An Introduction to Indigenous Affairs in Australia
Indigenous Australians first settled on the land we now call Australia around 50,000 years ago. The first British fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour on the 26th of January, 1788, led by captain Arthur Phillip. For Indigenous Australians, this day is not one to remember for joy or greatness. Instead, it is a day of mourning, and a day of remembrance for their ancestors who were killed during the years after 26 January 1788.
Image 1: First Fleet Arrival Location, Gadigal Land, Sydney (Credit - Chris Norton)
History of Protest
There has been a history of protest by Indigenous Australians about their treatment for hundreds of years. One example comes from January 26th, 1938 as shown in Image 2 below. Since then, Indigenous Australians have continued to protest injustices. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra is one of the longest running symbols of resistance. Indigenous Australians have been camping out in front of parliament to protest in favour of better treatment from the government. Further protests have continued to take place throughout the years and to this day.
Image 2: Indigenous Protest 1938, Gadigal Land, Sydney (Credit)
Image 3 - Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Ngunnawal Country, Canberra (Credit - Matthew Norton)
The protests have had mixed success. In the past few decades, there has been a much greater awareness among the general public about the issues facing Indigenous Australians. Public officials have also been taking note, with Kevin Rudd delivering a formal “apology” to the Stolen Generations in 2008. However, there is still much greater progress to be made. Indigenous Australians are still not formally recognised in the Australian Constitution and the socioeconomic disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people continue to be stark.
As some of the earliest protests were happening, thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their parents and put up for adoption by governments, welfare bodies, and churches. It is believed that between 10 to 33% of Indigenous children were affected by this. All of the families of stolen children can still remember vividly the moment their children were taken, delivering powerful and somber quotes reflecting the pain they experienced.
Image 4 - Reconciliation Place, Ngunnawal Country, Canberra (Credit - Matthew Norton)
For centuries, Indigenous Australians have not had the same opportunities in key areas of life in comparison to non-Indigenous Australians. These areas include education, life expectancy, healthcare, and incarceration.
One of the key areas where there is a major disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is in Education. Indigenous children have an average attendance rate of 82%, which is 10% lower than that of non-Indigenous children. Furthermore, the gap rises in secondary school to 17% between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
Image 5 - Graph of Indigenous and Non Indigenous Attendance Rates
Life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is 8 years less than non-Indigenous people. Indigenous males currently have a life expectancy of 71.6 years, whereas non-Indigenous males currently have a life expectancy of 80.2 years. Indigenous females have a life expectancy of 75.6 years, wherehas non-Indigenous females have a life expectancy of 83.4 years. This is shown in the graph below.
Image 6 - Life Expectancy for Indigenous vs Non Indigenous People
Physical and Mental Health
Physical and Mental Health disparities are some of the starkest of all the measures.
On the measure of suicide, the problem is getting worse. Indigenous suicide made up 5% of the general suicide population in 1990, but is now 50% of that population. This is despite the fact that Indigenous people make up only 3% of the total Australian population.
On the issue of physical health, almost half of Indigenous people reported having a disability, in comparison to 18.5% of the general population. Furthermore, 67% of Indigenous Australians reported having one or more long term health conditions, including eye and sight problems, asthma, ear problems, mental/behavioural conditions, and more.
Indigenous prisoners represent 27% of the incarcerated population, despite being only 3% of the general population. Furthermore, the detention rate for youth is 26 times higher among Indigenous youth in comparison to non-Indigenous youth.
Constitutional Recognition would officially recognise Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution. The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mr Ken Wyatt, is responsible for the overall state of Indigenous affairs in Australia. He wrote:
“The Morrison Government is committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. The Government will hold a referendum should a consensus be reached and at a time that it has the best chance of success. There is a lot of work to do on this journey - we must find a way forward that will result in the majority of Australians, in the majority of states, overwhelmingly supporting constitutional recognition. We must be pragmatic. Constitutional recognition is too important to get wrong.”
Australia Day is another hotly contested political issue in today’s time. January 26th is officially known as “Australia Day.” This is the same day that captain Arthur Philip arrived in Australia, making it an uncomfortable day for many Indigenous Australians, as this is the day that their traditional lands were taken.
The idea of changing the date of Australia Day has been around for many decades. However, only in the past few years has public opinion shifted in the direction of moving the date. In 2004, 79% of the population did not favour a change, but this has since changed, and by 2021, 35% of people support having a day to celebrate Indigenous Australians, with 35% wanting to keep the current day.
