Australia reinstates racial discrimination laws

[JURIST] The Australian government reinstated its Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) [materials] in the Northern Territory on Tuesday after the Senate [official website] approved the legislation [Senate report] as part of a Social Security Act late Monday. The discrimination laws were suspended by the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (NTER) [text, PDF] in 2007 in order to allow governmental authorities to regulate how welfare money was spent by the Aboriginal people of the country. Under the act, regulators were able to intervene in Aboriginal areas [AFP report] by setting aside a portion of the welfare benefits received for rent, food and medical care in order to prevent the designated money from being spent on alcohol. Until the repeal of the NTER, the regulations would only have applied to Aborigines. The reinstatement of the RDA allows the regulation of welfare payments to remain in place, but the regulations will be applied to both indigenous and non-indigenous citizens living in the Northern Territory. Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin [official website] praised the restoration of the RDA [press release] and noted the intent of the NTER will still be achieved, stating:

This is an important achievement. The legislation removes what has been a blight on Australia's reputation as the land of a fair go. We recognise the importance of dignity and pride for Indigenous Australians. The legislation also introduces a new non-discriminatory income management scheme to protect children and families and help disengaged youth. The suspension of the RDA left Indigenous people feeling hurt, betrayed and less worthy than other Australians. Re-instating the RDA restores dignity and helps Indigenous Australians to take ownership of their lives and to drive change in the Northern Territory. It also ensures that measures under the NTER are sustainable and can be effective in the long term.
The discriminatory nature of the NTER has been widely criticized. In March, UN special rapporteur James Anaya [official website] condemned the law [press release], calling it problematic from a human rights point of view. The welfare regulations approved under the NTER are scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

Current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd [official website] has championed the cause of improved living conditions for and relations with Australia's indigenous population since his election in 2008. Last year, Australia endorsed [JURIST report] the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People [text, PDF]. When the declaration was adopted by the UN [JURIST report] in 2007, Australia was among the four member states that declined to endorse the treaty. Former prime minister John Howard [JURIST news archive] said [speech, PDF] that his Liberal Party [official website] led administration believed the declaration would cause a national regression into a climate of "victimhood." In February 2008, Rudd issued an official apology [statement text] for past mistreatment to the nation's indigenous population on behalf of the federal government, a sentiment which he reaffirmed last year.

 

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