National Identity and Reconciliation

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We as a nation cannot be proud of our national identity until we come to grips with white settlement and our relationship with the first Australians.

I have been living in Europe for the last year and was recently confronted when I opened a UK newspaper and saw an article on petrol sniffing entitled, ‘Shameful secret in the shadow of Uluru’. Clearly the media outlet understood and capitalised on the shock-value of that familiar emblem of the Australian outback, used to such profound impact in tourist advertisements, juxtaposed with a story about the crisis affecting its traditional custodians.

As an Australian, I have always known that we have a poor record problems when it comes to the treatment of our Indigenous people, but it is quite another thing to be confronted by a story in the international press highlighting and condemning our human rights record.

While reading the article, I wondered – and not for the first time – whether in its simplest terms all this doesn’t come down to a failure to build bridges with Indigenous Australia – and moreover, whether that failure isn’t the result of burying our head in the sand.

The article made much of the shameful state of Mutitjulu, a remote indigenous community near Uluru, citing health problems related to petrol sniffing and the flow-on effects for the community. In actual fact, the problems at many remote indigenous communities are far more widespread and include alcohol and drug issues, domestic violence, lack of infrastructure and education, and an overall lack of hope. The situation in our cities for many indigenous folk may be better – however, whilst some of the above problems do not apply, homelessness and welfare dependence can be added to the list of problems that do.

There is no doubt that some Indigenous Australians have managed to escape the poverty trap and are now earning a good living, raising healthy families and making valuable contributions to their communities and society generally. There are also examples of remote communities that are well-managed and serve as exemplars of indigenous self-determination. However, far too much of indigenous experience is unfortunate, and the statistics are alarming.

Indigenous Australians earn about $160 per week on average less than non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous workforce participation for 15-64 year olds is 20% lower than the rest of the population. In 2001, Indigenous males aged between 20 and 24 represented 40% of the total court appearances for criminal offences in NSW alone, (massively disproportionate representation considering the indigenous population in NSW represents less than 3% of total population). In 2002, progress to year 12 for Indigenous students was approximately 40% less than non-Indigenous.

In terms of mental health, Indigenous people are twice as likely to be suicidal than non-Indigenous, a clear symptom of psycho-social stress. Perhaps you too would be stressed if you were of indigenous decent and 5.5 times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence, 3.4 times more likely to be a victim of assault, 2.8 times more likely to be a victim of sexual assault, and 2.5 times more like to be murdered than a non-Indigenous Australian. If you were an Indigenous child (under 15 years of age), you would be 1.4 times more likely to have experienced sexual assault than your non-Indigenous contemporaries.

The most telling statistic, however, is life expectancy. Indigenous Australians have the lowest life expectancy in the western world at 62.8 years for women and 56.3 years for men. On average this is almost 20 years lower than for non-Indigenous Australia.

These figures are distressing to me and they should be to any person of conscience. But despite these statistics, many still say that indigenous people have more opportunities than white people: greater access to grants and government assistance; greater access to university education and support via Abstudy; greater provision for specialised services, including health and legal services, in addition to the mainstream avenues available to non-indigenous Australians. There is no doubt some governments have in the past sought to solve indigenous problem through handouts and quick-fixes. But were these effective? The figures would seem to suggest not.

Now the government has closed down the only self-governing and unified voice Indigenous Australians had – ATSIC. Time will tell whether the current federal administration has any interest in making a serious investment in Indigenous self-government to replace ATSIC. I am not hopeful.

With so many problems, where should we start? Among the many models for pursuing Indigenous equality, two examples spring to mind – those associated with the Canadian First Nations Peoples and the New Zealand Maori.

There are roughly 600 ‘bands’ of First Nation peoples in Canada, and three recognised groupings between distinct and separate peoples: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Since 1871, there a number of treaties have been signed which sought to safeguard indigenous entitlement to native territories and protect native culture. The First Nations of Canada benefited greatly from being a party to the first treaty negotiations which took place even before the Europeans entered onto native lands. These negotiations created a precedent for the government to enter treaties regarding Indigenous land rights. Without compromising their culture, the First Nations managed to adopt certain Western technologies and practices, including intensive farming and stock rearing, and many of their people joined European settlements.

The attitude of the government was not always so constructive though. Assimilation was Canadian federal government policy from the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the First Nations, Métis and Inuit have enjoyed greater recognition of their status as sovereign peoples, both internationally and at home. Much of this reformation in attitude can be traced back to the early treaties.

Our nearest neighbours signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. This ceded sovereignty, and gave rights of governance, to the British Crown, but recognised the nationhood of the Maori and their rights to certain lands. In 1975, the Treaty of Waitangi Act was passed to recognise the treaty under New Zealand law and to create the Waitangi Tribunal for settling grievances which occurred after 1975. In 1985, the Tribunal’s jurisdiction was extended back to 1840.

When transplanting policy it is just as important to acknowledge the limitations of policy as the differences in circumstance. These treaties have not by any means solved all the problems of the First People or the Maori. They were also signed some time ago. And the differences between the situations of Australian, Maori and Canadian Indigenous cultures are notable; not least Australia’s history as a colony founded upon a convict settlement and our misapplication of the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ – land belonging to no-one. But some connection to the land is common to all three.

In Canada and New Zealand, some respect has been shown to this important aspect of culture through treaty. Whilst there was some effort to belatedly recognise such land uses through decisions such as Mabo, considerable ground has been lost since Wik in recognising the value of the Indigenous connection to the land. The increasingly conservative composition of the High Court and extent of the changes to the country wrought over the past ten years under the Howard government do not bode well for improvements in this area.

Is it too late to consider some real options for a treaty with for Indigenous Australia? The efforts of Petro Georgiou and the other brave souls in the Liberal Party on the asylum seeker issue gives some hope. Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, is also on record as saying that he considers a treaty the highest priority.

If we cannot hold our heads high internationally in respect of our treatment of our Indigenous population (let alone refugees), there is little hope of developing a mature and cohesive national identity. Reconciliation through a treaty with our Indigenous people must be the first step along setting the past right.

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