• 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).

The Indigenous World 2022: Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3.3% of the nation’s population. Based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) projections, the number of Indigenous Australians in 2021 was estimated to be 881,600. Based on projections for 2021, 38% (337,400) of Indigenous Australians live in Major cities, and 18% (154,900) live in Remote and Very Remote areas combined.

The proportion of the total population who were Indigenous increased with remoteness, from 1.8% in Major cities, to 32% in Remote and Very Remote areas.

The median age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 23 compared to 38 for the non-indigenous population. In 2021, a projected 32% of Indigenous Australians are aged under 15 (compared with 18% of non-Indigenous Australians), and only 5.4% of Indigenous Australians are aged 65 and over (compared with 17% of non-Indigenous Australians). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are vastly over-represented in the Australian criminal justice system, with 2,481 prisoners per 100,000 Indigenous people—15 times greater than for the non-indigenous population.

The National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) has 17 national socio-economic targets across areas that have an impact on life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2021, three of these targets were on track to be met, four were not on track, and 10 had not recorded any additional data since their baseline years.

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. This does not include a large number of businesses run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, of which there are around 12,000-16,000.[1]

There is currently no reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the national Constitution.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women play significant roles within their communities at all levels: they are mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, elders, teachers and nurturers. There are specific roles within each community that women are responsible for, and these roles cover what is called Women’s Business. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are vital in all communities and are influential. The women nurture the spiritual, emotional and physical well-being of the communities. The role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women evolves since younger girls and women learn these skills and responsibilities as they grow and develop. This evolving role and knowledge is then passed on to the younger generation.[2]

Whilst many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are strong in culture and self, they continue to experience varying amounts of trauma through the continued colonizing practices of the Western world. Indigenous women in the Northern Territory experience the highest rates of violence victimization in the world and are hospitalized for assault at 40 times the rate of non-indigenous women. Nevertheless, many are able to navigate the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander world as well as the Western world in a way that creates change and keeps their vibrant culture strong and alive.


Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices)

In late 2020, the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report was published. The report’s author, June Oscar AO, is a proud Bunuba woman from the remote town of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia. June is a strong advocate for Aboriginal language revival and preservation, social justice and women’s issues and rights. She is the first woman appointed as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

The Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report 2020 builds upon the legacy of the 1986 Women’s Business Report, and it is critically important to acknowledge that this report is the first time in history that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been consulted across Australia.[3]

This report has supported the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and will continue to do so for many years to come in order to foster change across Australia.

The Kimberley Women’s Roundtable

As an outcome of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani report, in May 2021, the Kimberley Women’s Roundtable was held in Broome, Western Australia over three days. Over 85 Aboriginal women from across the Kimberley region came together with women from NSW and the APY lands in the Northern Territory to commit to the co-design of a First Nations-led action plan and council. The continued work to progress the action plan will include regional engagement and the findings will be presented to the West Australian government and Commonwealth government. The Roundtable has the support of WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the Social Justice Commissioner.[4]

Ashleigh Barty wins at Wimbledon

In July 2021, Ashleigh Barty won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon, defeating Karolína Plíšková in three sets. Barty, who is a Ngaragu woman, was the first Aboriginal woman to win at Wimbledon since 1980. This was the year that Wiradjuri woman and tennis legend, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, won at Wimbledon for the second time, having previously won there in 1971.

Appropriately, the win also coincided with the end of NAIDOC Week in Australia, a time to celebrate the culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.[5] Ash Barty is currently No. 1 in the world women’s singles rankings and is a Tennis Australia Indigenous ambassador. She is extremely proud of her Aboriginal heritage and continues to undertake community work supporting Aboriginal children in sport.[6]

Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann AM awarded Senior Australian of the Year

Renowned artist, activist, writer, public speaker, and member of the Ngan’gityemerri language group, Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann AM was awarded 2021 Senior Australian of the Year. The Aboriginal Elder became the Northern Territory’s first fully-qualified Aboriginal teacher in 1975. As an art consultant for the Department of Education, she visited schools through the Top End, advocating for the inclusion of visual art as part of every child’s education.[7]

She later became the principal of the Catholic school in her home community before being appointed to the Federal Government’s advisory body, the National Indigenous Council. Dr Ungunmerr Baumann has previously stated that,

Training our local people to be educators in our communities is important, because they know best...they know the families and the children...we can do the western education and we can also teach our way of educating our kids in a cultural sense, and our languages, dances, ceremonies, you name it.[8]

