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Helen and Mark Hughes

Helen and Mark Hughes

Who are indigenous Australians?


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In 1967 Australians overwhelmingly supported a referendum that altered the Australian constitution in regard to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The strong support was a measure of mainstream Australia’s belief that Australia’s first migrants should be treated as equals. Substantial funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, dance, music, literature and film has seen their flowering and incorporation into a broadening stream of Australian culture. The land rights movement returned land to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land holdings now total about 1.25 million km2, approximately five times the size of New Zealand.

Multiple waves of migration to Australia, plus intermarriage firstly with Macassans from the Indonesian archipelago, and then with European settlers, has made a nonsense of any notion of ‘blood quantum’ for defining ratios of descent. Censuses merely ask ‘Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?’ In the 2006 census there were 517,000 positive responses – 2.4% of the population. A much larger (and rapidly increasing) number of respondents, 1.3million, left the census question blank. If DNA testing were used to identify descendants of intermarriage, it may be that few Australians have only Aboriginal ancestry, while the number of Australians with some Aboriginal or Torres Strait ancestry is likely to be in the millions. Rates of intermarriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous are high. With each new generation the proportion of an individual’s Aboriginal ancestry decreases, while the proportion of the total population with some Indigenous ancestry increases. It will eventually approach 100% of those born in Australia.

Of the 517,000 Australians who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in 2006, two thirds – 350,000 – chose to work in mainstream jobs ranging from unskilled occupations to professionals and managers. They own, are buying or commercially renting their houses, send their children to mainstream public or private schools, pay taxes, play sport and enjoy other leisure activities and participate in civil society. Like immigrant cohorts, they are still occupationally skewed toward lower socio-economic status, but have health, education and longevity characteristics of the mainstream population while continuing to see themselves as Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Of the remaining 200,000 people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, the majority – about 130,000 – live in welfare-dependent settlements in capital cities and towns, like other welfare-dependent Australians. They have similar socio economic characteristics, often living in public housing. Less than 15% of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – about 70,000- live in remote northern Australia on communal, inalienable Aboriginal land title. Of these, about 60,000 are in small townships of 500-2000 people, while about 10,000 live in 500 ‘Homelands’ mostly with populations of less than 100.

An Aboriginal real estate agent or supermarket manager who drives home each evening to his suburban house, his spouse who also works and their children who attend a mainstream school are not regarded as ‘Aboriginal’ by the ‘Aboriginal industry’. Government policies are targeted at the minority of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders on welfare, but they are not evidence based. They are based on indicators such as longevity and literacy that are misleadingly averaged across mainstream and welfare groups. These averages mask zero literacy and more than 20 years shorter life spans in remote settlements.

The impossibility of defining ‘Aboriginality’ emerges in defining entitlements. Self identification breaks down when entitlements are in sight. The right to reside in a community, distribution of royalties and hunting rights lead to frequent court disputes over ‘who is Aboriginal’. As the value of land, royalties, forestry, and farming on the 1.25 million km2 increases, the disputes will become worse.

Over the past 40 years, two sharply different approaches emerged to making up for past transgressions. On the right, conservative governments sought to give Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders access to education and hence to employment. On the left, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were held to be different from other Australians. This difference was to be preserved by a return to hunter-gatherer life styles in Homelands.

Instead of compensating Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders for past inequality, positive discrimination has led to appalling living standards. Communal, inalienable land title has deprived Aborigines of the private property rights that enabled other Australians to acquire land, houses, business and other assets. Jobs are limited to government services with virtually all taken by non-Aborigines because separate schools with special curriculums result in 100% illiteracy and non-numeracy. Australian apartheid policies have had the same dreadful results as they did in South Africa, but they continue to be supported by the ‘Aboriginal industry’. In South Africa, the left led the fight against apartheid; in Australia it supports it.

The Australian Commonwealth spends more than $4bill

ion annually specifically on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. This funding is mostly absorbed by the federal and state erritory bureaucracy that manages the funding, the office holders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and the staff, consultants and contractors, mainly non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, who service the remote settlements. Recognising the failure of past policies, initiatives have now been focused on the 26 principal remote settlements where separatist policies have created dysfunctional communities.

Waves of migration have contributed to the evolution of most nations. Relationships to country evolve with each wave of immigrants. Not only have families of European origin that have farmed land for generations developed strong ties to their land, but many migrants begin to feel more at home among eucalypts than pine trees or bamboo thickets long before they lose their accents. Consequently there is increasing resistance to the use of ‘indigenous’ as a synonym for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Although Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are recognised as the first immigrants, their attachment to country is not unique. All Australians – those that are indigenous because they were born in Australia and those who immigrated and become Australian citizens by choice – are entitled to equal rights in return for equal responsibilities.