UN report condemns the stench of mandatory sentencing
by Peter Mac Australia has now become the first advanced Western nation to be asked by the United Nations to explain its race policies. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial discrimination has expressed astonishment that 70 per cent of those in jail in the Northern Territory are Aborigines, whereas Aboriginal people only constitute 25 per cent of the Territory's population. In discussions with the Federal Minister for Reconciliation and Immigration, Phillip Ruddock, Committee members expressed deep concern that the mandatory sentencing laws effectively put Aboriginal people in a most unequal position and exposed younger members of the Aboriginal community in particular, to criminal influence. A humble Mr Ruddock admitted to the Committee that "the greatest blemish on Australia's history is our treatment of indigenous people", and that "The Australian Government has firmly committed itself to address the unacceptable level of disadvantage suffered by Australia's indigenous people." And in a remarkable act of "double speak" The Prime Minister, the Federal Attorney-General and Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Immigration Phillip Ruddock himself have all expressed their disapproval of mandatory sentencing. However, the Government still adamantly refuses to use its federal powers to override mandatory sentencing legislation in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, even though they used the same powers to override "States' rights" with regard to the issues of euthanasia and safe injecting places for drug addicts. Needless to say, the Government is less than comfortable under the UN spoptlight. Federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams described the Committee's attitude as "one-sided", in view of the Committee's statements and previous UN criticisms. (The Committee last year found that the Government's amendments to the Wik legislation on native title breached the 1969 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Government subsequently refused to suspend the 1998 amendments and as a result Australia is now subject to "early warning" monitoring by the UN for acts of racial discrimination.) Federal Minister Ruddock has also described UN criticism of the Government as "unbalanced and inaccurate", but Greens' Senator Bob Brown says that this better describes the Minister's own actions. Another UN committee is also examining Australia's performance regarding its treatment of Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), has presented a submission to the UN Committee on Human Rights, and the Commission's Chairman, Geoff Clark, is currently engaged in discussions with the Committee, concerning the treatment of Australia's Aborigines. The ATSIC submission to this committee argues that racism still pervades Australia's political and legal institutions. It also maintains that the rights of Aboriginal people are being overridden or ignored in matters such native title, the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal deaths in custody, and the general refusal to recognise Aborigines as a distinct people, and the original owners of the land and its resources. In the latter respect the submission quotes former ATSIC chairman Mick Dodson, as follows: "In my view there has been an insidious, sometimes even unconscious, process of appeal to a notion of equality which denies any rights which attach to cultural differences and, particularly, the identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the indigenous peoples of this country. "The claim to human rights which attach to such identity are regarded, ironically, as racist and discriminatory. Hence we arrive at a situation were `equality' and `non-discrimination' are converted into instruments to strip Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of appropriate recognition and protection of our rights. "In the process grossly racist attitudes find apparent shelter." The ATSIC submission to the UN Committee on Human Rights also specifically refers to the policy of mandatory sentencing as an infringement of rights. The Federal Government's refusal to act on this issue appears to have, by default, encouraged the emergence of tacit (and in some cases overt) racism. The NSW town of Coraki recently witnessed the burning of several wooden crosses outside the homes of Aboriginal people. The Mayor of Cobar, Councillor Peter Yench, who favours the introduction of mandatory sentencing, claims that the issue is being widely discussed in his constituency. "You go in the pub and have a beer at night — people discuss it and say `We need mandatory sentencing.'" Mayor Yench has moved for the matter to be discussed at a meeting of western NSW councils in June. However, the Mayor of Broken Hill, Ron Page, has opposed the councils even putting mandatory sentencing on the agenda. The issue of mandatory sentencing is increasingly being seen as in itself essentially racist. The Victorian Attorney-General, Rob Hulls recently stated that mandatory sentencing "is racist, it is unethical, it is immoral and it is deliberately targeted at a particular group within our community". The President of the NSW Law Society, John North, agreed recently that councils should not be considering the issue. He commented: "the view of the Law Society is that mandatory sentencing is indefensible and the Federal Government should do everything in its power to make sure it's overridden." The government, of course, does not appear to be fired with enthusiasm over these suggestions. However, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In view of the Federal Government's obdurate refusal to act, and with the support of the Federal ALP, Democrats and Peter Andren, MHR, Senator Bob Brown has now introduced a private Member's Bill to override NT and WA mandatory sentencing laws in relation to children. Senator Brown commented that: "Australia is rapidly gaining a reputation as racist against Aborigines.... "The fact that the PM, the Attorney-General and the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Immigration all say mandatory sentencing is wrong compounds the absurdity of not only the Government's stand, but its stand on parliamentary debate of this Bill." Senator Brown's Bill was passed by the Senate last week but so far the House of Representatives has failed to deal with the Bill, debate on it having been gagged on more than one occasion.