Aboriginal women at risk in the workplace

Research undertaken as part of the ground-breaking Gari Yala (Speak the Truth) project examined the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women inside Australian workplaces for the first time. Sadly, the report has revealed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with caring responsibilities are a particularly vulnerable group in the workplace, being more likely to be in culturally unsafe and unsupported employment and have higher cultural loads.[9] As part of these findings, the report made a number of recommendations to and for employers in order to centre Indigenous Australians’ voices and to create workplace inclusion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The report is a collaboration between the UTS Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).[10]

Plan for Indigenous Voice to Parliament revealed

In December 2021, the Australian Federal Government released its final proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, aimed at establishing two levels of advisory bodies to weigh in on legislation and policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The plan was developed after an 18-month consultation process led by Aboriginal leaders, Professors Marcia Langton AO and Tom Calma AO. The system will comprise “Local and Regional Voices” and an overarching “National Voice” that will provide advice to both the Australian Federal Parliament and government. It also sets out an obligation for the Federal Government and Parliament to consult the National Voice on proposed laws that “overwhelmingly” relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

However, the final report recommends a decision to legislate an Aboriginal advisory body rather than enshrine it in the Constitution, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This is despite the senior co-design advisory group noting that support for the enshrinement of the Indigenous Voice in the Constitution was particularly visible through the submissions made to it, where 88% expressly supported the move.[11]

Update on Rio Tinto

The 2021 edition of The Indigenous World reported that the mining company Rio Tinto had destroyed Aboriginal heritage sites at Juukan Gorge, including two rock shelters of great cultural, ethnographic and archaeological significance. One of these shelters had provided evidence of continuous occupation by Aboriginal people dating back some 46,000 years.[12]

Following the destruction of the sites, the Australian Senate referred an inquiry to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia for a report by 30 September 2020. The inquiry had to be extended, and it published its final report on 18 October 2021. The final report of the inquiry found that Rio Tinto's actions were “inexcusable and an affront, not only to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) but to all Australians”. Further, the report found that the disaster could happen again because legislation designed to protect cultural heritage has often “directly contributed to damage and destruction”.[13]

The report made eight recommendations. These included that the Australian government should legislate a new framework for cultural heritage protection at the national level, consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the time of writing, the Australian government had not tabled a formal response to the inquiry.[14]

Closing the Gap

Closing the Gap is an Australian government initiative that acknowledges the ongoing strength and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in sustaining the world’s oldest living cultures. It is underpinned by the belief that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a genuine say in the design and delivery of policies, programs and services that affect them, better life outcomes are achieved. The 2021 edition of The Indigenous World discussed the decision to refresh Australia’s Closing the Gap targets, and the establishment of new targets.[15]

The Closing the Gap National Agreement was developed in genuine partnership between the Australian governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations. It sets out ambitious targets[16] and new Priority Reforms[17] that will change the way governments work to improve life outcomes experienced by Indigenous Australians. Government is committed to working in partnership with Indigenous Australians, recognizing that the only way to close the gap is by Indigenous Australians owning, committing to and driving the outcomes sought, alongside all governments.

On 5 August 2021, led by the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP, the Commonwealth government released its first Closing the Gap Implementation Plan. It sets a foundation for the Commonwealth’s efforts to achieve the targets in the National Agreement over the coming decade. This is a whole-of-government plan, developed across the Commonwealth in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners, in particular the Coalition of Peaks.[18]

As noted above, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) has 17 national socio-economic targets across areas that have an impact on life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2021, three of these targets were on track to be met, four were not on track, and 10 had not recorded any additional data since their baseline years.[19]

Walking alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is key to implementation and to improving outcomes.

Update on Aboriginal people in custody

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly over-represented in the adult and youth justice system in Australia, as both offenders and victims. Sadly, deaths in custody continue to rise and impact families, communities and the whole nation. The problematic systems within Australia, for example the child protection system, are well acknowledged and should not be accepted in a first world country.[20] Implementing culturally-safe practices for healing and collaboration to reduce the number of Indigenous people in incarceration will support a decrease in deaths in custody.

Women remain over-represented in the criminal justice system in 2021. Whilst the number of Indigenous men incarcerated remains high, there has been a slight decrease in incarceration. The imprisonment rate among Indigenous women was 449 per 100,000. The Northern Territory and Western Australia have the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates in the country.[21]

Public drunkenness decriminalized in Victoria

On 19 February 2021, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation to decriminalize public drunkenness in the state of Victoria. Under the legislation, being drunk in a public place will henceforward be treated as a medical issue and not a criminal offence. It will come into effect on 7 November2022. The legislation was triggered by the death of a 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, Tanya Day, who was asleep on a V/Line train before being arrested and taken to the Castlemaine Police Station in 2017. Ms Day was left unattended in a holding cell where she fell and hit her head at least five times, causing traumatic brain injuries that later ended her life. The Coroner found that Tanya’s death was preventable and, had the checks been conducted by the police in accordance with the relevant requirements, Tanya’s deterioration may well have been identified and treated appropriately earlier.[22]

Data shows that the criminalization of public drunkenness discriminates against vulnerable people, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The passing of the legislation is in line with a key recommendation of the Australian Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which took place almost 30 years ago. Prior to the passage of the legislation, Victoria had been one of only two states in Australia that had not implemented the recommendation.[23]

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. Iain currently works at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

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 36th edition of 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 2022 in full here

 

Notes and references 

[1] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Business Envoy – Showcasing Indigenous Business, January 2019, https://www.dfat.gov.au/sites/default/files/business-envoy-january-2019.pdf

[2] Queensland Government, Child Safety Manual – Respect for cultural protocols and practices, 26 November 2021 https://cspm.csyw.qld.gov.au/practice-kits/safe-care-and-connection/working-with-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander/seeing-and-understanding/respect-for-cultural-protocols-and-practices#Women_s_business_and_men_s_business

[3] Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices), 20 October 2020, https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/ahrc_wiyi_yani_u_thangani_report_2020.pdf

[4] Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, Kimberley Women’s Roundtable, 2021, https://www.ailc.org.au/news/kimberley-womens-roundtable

[5] Chelsea Watego, “Black Joy: why Ash Barty’s Wimbledon win was a triumph of Indigenous struggle and strength”, The Guardian, 13 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jul/13/black-joy-why-ash-bartys-wimbledon-win-was-a-triumph-of-indigenous-struggle-and-strength

[6] Jennifer Scherer, ‘'An extremely proud Indigenous woman: Barty follows in the footsteps of Goolagong Cawley’, NITV News, 10 June 2019, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2019/06/10/extremely-proud-indigenous-woman-barty-follows-footsteps-goolagong-cawley

[7] Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2021 Australian of the Year Award Winners, 29 January 2021, https://www.pmc.gov.au/news-centre/government/2021-australian-year-award-winners

[8] Conor Byrne, “A passion for social justice, education unites 2021's state and territory Senior Australians of the Year”, ABC News, 2 January 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-02/2021-state-territory-senior-australians-of-the-year/13024088

[9] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Gari Yala (Speak the Truth): Gendered Insights, 26 October 2021, https://www.wgea.gov.au/publications/gari-yala-speak-the-truth-gendered-insights

[10] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australian-first research on Indigenous women’s working lives reveals Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mums and carers most at risk at work, 26 October 2021, https://www.wgea.gov.au/newsroom/gari-yala-research-released

[11] Shane Wellington and Kirsty Wellauer, “Indigenous Voice to Parliament plan revealed after years of lobbying, but Labor gives it a fail”, ABC News, 17 December 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-12-17/indigenous-voice-to-parliament/100708186

[12] Shahni Wellington, “Juukan Gorge inquiry says new laws needed to stop destruction of cultural heritage sites”, ABC News, 18 October 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-10-18/juukan-gorge-report-tabled-in-parliament-canberra/100542640

[13] Parliament of Australia, A Way Forward: Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Canberra, Australian Parliament, 18 October 2021, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Northern_Australia/CavesatJuukanGorge/Report

[14] Parliament of Australia, A Way Forward: Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Canberra, Australian Parliament, 18 October 2021, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Northern_Australia/CavesatJuukanGorge/Report

[15] Australian Government, Closing the Gap, 2022, https://www.closingthegap.gov.au

[16] Idem

[17] Australian Government, Closing the Gap: Priority reforms, 2022, https://www.closingthegap.gov.au/priority-reforms

[18] Op Cit. 16

[19] Productivity Commission, Closing the Gap Information Repository, 2022, https://www.pc.gov.au/closing-the-gap-data/dashboard

[20] The Hon. Ken Wyatt, Too many Indigenous people are in custody too often, Canberra, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 9 April 2021, https://ministers.pmc.gov.au/wyatt/2021/too-many-indigenous-people-are-custody-too-often

[21] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Corrective Services, Australia, 25 November 2021, https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/corrective-services-australia/latest-release

[22] Bridget Rollason, “Victorian Parliament decriminalises public drunkenness in a victory for the family of Tanya Day”, ABC News, 19 February 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-19/victorian-parliament-decriminalises-public-drunkenness-tanya-day/13172136

[23] Human Rights Law Centre, Long overdue laws to decriminalise public drunkenness before Victorian Parliament, 2 February 2021, https://www.hrlc.org.au/news/2021/02/02/long-overdue-laws-to-decriminalise-public-drunkenness-before-vic-parliament

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About IWGIA

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

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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