• Indigenous peoples in Australia

    Indigenous peoples in Australia

    The Aboriginal population in Australia is estimated to 745,000 individuals or 3 per cent of the total population of 24,220,200.
  • Peoples

    The Aboriginal population in Australia is estimated to 745,000 individuals or 3 per cent of the total population of 24,220,200.
  • Rights

    Australia has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169, but although it voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, it went on to endorse it in 2009
  • Current state

    The health situation is particularly alarming. The gap in mortality rates remains 1.7 times higher for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders than for non-indigenous people (2009-2013).

Indigenous World 2020: Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3.3% of the nation’s population. Geographically, 62% of the Indigenous population live outside Australia’s major cities, including 12% in areas classified as very remote. The median age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 23 compared to 38 for the non-indigenous population.1 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are vastly overrepresented in the Australian criminal justice system, with 2,481 prisoners per 100,000 Indigenous people—15 times greater than for the non-indigenous population.2

Official government targets set for 2018 in 2008, to halve the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in child mortality, employment, and reading and numeracy, as well as closing the gap in school attendance, were not met. The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track.3

There are approximately 3,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations registered under the federal Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act), including 186 registered native title land-holding bodies.4

There is currently no reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the national Constitution although the movement towards constitutional recognition has intensified, as reported below.

Timber Creek – A landmark decision for the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples

One of the most significant events affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander5 peoples across Australia in 2019 was the High Court’s ruling that the Government of the Northern Territory was to pay AUD 2.53 million in compensation to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples for the loss of Native Title in the town of Timber Creek.

Previously covered in the 2019 edition of The Indigenous World, the Timber Creek case followed the award of Native Title to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples for parts of the land surrounding Timber Creek. At the time of the decision to award Native Title, it was also found that these rights had been lost in other areas where government infrastructure had been built. Under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), a right of compensation is provided for the “impairment and extinguishment” of native title rights in a range of circumstances. In 2011, the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples sued the Northern Territory government for the loss of these rights.

In its judgement, the High Court noted that the relationship of Aboriginal peoples to their land encompasses all of the country and not just sacred sites. The relationship of the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples with their land could thus be seen as a spiritual and metaphysical one which was not capable of assessment on an individual small allotment basis. Any damage to a single part of their land, such as a bridge that was built through their sacred dingo dreaming site,6 could thus be seen to affect the entirety. The High Court’s decision has set a precedent that may influence and spur on future claims for compensation by groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia. Importantly, this outcome has also provided a key benefit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the legal recognition of their spiritual and cultural connection to the land.

Closing the Gap results from 2019 and the new Refresh process

In February 2019, the Australian government released the tenth Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap Report. The 2019 report reflected on a decade of efforts undertaken by governments across Australia to meet the targets set in 2008 to close the gap in disadvantage between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous Australians. Unfortunately, progress against the targets remains slow and, in 2019, only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets were on track to be achieved. These were the target to have 95% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025, and the target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment or equivalent by 2020.7

Noting the low levels of achievement against the targets set in 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to a “Refresh” process for the Closing the Gap targets. In December 2018, COAG released a set of new draft targets, and committed to finalising them by mid-2019. A key element of the Refresh process was the establishment of a partnership agreement between COAG and a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies. The agreement was finalised in March 2019 and, affirming the importance of shared decision-making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled representatives, it established the Joint Council on Closing the Gap.8

The Joint Council comprises 12 representatives elected by a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies, a Minister nominated by the Commonwealth, Ministers from each state and territory government, and one representative from the Australian Local Government Association. Following its second meeting in August 2019, the Joint Council agreed to develop a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, covering the next ten years, that would continue the successful elements of the previous agreement, strengthen others, and address foundational areas. The Joint Council also agreed on three new reform priorities for collective action that would be built into the new National Agreement and accelerate improvements in life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.9

Over the past decade, there have been key lessons learnt which formed the foundation of the Refresh process and moved it forward. These include: working in partnership, a strengths-based community-led approach, working with state and territory governments, a robust evidence base and accountability. COAG has committed to working together to improve outcomes in every priority area of the Closing the Gap Refresh, which are:

  • Families, children and youth
  • Housing
  • Justice, including youth justice
  • Health
  • Economic development
  • Culture and language
  • Education
  • Healing
  • Eliminating racism and systemic

