Feb 16, 2018

Aboriginals of Australia: Ten Years from the Apology – How Much Has Changed?

Tuesday, 13 February 2018, marked 10 years since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations of Australia and launched the Closing the Gap initiative. Both marked a ‘new era’ in indigenous affairs in Australia but in the decade since, how much has really changed for Indigenous Australians?

In the past year, we have seen acts of self-determination ignored and increasing indication that the lived experience of many Indigenous Australians has deteriorated. Many indigenous activists are losing faith in the Australian government’s ability to listen and to act on their promises. The Aboriginals of Australia having been a founding member of UNPO, this op-ed takes a look at the situation facing Indigenous Australians in 2018, looking at the right to self-determination and their relationship with the Australian government. 

In his first act of Parliament, Rudd made an official apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’ who were removed from their families and placed in government-run missions or with white Australian families, in an attempt to forcefully assimilate mixed-race or light-skinned indigenous[1] children into mainstream society. The trauma that this longstanding policy inflicted on not only those taken, but on their families and their descendants, has resulted in generations of trauma as well as a loss of identity, language and culture. This apology was watched by millions and was hugely welcomed by indigenous and non-indigenous communities throughout Australia and has been revered as a pivotal moment for indigenous relations in Australia. 

At the same time, Rudd launched the ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy which targeted the disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous statistics such as life expectancy, children in care and unemployment rates. However, it seems that the gap has widened. In the most worrying example, the number of indigenous children in out-of-home care has risen by 65 percent in the 10 years since Rudd made his speech vowing that the widescale removal of indigenous children from their families ‘would not happen again’. The lack of real change for indigenous communities has not been aided by the government decision to cut funding to indigenous affairs and initiatives by over $500 million since 2008.

This significant anniversary comes amidst a turbulent time in the relationship between indigenous communities and the Australian government. Indigenous communities continue to feel disempowered, ignored and voiceless, especially in issues that directly affect them.  

A central issue that has been plaguing this relationship is the debate over constitutional reform to recognise Indigenous Australians. Many indigenous people had a problem with the constitutional reform the government proposed, the passing of which, in and of itself, would imply that sovereignty had been ceded by indigenous peoples of Australia at the time of colonisation and would not acknowledge Indigenous Australians as sovereign peoples.

The debate came to a head at the end of 2017 when, after 18 months of deliberation and consultation, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates attended a constitutional summit at Uluru, Northern Territory. They released a joint-statement that called not for constitutional recognition, but for the establishment of a constitutionally-enshrined First Nations Voice within parliament and a Makarrata Commission that would oversee decision making in policies between First Nations and government. Even more importantly, this truth commission was to initiate a process of reconciliation. The choice of the term Makarrata, a complex word in the Aboriginal Yolngu language that symbolises the coming together after a struggle, is indicative of how the Indigenous Australia view their relations with mainstream Australia: a struggle that can only be resolved together.

The response by the Australian government to this Uluru statement was far from acceptable. The Turnbull government rejected the concept of an Indigenous Voice in Parliament, calling the idea “not desirable, radical and divisive” and deeming it destined to fail if it was put to a referendum. This rash response shows that the current government does not understand nor listen to the demands of Indigenous Australians. Their claims of being powerless and voiceless ring true. Indigenous communities have responded with frustration at the governments lack of understanding and acceptance of their calls for a voice in parliament.

There is potential promise that a change in government could signal a change in approach to indigenous relations. Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, announced the Labour commitment to not only compensation for the Stolen Generations, to the sum of $75 thousand for survivors, but also stated that a First Nations voice to parliament was a necessary step in achieving self-determination for Indigenous Australians and achieving the Closing the Gap goals.

It is difficult to tell now whether the issue of Indigenous self-determination is merely being used as a political tool by Labour or there could be potential for real change should they come to power. What is most troubling is that the Uluru statement signified a united voice from the majority Indigenous Australian delegates with a clear demand and justification in the name of self-determination and yet we see this brushed aside as ‘un-desirable’ by the government. It pleads the questions; undesirable to who and how representative is the parliament if this demand from Australia’s first nations is so easily dismissed? The Australian government continues to perpetuate the rhetoric of working ‘with’ Indigenous Australians and not doing things ‘to’ them, however, when it comes to making good on that rhetoric and taking steps towards the empowerment of Indigenous Australians, we see the government fall well short of the mark.


[1] The terms indigenous or Indigenous Australians are used within this article as they are inclusive and refer to both Aboriginal Australians (from mainland Australia and Tasmania) and Torres Strait Islanders.


Photo Courtesy of XplorerpiX on Foter.com