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Equality for Indigenous Australians

Today is the 20th anniversary of the first National Sorry Day, held on May 26 1998. On this day, then Prime Minister John Howard acknowledged the pain and suffering caused by the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families during the time of the Stolen Generation.


The Bringing Them Home report, tabled in 1997, highlighted the grief and loss experienced by the Indigenous community, and the disrespect of their culture, and of their human rights. It was found that one in three Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes and families under government assimilation policies. Sorry Day was created as a step towards reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, and its development was among 54 recommendations in the report.

On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister of the time Kevin Rudd gave an apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the past policies which “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians”. This was an important step in the acknowledgment of Indigenous mistreatment, and a movement towards reconciling the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities of Australia as one. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) also contributed $4.6 billion in this year to address health and economic development.

The creation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peopleshas been a huge moment in the advancement of International Indigenous Rights, and whilst Australia did originally vote against it, the Declaration was endorsed in 2009.

So why is it, that there remains such a gap in Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians? Statistically, the national imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults is around 15 times that of their non-Indigenous counterparts, and for Indigenous children in detention, the rate is around 23 times higher.

Additionally, the rate of unemployment for Indigenous Australians is over double that of the non-Indigenous. The Australian Human Rights Commission reported in 2013 that 20% of Aboriginal women experienced physical violence within the 12 months prior, and that Indigenous women were at least three times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-Indigenous women.

The Human Rights Watch reported last year that over half of Indigenous prison populations were living with a disability, of a physical, psychosocial or intellectual nature. Whilst there have been calls for an independent watchdog to be introduced in every state and territory to monitor the improvement of outcomes for these people, this has yet to be enforced. It is also unlikely that changes such as these will be able to come about, with the federal coalition government cutting $534 million from the budget for Commonwealth-funded Indigenous programs.

Even now, Amnesty International is working with Indigenous juveniles in detention who have been held in prolonged solitary confinement and are experiencing treatment which can be described under International Human Rights conventions are torture.

The 2018 Closing the Gap report shows that targets to improve life expectancy for Indigenous people by 2031 is not on track to be met. This cannot be achieved until the Australian government begins to deal with the leading causes of Indigenous child death, such as birth and pregnancy complications, foetal development disorders, and other cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. In fact, only one of seven of the targets from the Closing the Gap report is on target to be met, which is halving the gap in completing high school by 2020. The cycle of these inequalities need to end so Indigenous Australians have the same basic human rights as their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The matter of “reconciliation” faces its biggest hurdle in its definition. As Patrick Donson writes in his State of Reconciliation report, reconciliation has come to mean “improved services and economic participation for Indigenous people”, which is reconciliation on settler Australian terms. The forced closure of Aboriginal communities and failure to recognise Native Title claims is a failure from the Australian government to acknowledge Aboriginal connection to the land, and is a lack of respect to Indigenous culture.

Whilst the improvement of Indigenous health, education access, and life expectancy is seen as a priority to the Australian government and remains of upmost importance, Indigenous culture needs to be recognised as an important part of Australia’s history and current society in order to truly integrate the Indigenous community.

Words by Rachel Cowcher

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