Appointment of Australia’s first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Affairs

Following the federal elections in May 2019, and the commencement of the 46th Parliament of Australia, the government appointed the Honourable Kenneth Wyatt AM, MP as Australia’s first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Minister Wyatt is an Aboriginal man from the Watjarri, Noongar and Wongi nations. He was first elected to the Federal Parliament in 2010, becoming the first Indigenous member of the Federal House of Representatives. He attended the opening of the 43rd Australian Parliament to take up his seat in 2010 wearing a traditional Booka – a kangaroo skin coat with feathers from a red-tailed black cockatoo. The coat was presented to him by Noongar elders and signifies a leadership role in Noongar culture.

Establishment of the National Indigenous Australians Agency

Following the commencement of the 46th Parliament, the Australian government announced the establishment of the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) as the Commonwealth entity with overall responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. The portfolio had previously been held by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, following the government’s centralisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in 2013.

The CEO of the NIAA is Mr Ray Griggs, AO, CSC, the former Chief of the Australian Navy. The NIAA is expected to lead and coordinate Commonwealth policy development, program design and implementation and service delivery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as the implementation of Australia’s Closing the Gap targets in partnership with Indigenous Australians.10

Constitutional recognition and the establishment of the Senior Advisory Group on the Voice to Parliament

Reflecting on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the 2019 edition of The Indigenous World noted that there were relatively positive signs that a referendum on the establishment of a representative Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would take place soon, followed by a comprehensive agreement-making process. However, by the conclusion of 2019 the situation seemed less promising.

The May 2019 election saw a return of the previous government, which had previously expressed concerns about establishing a body that it considered a “third chamber of parliament”.11 However, in October 2019, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs announced the establishment of a Senior Advisory Group to co-design the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. The Senior Advisory Group is chaired by two prominent Aboriginal academics: Professor Tom Calma AO and Professor Marcia Langton AM.12

In announcing the establishment of the Senior Advisory Group, the government referred to the development of a “Voice to Government” rather than one to Parliament, and ruled out enshrining the Voice in the Constitution.13 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak bodies, such as the Central Land Council, have expressed concerns that the Voice will not be enshrined in the Australian Constitution, as recommended by the Uluru Statement. If the Voice is established through legislation, there is a future risk it could be abolished, as occurred with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2005.

The Senior Advisory Group met for the first time in November 2019 and committed to ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia have direct input to government with regard to their experiences, ideas and aspirations for the Voice.14 The Senior Advisory Group will work over the next two years to design the Voice. The government has previously stated that it will hold a referendum on establishing the Voice in the next three years, although this will be conditional on the results of the design process.15

First People’s Assembly of Victoria established

Australia remains the only Commonwealth country that has not negotiated a treaty with its Indigenous Peoples. Despite the promise of a treaty from the Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1988, following his receipt of the Barunga Statement, there has been little progress made towards a treaty at a federal level. However, this lack of progress has now seen some Australian states take steps of their own to begin treaty negotiations.

In 2016, the Australian State of Victoria commenced the process of negotiating a treaty with the Victorian Aboriginal community. A central part of this process was the establishment of an Aboriginal Representative Body that would represent the Victorian Aboriginal community and work in partnership with the Victorian government to deliver the treaty. The design of the Aboriginal Representative Body was informed by consultation across Victoria, and, in early 2019, it was renamed the First People’s Assembly of Victoria.

In November 2019, the Assembly was elected and formed for the first time. It currently consists of 32 seats, with 21 determined in a vote of Aboriginal communities, and 11 reserved for formally recognised Traditional Owner groups. The Assembly met for the first time in December 2019 and elected its co-chairs. The next steps for the Assembly over its three-year term will be to establish a framework for Treaty negotiations, the Treaty Authority (an independent umpire), and an Elders’ Voice within the Assembly.16

Uluru closed for climbing

Uluru has been a sacred site to the Anangu people for tens of thousands of years, although climbing of Uluru was not permitted under Tjukurpa (Anangu traditional law). Uluru was handed back to the Anangu people in 1985. At the time of the handover, the Anangu spokesman, Kunmanara Lester, said that while the Anangu did not like people climbing Uluru, it would be allowed for the time being.

