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Next week, Mr Tom Calma steps down as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. Calma is "an Aboriginal elder from the Kungarakan tribal group and a member of the Iwaidja tribal group", both in the Northern Territory.

Calma came to the position with experience in many aspects of Indigenous life, from education to housing to public administration, as well as overseas. He has held office in a turbulent time for Indigenous people- turbulence caused on the one hand the recognition that many Indigenous people and communities are still suffering appallingly, and on the other by attempts to place the blame for this suffering on Indigenous people, traditions and languages, and on non-Indigenous do-gooders and their focus on human rights. Despite this, he has held firmly to the responsibility of his office of "keeping government accountable to national and international human rights standards". The Apology to the Stolen Generation he sees as the great symbolic triumph of the period, but he sees also continuing injustice.

Yesterday he delivered his final Social Justice Report 2009 and Native Title Report 2009, in the Redfern Community Centre, in Sydney, along with a community report, and a stirring speech. His speech and community report summarise in plain languages his three main concerns in 2009, while the major report provides supporting references and case studies.

He sees his three main concerns as interlinked.

  • getting at the causes for why so many Indigenous people are in gaol by investing in communities rather than gaols,
  • supporting Indigenous languages
  • supporting the rights of Indigenous people to live in outstations and homeland centres by showing the benefits of living in well-run communities compared with the well documented problems of fringe camps and housing estates in urban centres

His plea for Indigenous languages is plangent, and grounded in his long experience in Indigenous education. Here's a quotation from his speech.

The Australian Government has made some effort to support our languages by introducing Australia’s first national policy exclusively focused on protecting and promoting Indigenous languages – Indigenous Languages – A National Approach 2009. While this policy provides a starting point to preserving and revitalising our invaluable languages, it will not be enough on its own. State and Territory governments have to come on board.

They have responsibility for school education and they need to make sure that their policies support our languages. If they don’t take action soon, Indigenous languages will be extinct within the next few generations. I urge you – if you are able – to do whatever you can to bring this injustice out into the open. The parents of the school children who are losing bilingual education are very distressed – many of them have contacted my office. They are doing everything they can to preserve the bilingual programs but their pleas are falling on deaf ears.

It would be wrong-headed to dismiss this plea as ignoring the poor mastery of standard English in many Indigenous communities. It is standard practice in many countries in the world for children to learn their home language and other languages at school - including those who rate most highly on academic achievement, such as Finland, (which has TWO national languages and other official minority languages). Nothing prevents this happening in Australia. Nothing but ... the will of the governments, the determination of the education departments to implement it, the inadequacy of training and professional development of teachers, the failure to recruit and support Indigenous teachers who speak the children's home language, and the resourcing of schools in remote locations.

Good on you, Mr Calma , good on the HREOC staff who have worked on this report. Thank you.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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