First Peoples’ Policy Positions

Oxfam Australia has for decades campaigned for Australians to recognise the unique place of First Peoples in the nation and their right to self-determination. We support Indigenous peoples and organisations in making decisions about their own development. While we do not attempt to speak on First Peoples, Oxfam has always backed policies that will promote Aboriginal voice and enable communities to take control of their destiny.

The starting point of support for First Peoples is a rights-based approach to development, consistent with the principal of self-determination as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, wellbeing and rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples. Oxfam has called on the Federal government to implement the provisions contained in the Declaration, including the principle of free, prior and informed consent.

In our report on Indigenous rights, Moving Beyond Recognition, Oxfam called on the Federal Government to introduce comprehensive legislation to protect human rights, including a Human Rights Act. These protections should include the right to self-determination, respect for and protection of cultural rights and the right to equality and non-discrimination.

Oxfam report on Indigenous rights, Moving Beyond Recognition
Oxfam report ‘Moving Beyond Recognition’

One important manifestation of self-determination are Aboriginal community controlled organisations (ACCOs) which play a primary role in the delivery of services to First Peoples, as demonstrated by the array of case studies from around Australia in our report In Good Hands. We are encouraged that National Cabinet supported this key principle of Aboriginal ownership and control when in 2020 it signed off on new targets to address Indigenous inequality. For this reason, Oxfam vehemently opposes the government programs that disempower First Peoples and deny the right to self-determination, such as the Northern Territory Emergency Response (now called Stronger Futures) and the BasicsCard.

Oxfam report on Indigenous Australia case studies, In Good Hands
Oxfam report ‘In good hands’

Gender justice is a key driver of Oxfam’s work globally and with First Peoples in Australia. This is why Oxfam launched the Straight Talk program for Indigenous women more than a decade ago. This political immersion program brings together women from all around Australia, explains the tools to analyse the issues facing their communities and how to go about making positive change. Since its inception in 2009, Straight Talk has brought together more than 800 women, many of them having gone on to become powerful advocates in their communities.

Ongoing colonisation and racism means that First Peoples continue to face stark disadvantage and inequality. Oxfam acknowledges that the poverty and injustice experienced by many of the First Peoples of Australia are sustained by approaches, attitudes and policies that are built on racist and colonial legacies. The near 13,000 First Peoples of Australia in full-time incarceration make up about 30 per cent of the prison population, compared with their 3.3 per cent share of the population. The rate of First Peoples’ imprisonment, 2,373 persons per 100,000, is one of the highest rates in the world, and 11 times the national average.

As the Australian Law Reform Commission said in its report Pathways to Justice, these extremely high rates are driven by racist attitudes and practices that still pervade the justice system. Oxfam strongly condemns justice laws and enforcement that target Aboriginal people, especially those in the Northern Territory which result in far more children being held in detention or on remand. Oxfam supports the #RaisetheAge campaign which calls on state and territory governments to lift the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years.

Oxfam has zero tolerance for all forms of racism, and we support positive programs to address systemic racism against First Peoples, including targets and quotas to increase representation and employment participation in Australian society. Such initiatives, however, must be backed by a genuine commitment to support specialist training programs to address the impact of racism, marginalisation and dispossession on First Peoples.

Oxfam Australia is a founding member of the Change the Record coalition which has developed a law reform plan to reduce over-imprisonment and to empower local Aboriginal communities to deal with justice issues. We also support NSW’s Just Reinvest coalition, and Social Reinvestment WA.  Oxfam has invested directly in the Maranguka justice reinvestment trial in Bourke, NSW and the Halls Creek trial in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Both programs are achieving positive results without resorting to blunt policies that put more children, women and men behind bars. They show the benefits of designing programs with the deep involvement of local communities, compared the top-down approach that often prevails.

Economic Justice underpins Oxfam’s work globally and with First Peoples in Australia to address economic injustices. A major driver of injustice for First Peoples is poor health. This is why Oxfam helped to launch the Close the Gap campaign in 2007 and remains an active supporter to this day. This health equality initiative culminated in the policy response of governments around Australia, known as Closing the Gap, which set a series of targets to address the stark inequality faced by First Peoples. Oxfam is greatly encouraged by and supports the First Peoples’ leadership that now guides this process through the formation of the new CTG partnership between Australian governments and Aboriginal organisations—known as the Council of Peaks— to develop policies and reforms to close the entrenched inequality faced by far too many First Peoples.

Professor Tom Calma at the launch of the Close the Gap campaign in 2007
Professor Tom Calma at the launch of the Close the Gap campaign in 2007

Oxfam’s support for economic justice is reflected in our Rights to Resources program which support traditional fishing communities on the New South Wales south coast, and clean drinking water for communities in western Victoria. In Moving Beyond Recognition, Oxfam called for the onus of proof placed on native title claimants be reversed, thereby ending the costly, onerous, and distressing process. We argued that the principle of free, prior and informed consent, as articulated in UNDRIP, should apply to native title, thereby giving Indigenous peoples a right of veto over development on their land, rather than the often ineffective right to negotiate.

Indigenous Australia traditional fishing communities on the New South Wales south coast
Photo: Wally Stewart

Cultural heritage, language, traditional knowledge and expressions are vitally important to Indigenous peoples as they embody tens of thousands of years of history. Aboriginal cultural heritage is part of Australia’s rich tapestry and is something that should be celebrated and protected. Oxfam calls on governments to support the role of institutions that promote knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in order to preserve the unique value of traditional knowledge and practices within Australia. Funding of bi-lingual primary and secondary education should be expanded nationally. Oxfam has called for State, Territory and Federal laws to be strengthened to protect the ancient heritage of First Peoples’ occupation of Australia, including criminal penalties for the unlawful destruction of heritage sites. These laws should mandate the involvement of local communities in decisions that affect cultural heritage.