Australia's new Aboriginal policy falls short of expectations

Jamie Macfarlane February 15, 2010

Indigenous communities struggle for global recognition

Worldfocus intern Jamie Macfarlane writes about the Australian government's attempts to make amends for historical injustice to Aboriginal people.

"We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians ... "

In February 2008, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a historic move in offering a full and unreserved apology for Australia's historic treatment of Aborigines.

But many Western countries have a deep unease about such apologies. Rudd's predecessor, Prime Minister John Howard, would only describe his "regret," and in the United States, no president has ever come close to publicly addressing the totality crimes inflicted on Native Americans.

Apologies are hard to give when the historical narrative of a nation's ascendancy entirely sidesteps what happened to its indigenous inhabitants.

When Rudd spoke two years ago outside the halls of parliament, a crowd of Aborigines listened - many in tears - displaying what it meant to be recognized.

At the time, skeptics argued that Rudd - who refused to make any financial reparations - had made a meaningless apology. Australian prime ministers, like presidents of the United States, have long been promising that their government would finally reverse ill treatment of the indigenous population.

However, time and time again, these new dawns have quickly faded.

Prime Minister Rudd returned to parliament last week to report on the "next chapter in the history of this great country." The prime minister reported that progress was slow because "generations of indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight."

Rudd's new chapter rests upon a $4.8 billion Close the Gap program, targeting Aboriginal disadvantages from high infant mortality to poor education levels.

By almost every socioeconomic indicator, Aboriginal poverty is reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa. The life expectancy of indigenous people in Australia is 17 years lower than the rest of the population; the rate of infant mortality is twice as high; and, an ethnic group that makes up 2% of the population accounts for 24% of the incarcerated.

"Lady, I pay rent to the government for sleeping on a mattress in the desert. I have no home, I don't have a voice, no one is listening to me or my family," said a 90 year old Aboriginal elder to Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Rudd's assessment of his Aboriginal policies two years on largely ignored the second great Indigenous issue: native sovereignty.

Unlike in America, where a library of treaties sets out the parameters of tribal sovereignty, Australia has historically made little pretense at recognizing Aboriginal land rights. Australia had legally been a terra nullis, and thus, the first property rights belonged to the settlers.

It was not until 1992 that the Supreme Court finally overruled the concept of terra nullis, leaving in its wake a persistent ambiguity over when Aboriginals can claim back land.

This is the fundamental problem for indigenous sovereignty the world over. Nations like Australia and the United States were built upon the seizure of indigenous land based upon a legality that cannot be justified in the modern day. Today, with any new chapter for indigenous people invariably involving the return of their lands, how can modern nations redress past injustice - whilst protecting the property interests of the dominant group?

There is also little consensus on the issue of whether to follow the American Indian model of communal land ownership or to allow Aboriginals to assume private land rights. The former keeps indigenous community lands together, whilst the latter gives Aborigines that cornerstone of Western society: individual property rights.

Another big problem with Prime Minister Rudd's understanding of indigenous sovereignty is an ongoing Intervention in the Northern Territory, where Aborigines make up 32.5% of the population. Rudd has continued his predecessor's policy of suspending indigenous rights of self-government in the Northern Territory with the help of a police and military presence.

Aborigine communities are banned from having alcohol; the federal government dictates where natives can spend their welfare payments; and parents are heavily punished if their children fail to attend school.

This controversial policy was precipitated by a shocking report concerning widespread child abuse among indigenous communities in 2007.

Indigenous politicians are outraged, but Rudd faces a dilemma that displays the fundamental paradox of his position. The government feels that it must interfere to deal with desperate problems in indigenous communities, whilst needing to respect Aboriginal sovereignty.

Many argue that this is the problem with the entire "Close the Gap" program, as Rudd tries to deliver change from Canberra - as opposed to empowering native communities.

The issue with Rudd's apology is that it is far from clear how Australia can make amends. The daunting task of closing the gap is met with an equally challenging question of how to give Aboriginal governments control of their own lands.

Indigenous communities struggle for global recognition

Jamie Macfarlane February 26, 2010

Photo: Flickr user Keith Bacongo

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, laying out the fundamental rights of the more than 370 million indigenous people living throughout the world.

The Declaration's main goals are to protect the traditional lands of indigenous communities, as well as their right to self-government and control over natural resources. It also aims to safeguard cultural independence.

The United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - the four English-speaking nations with significant indigenous populations - were the only countries to vote against the Declaration. Recently, Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reversed this decision and signed the document.

During Worldfocus' series on Indigenous Cultures, we have shown the severe threats facing native communities across the world. For more on the issue, Jamie Macfarlane interviewed Renee Davis and Tiffany Waters, research associates at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.

Worldfocus: Has the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People made a meaningful difference to the lives of indigenous communities around the globe?

Davis: The Declaration holds meaning in setting a standard of Indigenous sovereignty over their lands and resources and to self determination. However, at this point, the Declaration holds more meaning as a standard to be embraced than a legally enforceable document.

Worldfocus: Why do the United States, Canada and New Zealand refuse to sign the Declaration?

Davis: While Australia has recently overturned their opposition to the Declaration, the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand say they oppose the Declaration for various reasons.

Much of the opposition from the US, Canada, and New Zealand surrounds Articles 3 and 26, in which the inherent right to self-determination and control over Indigenous resources and lands are recognized, and Article 32, in which it is required that the State Government obtain an Indigenous peoples "free and informed consent" before exploiting resources or lands that affect Indigenous peoples.

One analyst, Ronald Kakungulu (2009), has suggested that there is a fundamental reason for opposition that joins these three states: "They have a history of using the now discredited doctrines of discovery and terra nullius (empty land) to grab indigenous people's lands."

Worldfocus: How does the treatment of Native Americans in the United States compare to the treatment of indigenous peoples in other English-speaking nations?

Davis: We can't answer in a "better/worse than" way. Structurally, these States have similar relationships with their indigenous populations: treaties, trust relationships, etc. But there is something that does stand out. Compared to the other English-speaking countries, American Indians have a much greater bureaucratic interface with the federal government, cultivated over the last 40 years of American tribes assuming more functions of the federal government in their own communities.

Worldfocus: Are there examples of Indigenous self-government that you see as models that could be introduced across the world?

Davis: We don't see one broad model of indigenous self-government that could be applicable worldwide. With so many culturally diverse societies, we can't expect there to be one single way in which self-government emerges.

A structure of self-governance has to come from within and be built on a peoples own place and culture specific foundations. Thus, we cannot point to one particular group and take them as an example of successful self-government to be applied worldwide.

However, we can look at what qualities and characteristics can facilitate an indigenous nation's strength: it must build and assert its political authority, formulate its own policies, laws, regulations and standards, and have Indigenous and tribal leaders that can maintain political flexibility and agility in a constantly shifting and changing world.


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There are indeed policies and

There are indeed policies and regulations that should be implemented by this group of people.It's for their safety that will let them be protected as time goes by. Correlation doesn't, and will not, ever prove causality. The recent allegation that payday lenderson reservations are the cause of poverty on Indian reservations is one of the most ludicrous idea I've ever heard. Granted, it does raise questions about sovereign immunity, yes, but there was poverty on reservations FAR before payday lenders showed up. It's like seeing a cancer sufferer that is imbibing orange juice, and exclaiming ah ha! Orange juice causes cancer.

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