If there’s one issue that marks Australia out as an international pariah, it’s extreme indigenous disadvantage. While the mining boom burbles along as a boy wonder of the global market, images of Third World-style conditions in bush camps continue to put a lie to the “lucky country” narrative.
The indigenous population lags behind on nearly every major social indicator. Making up 2.5% of the Australian population, indigenous people are vastly over-represented when it comes to poverty, life expectancy, health problems, disability, psychological distress and unemployment, according to the ABS. There is just one indigenous MP, Ken Wyatt, currently serving in the House of Representatives and only three Aborigines have ever been elected to federal parliament.
The current government has committed itself to Closing the Gap, a national intergovernmental program meant to address the disadvantages that indigenous Australians face. Under this program, the state and federal administrations aim to:
- close the gap in life expectancy (the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous life expectancy is 11.5 years in males and 9.7 years for females)
- halve the gap in mortality rates for indigenous children under five by 2018
- ensure access to early childhood education for all indigenous four year olds in remote communities by 2013
- halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018
- halve the gap for indigenous students in Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rates by 2020
- halve the gap in employment outcomes between indigenous and other Australians by 2018
The government has sought to directly intervene in the most disadvantaged indigenous communities in the NT, reshaping the policies of John Howard and Mal Brough’s NT intervention through the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory bills. The legislation seeks to address alcohol abuse, land reform and food security. Under the oversight of the federal government, penalties for alcohol possession on Aboriginal land will be increased, failure for children to attend school will be discouraged through a decrease in welfare payments, X-rated material will be banned in certain areas and customary law considerations can be excluded in sentencing and bail decisions.
So what have the major parties promised on indigenous affairs?
Labor reiterated its support for the Closing the Gap program in its 2011 national platform, and says it recognises the disadvantage that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders face in their daily lives. Areas selected for specific attention include literacy, numeracy, employment, infant mortality, life expectancy and education. Labor aims to close the gap by:
- overcoming decades of under-investment in services and infrastructure
- establishing clear expectations for governments, and holding all governments to account for their progress
- supporting personal responsibility as the foundation for healthy, strong families and communities
- building strong, respectful and robust relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, so that we can work in partnership
The platform commits the party to investment in healthcare for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders of every age, along with better access to education, employment and housing.
Labor is in favour of the official acknowledgement of indigenous people in the constitution. It has passed a bipartisan Act of Recognition through Parliament committing to some change, however no referendum will be held on the issue until community support reaches an adequate level.
The ALP has preselected former sprinter Nova Peris for a winnable NT Senate slot, a move Julia Gillard says was explicitly designed to increase the party’s paucity of indigenous representation.
Under its 2010 election policy, the Coalition outlined nine key areas. In March, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott pledged that he would put indigenous affairs at the centre of government by establishing a “Prime Minister of Aboriginal Affairs”. The Indigenous Affairs portfolio would be relocated to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In its “Our Plan” policy precis released in January, the Coalition said it would “encourage indigenous Australians to get ahead” by:
- working with indigenous communities to bring in a new suite of purposeful and innovative strategies
- eliminating red tape and streamline programmes to move away from the complex web of overlapping initiatives
- directing funding away from bureaucracies and overlapping and competing programmes towards local communities and real action
- working with families to ensure all indigenous children attend school every day
- supporting the Australian Employment Covenant and its many supporting employers to create more opportunities for indigenous Australians to get ahead and actively engage more indigenous Australians in real jobs
- providing $10 million to fund four trial sites to train 1000 indigenous people for guaranteed jobs, working with the Australian Employment Covenant and Generation One
- ending training for training’s sake and implement employment or work for the dole programmes
- Tony Abbott continuing to spend a week a year in a remote community, to gain a better understanding of people’s needs
The party has also said it would retain former ALP national secretary Tim Gartrell as head of the group campaigning for constitutional recognition. And Abbott said last year he wants “authentic” Aborigines in parliament to join Wyatt.
The Greens’ indigenous affairs policies emphasise the respect and deference owed to the First Australians. Like Labor and the Coalition, the party seeks to obtain constitutional recognition of the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in pre-1788 Australia. Furthermore, it aims to provide equal access to services such as health, education, training, housing, community infrastructure, employment support, and policing. Under their watch, the Greens will:
- provide protection and respect for indigenous cultural rights
- prioritise programmes to improve indigenous health
- establish community initiatives to address issues of family violence, alcohol and substance abuse
- incorporate indigenous culture and language into the education system
- repeal the Stronger Futures legislation
- establish effective heritage protection laws and protection bodies
- ensure food security for indigenous populations in regional and remote areas.