Northern Territory's abuses `have led to apartheid'

Sydney Morning Herald - 30th October 2000
Author: Debra Jopson

A royal commission should be set up to investigate the Northern Territory Government's "flagrant" abuses of power, which have produced apartheid, says the nation's leading Aboriginal academic, Professor Marcia Langton .

Professor Langton, chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University, told a University of NSW forum, Mandatory Sentencing Rights and Wrongs: "I don't believe the Northern Territory's self-government ought to go unchecked as it has for the past 20 years ... Australian taxpayers pay for these outrages at the rate of 80 in the dollar. Most of it comes from this State."

Because of mandatory sentencing, many Aboriginal juveniles committing an offence faced a death sentence, with a "50-50 probability" of death by suicide or accident, she said.

The laws did not stop petrol addiction, and many Aboriginal male youths were "revolving stock", in and out of custody, never finishing primary school, becoming unemployable and having a very short life expectancy.

The Territory Government had introduced mandatory sentencing to satisfy whites in the leafy suburbs of Darwin and Alice Springs, and Aboriginal youths had been falsely concocted as a threat to them.

"It's difficult to describe down south just how divided the north of Australia is," she said.

Dr Angela Ward, acting as junior counsel in a complaint to the United Nations on Northern Territory laws, suggested there should be a royal commission into how there had been so little provision in the justice system for interpreters for Aborigines speaking traditional languages.

Remote communities had disproportionate numbers of police compared to Darwin.

"This is in complete contrast to measures in Europe to provide towards introducing measures to provide just policing for a multi-ethnic society. The Council of Europe has been very active in this regard."

Ms Margaret McCabe, acting with Dr Ward in the case on which the UN Human Rights Commission is expected to deliver an opinion early next year, said it might be time to raise the argument for a bill of rights in Australia.

"International rights are ... the rights of common humanity and there's nothing special about Australia that says it shouldn't have these rights, the same as everyone else in the world."

The former High Court judge Sir Anthony Mason said: "Draconian legislation of this kind may reinforce the view that it is time that we joined the other nations of the world in adopting a bill of rights. Otherwise, disadvantaged minority groups have no protection against the majority will when it sanctions legislation causing grave injustice."

Another former High Court judge, Sir William Brennan, said: "Historically in this country we have placed our trust in the political branch of the government, and we have eschewed the American example of a bill of rights that would transfer massive political powers to the judiciary,as a check on the legislative and executive branches of government.

"But if we as a nation lose that trust in the character and calibre of our leaders they should not be surprised if the people seek a bill of rights to protect themselves and their society against those excesses which threaten the civilised factors of the fair game."