Indigenous disadvantage in Australia began with dispossession and displacement. Disadvantage through discrimination, intergenerational poverty and the loss of autonomy through government policies has entrenched it. Renting a home, gaining employment, getting service are all times when Indigenous people are often racially profiled and discriminated against. Such disadvantage increases the likelihood of further disadvantage. When a home environment is poor there is less chance to study or be encouraged, making learning difficult. This is exacerbated further through poor nutrition and hearing loss through ear infections. Poverty lowers self-esteem, increasing the chances of illness, death and the likelihood of arrest and incarceration. All these factors entrench Indigenous disadvantage rather than allowing the opportunity of further education, increased employability and higher income. It is only through listening to Indigenous people, acting upon their recommendations, increasing opportunity for them, and educating the general population to be proud of their nation’s Indigenous heritage will such systematic and intergenerational disadvantage be able to be overcome.
There have been many reports made and commissions appointed by the Crown to try and solve Indigenous disadvantage over recent years. Many of their recommendations advocate listening to solutions from Indigenous communities themselves. In 2007 the Northern Territory government produced a report titled “Little Children are Sacred”. The Report was commissioned because of allegations of sexual abuse of Indigenous children raised within Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Disempowerment and poverty were creating conditions that were producing family violence and the sexual abuse of men, women and children. This was seen by the Report as a symptom of a breakdown of Indigenous society and culture. In the course of consulting with the affected communities, the Report’s authors found that there was a thread of common concepts that emerged. Some of these were dialogue, empowerment, ownership, reconciliation, family, culture, and law.
The recommendations made by the Report were based upon a consultative view of Indigenous affairs. It was recommended that the Northern Territory legal system consult with Indigenous women and men to resolve how cultural and state law can be combined together to create better outcomes for Indigenous communities. Such consultation with Indigenous communities is considered a generally accepted principle in international law. This is reflected the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007, which Australia ratified in 2009. However, the Federal government of the time took little notice of the Report’s recommendations and, particularly, went against the advice that action should be local rather than centralized. Thus the Howard administration instigated the Northern Territory National Emergency Response 2007 which alienated many communities and left them feeling degraded and skeptical of the motives of government assistance.
The Northern Territory National Emergency Response was called “The Intervention” and it was carried out with great speed, as stipulated in the Little Children Are Sacred Report. Unfortunately, that was perhaps the only part of the Report’s recommendations that the Federal Government followed. There was no comprehensive policy development, and the consultation that was so carefully undertaken with affected communities by the Report’s authors was cast aside for political expedience. The Intervention lasted five years until 2012 and was a statutory approach to a complex problem which had no process of evaluation to analyze whether it was successful at dealing with the problems outlined by the Report in any way. Rather than being a solution, it became a divisive piece of legislation that lacked the required transparency and accountability. It appeared to be more about techniques of governance designed to allay voters’ concerns or biases and normalize Indigenous Australians within a second class citizenship. At no time did it take into account the fears of Indigenous communities through a consultative approach but used a blunt statutory instrument as a reaction to allegations that appeared to outrage the general public.
In 2013 Tony Abbott was elected as Prime Minister on a platform that he intended to be the first “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”. Following the end of the Intervention in 2012, Mr Abbott stated: ‘I am reluctant to decree further upheaval in an area that’s been subject to one and a half generations of largely ineffectual ‘reform’. However, in the year after being elected Mr Abbott engaged the government on the exact opposite of that intention by making deep funding cuts and radically re-shaping existing programs and services, again without consultation. The centralization of Indigenous Affairs was purported to be an aid to streamlining programs and achieving practical outcomes. Therefore, rather than consulting Indigenous groups as required by international law, many local Indigenous services and programs were consolidated into the central office of the Prime Minister.
Immediately after Mr Abbott’s election he appointed the mining magnate, Andrew Forrest, to review Indigenous training and employment services. The Forrest Review made some key welfare recommendations which were punitive and paternalistic in their outlook. The Forrest Review focuses on what it terms ‘strength of will’ for Indigenous Australians to achieve parity with the rest of the Australian population. In his introduction Andrew Forrest declares that ‘there is no disparity in employment between [Indigenous] Australians with a decent education and other Australians’. However, one of the sources that the Report refers to actually contradicts this assertion. It states that ‘the ‘net difference’ effects are quite large (20.0% for males and 19.1% for females), indicating that Indigenous employment rates are typically poorer, even after we take education into account.’ This appears to indicate that there is a fundamental problem in the attitudes other Australians have towards Indigenous Australians which excludes them from the benefits of employment. Therefore, rather than focusing various reviews and reports on what Indigenous people can do to help themselves out of a calamitous set of circumstances, it would seem more prudent to focus on what other Australians can do in their own lives to adjust their attitudes towards Indigenous Australians.
