Australian indigenous affairs: a quick guide

Clinton Pryor arrived in Canberra last week. He walked from Perth. The 6,000 km journey took him over a year. The 27 year old Wajuk, Balardung, Kija and Yulparitja man went on the journey to discover the “truth of indigenous Australia”. He was changed forever by what he encountered.

“My people are living in poverty: third-world conditions, some with no water, food prices so high, jobs are not given to our people, suicide, lack of services, lack of education.”

The statistics back up his findings. Indigenous Australians make up 3% of Australia’s population. They die earlier than any other Aussie demographic and have worse health, education, economic and employment outcomes. Continuous attempts at government intervention have failed spectacularly. The last report on the ‘Closing the Gap’ program showed that the program was failing on six of its seven targets. Amnesty International, Oxfam and the United Nations have all said Australia should be doing better by it’s indigenous citizens.

An attempt here to summarise all of indigenous affairs is inevitably unfair – however, most Australians have relatively little knowledge of just what indigenous Aussies are up against. It’s a matter that is consistently under-recognised in mainstream news. I’m using Clinton’s list of demands as a basis to try and summarise a range of complex and troubling issues.

Clinton on day 181 in South Australia. Photo credited to Clinton Pryor and Noonie Raymond. Clinton’s site and blog can be found here.

Treaty negotiations, constitutional recognition and acknowledgment of First Nations soverignty

Since colonisation, Aboriginal Australians have been subject to a governmental system that they didn’t create, vote for, or – for a long time – actively participate in. It isn’t ancient history. There have only ever been eight indigenous Australian politicians in the Federal Parliament of Australia…ever. The first was Senator Neville Bonner in 1971. The next wasn’t until Senator Aden Ridgeway in 1999. That’s for the Senate. It wasn’t until 2010 that Ken Wyatt became the first indigenous Australian in the House of Representatives. The first woman, Senator Nova Peris, was welcomed in 2013.

Many indigenous Australians want sovereignty – the right to manage themselves by their own laws. In 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected on the Federal Parliament front lawn, in part as a protest demanding Aboriginal sovereignty. The protest has remained in place for over forty years. Demands of the Tent Embassy include land and mineral rights, legal and political control of the Northern Territory, and compensation for stolen land.

Aboriginal_Tent_Embassy,_Canberra_006A treaty is a possible compromise, or at least a step forward. Australia is the only Commonwealth nation to not have a treaty with its indigenous people. A treaty would be a document with legal ramifications, to formally and legally recognise that indigenous Australians were here before colonisation, that they have suffered from injustices, and offer possible pathways to compensation and reconciliation. Treaties aren’t uncommon. The British signed a treaty with 500 Maori chiefs in New Zealand, for example, in 1840. Canada and the United States have treaties dating back to the 1600’s.

The absence of a treaty means there is no constitutional, legal recognition that indigenous Australians previously occupied this country. Bob Hawke promised there’d be a treaty by 1990 – it never happened. Paul Keating made a landmark speech in Redfern, 1992, where he publicly acknowledged the harsh truths of indigenous Australian history. The Native Title Act came a year later, but John Howard damaged the movement significantly. He refused to take a ‘black armband’ view of history, saying that a country couldn’t have a treaty with itself. Kevin Rudd made the apology speech in 2008, but conversation over constitutional recognition and treaties remain. Part of the issue is that changes to the constitution require a referendum – where all of Australia votes. That scares Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, who has continually said he doesn’t feel a referendum would be suitable.

Prime Minister Paul Keating in Redfern, 1992. Photo from Fairfax.

As it stands, the Australian constitution still holds some disturbing clauses. Section 25 still says states can disqualify people from voting in elections on account of their race. Section 51 (xxvi) empowers the government to legislate for “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

There is a deep distrust, understandably, of any movements and processes that come from within the Australian government. Amongst Pryor’s list of demands is for the process of treaty negation to include funding to advocacy groups so that they stand equal with the government, for the process to be overseen by independent international observers, and for the disbanding of existing Aboriginal advisory council groups.

