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Whither the Aborigine

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From the Fall 2015 Issue "Food Fight"

By Pauline Moullot

KALGOORLIE, Australia—March 10, 2015 was a quiet day in Kalgoorlie, a mining town of under 30,000 people in Central Western Australia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott was visiting, and he was expected to comment on the announced closing of up to 150 remote aboriginal communities by Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett. The turmoil erupted when he chose to back Barnett’s plan in a particularly undiplomatic fashion.

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices,” Abbott told an Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter. “If people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school,” he began, “if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, there’s a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there.” The Prime Minister’s comment touched off a controversy Australia hadn’t seen for years. Protests swept through cities across the nation and echoed abroad. Indigenous leaders and the political opposition united in condemning the lack of common sense and understanding demonstrated by the conservative leader. But that was only the beginning. 

In the Australian edition of The Guardian a month later, the UN Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, called Abbott’s comment about lifestyle choices “racist,” and said that “it really shows how uncommitted some governments are in relation to their compliance to human rights instruments.” 

When the first British settlers arrived in Australia in the last decade of the 18th century, they declared the land “Terra Nullius”—”the land of nobody.” The initial colonizers held that indigenous people had no rights and were subject to English law. This failure to recognize the aboriginal people from the earliest days of the colony is at the heart of the complex relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Are the native people of Australia victims of discrimination? The question arises every time there is a new policy affecting the aborigines. The shuttering of these remote communities in Western Australia is yet another example of this long-lasting debate happening across the country. 

On Sept. 13, 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Education, health, employment, and languages rights were priorities of the Declaration. One hundred forty three countries voted to approve. Though Australia ended up ratifying the declaration two years later, it joined Canada, New Zealand, and the United States in voting against it at the time. Their vote hardly came as a surprise. The relationship of these countries with their own native people mirrored that of Australia. 

According to the United Nations, there are 370 million indigenous people in the world today, scattered across 70 countries where they are often vastly outnumbered by more recent arrivals. Seven million live in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. All are high-income countries, and they all share a common history of British settlers displacing those they found on their arrival, centuries ago. 

A UN report, State of the World’s Indigenous People, ranks Australia’s indigenous people 103rd on the Human Development Index (HDI), the same level as those of Cape Verde and El Salvador. They are well behind American Indian and Alaska Natives (30th), Canadian aboriginals (32nd), and New Zealand Maori (73rd). In 2001, according to that same index, non-indigenous Australians ranked third; Americans, seventh; Canadians, eighth; and New Zealanders, twentieth.

The report also shows Australia has the worst gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous people. Aboriginals live 20 years less than non-indigenous Australians, a rate similar to that in Nepal. Guatemala (13 years), Panama (10), Mexico (6), Canada (7), and New Zealand (11) all have lower gaps in lifespan between their indigenous and non-indigenous populations. 

 

BACK IN THE OUTBACK

There are 274 remote aboriginal communities in Western Australia. Indigenous people account for under 3 percent of the Australian population, yet they comprise 15 percent of Australians living in remote areas, and up to 46 percent of those living in very remote areas. These two categories are at the bottom of the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) that classifies localities according to their road distance to service centers.  

In a country of 3 million square miles and 23.4 million people—some 89 percent of them urban—government subsidies for indigenous people remain a crucial matter, especially when they affect those living in remote communities. Though its government is founded on British common law and equality for all, Australia is still divided between whites and blacks. Every time a government—labor or conservative—proposes new legislation targeting the indigenous, a controversy is anticipated. This time, researchers and aboriginal elders responded to the Western Australia plan to close remote communities with near unanimity. “Our Prime Minister seems determined to make a fool of himself,” concluded Jon Altman, a fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University.

“Lifestyle choices,” as Abbott described them, sounds rather astonishing coming from a prime minister known for his commitment to “bridging the gap” between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. Abbott even calls himself the “Prime Minister for indigenous people.” Visiting aboriginal communities was one of his campaign promises—a pledge he kept in late 2014, going to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. This remote area of Australia was at the heart of the 2007 Intervention, and is home to some of the greatest aboriginal leaders of the country. 

The Intervention, officially known as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, was aimed at changing the welfare and law enforcement systems in aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory after child sexual abuse scandals came to light. The plan was launched by then Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative government and divided the nation. 