However, climbing Uluru caused significant damage to the site. Human waste, polluted waterholes, and the steady stream of tourists carved scars into Uluru itself. It is reported that 37 people have died climbing Uluru, which has caused significant distress to the Anangu people. In 2017, the Board of Management for the Uluru -Kata Tjuta National Park agreed that the climb should be closed based on the fact that the proportion of visitors who climbed it had fallen below 20%, and that the cultural and natural experiences on offer were instead the main reasons tourists were visiting.

The decision was not universally popular and a number of individuals criticised the closure as impinging on the rights of Australians more broadly. This echoed criticism made in 1985 that handing Uluru back to the Anangu meant that it “was being taken away from all Australians”.17 It reflects an ongoing tension in Australia that sees significant sacred sites for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples being afforded little respect by some non-indigenous Australians.

On 26 October 2019, the 34th anniversary of the handing back of Uluru to the Anangu people, the climb was closed permanently. The Anangu people welcomed the closure as a demonstration of Tjukurpa and Australian law working together in joint management, with a vision that the park would become a place where Anangu law and culture is kept strong for future generations.

Notes and references
  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June Available at: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/ abs@.nsf/mf/3238.0.55.001
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, Available at: https://www. gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4517.0
  3. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Closing the Gap Report 2019 (2019), 6-10. Available at: https://ctgreport.niaa.gov.au/
  4. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Annual Report 2017-18 (2018) Available at: https://annualreport.pmc.gov.au/node/13
  5. This report generally uses the term “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander” to refer to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples. The term “Indigenous” is used when quoting another source or where it forms part of the name of an entity or
  6. Aboriginal sacred dreaming sites are places that have special significance for Aboriginal people and their They are often features of the landscape. They may be rocks, reefs, trees, hills, waterholes or rivers.
  7. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2019 (2019), 10. Available at https://ctgreport.niaa.gov.au/
  8. Council of Australian Governments, National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap, December 2018. Available at https://www.coag.gov.au/sites/default/ files/agreements/partnership-agreement-on-closing-the-gap_0.pdf
  9. “Joint Council on Closing the Gap”, Communique, August Available at https://www.naccho.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Communique-Second-meeting-of-the-Joint-Council-on-Closing-the-Gap.pdf
  10. National Indigenous Australians Agency, The Agency, December Available at https://www.niaa.gov.au/who-we-are/the-agency
  11. Australian Liberal Party, Our Plan to Support Indigenous Australians, May Available at https://www.liberal.org.au/our-plan-support-indigenous- australians
  12. These postnominals indicate that an individual has been made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) or an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).
  13. Wyatt, , Senior Advisory Group – Opening Remarks, Media Release, November 2019. Available at https://ministers.pmc.gov.au/wyatt/2019/senior-advisory- group-opening-remarks
  14. “Voice Co-Design Senior Advisory Group”, Communique, November Available at https://www.niaa.gov.au/resource-centre/indigenous-affairs/voice- co-design-senior-advisory-group-communique
  15. Wyatt, K., National Press Club Address Walking in Partnership to Effect Change, July Available at https://ministers.pmc.gov.au/wyatt/2019/ national-press-club-address-walking-partnership-effect-change
  16. First People’s Assembly of Victoria, Inaugural Co-Chairs of First People’s Assembly Elected, December Available at https://www.firstpeoplesvic. org/metropolitan/news-metropolitan/inaugural-co-chairs-of-first-peoples- assembly-elected/
  17. Allan, L., and Bowers, M., New dawn for Uluru as climb closure ends decades of disrespect, The Guardian, 26 October 2019. Available at https://www. theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/oct/26/new-dawn-for-uluru-as-climb- closure-ends-decades-of-disrespect.

Iain Gately trained as an archaeologist and worked with traditional owners in the Pilbara to protect and record their cultural heritage before transferring to the public sector to work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy. He has been involved in a number of audits and evaluations of significant government programs that target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Iain is a strong believer in the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as an integral part of the Australian story.

Belinda Kendall is a Worimi, Barkindji, Wailwan and Wiradjuri woman from NSW and is a Director of Aboriginal enterprise Curijo Pty Ltd. Belinda’s studies and employment have primarily been in the human and community services, and the child, family and adult education sector, with her passion being to improve the lives of and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all Australians through leadership and healing.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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