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Indigenous people: the road to reconciliation and future issues

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their supporters have advocated a move towards reconciliation in Australia since 1960. Reconciliation is a process promoting the awareness of the rights of Indigenous Australians, while attempting to improve relations between them and the wider community. Formal efforts in this area have been made by groups such as The People's Movement for Reconciliation and its predecessor, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. These have sought to educate Australians of the past wrongs committed against Indigenous Australians and address the widespread social and economic disadvantages affecting them. Events in which these issues were addressed include the Mabo decision—which in 1992 overturned the doctrine of 'terra nullius'—and the release of a report that, in effect, apologised for the removal of Aboriginal children (or the 'Stolen Generation') from their families during the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, Australia's government has adopted the approach of 'practical reconciliation'—emphasising issues of living standards, education and employment over those of cultural identity or formal recognition. This chapter discusses moves towards reconciliation at government, non-government and community levels and the future challenges shaping these.

Reconciliation issues

A leading group promoting an awareness of Indigenous issues in Australia is The People's Movement for Reconciliation. The group has outlined several key issues of reconciliation, which may be summarised as follows:

  • recognising Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of Australia
  • overcoming disadvantages suffered by Indigenous people as the result of dispossession from traditional lands, separation of Indigenous children from their families and discouragement of Indigenous peoples from participation in Australia's economic and social development
  • promoting social cohesion among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider Australian community

Reconciliation is argued to be necessary because of the mentioned social, economic and political injustices suffered by Indigenous people in Australia's history. Such issues are outlined below in further detail.

Cultural identity and history

It is argued that a major step on the road to reconciliation is acceptance of the cultural identity and history of Indigenous Australians by the wider community. Some of the factors to be recognised include:

  • the traditional and historical connection that Indigenous Australians have had with the physical environment and the desire had to preserve the environment, especially sacred sites
  • the effect that racist or ethnocentric policies and practices by past governments has had on relations between Australia's Indigenous population and the wider community—for example, the removal of Indigenous Australian children from their families in the 1950s and 1960s
  • the distinctiveness of Indigenous Australian culture, which is not based on skin colour but on ancestral history, language, spirituality and outlook, incorporating not just traditional ceremonies and practices but also contemporary literature, theatre, art, music and other media
  • the need for an accurate and balanced view of Australia's history which incorporates the stories and perspectives of Indigenous Australians, and highlights past injustices committed against them and the link this has with the situation of those still marginalised 

Social and economic disadvantage

An important part of reconciliation is addressing the social and economic disadvantages suffered by Indigenous Australians. These comprise one of Australia's most disadvantaged groups in the area of health, life expectancy (20 years less than the life expectancy of other Australians), employment, and the availability of housing and basic necessities. Poor standards of education for some groups have been linked with the impact of poor health, such as hearing damage from chronic ear infection suffered by 93 per cent of children in remote areas. Indigenous health has been further exacerbated by the condition of households in such areas. In 2002, approximately nine percent of Indigenous households were living in overcrowded conditions and thus more susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases linked to the stress put on basic household facilities. Further, 31 per cent of dwellings in such areas required major repair or replacement and 153 had no organised sewerage supply. This has also contributed to low mortality rates, with 76 per cent of Indigenous males and 65 per cent of Indigenous females dying before the age of 65, and the infant mortality rate two-and-a-half times higher than the rate for other Australians. A higher likelihood also exists for Indigenous people to contract diabetes, heart, respiratory and kidney diseases. The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is 38 per cent compared with seven-and-a-half per cent for the wider population, and only 28 per cent of them own their own home compared with 67 per cent of all Australians. These economic and social disadvantages have been shown to be a major underlying cause of other problems, such as a higher rate for Indigenous Australians being jailed and dying in custody than for non-Indigenous Australians. See animation 1

Political rights

The need for a sense of political control or 'self-determination' by Indigenous Australians has been argued to be needed for reconciliation. One of the arguments for this has emphasised that it was not until a 1967 referendum that Indigenous Australians became fully recognised as citizens. Self-determination has been promoted by groups like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which has elected regional councils and commissioners who implement programs and decisions that address the rights of the Indigenous and thus affect reconciliation. A formal document or treaty recognising new understandings between the Indigenous and wider population on a national level has also been called for by some groups.

Reconciliation approaches

Efforts to address reconciliation have been made by non-government organisations (NGOs) such as Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), and at a government level through constitutional means and common law and legislation. Government approaches have been aided by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), which is an independent agency responsible for reporting on these and to address inquiries made into such issues as the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. It has also assisted the government and courts to devise laws, programmes and policies addressing reconciliation.

Key developments made on the road to reconciliation have included:

  • 1994: The right to vote in federal and State elections granted to Indigenous Australians in New South Wales, Victoria South Australia and Tasmania
  • 1962: Federal voting rights given to Indigenous Australians in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory
  • 1967: Full citizenship rights and the right to be counted in the census passed to Indigenous Australians by referendum
  • 1975: The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) passed and recognition given by Senate to prior ownership of the continent by Indigenous Australians
  • 1976: The Aboriginal Land Rights Northern Territory Act 1976 (Cth) passed, allowing claims by Indigenous Australians to traditional ownership of land
  • 1983: The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW) passed, allowing the purchase of land by the government for Aboriginal communities
  • 1990: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) established, pushing for greater self-determination for Indigenous people
  • 1991: The Council for Aboriginal reconciliation established, promoting recognition of the history and culture of, and awareness of past wrongs committed against, Indigenous Australians, and addressing social and economic disadvantages
  • 1992: Passing of the Mabo judgement by the High Court, declaring Native Title rights for Torres Strait Murray Islanders and, significantly rejecting 'terra nullius' which had previously argued that Australia was unoccupied before British settlement
  • 1993: The Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) passed and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Land Fund created to provide funds to buy land and to develop it to provide economic, social and cultural benefits
  • 1996: Wik decision passed by the High Court, finding Native Title could coexist with pastoral rights on pastoral leases
  • 1997: Wik Bill passed by the Senate, based on the Federal Government's 'ten-point plan' and developed to amend the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth)

Current approaches

The current approach of Australia's government is one of 'practical reconciliation' emphasising the issue of improving living standards, education and employment over those of cultural identity or formal recognition. This approach has been criticised on the grounds that expenditure on living standards, education and employment were already being made by previous governments and so these changes have not added any benefit. It has been also criticised for ignoring social and cultural damage caused by the removal of Indigenous people from their traditional lands and the separation of Indigenous children from their families. Further, it is argued the approach assumes that Indigenous people should rely on mainstream services and be better off assimilating into Australian society.

Future approaches

Suggestions for future approaches to reconciliation have been made on the level of government and by other groups and individuals. While the federal government has looked at the future progress of investment in housing and communal ownership of land for Indigenous Australians, others such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr William Jonas, have called for the negotiation of treaties or agreements to protect future rights and address past injustices. Calls for more transparency and accountability in government policy-making, and for a Bill of Rights addressing racial discrimination in the Commonwealth constitution have been further made. See animation 2

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1. Which of the following economic and social disadvantages have been shown to be a major underlying cause for other problems such as a high rate for Indigenous Australians being jailed and dying in custody?

A high unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians at 38% compared with 7.5% for the wider population

A low home ownership rate for Indigenous Australians at 28% compared with 67% of all Australians

A higher likelihood for Indigenous Australians to contract diabetes, heart, respiratory and kidney diseases

All of the above


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