It removed the power and autonomy of the Northern Territory government in Darwin. Federal authorities sent the army into remote communities, started controlling welfare income, banned pornographic material, banned the use of kava—an Indonesian psychotropic plant used by some aboriginal people in traditional ceremonies but also consumed as a drug—and criminalized drinking in aboriginal areas. Indigenous people with criminal records were also prohibited from purchasing and consuming alcohol. 

In 2010, James Anaya, the UN rapporteur on indigenous people, pointed out the stigmatic effect of the Intervention. This response, he wrote, “limits the capacity of indigenous individuals and communities to control or participate in decisions affecting their own lives, property, and cultural development, and it does so in a way that in effect discriminates on the basis of race, thereby raising serious human rights concerns,” which he concluded were “incompatible with Australia’s human rights obligations.” 

Large blue and white signs from the Australian Government Initiative appeared at the entrance of every aboriginal community. “Warning, Prescribed Area,” they said in big letters. “No Alcohol, no pornography.” Then, elaborating, they continued, “It’s an offence to bring, possess, consume, supply, sell, or control liquor beyond this point without a liquor permit or licence.” And finally, “It’s an offence to bring, possess, supply, sell or transport certain pornographic material beyond this point.” The signs then concluded by detailing penalties the violators could face. 

No one in the communities was consulted before the Intervention started. The policy received bipartisan support in Parliament, but indigenous women and elders could only witness what was happening without giving their consent. “People were so bitter about it,” Lynne Walker reflects eight years later. Walker, 53, has been Nhulunbuy’s Labour Party MP since 2008. She was on the ground to witness the aftermath of the Intervention in her region and she insists on the “disempowerment” this policy sparked. “Indigenous males were made to feel like they were all pedophiles,” she says about the pornographic ban. She recalls a meeting regarding this policy in 2007. People couldn’t understand it. “One old man stood up and said ‘Show me where the pedophiles are in my community, and I’ll make sure that they’re gone, but you label all of us pedophiles under this legislation,’” she remembers. 

The Little Children Are Sacred, a report about pedophile acts in aboriginal communities, was the official trigger to the Intervention. The policy was expected to tackle supposed child abuse in the Northern Territory, yet reports later found that no one was ever prosecuted for child sexual abuse in the following years. This outcome led some to question the efficiency of the Intervention—and the genuineness of the motives behind it. 

Some measures were even based on race and applied only to aboriginal people. Income management was one such measure. The government implemented a “basic card” to stop people from buying alcohol. Only 50 percent of the welfare money granted to aboriginal people was doled out in cash; the other half transferred to a banking card that could only be used in stores for clothes and food. Officially, that system was to make sure children had enough to eat, and that the money was not spent on alcohol. “It labeled all the indigenous people as being incapable of managing their finances,” says Walker. “This was only able to occur because of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.” a 1975 statute that makes racial discrimination illegal all across Australia. The suspension of the act was perhaps the most visible measure of a policy seen as both racist and discriminatory.

“It pretends it’s positive, but it disempowers the people,” says Rolf de Heer, writer and director of several movies on aboriginal people. “Even if some measures mean well, they are undone by the extent the disempowerment is happening.” Telling people how to spend their money, even if it was to make sure children were being taken care of, strips individuals of their autonomy and freedom of choice, the right to make their own decisions.

Yet, Amnesty International Indigenous Advisor Rodney Dillon questions the use of the term “discrimination” when it comes to Australian politics. “It’s more about the long term effect of colonization,” he says. “It’s the trauma of the stolen generations, of the slaughter of our people. What happened in our past makes what’s happening today.” 

His vision is shared by many—whether indigenous or not—involved in aboriginal communities. For 200 years, aboriginals have been tracked, killed, or assimilated by force. Numbering between 750,000 and 1 million before the British arrived in 1788, they are fewer than 500,000 today, most living in remote communities or in disadvantaged suburbs of large cities. Colonization of indigenous people took place in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and several other countries, with many of the same results. The United Nations defines the situation of the indigenous people around the world as “critical.”

 

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

Mark Anandale, an independent consultant for sustainable development and cultural heritage management, echoes Dillon’s sentiment. He has been working with aboriginal communities for the past 20 years. Currently on a mission in Arnhem Land to study the viability of a bauxite mine run by aboriginals, he disagrees with the word “apartheid” that some have been using to describe the conservative government policy. In his opinion, the main problem comes from a lack of understanding from national politicians who hardly ever come to visit.

