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Aboriginal leaders weigh up next election’s vitally important issues

The next federal election will be important for Aboriginal people as Australia grapples with treaties, constitutional recognition and economic advancement for Indigenous communities, Aboriginal leaders and political experts said.

Tasmanian Aboriginal leader and lawyer Michael Mansell, author of the book Treaty and Statehood: Aboriginal Self-determination, said on one hand there was the current conservative government that was not willing to talk treaty, and on the other a Labor alternative that was.

“The difference between the alternative government willing to talk to Aborigines about a treaty and this current government that wouldn’t even agree to what 250 people said at Uluru, you know they arbitrarily walked away and didn’t come back with anything,” Mr Mansell said. “They just said ‘We’re not interested’.”

“So, the potential to advance the cause of Aboriginal people with a Labor government is massive compared to the current ultra conservatives who are in power.”

Mr Mansell’s comments came as two polls released this week had the Coalition government trailing Labor on a two-party preferred vote ahead of a federal election due next year.

A Newspoll published in the The Australian newspaper put Labor at 53 percent to the Coalition’s 47 percent, though Scott Morrison was the preferred prime minister (45 percent) over Labor leader Bill Shorten (35 percent).

A Fairfax-Ipsos poll published by Fairfax Media had Labor on 55 percent, leading the Coalition on 45 percent.

Mr Mansell said there had been several elections in recent history that have had big impacts on the lives of Aboriginal people, from the gains of Gough Whitlam in the ‘70s to the setbacks of John Howard’s government in the ‘90s and into the noughties.

The next election has the potential to also be significant.

“When Gough Whitlam came to power of course he installed all the Aboriginal services and said the Commonwealth would fund them,” Mr Mansell said.

“That was a massive change. When Howard took over from Keating he watered down native title and got rid of ATSIC. Aboriginal organisations became a mere shadow of what they once were.”

“There is just no political movement coming from the organisations now, whereas they were the vanguard of the movement back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. So that was significant.”

“People would say that the election of Kevin Rudd was significant because of the apology, but he didn’t back it up with any compensation.”

“So, from a potential benefit point of view, this election is seriously important because you have the difference between the current government who could well attract the description of being anti-Aboriginal and the alternative Labor government saying, ‘Look we are prepared to do treaty deals with Aborigines, we’re prepared to fund language programs better than they are at the moment’ and so on.”

High profile Aboriginal businessman Warren Mundine, who formerly chaired the Coalition government’s Indigenous Advisory Council and is also a former national president of the ALP, said economic progress for Indigenous communities would also be an important election issue.

“There are a number of factors to consider,” Mr Mundine said. “You are looking at those issues such as treaty, referendum amendments on one side, and you are looking at also the economic programs on the other.”

“We know in regards to the treaty and constitutional amendments there are very clear differences between Labor and the Coalition. The issue is on the economic side — what are the differences there?”

“Because we know where the government is sitting. There has been this huge push with the Indigenous procurement policy plus funding for economic programs and that. We really need to catch up with what Labor is thinking in that area.”

Mr Mundine said at the moment Labor had a more appealing position on Treaty, but the Coalition government offered a more attractive package.

“I’m only focusing on economic issues because I think it is going to make the biggest difference,” he said. “I’m a strong treaty supporter. I’m more of a treaty supporter than constitutional amendment …”

“I’m also quite clear that the missing element in Closing the Gap is economic development. The Coalition government has really done a good job in this area. We’re looking to see if Labor can step up in this area as well.”

Associate Professor Sarah Maddison, of the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences, said it was fair to say that recent Coalition governments had been a disaster for Indigenous Australians.

She said reconciliation had been derailed under the Howard government which had also introduced the Intervention, while the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments had rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, had the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and had appointed former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as a special Indigenous envoy, among other things.

Associate Professor Maddison said the coming election would be “vitally important” to Indigenous peoples, but she would wait to see what happened before getting too excited.

“A change of government is definitely going to be an improvement, but I think it is overreach to suggest that a Labor government is going to advance a radical new agenda in the way that might be hoped – especially when coming off such a low base,” she said.

“I remember the hope that accompanied the change of government from Howard to Rudd, but then (Jenny) Macklin continued the Intervention, introduced Stronger Futures, refused to discuss compensation to accompany the apology, etcetera.”

“And while Shorten is making promises about treaty / the Statement more generally, he wouldn’t be the first ALP Prime Minister to have made big promises but ultimately be a huge disappointment, for example Hawke on national land rights and, of course, on treaty.

“So yes, it is a vitally important election, but I’ll wait to see what Labor actually does when it is in government before I get too excited.”

By Wendy Caccetta

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