Erosion of Rigths

31 August 2009

Dr Thalia Anthony spoke to Ian Frazer in the Townsville Bulletin on indigenous legal rights:

One-time environmental activist Thalia Anthony sees global warming as a particular threat to Aboriginal and Islander people.
Dr Anthony, a University of Sydney law lecturer, believes political turmoil over climate change has eclipsed concerns over erosion of indigenous legal rights.
Yet, ironically, she fears Aboriginal and Islander people on the northern Australian coastline will be among the first casualties of rising sea levels.
Dr Anthony, Young Australian of the Year in 1995 for environmental activism, visited Townsville last week as a guest of the JCU School of Arts and Social Sciences.
In a criminology public lecture last Thursday she argued for Federal Government action on stolen wages.
And in a research seminar last Friday she put the case for restoration of traditional punishments in indigenous sentencing in the Northern Territory.
Later she told the Townsville Bulletin she had specialised in indigenous issues since graduating in 2006 because of regressive policy changes during the Howard era.
During her legal studies, which included a doctoral thesis on Northern Territory indigenous communities, she worked for Aboriginal Legal Services and the Cape
York Land Council.
In 2007 she began compiling evidence from former Wave Hill station workers for a test case against the Vestey Group Ltd and federal Government for compensation for unpaid wages between 1930 and 1960.
"Justice for indigenous cattle station workers requires recognition that unknown numbers of indigenous people throughout the 20th century had their wages either stolen or wholly withheld," she wrote in her abstract for the meeting last week.
"Research has disclosed both the negligent exploitation of monies held in trust for workers across Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia."
The Queensland Government's compensation scheme was flawed in not covering workers who were privately employed.
Dr Anthony conceded in her Friday seminar at JCU, relayed by a video link to the Cairns campus, that there were differences in legal issues for indigenous people in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

While traditional punishments had been recognised by the Northern Territory Supreme Court during the 1970s and 1980s, this was not an option in Queensland communities like Palm Island with irreparably dislocated traditional law.
She argued that `moral panic' during the Howard era, culminating in suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory, had resulted in spiralling jailings of indigenous people and scapegoating of communities.
"Sentencing judges have gone from acceptance of indigenous communities to regarding them as too dysfunctional to have any disciplinary impact on offenders," she said.
`The Anglo criminal justice system has become the only option for punishment and jail the only deterrent.
"With traditional punishment, sentencing judges have gone from seeing communities as filled with noble savages toseeing traditional punishment as barbaric and administered by ignoble savages."
The principle of these penalties, ranging from spearing to public shaming and exile, was recognising harm done and restoring peace.
The Howard Government's intervention in 2007, endorsed and extended by the Rudd Government, amounted to an enormous intrusion on judicial discretion and a slur on all Aboriginal communities as barbaric and uncivilised.
"We must recognise that indigenous communities condemn violence as much as the wider community," she said.
Later, she told the Townsville Bulletin that the Northern Territory communities must be sustained for the sake of traditional law.
"If the people lose these they will lose their identity and that would be even more disastrous," she said.
"There are problems but one of the things that works is their Aboriginal law."
Dr Anthony said she hoped the proposed new national indigenous body would make itself heard through the clamour on climate change.
"I think climate change is going to become one of the largest legislative changes in future," she said.
"It's going to be harder for indigenous issues to be noticed.
"(But) In the future, unless we deal with climate change, indigenous people in coastal areas will be hit by rising sea levels."

Contact: Greg Sherington

Phone: +61 2 9351 0202

Email: 22461036683a2112263808313a263824262b4e5d5e3220315f2c19