Every day on this trip, he works with Yolngu, the aboriginal group of northeast Arnhem Land—teaching them how to choose which trees they can use for timber, which they should plant to reforest the areas they mine, and how best to protect the environment that is essential for them to live and preserve their traditions. “They don’t understand what they’re saying,” he says about Abbott and the Western Australia Premier regarding the closure of remote communities. “These people [the indigenous] don’t have a choice. They won’t live anywhere else...They are entitled to this place. They are part of the land. They can’t leave,” he insists. 

The aboriginals had been in Australia for at least 50,000 years before the British settlers arrived. They have struggled to maintain some of their traditions, witnessed some of their languages and cultures disappear and are fighting to survive. Living in a community with their own people, passing their traditions to their children, or living in cities isn’t a personal choice. It is the only way they can keep their culture alive. 

Yet Anandale admits he first supported the idea of the Intervention in the Northern Territory. “It started in order to make some changes,” he says. “But it was too abrupt.” Klaus Helms, the CEO of Gumatj Corporation—an organization run by indigenous people to create jobs in Arnhem Land—agrees. “Something needed to be done. We had to kick the bucket out of it. Maybe it was kicked too hard, but we had to do it,” says Helms. He’s driving fast in his four-wheel-drive, returning from the coffee shop where he has breakfast and business meetings every day. He’s heading to the Ski Beach community eight miles away, where he lives and works. Even though he sounds at times as though he’s patronizing to the people he works with, Helms is committed to them. He insists the Yolngu were the ones who came to him, asking him to take over as CEO for their company. He’s eager to show an outsider that he has the aboriginals’ best interest at heart. Now 63 years old, he arrived in the area at 17, working for the Canadian mining company that owned the local bauxite mine. He’s now known as an indigenous advocate, very close to the Gumatj clan. 

But Helms and Anandale disagree on the consequences of the policy. While Helms still thinks some good emerged, Anandale insists that “lots of money was spent, and it pretty much stayed the same way.” Still, Helms has some regrets. “It’s always difficult when you have a minority and a majority. Every time you change something for the minority, people think it’s discrimination.” The leader of Gumatj Corporation prefers to use the money these policies produce to “change things on the ground.” A bauxite mine, a timber mill and workshop, a cattle farm, and a local store are a few of the projects he helped establish. He’s proud to say Gumatj Corporation now employs 64 aboriginals, and just six non-indigenous workers. The small company aims to train people so that they can then find a job in non-indigenous companies and become more self-sufficient. 

 

SOME CHANGE IS POSSIBLE

On a bright afternoon in May, Helms is driving back home on the distinctive bumpy red dirt road of Arnhem Land. He’s reflecting on what the Gumatj people, the Yolngu clan living in Ski Beach, have achieved over the past few years. This aboriginal community of 155 people was once known for its suicide rate, the nation’s highest relative to its population, according to the locals. Between January 2007 and December 2008, six people killed themselves out of a population of then 400, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Ski Beach, or Gunyangara in the aboriginal tongue, was also known for a high rate of alcohol-related crime. At night, heavy drinking and marijuana smoking would take place on the beach, along with gambling and card games. Kids were left wandering the streets. Disputes provoked by alcohol consumption would lead to crime and murder. The National Emergency Response came during that gloomy time for Ski Beach and many other communities, and led local elders to support the policy. 

Today, Ski Beach is an example of a turnaround. A grocery store, coffee shop, and nursery mark the center of the township where a few hundred people live. All are run by the Gumatj Corporation. People today wear bright yellow shirts while having breakfast outside the grocery store, looking at the plants growing in the nursery they established. They’re chatting in the Gumatj dialect of Yolngu Matha (one of 50 aboriginal languages still spoken today). The small group includes Gloria from the coffee shop, Dana from the community store, and Gabi who works at the nursery. As Gabi talks, she removes, one by one, the spiderwebs off the native plants and orchids she grows. Grinning, she recalls how this place—and she—have changed over the years. Her face lights up, and her eyes are shining. She’s proud of what her community and her enterprise have become and wants to let the world know about it. “It was not at all like that before. I didn’t work at all. I drank heavily, and I was in trouble with myself,” Gabi recalls. Still, today, she’s proud to say she hasn’t “touched a drink for two months.” However, the Intervention didn’t stop her from drinking. The help of her people did. 

