Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Stealing Indigenous identity

By Harry Throssell - posted Friday, 25 August 2006

Prime Minister John Howard told a reconciliation conference in July work opportunities are more important for Indigenous people than debating land rights and sovereignty. “I do not think 30 years of obsession with symbolism has advanced the cause of Aboriginal people”, he said, adding ominously “it will take generations to improve their living standards”.

The problem is, however, that work opportunities are not being created, the health consequences of severe poverty are dealt with only sparsely, and the numerous authorities that maintain land rights and sovereignty are crucial to progress.

New book Indigenous Peoples and Poverty (pdf 101KB) reports the average family income for Indigenous Australians is 68 per cent that of the non-Indigenous; the unemployment rate is four times higher; the imprisonment rate is 16 times higher; life expectancy 25 per cent less; and 30 per cent of Indigenous households are income-poor.


Stephen Cornell’s chapter on Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States notes these countries are among the world’s wealthiest nations but there is an “often noted irony that the Indigenous peoples within their borders are in each case among their poorest citizens”, the irony made all the greater by the fact “the wealth of these countries has been built substantially on resources taken from these peoples, whose poverty is a recent creation”. Forced dispossession in Australia dates from a “single catastrophic event - the English colonisation of this country” starting in 1788, when, according to historian Geoffrey Blainey, the Indigenous standard of living was higher than for most of Europe’s population.

Cornell argues “the refusal to come to grips with Indigenous demands for self-determination cripples the effort … to overcome Indigenous poverty. The two are profoundly connected, and public policy has to take this into account.” Based on US experience, Cornell concludes “if central governments wish to overcome Indigenous poverty and all that goes with it, then they should support tribal sovereignty and self-determination” and invest in “helping Indigenous people build effective governments of their own design”.

Experiences of colonisation are not always the same however. Indigenous life expectancy in 1991 was 60 years in Australia, 71 years in New Zealand and Canada, and 74 years for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Currently. Australian Indigenous life expectancy is less than the average of 65 for all Developing Countries (the poorest). Overall Australian life expectancy is 80 years.

On August 9 this year, on United Nations Indigenous People's Day, Survival International welcomed the UN Human Rights Council's historic vote in favour of the Declaration on Indigenous people's rights, first discussed over 20 years ago. This declaration recognises that Indigenous peoples should live on their land as they wish, and not be moved without their free and informed consent.

If approved at the UN General Assembly later this year the declaration would set a benchmark against which countries' treatment of their tribal peoples can be judged. Miriam Ross of Survival says Australia did not figure in the vote as it isn't on the Human Rights Council, but in the past has tried to block the declaration.

The Australian reported that human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, addressing a Melbourne gathering to mark Indigenous People’s Day, contrasted the pride taken in the heroic deeds of soldiers at Gallipoli with the reluctance to acknowledge the wrongs done to Indigenous people. “It is surely time now to remove the white blindfold and enable the healing process to begin.” A hundred people dressed in black and white donned blindfolds to symbolise how non-Indigenous Australians are often blind to racism and fail to respect Indigenous cultures.


Wurundjeri elder Joy Murphy said “I seem to have lost my soul … to understand the impact of loss of culture was very difficult. I could imagine our leaders at the time of the Batman treaty would have been most likely speaking in our language and smiled at the trinkets they were given. They would have been thinking they were going to share in something with another human being. Certainly not that they were to have all these atrocities happen. I really think people were blinded by that treaty”.

She said Prime Minister Howard had “got it all wrong” in expecting Aboriginal people to “give up land for essential services”. Speaking of the failed native title claim in the 1990s Yorta Yorta elder Henry Atkinson said: “Our identity was taken from us. We were a nobody. It hurt us deeply.”

During the last federal election the then Australian Medical Association President, Bill Glasson, asked for $450 million “to meet the primary health care needs of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. This money should have been in the health system 10 years ago.” The Indigenous Doctors Association said 430 doctors and a similar number of health care workers were needed. Both pleas were ignored.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

18 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Harry Throssell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 18 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy