Linda Burney
(Image: RMIT ABC Fact Check)

The claim

The question of Indigenous recognition has been debated for many years in state and federal politics in Australia.

On ABC’s Q&A, opposition spokeswoman for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said: “The Australian constitution is the only constitution of a first world nation with a colonial history that does not recognise its first people.”

“That’s the truth,” she said.

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Is that correct? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Ms Burney’s claim checks out.

Fact Check contacted experts for assistance in determining which countries fit the criteria of a “first world nation with a colonial history” and have first people.

The common candidates among these experts were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America.

Fact Check considered and rejected other potential countries, so the list is a short one.

Having said that, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all provide greater constitutional recognition of their first people than Australia.

Defining ‘first world nation’

The Macquarie Dictionary defines “first world” as “the economically developed, capitalist countries collectively, characterised by industrialisation, a comparatively high standard of living and usually a long-term democratic political system”.

As examples, it lists: “the United States, Japan, Great Britain, other Western European countries, Canada, Australia, etc”., the online dictionary powered by Oxford defines “first world” as: “The industrialized capitalist countries of western Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.”

Experts told Fact Check the term was originally used to describe the geopolitical world order during the Cold War, but is now regarded as outdated and sometimes offensive.

Susanne Schech, a professor of geography at Flinders University provided Fact Check with some background.

“‘Third World’ refers to the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America,” she said in an email.

“‘Second World’ refers to the communist/socialist countries of the Eastern bloc aligned with the Soviet Union, and ‘First World’ refers to the industrial, democratic and capitalist countries aligned with the US.”

Simon Feeney, a professor of economics, finance and marketing at RMIT University, said that referring to countries as “first world” is rare in a modern context and it has been replaced by other terms.

“Today, it probably means different things to different people, but I expect it is most commonly used to identify high income, industrialised, democratic countries,” he said.

“Such a hierarchical ranking can be viewed as offensive,” he said.

As an alternative, Feeney suggested the World Bank’s distinction between “developing” and “developed” countries, or its categorisation of nations according to income per person.

He also pointed to the Human Development Index (HDI), which is used by the United Nations Development Program and combines information on health, education and living standards.

Both experts also pointed to a newer, more relevant term: the “fourth world”.

Feeney told Fact Check: “The ‘fourth world’ is another (albeit contested) term that has sometimes been used to describe Indigenous populations experiencing exclusion and much lower living standards in wealthy countries.”

Schech said: “In addition, the term ‘Fourth World’ was developed in the 1970s in reference to ‘First Nations’ living within or across national state boundaries.”

Fact Check has previously written about the difficulty in defining which countries count as “developed”.

So in the search for broadly comparable first world countries relevant to Ms Burney’s claim, we revisited the lists of countries in the World Bank‘s high income economies, the United Nations very high level of “human development”, the International Monetary Fund‘s advanced economies and the OECD members.

Defining ‘first people’

Ms Burney spoke of “first people”, while in the Australian debate on constitutional recognition and in government more generally the more commonly used term is “Indigenous people”.

A working definition of “indigenous people” is provided by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in The United Nations’ State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples’ fourth volume, published in 2019.

The report said not adopting a formal definition for “indigenous peoples” was deliberate.

“This decision was taken intentionally by the drafters based on the rationale that the identification of an indigenous people is the right of the people itself — the right of self-identification and a fundamental element of the right to self-determination,” the report read.

But its working definition was: “Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.

“They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.”

The United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs also describes “indigenous people” as: “inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment.”

“They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.”

Both these definitions refer to dominance as a key concept.

Schech told Fact Check there was a distinction to be drawn on the basis of dominance. She cited former colonies such as India and Indonesia, “where the colonisers did not establish mass settlements. Most went back to their ‘mother countries’,” she said.

So, in assessing the claim, Fact Check considered countries where the first peoples are not the dominant population in society.

This is an excerpt from RMIT ABC Fact Check. Read the full article here.

Principal researcher: Christina Arampatzi

Additional research: Brinley Duggan and Claire Maher

© RMIT University 2019

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