Australia’s slow progress on Indigenous rights

We know progress on Indigenous rights can be stunted, but, as Marie Lamensch observed recently in Australia, without care it also be reversed.

By: /
May 1, 2019
A woman holds an Aboriginal flag in the central Sydney suburb of Redfern. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

When I travelled to Australia late last year to attend an international conference, there was no doubt that issues related to Indigenous peoples were as much a part of the public conversation down under as here in Canada.

Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders make up three percent of the population in Australia, but they are part of daily discourse. While I was there, local media reported on demands for territorial rights and constitutional recognition, problems of incarceration and police violence against Indigenous peoples, disproportionate poverty and suicide rates, and battles with the mining industry over resources.

Looking beyond the headlines, I discussed these matters with Australians and Canadians during and after the conference with the hopes of understanding what lessons the Australian case has to offer when it comes to Indigenous rights.

Colonization, exclusion, dispossession, assimilation — Australia and Canada have a similar history when it comes to the treatment of Indigenous people. In Australia, it appears that little has changed after years of considerable advancements between the 1960s and early 1990s. In the 1960s, Indigenous people were given the right to vote and were counted in the Australian census. The 1980s saw the promise of treaties with Indigenous peoples thanks to Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s “Barunga Statement,” which set out to recognize the rights of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, and later the Mabo Agreement and the Native Title Act. However, the end of the 1990s seemed to mark a stall in any progress, as statements and apologies were not followed by policies.

The creation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 was a foundational moment for many Indigenous peoples around the world. But Australia, along with New Zealand, the United States and Canada, initially voted against it. Although Australia adopted the declaration two years later, its initial refusal is emblematic of the difficult relationship the federal and state-level governments have with Australian Indigenous peoples, and of the views of many Australians toward its Indigenous communities.

What’s holding progress back?

Similar to the Canadian example, although UNDRIP has now been adopted in Australia, steps taken to transform words into action have been extremely slow and hesitant, for a number of reasons.

First, although around 40 percent of the county’s landmass is owned or under management of Indigenous peoples, demands for natural and cultural resources often hit a wall due to the contemporary laws on land ownership and property. Article 26 of UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” In Australia, Indigenous communities are responsible for proving that they have a continuous connection to the land, which has been extremely challenging because the Native Title Act of 1993 requires claimants to prove “continuity of traditional laws and customs on the land being claimed since European settlement.” This demand appears almost impossible to meet.

Second, an argument from Senator Marise Payne that the declaration “would permit the exercise of practices which would not be acceptable” shows that prejudice against Indigenous peoples and their customs and ways of life still exists among many Australians. Another example of this was the 2007 Northern Territory “Emergency Response” (or “NT Intervention”) during which government troops and welfare services were sent into Indigenous communities “to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory,” following a report about allegations of child abuse. A package of legislation was introduced that included welfare payments conditional on school attendance, compulsory health checks on children, abolition of Community Development Employment Projects, alcohol bans and new restrictions regarding Indigenous culture, custom and law. Many children were also removed from their families, bringing back memories of Stolen Generations.

While not denying the social problems that existed in the Northern Territory, the scholars and members of Indigenous communities I spoke with see the NT Intervention as an attempt to take over control of Indigenous communities, to discipline and govern them. Worse still, as a result of its top-down, patriarchal character, the NT Intervention may have made things worse, because it failed to take into consideration the needs of the community.

Third, the government still expects Indigenous peoples to become “part of the mainstream,” as former Prime Minister John Howard stated, and adopt the Western liberal values of Australian society. UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” While we are not speaking of “forced assimilation,” according to academic John Altman, who specializes in Indigenous economy, the goal of successive Australian governments has been “to integrate Indigenous people into the conventional economy and society” despite the will of many Indigenous groups not to do so. As Université Laval scholar Sylvie Poirier told me, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders hold very different world views than those of non-Indigenous Australians, particularly when it comes to social structures, property, agency, and economic and consumption practices. Her extensive anthropological studies of Indigenous communities show that where neoliberal values put emphasis on free market individualism, material accumulation and free market, Indigenous peoples believe in reciprocity, kinship, and ancestral and cosmological order.

"Perhaps most importantly, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are still not formally recognized in the Australian constitution."

Thus, despite land rights acquired by some Indigenous communities, current policies have not led to an improvement of their living conditions and social welfare. A 2017 report by UN special rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz heavily condemns Australia’s Indigenous incarceration and child removal rates, as well as the poor rates of education, health and employment among Indigenous communities. She described the situation as “quite unique here in Australia” and criticized the government’s lack of commitment to UNDRIP and self-determination. It appears many Indigenous peoples do not enjoy the basic way of life guaranteed not only by UNDRIP but also by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are still not formally recognized in the Australian constitution. This situation is unique in the Commonwealth — Canada, New Zealand and the United States all have treaties with their First Nations. For Australia, this means that the federal parliament is not obliged to consult with Indigenous people when it passes laws that could affect them. This goes against Article 19 of UNDRIP, which notes that “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent.” Similarly, Article 18 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”

This lack of recognition in the constitution and the absence of an official treaty is considered to be the central problem in the relationship between the government and Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do not have a voice in parliament and therefore rely on politicians to make decisions for them. How, then, can they influence policies and have authority over decisions that affect them?

In May 2017, for the first time in history, around 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gathered in Uluru — a sacred place for many Indigenous Australians — to hold a debate on constitutional reform. What came out of the gathering was the ground-breaking Uluru Statement, a proposal for constitutional reform that would establish a constitutionally enshrined First Nation representative body responsible for advising parliament on issues related to Indigenous peoples. The statement also calls for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission, which would supervise a process of agreement-making and a process of truth-telling. This would allow “the full extent of the past injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people to be uncovered and revealed,” according to the statement.

However, while political parties such as the federal Greens endorsed the proposal, it was met with strong opposition from Conservative politicians, including the recent government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with some saying the proposal was an attempt “to enshrine racial division in the constitution” and to “segregate” Australians by giving special privileges to a group of people.

Today, nearly two years after the Uluru Statement, things have not moved forward, despite intensive grassroots efforts across Australia to counter misinformation and gain support among the Australian population.

So what is the way forward? According to those I spoke to, a real shift is needed in the minds of the Australian people. The starting point could be the establishment of a truth, justice and reconciliation commission that would acknowledge the wrongs done to Indigenous communities in Australia. Such a commission should be accompanied by other educational efforts such as cultural initiatives. As Euan Hills, an activist and director of the Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery Art Mob, told me, “We see Aboriginal art as a wedge that gradually opens understanding of culture, and we know that what we do is formative in stimulating respect.”

Many continue to call for state and legal institutions to be decolonized as well — to be stripped of their prejudice about Indigenous beliefs and practices. That means that decision-makers need to give legitimacy to the cultures and beliefs of Indigenous peoples, particularly to their ideas about natural and cultural resources management and ownership. Until then, discriminatory laws will continue. This is why a constitutionally enshrined voice is important and why grassroots efforts for the support for the Uluru Statement must continue.

Changing the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians will take time, perhaps generations, much like in Canada. However, there may be a warning for Canada here, in fact: while advances can be made, without steps forward and openness to change, the clock can also turn back.