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Australia 2050 Big Australia? - Traditional Landowners

The following is an excerpt from Australia 2050 Big Australia?1)

Chapter 5 - Traditional Landowners, 40 000 BC to 2050

The history of Indigenous Australians since invasion by the English is a history of displacement, discouragement and disease, but more recently it reflects empowerment, self-determination and economic development.

In 2006, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) there were just over half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, and this number is expected to grow steadily over time. Indigenous Australians comprised 2.1% of the entire population and their median age was 21 years.60% of the entire Australian Indigenous population lives north of the 26th Parallel.

According to the ABS report, Australia’s Demographic Challenges 2004, 57% of Indigenous Australians are under 25 years of age, compared to 34% of the non-Indigenous population. This creates a unique challenge in the context of city building and regional development agendas.

The Challenges

The same report stated that Only 37% of Indigenous people in remote areas have completed Year 12, compared with 74% of the non-Indigenous population in remote areas. Only 36% have access to the Internet at home.

Indigenous children are seven times more likely to be placed in care or on protection orders according to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner – Tom Calma, and in the Northern Territory the Indigenous infant mortality rate is more than three times the national rate. The teenage birth rate among Indigenous women is more than four times the entire Australian teenage birth rate.

Assault leading to death is 10 times more common than for non-Indigenous people. There is a 17-year gap between life expectancies for non-Indigenous Australians, and 24% of our total prison population is Indigenous. Of Indigenous people of working age Australia wide, 38% receive assistance from government sources; in remote Australia this figure is closer to 50%.

The Truth

The problem of Indigenous disadvantage is not simple; it is a mess we have been creating for over 200 years. When looking at the systemic disadvantage facing Australia’s Indigenous population, closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health and education stands as one of the biggest challenges for social and economic development in Australia now and in the future.

We Have a Long Way to Go

The 2007 and 2010 intergenerational reports do not address the issue of Indigenous disadvantage, not even in the breakdown of health expenditure. Yet, this is a major area of spending for government.

In fact, Indigenous Australians are notable by their absolute absence from the report, as is anyone living in a remote or very remote area. The word ‘Indigenous’ appears three times in the entire report, ‘native’ does not appear once and ‘remote’ does not appear either. However, this is the very report intended to give an entire environmental scan of the country and give a heads-up to the risks faced by the next generation.

At present, random approaches include:

  • the Indigenous intervention in the Northern Territory (formally known as the Northern Territory Emergency Response) with implications for *future settlement sizes and plans
  • the Wild Rivers Act in Queensland
  • negotiating resource extraction agreements
  • dealing with Indigenous cultural heritage as part of state government legislation and town planning regulations
  • the Northern Australia Land Use and Water Taskforce.

Is the problem too big? Its seems the benefits of ‘sorry’ are being eroded, along with decisions like the crocodile hunting ban which impact and restrict Indigenous business development and economic growth in our remote areas.

We are not very sorry. We have not realised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are not only a national asset, but a key to a balanced future development of the Australian land mass.

At the most basic level, the Closing the Gap policy platform has set some measurable objectives, but a new form of collaboration and even new legislation is required to initiate systematic and basic processes of collaboration between white Australia and the traditional owners of this land. Fixing this will involve the support and collaboration of both Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples in discussions that create real solutions.

The intervention continues in the north, yet it is still operating outside the protection of the Racial Discrimination Act. We are still not listening to what Indigenous people want, we are telling them what we are going to do and how wonderful we are for doing it. We have still not grasped the fundamental difference between assimilation and integration.

The Good News

Healing is happening, it is nationwide and it is beginning to show results, but time to reflect is sadly in short supply when we are dealing with a people that has a very powerful history of allowing all things their time and place. This is not something that sits well in white Australian culture and potentially is one of the larger social barriers to reconciliation.

Understanding Social Value

Social value describes qualities that include spiritual, traditional, economic, political or national qualities that are valued by the majority of a population of an area – in this case, the nation. If we use this definition, how can we define and measure the social value of Indigenous culture and contribution?

Some contributions are obvious and cover all the aspects in the above definition; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork is now recognised around the world and accounts for around $500 million dollars a year in export sales. This contribution is not only economic, the sharing of history and tradition through Indigenous art has the potential, if managed properly, to support Indigenous communities using tradition as a base for growth spiritually and economically.

Some of our most well-known Australians – Ernie Dingo, Cathy Freeman, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Jessica Mauboy, Pat Dodson, Tom Calma and Noel Pearson, to name just a few – have made huge contributions in the areas of addressing social disadvantage, music and social justice, and have made their mark here and overseas for all Indigenous people.

Music and the arts are a major area for Indigenous expression of culture, possibly because it is the least confronting for white Australia to embrace and because internationally the value of Indigenous art has increased significantly.

