Having been here over forty-thousand years Australian Aboriginal people are patient. But having witnessed the occurrences of the last twenty years – that patience surely is just about worn through.
The Australian Government treats Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues as an add-on to policy and a pawn in the mainstream agenda. Yet, indigenous Australians make up 3% of our country’s population, 25% of our homeless, 28% of our incarcerated and have a life expectancy ten years less than non-Indigenous Australians.
Twenty-two years have passed since former Prime Minister Paul Keating stood in front of thousands at Redfern Park and brought the plight of indigenous Australians to the forefront of the country’s agenda. He delivered a vision unprecedented by government, “to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows,” and “to go on extending the realms of participation, opportunity and care.”
A generation has passed since this momentous event in Australian history.
A generation has passed since the Mabo decision was handed down, recognising a system of land ownership prior to the British occupation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land.
A generation has passed since the enactment of the Native Title Act.
My generation, who were born prior to these meaningful milestones in Australian history, are beginning to ask questions. A generation has passed and it is we, who are looking at the disappointingly thin results.
Last year, Tony Abbott wound back the clock to pre-Mabo times when he referred to Australia as formerly “unsettled” and owing its existence to the investment of British colonialism. But this isn’t just an issue of ‘unsettling’ words, this is an issue of national progress, the type that isn’t occurring.
Last month, Mr Abbott announced to Parliament that Australia is insufficiently meeting the country’s goals to ‘Close the Gap’. And in this respect he’s right, with indigenous unemployment at 17%, only two out of eight numeracy and literacy areas showing adequate improvement and just 3% of Aboriginal people currently living beyond 65. The past continues to echo unheard today, as the Prime Minister stated in last years address, ‘we are not on track to achieve the more important and the more meaningful targets.’
This appalling state of affairs is far from Keating’s call to, “committing ourselves to achieving concrete results.” When myself and the youth of today look at these words and figures, we see tears in the fabric of Australian society.
How is it that whilst Australia boasts the third highest life expectancy on Earth, it shares one of the largest life expectancy gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples? It is the progression of dispossession.
Admittedly there have been steps forward, we are on track with the goals of halving the gap in mortality rates of children under five and Indigenous Year 12 completion. We see progress from an official apology for the Stolen Generations in 2008 from Kevin Rudd, a notable indigenous presence in a growing resources industry and to an extraordinary level on the sporting field. However, these are far from Keating’s ‘concrete’ results. They represent the fragments of the rocky aggregate, but the societal cement is still absent.
We are entitled to ask. Exactly how does the Prime Minister intend to address this gap when he has ripped half a billion dollars from indigenous funding? What are his plans other than to decry the tragedy? Why is constitutional reform not being rigorously pursued? Why is there no champion of indigenous affairs?
Australia has still yet to alter the constitution to include indigenous peoples. Meanwhile our closest allies in New Zealand, the US and Canada have already moved to recognise indigenous people in their respective constitutions. “Constitutionally speaking, we are still basically White Australia, however much we boast that we have changed,” says former High Court Justice Michael Kirby. In a government sanctioned report, ‘Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution’, it was found by a panel of experts that several amendments should be made to the constitution which would facilitate the recognition and affirmation of indigenous Australians.
Government needs to stop playing coy and not just utter platitudes, but formulate sound policy and fund it through implementation. It is time for the people of Australia to get involved in policy. It is time they showed the government that indigenous Australia needs to be back on the agenda. It is time the Traditional Owners were made welcome in their own neighbourhood, after all, the kids are already playing.