“After the Intervention, we started doing things for our own people,” says Gapu Yunupingu. The teacher is leaning against the new cross-cultural center on the Garma festival site, where an annual festival of aboriginal and especially Yolngu culture takes place. He is enjoying his break from an introductory course in this culture he just gave. Looking at the gum trees in the distance, he reflects on what his family has achieved. A moment earlier, he was welcoming Australian rednecks from the mining company Rio Tinto with clapping sticks and cleansing fire. His family founded the Gumatj Corporation. To share their culture with non-indigenous people and make them understand their millennial traditions, they offer cross-cultural courses to the employees of Rio Tinto, the company that mines the region’s rich bauxite deposits. 

If life is better in Ski Beach, it’s also because the Gumatj people received millions of dollars of royalties after the signing of an historic agreement between the Rio Tinto bauxite mine and the traditional aboriginal owners of the deposits. Led by Helms and their elder Gallarwuy Yunupingu, Gapu’s brother, they used the money to create businesses and jobs, while weaning people off alcohol. Helms wants to avoid using government money as much as possible. It was only to “make changes on the ground, not following direct policies” that he used the Intervention money when working for the Department of Indigenous Affairs. Being pragmatic about these politics, he says, is key. 

Many remote aboriginal communities were established after the homeland movement in the 1970s. Seeing their culture slowly ebbing in the face of spreading abuse of drugs and alcohol, aboriginal families chose to return to their traditional lands. Dangatanga Gondarra, a minister for Yirrkala church and the chairman of Yirrkala Business Employment (another local company aiming to employ indigenous people), established a homeland back in his birthplace of Elcho Island. “We started with five houses, just the family. Now there are 16 houses and a school,” he says proudly. His son is currently being groomed to assume his father’s position.

Gondarra explains why homelands are important to aboriginal people, and why the government shouldn’t close the remote communities of Western Australia. “They know it’s their land, their time, and their movement. In a homeland, you can manage your family easily and look after your children. In more crowded areas, they don’t listen,” he says. “The government and the law come and tell people to do this and that, but we have two laws—the Yolngu and the Balanda law.” Balanda is the Yolngu Matha word that means “non-aboriginal.” Yolngu people prefer to use this word rather than non-indigenous or white. 

Gondarra further explains that the hardest part for young aboriginals is finding their place between two cultures—keeping their traditions while acclimating to a rapidly moving secular world. Homelands and remote communities help them, he says. While communities are expected to close in Western Australia, the Yolngu of the Northern Territory are connected to the aboriginal people of Western Australia, and they oppose it. On many Facebook profiles, a big red stop sign proclaims, “STOP the forced closure of aboriginal communities.” The closings refer to the government’s decision to stop funding the local government and reform services delivery to “non-viable” communities. These moves are expected to force people to move to bigger regional towns, which could prove to be a mixed blessing.

The Intervention was a possible wake-up call reminding the Gumatj people they need to help themselves. It now is a taboo subject even for discussion. “I don’t want to talk about that,” croaks Gapu Yunupingu in a heavy accent. The Yunupingu family hasn’t been spared consequences of the Intervention and the disarray of being an indigenous person in 21st century Australia. Alcoholism and crime have led several of their young people to commit suicide, a sensitive topic among the clan. The tradition that forbids the name of a deceased person to be spoken doesn’t help the Yolngu people talk about one of the darkest pages of their recent history. 

At Ski Beach, several yellow flowers, the color of the Gumatj clan, decorate the entrance of the shed where the workshop trainees meet every morning before their day begins. A few days before, a teenager from Yirrkala—the 850-person community where the Yunupingu family originated—killed himself. A report from Closing the Gap—a federal initiative aiming to reduce the social disadvantages faced by indigenous people—puts the increased rate of suicide attempts at 500 percent between 2007 and 2012 in the Northern Territory. Opponents of the Intervention claim it is responsible for this increase, though no direct evidence can substantiate the allegation.

