239. That governments should review relevant legislation and police standing orders so as to ensure that police officers do not exercise their powers of arrest in relation to Aboriginal juveniles rather than proceed by way of formal or informal caution or service of an attendance notice or summons unless there are reasonable grounds for believing that such action is necessary. The test whether arrest is necessary should, in general, be more stringent than that imposed in relation to adults. The general rule should be that if the offence alleged to have been committed is not grave and if the indications are that the juvenile is unlikely to repeat the offence or commit other offences at that time then arrest should not be effected. (4:183)9.

The recent decision of Australia’s Attorneys-General to continue the practice of placing children as young as 10 years old into prisons/juvenile detention centres was regrettable. We urge our governments to heed the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommendation that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be 14 years or over.

We heed the warning of AMA President Tony Bartone that:

“By leaving the age of criminal responsibility at the unacceptably low age of 10 years old, we run the risk of further traumatising already disadvantaged and vulnerable children instead of giving them the help and healthcare that they deserve.”

Indigenous youth released their Imagination Statement10 at the 2019 Garma Youth Forum, saying:

“It’s time to think differently. With 60,000 years of genius and imagination in our hearts and minds, we can be one of the groups of people that transform the future of life on earth, for the good of us all. We can design the solutions that lift islands up in the face of rising seas, we can work on creative agricultural solutions in sync with our natural habitat, we can re-engineer schooling, we can invent new jobs and technologies, and we can unite around kindness … … We are not the problem – we are the solution.”

In 2020 we urge your Government to take further swift and practical steps to address the shameful inequity that lies at the heart of ongoing racial discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. Thank you.

Yours sincerely,
Emeritus Professor Des Cahill OAM,
Chair, Religions for Peace Australia

1. See Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991 http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/rciadic/national/vol5/5.html
2. See Uluru Statement from the Heart https://ulurustatement.org/ & https://www.referendumcouncil.org.au/sites/default/files/2017-05/Uluru_Statement_From_The_Heart_0.PDF
3. See About Barbara Miller: https://barbara-miller-books.com/about/
4. Rio Tinto Blast Destroys Area with Ancient Aboriginal Heritage https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-26/rio-tinto-blast-destroys-area-with-ancient-aboriginal-heritage/12286652
5. E.g. https://www.smh.com.au/national/what-is-the-uluru-statement-from-the-heart-20190523-p51qlj.html
6. Source: Explainer: Uluru Statement from the Heart – Creative Spirits https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/uluru-statement-from-the-heart
7. A 2018 survey found 91% of Aboriginal people & 80% of Australians believe it important to undertake formal truth-telling processes about Australia’s shared history Reconciliation Australia’s 2018 Australian Reconciliation Barometer
8. New Closing the Gap Agreement https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-30/closing-the-gap-targets-indigenous-agreement/12421866
9. Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody Recommendations – Indigenous Law Resources – Reconciliation and Social Justice Library http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/rciadic/national/vol5/5.html
10. The Imagination Declaration of the Youth Forum read at Garma 2019 – NITV https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2019/08/05/imagination-declaration-youth-forum-read-garma-2019


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