According to the latest census figures from 2011, there are 548,370 people in Australia who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
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In the Northern Territory just under 27 per cent of the population identified as Indigenous.
Across the rest of the country, the proportion of the state or territory population who identified as Indigenous was 4 per cent or less.
But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain over-represented in prison system, have lower average life expectancy, higher child mortality rates and a higher likelihood of living in poverty.
Earlier this year, then prime minister Julia Gillard delivered the latest report card on the Government’s efforts to close the Indigenous disadvantage gap. She said the Federal Government’s investment in the portfolio has been unprecedented but she noted eliminating disadvantage would take a sustained commitment over many years from all governments, the business sector, non-government organisations, Indigenous people and the wider community.
What aspects of Indigenous Affairs policy do the major parties agree on?
Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous People
The major parties have given in principle backing for this goal. Former prime minister Julia Gillard originally agreed to hold a referendum by the 2013 election but shelved that plan because of a lack of public awareness about the issue. Instead an Act of Recognition was passed in Federal Parliament in February 2013 on the anniversary of the national apology with a two-year sunset clause for holding a referendum. The Coalition has also committed to put forward a draft amendment to the Constitution within 12 months of winning government and establish a bipartisan process to assess its success. There are some differences of opinion between the parties about the exact wording that should be used to make the constitutional amendment. Federal Parliament has established a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. They are working with the funded group Recognise.
Despite the bipartisan agreement to hold a referendum, the issue became political divisive in July when Kevin Rudd announced his intention to hold a referendum within two years and asked the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to “join that journey”. Mr Abbott reacted by pointing out the Coalition’s one-year timeframe for an amendment means an Abbott government would act more quickly on the issue than a re-elected Labor government.
Closing the Gap
The major parties have backed Labor’s 2008 targets:
- Close the life expectancy gap within a generation.
- Halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade.
- Ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities within five years. The Government says this will be met this year.
- Halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade
- Halve the gap for Indigenous students to stay on for Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020
- Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a decade
Indigenous representation in Federal Parliament
All parties have expressed interest in ensuring there are Aboriginal and Torres Strait representatives holding seats in Federal Parliament. The Coalition welcomed the first Indigenous Lower House MP, the member for the WA seat of Hasluck Ken Wyatt at the last election. The former prime minister Julia Gillard intervened in local preselections in the Northern Territory this year to appoint a “captain’s pick” for the top spot on Labor’s NT Senate seat, Nova Peris. She will be the first Aboriginal woman to represent the party in the Federal Parliament if successful. The Greens have a policy aim to ensure Aboriginal people have political representation, and the party has recruited a number of Aboriginal candidates for this year’s election.
Economy and jobs
The major parties have all promoted the idea of ensuring Aboriginal people living in remote communities have access to a job. The high unemployment rates in the communities are partially due to the lack of economically viable industry in those areas. Labor has been promoting private investment to create jobs. The Coalition is also focused on the need for economic investment and has flagged the prospect of flying workers in and out of nearby resources projects so they remain connected to their home country but are also earning money to support their families. The Greens policy emphasises the importance of Aboriginal communities determining the kinds of economic projects they have in and around their communities.
What are the key differences between the major parties?
The Indigenous Affairs portfolio
Under Labor the portfolio has been held by Minister Jenny Macklin. The Coalition has appointed NT Senator Nigel Scullion as its spokesman. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has announced that if elected, the portfolio would become part of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Senator Scullion would remain as spokesman but Mr Abbott says he would also effectively be the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. The Greens have also had a spokeswoman Rachel Siewert appointed to oversee the portfolio.
The Northern Territory Intervention
The Coalition announced an Intervention into the Northern Territory under former Prime Minister John Howard. Labor changed some elements of it when it implemented the Stronger Futures legislation. The Greens want to rescind those laws.
Homelands (also known as outstations)
In the 1970s, family groups in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia began to reject the mission and settlement communities where they had been relocated, and wanted to move back to their traditional and ancestral lands. The remote Homelands have been an ongoing political issue because it is expensive and inefficient to provide services to them. It is estimated that thousands of people are continuing to live in the Homeland environment, particularly in the Northern Territory. The Federal Government was responsible for Homelands until the former Liberal prime minister John Howard handed responsibility to the NT government as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response in 2007.