Today, the people from Ski Beach are proud to say that no one has committed suicide for seven years, thanks to a prevention squad led by the elders who meet once a week with their teenage nephews. But this good news doesn’t mean the community is entirely spared. A suicide epidemic continues to affect surrounding communities. A United Nations global ranking on suicides places indigenous Australia in 12th place worldwide, with 20.1 suicides per 100,000 population. Among those in the Northern Territory, age 25 to 34 years, the ratio soars to 68.9 per 100,000. Some 560 aboriginals took their own lives between 2008 and 2012, leading the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) to call this epidemic a “humanitarian crisis.”

Suicide is an issue faced by all of the world’s indigenous people. In Canada, the suicide rate of the Inuits is also one of the highest in the world—11 times Canada’s national rate according to the World Health Organization, which also puts the suicide rate for American Indian and Alaska Native youth aged 15 to 24 at 3.3 times higher than the U.S. national average.

 

JUST KEEPS HAPPENING

Today, Australia’s National Emergency Response to the aboriginal crisis continues—but in a new form. After Labour took over the government in 2012, it decided to pursue the Stronger Future Policy, which was renewed through 2022. The most controversial measures have been removed with the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act, but the spirit of the policy is still in place today.

“The Intervention is still not over,” says Australian film director Rolf de Heer. In 2012, he started writing “Charlie’s Country” with the star of “Australia” and “Crocodile Dundee,” aboriginal actor David Gulpilil. The two have been friends since de Heer released his movie “The Tracker”—a 2002 film about an aboriginal man helping white people track a fellow aboriginal accused of killing a white woman. Gulpilil invited the director to visit him and his family in his remote community of Ramingining. “Charlie’s Country” depicts the life of an aboriginal man lost between two cultures soon after the arrival of the Intervention. Even though it’s not an autobiography, it’s inspired by Gulpilil’s life. Above all, it reflects the life of any aboriginal man living in a remote indigenous community, insists de Heer. After drinking too much and assaulting a policeman, Gulpilil’s character ends up in jail. 

His imprisonment reflects how most aboriginal people become victims of discrimination. “There is no discrimination in the law. The aboriginal people are under the same laws as non-indigenous, but the law isn’t equally applied. Under the same laws, the rate of imprisonment is higher for indigenous [people],” de Heer claims. Indigenous youths are 26 times more likely to be in detention than non-indigenous, a report from Amnesty International demonstrates.

“Australia is breaking international rules” with this rate of imprisonment, says Dillon. “It wants to be part of international agreements but doesn’t want to comply.” Amnesty International reported in May 2015 that Australia also doesn’t respect international human rights conventions and especially the rights of the child. Even though Australia has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulating that children under 12 years of age should not be held criminally responsible and that incarcerated children should be separated from adult inmates, Amnesty International reports that children as young as 10 years old are held criminally responsible and that several prisons across the Northern Territory do not separate them from adults. 

To tackle the overrepresentation of indigenous youths in prison, the organization recommends Australia follow the example of the United States. “The solution lies in justice reinvestment,” says Amnesty International advisor Rodney Dillon. “We need to help the family in the first place.” Justice reinvestment means taking the money that would be spent incarcerating people and using it to help impoverished families and communities where most crimes occur. Keeping one person in prison for his lifetime can cost $6 million, Dillon adds.  

The approach was developed in the United States “as a means of curbing spending on corrections and reinvesting savings from this reduced spending in strategies that can decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods,” Amnesty International reports. In 2010, African-American men were six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men were, according to a Pew Research Center study. Yet, Dillon insists this number is shrinking, and that if justice reinvestment is working in the U.S., there is no reason it wouldn’t in Australia.

But in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand, overrepresentation of indigenous people in prison populations is clearly acknowledged. Aboriginals comprise barely 4 percent of the Canadian population but more than 23 percent of the prison population. In the United States, the Native Americans incarceration rates are 38 percent higher than the national rate. In New Zealand, the figures are even more striking—Maori making up to 15 percent of the total population, but one inmate out of two is indigenous. This over-representation can be linked to some discrimination in the early stages of the justice process, says the UN State of the World Report. Indigenous people face a disadvantage when their rights are issued in the English language, which isn’t their mother tongue. In de Heer’s “Charlie’s Country,” one of the most powerful scenes shows Gulpilil deciding to talk to the judges in his own language, showing his opposition to the Australian system and his ties to his own culture. 