Interestingly, it isn’t just the more commercial bands like Yothu Yindi and the Saltwater Band who strike a chord worldwide. While non-Indigenous musicians struggled to be heard in our own major cities, one small group of Elcho Island dancers made headlines around the world with their dance interpretation of ‘Zorba the Greek’ in 2007. Also, the Chooky Dancers were subsequently invited to perform overseas. Their combination of European music with Indigenous dance is a great example of taking something from both cultures to bring forward something new.

The Indigenous community plays an important role in communicating our cultural heritage not only to white Australia, but to the world, and while Indigenous tourism is in its infancy, it will be vital to authenticating and determining the Australian tourism product in the future.

Other contributions are less obvious, but are possibly of higher value to the nation as a whole. They include innovation in areas relating to the delivery of environmental health, education and health care, and the development of sustainable Indigenous enterprises. Recognising these contributions has been slow; valuing them must come at a much faster pace.

Indigenous peoples living traditional lifestyles have the smallest carbon footprint of all the cultures on earth, yet their own cultures are among the most threatened by rising temperatures, changing weather patterns and unpredictable seasons.

Currently, Indigenous peoples and their potential for contribution have not been largely considered in national discussions relating to climate change, yet Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have much to teach non-Indigenous Australia about living in a symbiotic relationship with the land and facing these issues with an understanding of future sustainability.

For Indigenous people living in traditional environments who rely on nature for their sustenance, the Murray River has now become a wasteland. Hunting no longer guarantees a reliable food source due to farming and development in areas throughout all the states and territories, and the loss of culture and opportunity for sharing tradition with the next generation has become another victim of climate change, environmental damage and environmental elitism.

We are only just beginning to recognise the value of using traditional knowledge to respond to issues of climate change and economically sustainable green initiatives. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project (WALFA) is just one example of Australians utilising the traditional knowledge of Indigenous people to respond to climate change caused by CO2 emissions.

WALFA’s Indigenous fire managers work with the broader community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect culture and biodiversity, and bring in social and economic benefits to their communities.

Through strategic fire management that reduces the frequency and size of wildfires, WALFA offsets some of the emissions from the LNG plant at Wickham Point. Darwin LNG pay the WALFA around $1 million a year, bringing in new jobs, ensuring access to education and training opportunities, and providing better living conditions.

The success of the WALFA project highlights the intelligent and efficient use of technology, scientific knowledge, traditional knowledge, and collaboration between industry and Indigenous enterprise to overcome huge disadvantages created by distance and terrain, and to support entire communities while reducing greenhouse emissions and environmental damage.

In terms of spirit and tradition, our Indigenous peoples have much to offer, but by the very nature of their heritage this is not something that can be taught in a school or a classroom. The non-Indigenous history of Indigenous people as taught in schools in the 1960s and 1970s has influenced an entire generation of Australians that are now confronted with a very different reality to the mythologies and stories we knew as children.

What is it going to take in terms of money, time and resources to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Australia?

Self-Government and Independence

One misconception that continues to perpetuate interactions between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples is the concept that Indigenous people cannot govern their own communities without forsaking traditional values. Queensland in 2009 began to introduce new approaches to governance and planning for Indigenous communities recognising the success of communities like Kowanyama.

At Kowanyama, children attend school regularly, everybody pays their rent and the community runs a successful and expanding cattle business. Kowanyama is viewed as a model for Indigenous self-management. Everybody in the community contributes financially to its running and is up to date on the rent. Also, houses are being built and funds from the Community Development Employment Program are used to maintain public areas.

The success of this 1200-strong community is underpinned by collaborative consultation and community involvement. The council holds public meetings once a month attended by around 800 residents. The open communication between residents and council means the whole community works together and has none of the social problems facing other communities, including substance abuse, crime and truancy. We could learn a lot from this approach.

In 1987 the Queensland Aboriginal affairs minister Bob Katter, now an independent federal MP, handed over a Deed of Grant in Trust title to the council, putting the community in charge of its own affairs for the first time. In 2007 Kowanyama celebrated 20 years of success as an independent Indigenous community.

Indigenous Australia 2050 – Moving Forward

We are still attempting to change Indigenous peoples into something that better fits our sensibilities and it is unfortunate that the huge body of information, coupled with buckets of cash currently available to effect change, seems to have had little effect on the entrenched inequality faced by Indigenous people in Australia on a daily basis. It does, however, indicate that the problem is not just one of economics, but an attitudinal and social one as well.

Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, on the whole, are a decent lot – we still stop to help someone with a flat tyre, we still seem to hold to a national ethos of banding together in times of crises and we do care about our neighbours most of the time.

The issues surrounding our interaction have not been based around a lack of concern; they have been triggered by absolute ignorance of a culture and people we are only now starting to try to understand.

If we really hope to find solutions that promote a deeper understanding, respect and harmony between Indigenous Australians and the wider community then it is time for solutions that develop community awareness and an appreciation of Indigenous history, culture and achievements moving towards a better Australia in 2050.


economics australia

1) Australia 2050 Big Australia? First published Adelaide 2010, ISBN 978-0646-54353-6

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