The condition of indigenous Australians is a national disgrace


Programmes and policies to help them are often ill-designed

Oct 25th 2018Print edition | Special report

JUST OVER 3% of Australians, around 800,000 people, claim indigenous ancestry. They constitute a tiny minority in every part of the country, except the sparsely inhabited Northern Territory, where they make up 30% of the population. In almost every respect, they are appallingly disadvantaged.

Aboriginals typically live a decade less than other Australians. Their infant mortality rate is twice as high. They are twice as likely to be hospitalised for circulatory diseases and 11 times more likely for kidney failure. Only 62% finish school, compared with 88% of the non-indigenous population. Only 47% have some kind of post-school qualification, compared with 73%. Only 48% of those of working age have jobs, compared with 75%. The median income of Aboriginal households is 37% lower than that of other Australians. Only 29% own their homes, compared with 69%. Aboriginal adults are 13 times more likely to go to prison; their children are 24 times more likely to be placed in detention centres. They are six times more likely to suffer child abuse and two-and-a-half times more likely to be victims of domestic violence. They are almost twice as likely to use illegal narcotics and more than twice as likely to commit suicide.

Successive governments solemnly pledge to improve things. Some of these statistics used to be even more dire. Others, however, have worsened, including rates of incarceration and suicide. In 2016 the federal government and the states spent A$33.4bn helping Aboriginals, or A$44,886 per person—double the equivalent figure for other Australians. But the money is poorly spent. Programmes and policies come and go, and are often ill-designed. Aboriginals may be consulted, says Lawrence Costa, an Aboriginal member of the Northern Territory’s legislative assembly, but the effort is often half-hearted. The result, argues Anthony Kickett of Curtin University in Perth, can be “whitefellas telling the blackfellas how to live”.

Long efforts at forced assimilation, including the seizure of Aboriginal children to be reared in orphanages or by foster parents, which stopped only in the 1970s, left generations without any experience of stable family life. Many Aboriginal parents therefore struggle to raise their own children, prompting a disproportionate number to be taken into care, perpetuating the cycle. And rules based on Western ideas about family and lifestyle often clash with indigenous customs.

Mr Costa thinks it is essential for Aboriginals to maintain their connection to the land, to stay in touch with their culture and preserve supportive social structures. His constituency includes the two Tiwi islands, together about the size of Crete, which lie 80km off the coast of Darwin. They have a population of around 3,000, about 90% of whom are Aboriginals.

Mr Costa’s home “out bush” is indeed blissful. Dugongs can be seen from his verandah, briefly disturbing the calm silvery waters of the Timor Sea. As his pick-up rattles down the sandy track to get there, panicked wallabies bound into the sparse eucalyptus forest. But although scenic beauty is plentiful, jobs are scarce. There is a little tourism and tree-farming, but most jobs are in local government.

Private businesses struggle because costs are high. Roughly half the locals have no work, Mr Costa estimates. Bored young people turn to drugs and gambling. He tells the story of a nephew so addled by addiction that he walked out onto a mud flat and was killed by a crocodile. As Mr Costa drives through Wurrumiyanga, the main settlement, a relative runs over to tell him of another suicide the night before.

He thinks there is no use expecting government to solve these problems and that Aboriginals must try to do so themselves. But others think government could be more help if it were more attuned to the complexities of their needs. Yet others see government as the problem: “They’re still stealing our land; they’re still stealing our children; they’re still stealing our knowledge,” fulminates Jenny Munro, the head of a charity in Sydney.

Aboriginals are increasingly active in politics: the current government includes the first Aboriginal minister, Ken Wyatt. But their tiny share of the population makes it difficult to influence policy. Hence the campaign for a greater say in the political process, either through a formal treaty with the government or the creation of a consultative body to give advice to parliament. The government says that is too radical. Instead it proposes amending the constitution to state the obvious: that Aboriginals are the original Australians.

Back