Mining and land rights

The world of Native Title and land rights is legally complex. However, many indigenous Aussies feel understandably ripped off when it comes to mining. While the Australian government has sold land to mining companies and reaped enormous profits as a result, the indigenous Australians who own(ed) the land originally get a mere fraction – if anything – from the deal. Apart from money, there’s the significant environmental impact from mining, and the destruction of sacred indigenous sites. Native Title is one of the only legal defence points for indigenous peoples when it comes to protecting land – it’s a piece of legislation from 1993. Clinton Pryor is among those who have major problems with the entire process. He’d like to see more control handed over to the indigenous people who originally owned the land before it was stolen from them.

Photo by Paul Miller.

Closed Communities

As recently as 2015, the government has moved to straight up ‘close’ some remote indigenous communities, which many see as a contemporary continuation of white Australia’s age-old practice of removing indigenous Australians from their homes. The WA government closed down the Oombulgurri community in the Kimberley in 2010. From The Guardian:

First, the government closed the services. It closed the shop, so people could not buy food and essentials. It closed the clinic, so the sick and the elderly had to move, and the school, so families with children had to leave, or face having their children taken away from them. The police station was the last service to close, then eventually the electricity and water were turned off.

In 2014, the government threatened similar action to over a hundred communities in Western Australia. The Abbot government withdrew funding support for remote communities, leaving the states to hold the financial burden. The West Australian government said they couldn’t do it, and would have to ‘shut down’ the communities – removing essential services. Abbot, once again insisting he put his foot right in his goddam mouth, said that the government wasn’t in the business of subsidising people’s ‘lifestyle choices’ by living in remote communities. Various government voices insisted the communities were filled with drug and alcohol abuse anyway. So why not shut them down?

Clinton Pryor would like support for the communities re-established.

Protesting Australia/Invasion Day in Brisbane, 2017. Photo by Dan Peleed. We discussed the Australia Day protests here.

The NT Intervention

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response was a package of changes to welfare, law enforcement and land rights in the NT that John Howard began in 2007 to address allegations of rampant child sexual abuse in indigenous communities. It was the government’s response to a report titled ‘Little Children are Sacred’. The government implemented just two of the ninety-seven recommendations from the report. 600 soldiers took part in the initial response, titled ‘Operation Outreach’. No one has been prosecuted for child sexual abuse as a result of the operation.

The NT National Emergency Response gave way to the ‘Stronger Futures’ policy under  Julia Gillard in 2012. Gillard supported the original response measures, as does Turnbull. Citing alcohol abuse, lack of school attendance and food availability, the government has continued a range of measures in the NT. The most recent and controversial has been the ‘cash card’, where welfare recipients spending is tracked, and 80% of their income must be spent on ‘essentials’. The government has expected the ‘Stronger Futures’ program to remain in place until 2022 – at which point it’ll be revised. They include limits to pornographic material, increased penalties for young indigenous Australians buying or holding alcohol and massive cuts to welfare payments if children miss school.

The range of measures are controversial, with advocates such as Clinton Pryor asking the government to butt the hell out of NT. Some indigenous leaders have restrained praise for the government’s moves, other organisations such as Amnesty International and some Christian groups find a lot to criticise. They say the intervention is racially biased and continue the government’s control over Aboriginal lives and land. The fundamental philosophy at the heart of the intervention is that indigenous Australians are under one rule of law, while the rest of Australia is under another.

Clinton Pryor’s other demands included a re-examination of indigenous deaths in custody and an investigation into family services relationships with indigenous Australians. His meeting with Turnbull lasted just twenty minutes. Turnbull didn’t offer any extensive public comment on the meeting. Pryor said he felt disrespected and unheard. He says he now hopes to meet with the Queen to ask for a treaty.

The issues are wide-ranging, controversial and unknown by many Australians. Politics aside, indigenous Australian men remain the most likely population to die by suicide anywhere in the world. Such statistics are a reminder that Australia is nowhere near reckoning with its racially violent past.

We’ll return on Friday with the week’s essential news.

If you like this blog, share it around.

Photo at the top by Brook Mitchell for the New York Times.




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