The Minister for indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt, who is Indigenous himself, has his own thoughts, and believes in collaborating more with Indigenous people when crafting government policy. He wrote:
“Governments have committed to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians, and recognise that the only way to close the gap is when Indigenous Australians own, commit to and drive the outcomes sought, alongside all governments. To do this, the Commonwealth Closing the Gap Implementation Plan has been announced, which is a whole-of-government plan, developed across Australia in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners, including the Coalition of Peaks.”
Current Political Parties
In terms of the major political parties, the current governing Liberal party is closer to the views of Minister Wyatt. On the other end of the spectrum are the Greens, who support massive government spending along with consultation with Indigenous leaders on where that money should be spent. They also support reparations for Indigenous Australians. Standing in between the Liberals and the Greens is the Labor Party, who introduced the Closing the Gap report. They want to continue to invest lots of government money in closing the gap, but do not go as far as the Greens in some areas.
Indigenous Activists at Old Parliament House
I was also able to speak with Indigenous activists at the Old Parliament House. They did not want to be filmed, but did respond to my questions. It is worth noting that these activists are speaking only for themselves in their personal capacity, not for Indigenous people in general. They stated that they would like a new government for Indigenous people in this country, with its own autonomy separate from the current government. They added that the current government has, for far too long, ignored Indigenous people. They stated that they would like to use this new government to devolve control to the hundreds of traditional land owners and elders, as they know how to best manage their land.
Image 7 - Old Parliament House, Ngunnawal Country, Canberra (Credit - Matthew Norton)
Image 8 - Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Ngunnawal Country, Canberra (Credit - Matthew Norton)
Indigenous Art and Culture
On a different note, Indigenous art and culture has taken more of a centre stage in recent years. Indigenous artwork can often be seen around Redfern in Sydney. Indigenous engravings can be found across Australia. Given the Indigenous Australians are one of the oldest living civilizations, there are many engravings in rocks created by Indigenous Australians that still stand today. This Indigenous art and culture has often transformed into Indigenous activism and protest.
Image 9 - Eyes of the Land and Sea Sculpture - Gadigal Land, Sydney (Credit - Chris Norton)
At the end of the day, it is not only Indigenous Australians who are facing struggles in economic, social, and political ways. Indigenous people all over the world are facing similar struggles. In my interview with South American Indigenous leader Juana Toledo, she said that the South American Indigenous people face racism and discrimination from their government. From a lack of access to healthcare, to racism and discrimination from their government, Indigenous people in South America are struggling. Indigenous people in Ecuador are being pushed out of their traditional land by Chevron. Unmarked graves believed to be of Indigenous children have been found in boarding schools in Canada. Indigenous people in Africa, India, New Zealand, and all over the world face similar struggles. All over the world, Indigenous people are facing challenges, and so it is up to all of us, Indigenous and non Indigenous people, to stand up to governments and make sure that they do better.
Sources & Further Reading
Australian Government Closing the Gap. “Year 12 Attainment | Closing the Gap.” Ctgreport.niaa.gov.au, 2020, bit.ly/3I6UllI. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
---. “Life Expectancy | Closing the Gap.” Ctgreport.niaa.gov.au, 2020, bit.ly/3581kMv. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
---. “School Attendance | Closing the Gap.” Ctgreport.niaa.gov.au, 2020, bit.ly/34O3dhN. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
Australian Human Rights Commission. “Benefits of Reforming the Constitution.” Humanrights.gov.au, 2021, bit.ly/3I3RCJv. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. “Indigenous Health and Wellbeing - Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.” Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 23 July 2020, bit.ly/3p0nJ5C. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
Australians Together. “First Nations Disadvantage in Australia | Australians Together.” Australianstogether.org.au, 29 Nov. 2021, bit.ly/3sRET6n. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
Coper, Alan, et al. “When Did Aboriginal People First Arrive in Australia.” UNSW Newsroom, 7 Aug. 2018, bit.ly/3JEoc5d. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
Hutchings, Suzi. “Aboriginal People in Australia: The Most Imprisoned People on Earth - IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.” Www.iwgia.org, 22 Apr. 2021, bit.ly/3h02P23. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
Spirits, Jens Korff, Creative. “Australia Day - Invasion Day.” Creative Spirits, 26 July 2021, bit.ly/3sW4B9U. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
---. “Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech.” Creative Spirits, 17 July 2020, bit.ly/3I6QEMC. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.