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.
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