Aboriginal elder tells Catholics to challenge Indigenous injustices

Launching the bishops' social justice statement on Indigenous disadvantage yesterday, Aboriginal elder Tom Calma says he is concerned by the Government's strong "push to take control over communities on Indigenous land", saying it is a social justice issue that must be challenged.

The Bishops' statement, which is entitled "The Heart of Our Country: Dignity and justice for our Indigenous sisters and brothers", draws on John Paul II's famous 1986 Alice Springs speech to Indigenous Australians.

Holding the bishops' latest document, Mr Calma recalled four central themes from the late Pontiff's speech: preservation and respect for Indigenous culture; acknowledgement of the points of connection between different belief systems; preservation and respect for land and land rights; and the need for true reconciliation.

"These four themes are profound and visionary and are as relevant today as they were when Pope John Paul II addressed people in Alice Springs," Mr Calma said at the launch, held in Sydney's first Aboriginal church, The Reconciliation Church in La Perouse.

However, he says he is unsure "whether to be dismayed or heartened that these themes require the same commitment in 2006 as they did in 1986."

He says progress to address John Paul II's messages from Alice Springs could be described as "mixed blessings".

"It seems to me that we have won a bit and we have lost a bit," said the Aboriginal elder from the Kungarakan and Iwaidja tribal groups in the Northern Territory.

"I know for example that over the last twenty years the Australian population has improved its understanding of Indigenous culture and history."

But Mr Calma said he is concerned "that there is a diminishing optimism, both within my community, the Aboriginal community, and throughout the wider Australian population", expressing hope that "this is not the case."

"I have a strong sense that it is time to reinvigorate - find our commitment, our energy and continue to build the bridges between black and white," he told the audience of over a hundred Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

According to Mr Calma, who is also the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, there are several gaps to be bridged including understanding and life opportunities.

Among points that require emphasis, Mr Calma expressed his concerns about the recent amendments to the Northern Territory Land Rights Act to scrap the permits system which allows traditional owners to determine who comes onto their land.

He also expressed alarm at "a strong Federal Government push to take control over communities on Indigenous land by taking out 99 year leases over larger Indigenous townships."

Mr Calma says that at the same time, the Government is also attacking smaller Indigenous outstations by labelling them "cultural museums".

"It seems that the government will work to control and centralise (and perhaps privatise) services in large communities while withdrawing services to smaller communities that it considers unviable," he said.

"This is a social justice issue, and a human rights issue and we must not stand by and let this happen unchallenged," he said.

Jesuit Fr Brian McCoy, drawing on traditional wisdom of the Kukatja people of the Balgo community in remote Western Australia, responded to Mr Calma's speech by saying that it was necessary to understand Australia's past before we can "safely, honestly and purposefully move forward."

Bishop Christopher Saunders, Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, referring to a personal experience involving an Indigenous youth who attempted to commit suicide in his diocese, reminded the audience that the social justice statement is about "real people".

The 2006 statement is available in full for download at the Council's website (www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au).

Photo(L-R): Mr Tom Calma, Bishop Christopher Saunders, Mrs Elsie Heiss (Coordinator of Reconciliation Church), Fr Brian McCoy, Mr John Ferguson (National Executive Officer, ACSJC). Photo courtesy of Bernard Boerma of Sydney's Centacare.

Tom Calma speech (Social Justice Statement launch, 14/9/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Australian Catholic Social Justice Council | 2006 Social Justice Sunday Statement (PDF)
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission | HREOC - Mr Tom Calma's profile
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council
Bishops' Committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
Reconciliation Church, La Perouse
Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Sydney archdiocese
Wadeye Aboriginal Catholic Community

Bishops' social justice statement focuses on Indigenous disadvantage (CathNews, 14/9/06)
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Pope calls for an apology to Indigenous Australians (CathNews 23/5/06)
Message Stick visits Taree, NSW (CathNews, 27/2/06)
Church in world focus for 'Social Justice' Statement (CathNews, 16/8/05)
Social Justice Statement launched (CathNews, 23/9/04)
Catholic call for proper ATSIC replacement (1/6/04)
Statement challenges racism with 'generous heart' (CathNews, 17/9/03)

Reconciling with justice (Catholic Leader, 15/9/06)
Catholic Church called to support, promote dialogue with indigenous, bishops say (Catholic Online, 14/9/06)
Aborigine suffering is 'like Third World' (Sydney Morning Herald 14/9/06)
Australian churches to end poverty among Aborigines (Dominican Today 14/9/06)

15 Sep 2006