 

FIGHTING FOR RECOGNITION

Djawa Yunupingu believes his family helped him stay out of trouble. When he was still a teenager, his older brother Gallarwyu sent him to Darwin to receive an education. This respected leader had understood early that the youth needed to speak English to be able to survive in a post-colonial Australia. Now, Djawa has assumed his role as a leader and feels entitled to speak for his people. From Scotland to Barcelona, Djawa has traveled broadly to share his culture. 

Education should indeed be a priority to tackle the issues indigenous people face. The State of the World’s Indigenous People report estimates that in some indigenous communities of Arnhem Land, the illiteracy level is up to 93 percent, higher than the 28 percent rate of illiterate indigenous people in Ecuador and 32 percent  in Venezuela. So Australian clan leader Djawa, the politician Lynne Walker, and the indigenous advocate Klaus Helms all insist on bilingual education. Schooling is key to better integrate the youth and later help them find a job in a non-indigenous world while keeping their culture alive. 

Djawa has met five or six prime ministers. He’s lost track. There was Bob Hawke, the naïve pro-indigenous Labour leader, and Kevin Rudd, the Labour prime minister who inherited the Intervention policy carried out by his predecessor. Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister, who was ousted by her own party, and of course Abbott. “Before Abbott came to Arnhem Land, he told me ‘Djawa, I’m coming your way’, and I said, ‘Good, because we’ve got some work for you,’” he recalls. A few months later, not much has changed in Arnhem Land. And matters seem to be worsening in Western Australia. “The problem is we’re not recognized by the Constitution. If we were, the government would come and ask us first,” insists Djawa. 

The aboriginal people, who have been in Australia for tens of thousands of years, are still not recognized in the Australian Constitution. They were only given the right to vote in 1962, 174 years after the first British colony was established on their soil. Djawa points to the New Zealand Treaty, which Australia’s neighbor signed with the British colonists in 1840, giving the Maori people the rights of British subjects. “You can learn from what happened overseas, but the comparison doesn’t really work here,” sighs de Heer. “Each situation is very different. The Treaty never happened in Australia, so we now have to find our own way.” History cannot be undone, thinks de Heer, refusing to compare Australia’s position toward its indigenous population with other countries’. 

On the site of the Garma festival, on Sept. 12, 2014, the Yolngu elders welcomed the Prime Minister. Complying with an election promise to “spend a week a year in a remote indigenous community,” Abbott set up his tent and government (six of his ministers came along) in Gulkula, Arnhem Land for five days. Along with Yolngu elders, Djawa asked the Prime Minister for constitutional recognition. He addressed the Prime Minister by name and in Yolngu Matha. “I talked to the Prime Minister in my language. I looked at him in the eyes and didn’t take my eyes off him,” he recalls. This speech, later translated into English, asked the Prime Minister for recognition. 

“He had to know,” Djawa insists. He asked Abbott to “find the way to bring aboriginal people into the national debate. For us, it is not just a moment in time—it is the start of a new future.” 

A referendum on this question is likely to be held in 2017. The date is symbolic since it will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which asked if two references discriminating against indigenous people should be removed from the Constitution. Australians voted by a large majority to recognize aboriginal people as part of the population and to allow the Commonwealth government to make laws for them. 

This new fight for recognition, which they are also likely to win, shouldn’t conceal the reality that aboriginal people are still underrepresented in politics. The Commonwealth Senate has only three indigenous representatives. Yet, in his address to Abbott, Djawa concluded, “We hate racial discrimination, but this is not our immediate priority. We accept that this is a continuing discussion with all Australians who feel the pain of discrimination, but we say that it should be separate from our work on recognition.” 

Aboriginals are divided about the fight for constitutional recognition, and many insist it isn’t the only step that needs to be undertaken to improve their living conditions in today’s Australia. After the September 2014 World Conference on Indigenous People, the United Nations issued several recommendations to address the issues faced by indigenous people across the globe. The key word in the resolution is the commitment to “empower” indigenous people. Broader and deeper consultation with indigenous people and recognition of their cultural knowledge, collecting more data and surveys to evaluate issues facing them, and especially ensuring high quality education, health, and housing should be priorities for the advancement of the rights of indigenous people—in Australia and in every country dealing with indigenous minorities.

*****

*****

 

Pauline Moullot is a journalist based in Paris and former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. She has written for Reporterre, Sud Ouest, and Slate.fr.

[Photo courtesy of Brew Books]

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