Time to get on the front foot

By MEL MARTIN

NATIVE title land should be used wisely to create socio-economic improvements for Aboriginal communities, and community participation in decision-making is crucial to achieving this.

That was the message heard by the audience of the national Native Title Conference in Coffs Harbour.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma and CEO of NSW Native Title Services Warren Mundine addressed an audience of about 400 people on the extensive changes to indigenous affairs that have taken place recently, including the folding of ATSIC and a new whole of government approach.

Mr Mundine said Aboriginal communities still suffered from a lack of education, poor health, high unemployment and an over-representation in the court system.

"We need to break through the dependence cycle and make sure our voice is heard," he said.

"There is a concern about what happens with land development, with the benefits not flowing on to the community. There needs to be a lot more work in this area."

Mr Calma said the changes were an opportunity to put in place structures to assist Aboriginal communities, but could also present a risk to the knowledge and rights previously gained.

"We need to remain in the driver's seat for positive outcomes for our communities," he said.

One major change in recent Aboriginal policy was the move towards shared responsibility, through which much could be achieved, according to Mr Calma, as long as Aboriginal communities remained informed and were able to participate in the decision-making.

"Participation is crucial to developing strategies for achieving community outcomes," Mr Calma said.

"This is a chance for Aboriginal people to get on the front foot and tell the government what we see is necessary to address the issues, rather than the government telling us what to do.

"If they don't participate, traditional owners risk being marginalised."

Mr Calma said that while the statistics were not something to be proud of, Aboriginal communities should have a say in how to resolve them, rather than the government telling them what to do. "Thirty years of paternalism hasn't worked, people have to resolve their issues themselves," he said.

And for this to happen, he added, governments must make sure that Aboriginal communities were equipped to do that.

"It's critically important that they spend time on people understanding their rights and how to engage, and build the foundations at the outset so that Aboriginal people have the capacity to participate."

"We need to look at the long-term, not just in economic terms, but also social and cultural," Mr Mundine added.

The conference closes today.



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