ACTU fights ‘disgrace of racial discrimination’

LARA WATSON (front right) joins First Nations Workers Alliance members fighting for wage justice
LARA WATSON (front right) joins First Nations Workers Alliance members fighting for wage justice

‘This programme is a disgrace to all Australians and must be scrapped,’ ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) Indigenous Officer Lara Watson said on Tuesday.

The fight against the racially discriminatory Community Development Programme (CDP) continues, with the Turnbull Government standing by a policy which subjects Indigenous workers in remote communities to longer hours and stricter requirements with no pay, no leave, no OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) protections and workers compensation.

The First Nations Workers Alliance (FNWA) has held meetings with 1,200 Indigenous workers and their community representatives in 20 regions, signing up 760 members and reached hundreds of thousands on social media in its first year.

Again this week we have seen evidence of workers in the CDP being forced to work without safety equipment, risking serious injury under threat of having their only payments taken away for months. Lara Watson said: ‘This programme must end. Every day that this continues is another day that Indigenous people go without the dignity of work, without economic autonomy, under the paternalistic policies of this government.

‘This programme is putting workers at risk. No one should have to work in a workplace that they believe is unsafe. Everyone has the right to be safe at work and go home at the end of the day.

‘We need real jobs in remote communities, with real pay and the full protection of workplace laws.

‘We welcome everyone who has already joined up to the FNWA and everyone who has supported the CDP workers. We hope that this year we will see an end to this disastrous policy.’

Australian states have taken steps towards the nation’s first treaties with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Australia is the only Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty with its Indigenous populations.

Many Indigenous Australians have cited a treaty or treaties as the best chance of bringing them substantive as well as symbolic recognition – the subject of a long-running national debate.

A bill committing to a treaty has just been approved in Victoria’s lower house of parliament and the Northern Territory and Western Australia have also pledged their own, separate actions. All of this has intensified discussion about whether others, including the Australian government, will follow suit.

A treaty might include binding pacts on specific issues, such as protecting rights and acknowledging past wrongs. It could also set out practical agreements in areas such as health and education.

‘We do not seek to limit what a treaty can be, nor who will negotiate specific agreements,’ said one advisory group, Aboriginal Victoria.

In 1988, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty after he was presented with a landmark document, the Barunga Statement, from Indigenous leaders. Despite public momentum, the discussions were sidelined amid concern over their implications – such as financial compensation.

Over the years, government focus shifted to other forms of reconciliation, including progress on land rights, debates over constitutional recognition, and programmes intended to reduce indigenous disadvantage.

Last year, Prime Minister Turnbull rejected calls to set up a parliamentary body that would have overseen a treaty progress, claiming that most Australians would not support it. If passed in the upper house, it will legislate a process for establishing a state Aboriginal representative body and a treaty, or treaties. The bill will also require the Victorian government to provide annual updates on progress. ‘It is about the recognition of us as the first people of this country,’ said Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher.

Aboriginal history Prof Richard Broome, from La Trobe University, said: ‘It is very significant because it is the first move from any government in the country.’ Prof Broome described the Victorian step as ‘the beginning of the journey’, pointing to efforts by other governments.

The Northern Territory government has signed a memorandum of understanding with Indigenous groups to formally start work on a treaty. Western Australia has also announced plans to establish its own official Aboriginal representative body. The Australian government has not responded to the state and territory developments.

Meanwhile, an Australian city has removed a tourism advert from the internet after it was accused of a ‘whitewash’ of Indigenous people and ethnic minorities. The advert for Rockhampton, Queensland, was published on Monday and showed scenes of people and local attractions. But Indigenous Australians criticised it for depicting only white people, with one calling it ‘paternalistic’. The city council removed the video and apologised following a backlash online.

Responding to some tweets, Rockhampton Regional Council said: ‘We should not be promoting the Rockhampton Region without celebrating the (local Indigenous) Darumbal people, the area’s long history, and our diverse community. ‘We apologise and we will do better.’

Rockhampton, about 600km (370 miles) north of Brisbane, is a city of about 80,000 people that promotes itself as Australia’s beef capital. More than 7% of its population is Indigenous, and the city also has large Vietnamese, Indian and Filipino communities.

The advert had been part of efforts to bring ‘Rockhampton to the rest of the country and indeed the world’, the city’s mayor said on Monday, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Several people pointed out its lack of diversity, including the absence of representations of Indigenous culture. One city councillor, Tony Williams, said it had been an oversight.

‘As far as tourism goes, our Indigenous culture is really prominent and we need to focus on that and include that as a priority,’ he said. Critics welcomed the decision to remove the video.

• Polling has revealed two-to-one support for a boost to the minimum wage, indicating that Australians are not buying the big business scare campaign against pay rises. The poll, taken shortly before the Fair Work Commission announced a 3.5 per cent rise for 2.3 million people on the minimum wage and industry awards, asked 1,502 respondents which of two statements better represented their view.

More than 64% of respondents agreed that ‘increasing the minimum wage will increase the amount people have to spend, creating demand that will create jobs’. Only 35.8% of those polled agreed ‘increasing the minimum wage will increase the costs on small business, cost jobs and force small businesses to close.’

The poll was taken by independent accredited research agency between May 7 and May 16.

Business groups unanimously opposed any pay rise in real terms for working people, with some groups like the National Retail Association actually arguing for a pay freeze. This is despite historically low wage growth that has been a cause of serious concern even among conservative economic commentators.

Quotes attributable to ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said: ‘People need fair pay rises to keep up with the basic costs of living, and local businesses need customers who have money in their pockets.

‘Pay rises supercharge our economy and help us get to where we need to be. They’re good for working people, for local businesses and for our country.

‘But right now big business has too much power, and they want to cut our pay to enrich themselves.

‘Malcolm Turnbull has done their bidding and from 1 July his latest penalty rate cuts are kicking in. Double the size of last year’s cuts, these are the harshest yet.

‘We need to change the rules so all working people can fight for fair pay rises and more secure jobs.’