While the Forrest Review focuses on what Indigenous Australians can do to improve their lives, through education and parenting, it ignores the main problem of Indigenous people. Racism and negative stereotyping, as well as the incarceration of Indigenous Australians for minor offences at a far higher rate than other Australians, are inherent and underlying problems that can only be solved through education and engagement, not of Indigenous Australians but of other Australians. By ignoring this problem, one that effects indigenous populations across the globe, all the money and time spent on reviews, reports and commissions will always be to no avail, and negative statistics on Indigenous lives will continue to grow exponentially. When a young fifteen year old boy dies in prison while serving a twenty day mandatory sentence for stealing pencils and paper, it becomes quite evident that a society that demands mandatory sentences that affects Indigenous Australians the most cannot demand that Indigenous Australians change their attitudes to address the disparity between them and other Australians. It is the utmost example of victim blaming. The problem is societal, therefore attitudes in the greater society need to be changed through education and also through subliminal methods such as national symbolism.
National symbolism is one immediate way that we can educate all other Australians that this land was the home of Indigenous people for over forty thousand years before it was colonized by Britain. The Australian Constitution was written at a time when the concept of terra nullius still prevailed. In the mindset of most Australians, Australia was an empty land that was settled and civilized by the British. Indigenous people were dismissed as a dying race not worthy of citizenship and were not mentioned in the Constitution. As it stands it is a document that excludes Australia’s first people, and allows the enactment of laws that are racially discriminatory. Any protections under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) have been removed three times in history and all those involved Indigenous Australians. The Northern Territory Emergency Response is an example of one time when the RDA was suspended. Again, the Forrest Review with its advocacy of a “Healthy Welfare Card” and punitive measures for dealing with Indigenous parents and children is another example of Indigenous Australians separate second class status under the Constitution. To build a relationship of mutual respect and trust within a multicultural society the Constitution should be changed to ensure it does not discriminate against anyone through giving Indigenous Australians less rights than others. For other Australians, constitutional change will engender the idea that Australia has a shared identity, one that is over forty thousand years old, and the other of a new nation being built together.
Another important symbol of national identity is the Australian flag. Over the past few decades there has been debate about changing the flag to represent the modern nation of Australia. Having the Union Jack on the flag perpetuates the fallacy of terra nullius. It shows the Southern Cross as representing the new nation but stamps British colonization in the left hand corner as its primary source. This flag is a reminder to all Indigenous Australians of their dispossession and displacement. Through changing the flag to include the recognition of first Australians, all Australians, no matter where they have come from, will understand the place of Indigenous Australians in this land, being the custodians of this land for tens of thousands of years. Changing the flag and recognizing Indigenous Australians in the Constitution would be the beginning of educating other Australians against racism and negative stereotyping. It would be a mark of respect for the elders of the land, and allow non-Indigenous Australians to include themselves as part of this enormous ongoing history. We would not be a new nation, but an ancient one with a continuing collective identity.
Indigenous Australians experience endemic racism which perpetuates the disadvantages that are clearly outlined in ongoing statistical studies. Solutions which disallow autonomy or entrench systemic discrimination are not of assistance. Solutions that advocate empowerment and equity need to be acted upon in accordance with the UN Conventions that Australia has ratified and is obligated to uphold. Equitable educational opportunities should be at the forefront of any Indigenous policy. Management of discriminatory and racist attitudes in Australian society through changing the Constitution and the flag to educate and illustrate the reality of Australian settlement and society should be the foundation of Indigenous policy. Therefore consulting with Indigenous communities on a local level and acting upon their recommendations, keeping government obligations to create equity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through education and opportunity, and imbuing the general population of Australia with knowledge of their exceptional Indigenous heritage, will go a long way towards assisting the law to create positive solutions towards ending endemic and systemic discrimination.
Global protest has been prominent since the late 1990s. It is a reaction to dominant forces of multinational corporations undermining democratically elected governments, and the people’s own identity through citizenship, across the globe. For a few years these protests were quelled because of the threat of terrorism. However, since the new global financial crisis that began in 2008 which evidenced the complete and utter disregard that these corporations, citing their status as natural persons, have had for the real occupants of the world, new protest movements are burgeoning everywhere. It is imperative that we contemplate the vastness and autonomy of these corporations and perceive how global governance must be consolidated to be able to harness such forces for the peace and security of all. Therefore, a global social contract must be established.
Monoprints by Janet Elizabeth Thomas (2010)