As part of Labor’s 2012 Stronger Futures package, the Federal Government has committed $206 million for basic services in the NT, including water, power, roads, sewerage and other infrastructure. The Coalition’s Indigenous Affairs spokesman Nigel Scullion has criticised the Government for not providing enough funding for adequate service provision. He has also stated the Government should not be funding the services and they should be paid for with council rates. The Greens have a strong view that Aboriginal people should have government support to maintain a connection with their traditional lands.
Labor is hoping to seal a deal with all the states and territories, along with the Catholic and independent sectors on its Better Schools package as recommended in an expert report conducted by David Gonski. The report outlines a funding formula with a base figure for all students and extra loadings. Some of those loadings are specific to remote areas and Indigenous students. The Coalition has sent mixed messages about whether it would honour the deal in government but it is unlikely unless most, or even all, schools sign up. The Coalition is more likely to extend the existing funding model if elected. The Greens say remote communities should have access to government services and the party advocates for culturally appropriate education incorporating language and culture.
What we know
- Want to see parliament revisit a referendum on recognition of Indigenous people in the constitution within two years
- Close the Gap targets, agreed to by COAG in 2008. Results collated and presented in parliament each year by the PM
- Funding through national partnerships agreements for health, education and housing
- Stronger Futures package of measures in the NT
- Cape York welfare reform trial
- Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people – latest progress report
- Funding land and sea ranger programs
- The Indigenous Affairs portfolio would be move into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
- Changing the constitution to acknowledge Aboriginal people – draft amendment would be put forward within 12 months
- If elected Tony Abbott would spend a week each year in Aboriginal communities and take senior decision makers with him
- Consideration of tailored governance processes for different communities
- Concentration on creating economic opportunities
- Look at fly in, fly out job prospects for Indigenous people in remote communities to work in the mining industry
- Attendance data for all schools would be published (not just Indigenous schools, to avoid stigma)
- Income quarantining- supported but not linked to school attendance. Instead it is proposed there would be on-the-spot fines for parents.
- Encourage longer term postings at remote schools and clinics and aim to attract high quality teachers and health professionals
- All larger Indigenous communities would have a permanent police presence
- Compensation for the Stolen Generation
- End the NT Intervention
- Close the Gap targets
- Recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution
- Respect the link between Indigenous people and the land
- Comply with international agreements on Indigenous rights including he Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- Aboriginal people have the right to self determination and political representation and must partner in programs and services that affect them
- Aboriginal people should benefit financially from their cultural heritage and the biodiversity of their lands and waterways
- Dispossessed Aboriginal people have a right to be assisted to acquire or manage land and waterways that belong to them
- All Australians including those living in remote communities have the equal right to essential government services
- Protection of Aboriginal cultural traditions
- Culturally appropriate health, housing and infrastructure
- Culturally appropriate education incorporating language and culture
- Allowing Aboriginal people to control their own education system when they want to
- Qualified interpreters at hospitals, courts and government meetings
- Rescind Stronger Futures legislation
- Full implementation of recommendations from key Indigenous Affairs reports
- Strategies to deal with impacts of climate change on indigenous communities
- Food security for Aboriginal people in remote areas
- Long term sustainable funding for land and sea ranger programs
What don’t we know about the major parties’ policies?
The major parties had not released their full Indigenous Affairs election policies by the middle of the year, though Mr Abbott and Ms Macklin have delivered key speeches outlining their vision for the portfolio this year. The Greens have a policy document on their website and have flagged the prospect of some further announcements before the election is held.
What we don’t know
- Whether the Coalition would be open to changing the structure of the powerful land councils
- How the Greens would fund the full suite of policies that have been put forward
Key reports on Indigenous Affairs
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
NT, WA and SA Coroner’s recommendations on petrol sniffing
The Little Children are Sacred report
HREOC reports on petrol sniffing, suicide
The Evatt Review
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