While Indigenous Australians make up a small percentage of Australia’s population, they are vastly over-represented in a number of alarming ways.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a lower average life expectancy, higher child mortality rates and a higher likelihood of living in poverty, according to FaHCSIA.
In the lead up to this year’s election, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said he wanted to see Parliament revisit a referendum on recognition of Indigenous people in Australia’s constitution within two years.
Labor has also pledged funding through national partnerships agreements for health, education and housing, committed to a Cape York welfare reform trial and funded a series of land and sea ranger programs to boost jobs.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has also announced new targets to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
“One: to make sure that we get more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into higher education. Two: that we will set ourselves a new closing the gap justice target, because incarceration rates are too high, and thirdly: we’ve announced disability targets making sure that Indigenous people get the access they need to Disability Care Australia”, Ms Macklin said.
The Coalition supports many of the government’s policy initiatives.
It too has pledged to changing the constitution to acknowledge Aboriginal people, with a draft amendment to be put forward within 12 months.
However, if elected, the Coalition says it would elevate Indigenous affairs by moving the portfolio into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Coalition leader Tony Abbott has also promised to set up an Indigenous Advisory Council, headed by former ALP president Warren Mundine.
The council would be made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous representatives and would meet with the government three times a year, while Mr Mundine would meet the prime minister and Indigenous affairs minister every month.
Mr Abbott said the disadvantage faced by Indigenous people is the result of a flawed system.
“What we’ve got to do is develop new governance arrangements where things happen a lot more quickly than they seem to at the moment. Now I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties of this, but I think that we start getting places more quickly if it’s not just the government dictating to Aboriginal people, but the government, allied with people like Warren Mundine, making it happen”, Mr Abbott said.
And, if elected, Tony Abbott said he would spend a week each year in Aboriginal communities – as he has been doing for years already – but as prime minister would take senior decision-makers with him.
Income quarantining would remain but, unlike Labor’s policy, would not be linked to school attendance.
He has promised on-the-spot fines for truancy, job training trials based on mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s model, and greater help for Indigenous people to develop businesses and own homes.
Katter’s Australia Party, which is expected to retain leader Bob Katter’s lower house seat and win at least one senate seat, is highly critical of the major parties’ plans.
Bob Katter said they are policies that won’t work.
“They believe that whitefellas should go in there and build all these houses for them, and fix everything up for them. You know, I have the exact opposite position. Mahatma Gandhi had it right; ‘Even though we may not be able to run India as well as the British Raj, it is infinitely more important that Indians run India, even though we may not be able to run it as well'”, he said.
Meanwhile The Greens said they will use their expected balance-of-power position in the Senate to pursue compensation for the Stolen Generation and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution.
The party opposes income management, welfare quarantining, and Labor’s scheme to link welfare payments to school attendance.
The party wants a justice target in the Closing the Gap program and action to reduce alcohol supply, for example through a minimum price or fewer liquor licences and stronger measures to boost Indigenous health.
Greens Senator and former GP Richard Di Natale says the first step to improving health in remote Indigenous communities is training more Aboriginal health workers.
“We’ve got a huge investment in infrastructure that would ensure that we get more people from an Indigenous background trained and becoming health professionals. I worked for two years at an Aboriginal health service in the Northern Territory and one of the best things about that service was that Aboriginal people were coming into a place where they were getting care from their Indigenous brothers and sisters. That’s so critical”, Di Natale says.
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