Australian Elections: The Forgotten People

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Regardless of who wins the election in Australia [the result was due just after Socialist Review went to press] one group that is certain to continue to suffer is Australia's aboriginals.

Before 1967 when a majority of Australians voted to amend the constitution, indigenous Australians were not even counted in the five-yearly population census and most did not have the right to vote. The early 1970s saw the rise of the Black Power movement, led by radical urban-based activists who challenged the paternalism and assimilationist policies of the past. When the Whitlam government introduced the policy of self-determination, hopes were high that this beleaguered minority, for so long excluded from basic citizenship rights, would achieve social justice. Government-funded bodies like land councils and other community organisations provided the aboriginal movement with an institutional base.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a groundswell of support in Australia for indigenous causes. The Bicentenary in 1988 gave aboriginal activists and their supporters the opportunity to challenge the complacent myths of nationhood. They began to tell the long-hidden stories of frontier massacres, of brutal dispossession of land, of cultural genocide and the removal of children from their families on 'welfare' grounds. The next year the High Court overturned the legal dogma that Australia was terra nullius at the point of European invasion and accepted the prior existence of native title rights.

The 1990s saw a series of studies and reports detailing the extent of aboriginal disadvantage. For example, while the Australian average life expectancy is around 80 years, for aboriginal people it is little more than 50 years. They continue to die of preventable diseases and to suffer rates of incarceration, unemployment, addiction and poverty far in excess of those of the general population. Public outrage at this situation and the failure of public authorities to address it led to a series of large-scale public protests culminating in the March for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000, possibly the largest mass rally in Australia's history.

In the last few years however, in the face of John Howard's implacable refusal to address the obstacles to reconciliation, there has been a waning in activism around indigenous issues. Earlier this year, with the support of the Labour opposition, the government disbanded the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic), the representative body set up to administer the ever diminishing government funding for indigenous programmes. Although many aboriginal people saw Atsic as remote and bureaucratic, it was the central structure of self-determination, and government has offered nothing to replace it except a return to paternalism. In the election campaign neither John Howard nor Mark Latham saw fit to attend the launch of their respective parties' indigenous policies. This is a sign that, in contrast with the mid-1990s when aboriginal concerns occupied the front pages of newspapers almost every week, these concerns have now sunk very low on the public agenda. The consequence of such negligence was evident in February when aboriginal people in Sydney rioted after the death of Thomas Hickey, a 17 year old who was impaled on a metal fence as he fled from the police. The anger at injustice will not recede after the electoral spotlight.

George Morgan, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney