Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues

Celebrating reconciliation week and examining indigenous disadvantage in Australia

Reconciliation week is an important period in the lives of all Australians.

It’s a chance to reflect upon, strengthen, and celebrate the relationships Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share with other Australians.  More specifically for us here at LawAdvisor, it’s a time to think about our founding mission - to increase access to justice for all, and the steps we can take to ensure that mission truly extends to all Australians.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their contemporary Australian story has been a constant battle for equal rights.

Reconciliation week began on May 27, the date a referendum was held in 1967 the result of which was the first step towards Aboriginal people being granted those rights.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that referendum where an overwhelming majority voted to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the census and give the Australian government the power to make laws for them.

Before this vote, state governments governed many aspects of lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As a consequence, many in this community did not have the same rights as other Australians under the constitution.

Some of the rights that were withheld included: ability to vote in state elections, fair and equal pay conditions, be the legal guardian of their own children, and to choose whomever they wanted to marry, where they might live, or own property.

However the referendum was by no means meant an end to discrimination, as Referendum Council co-chair Pat Anderson explains.

“It was a high watermark in the relationship between Aboriginal and mainstream Australia.. (but) the powers that be used those amendments from 1967 to oppress us even further.”

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the High Court’s Mabo decision, which recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ land rights, as they existed before the British arrived, and can still exist today.

The court also acknowledged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’s unique connection to the land, and led to the passing of the Native Title Act.

Shortly after the decision, Paul Keating, Australia’s prime minister at the time, said it removed certain barriers to reconciliation.:

“By doing away with the bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans, Mabo established a fundamental truth and lays the basis for justice…

“The message should be that there is nothing to fear or lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians.”

Thanks to the Mabo decision and the Native Title Act, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have had their rights to, and interests in, over 1 million square titles of land, recognised.

What might be the most significant legacy of the Mabo decision, academic Marcia Langton says, is the chance to deliver economic opportunity for indigenous communities, by giving them an ability to use their native title rights to negotiate with companies seeking access to the land.

This is a particularly important given the state of indigenous disadvantage in Australia.

This is most evident in the 2016 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, which found that many indicators of well being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have stagnated or worsened.

This report makes it clear, that despite the progress made by the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo decision, we are still a long way from achieving justice and equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The report found national imprisonment has increased 77 per cent over the past 15 years, while hospitalisation rates for self-harm have increased by 56 per cent over the past decade. There are also some signs of improvement with increases in the number of 20-24 year olds completing year 12, and the proportion of adults whose main income is from employment has risen 10 per cent since 2002.

Productivity Commission deputy chair Karen Chester says for the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to improve, a robust examination of what policies are working, and what aren’t, needs to take place.

Last week, Aboriginal leaders gathered at a National Convention in central Australia to discuss how to improve the lives of future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In a statement following the convention, First Nations peoples said they do not want constitutional recognition if it means a simple acknowledgement, but rather constitutional reform that makes a real difference in their communities.

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country,” the statement says.

“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

The statement calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice, enshrined in the Constitution and establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise the process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations that includes truth-telling about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s history.

It’s a request that absolutely must be taken seriously in order for the current state of indigenous disadvantage to be addressed. Until that happens it should be a source of great shame for all Australians.