Last Updated: Monday, 22 September 2014, 10:12 GMT

Assessment for Aborigines in Australia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Aborigines in Australia, 31 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3a56c.html [accessed 22 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Australia Facts
Area:    7,682,300 sq. km.
Capital:    Canberra
Total Population:    8,613,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

There is little reason to believe that the Aborigines of Australian will begin to employ militant tactics in the near future. The government continues to try to make amends for past wrongs, and the exposure provided by the Olympics should ensure that the process will continue.

While the risk of militant activity is low, the possibility for continued protests is quite high. This is despite the fact that the Aborigines do not possess the normal risk factors associated with protest, such as government repression, political restrictions, or a new democracy. The openness of the Australian democratic system allows for the group to protest, and they have used the strategy throughout the past. There are still many issues outstanding and the Aboriginal community is suffering economically, and socially. While the Australian government has placed millions of dollars into programs to both improve the Aboriginal economic status, and to provide sensitivity training for the white population, there is still discrimination throughout the country. Until these problems are adequately addressed, protests are likely to continue.

Analytic Summary

The Aborigines of Australia arrived on the continent approximately 50,000 years ago (TRADITN= 1). Their population has rebounded in the last 40 years after being declared a dying race. The Aborigines are spread out across most of Australia (GROUPCON= 0), and the majority of the tribes have very little interaction with each other, therefore the group is not very cohesive (COHESX9 = 3). Until the arrival of British prisoners, the Aboriginal tribes had a complex society (AUTLOST = 1). Compared to the white settlers of Australia, the Aborigines have their own language, although many also speak English (LANG = 2), different beliefs (BELIEF = 3), customs (CUSTOM = 1) and are physically distinctive (RACE = 2).

The Aborigines face serious demographic disadvantages (DEMSTR03 = 5), with both higher birth rates compared to whites, and poor health conditions, with a much lower standard of living and life expectancy. While the group is not currently discriminated against politically and economically, the policies that are in effect now (job training, educational opportunities, public programs, etc.) are still trying to undue the damage that past discrimination caused (POLDIS03 = 1, ECDIS03 = 1). The Aborigines still remain economically worse off than the majority group, and few Aborigines are present in high-profile jobs, political positions and educational institutions. Each state is in charge of providing for the Aborigines found within their territory and as a result the Aborigines are treated unequally throughout the country, even though they have been federally mandated as a "protected people." The only cultural discrimination the group now faces is that there are certain social pressures not to wear tradition Aboriginal dress. The group also does not currently face any overt government repression, and there have been no cases of inter-group conflict reported over the past few years. There have been efforts to reconcile the treatment of the Aboriginal community during the 1950s and 1960s.

The impetus to "upgrade" the status of the Aborigines culminated in the 1967 Constitutional Referendum which mandated that the commonwealth government take the initiative in the definition of the Aborigines' legal status. "Integration" became the catchword of the Liberal government as Aboriginal activists pressed their demands for remedial legislation in the areas of land rights and civil rights. The establishment of an Aboriginal "embassy" in a tent on the Parliament grounds in early 1972 and the subsequent spate of highly visible protest crystallized popular support and contributed to a Labor Party electoral victory. The new government immediately instituted policies aimed at Aboriginal "self-determination". Land issues continued to divide the country and served to demarcate the limits of vested-interest accommodation. In the Northern Territory, well-funded Land Councils became effective instruments of local Aboriginal autonomy.

The Liberal-National Country coalition which won the 1975 election modified the government's position on Aboriginal affairs in favor of "self-management". From that time on, in spite of the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 (and similar acts passed by the states of South Australia and New South Wales in the early 1980s) the Commonwealth administration has consistently, even if not actively, defended the mining and pastoral interests against the protestations of the Aboriginal groups. This began to change only after 1996, when the Australian Supreme Court ruled that Aborigines could also claim title to so-called "pastoral lease" land - land owned by the Australian government and leased to private farmers and miners for development. The cutback in state funding of Aboriginal advocacy groups and projects led to the rise of non-governmental Aboriginal Land Councils outside the Northern Territory.

As mentioned the Aborigines are very unorganized as a entire group, and as a result the local tribal leaders and councils have been responsible for lobbying the government on their peoples behalf. The one exception is the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Commission, which is an organization mandated to promote the interests and culture of the Aboriginal people. This organization was created by a federal committee, and receives some of its funding from the federal government.

The Aborigines have many grievances which they would like addressed by the government. Only a minority of Aborigines call for full political independence, most preferring regional autonomy with wide-spread powers. An important grievance which has recently begun to be addressed is simply an acknowledgment by the Australian government of their poor treatment in the past. The country is currently trying to acknowledge past wrongs and start a national "healing process". The Aborigines also would like greater rights within their communities in order to promote their culture, system of laws, etc. This demand is tied with the broader concern over the protection of the Aboriginal culture and way of life. They came too close to disappearing as a people in the past not to be concerned with their status as a distinct group. There are also demands for equal rights with whites and better economic and educational opportunities through a greater share of public funds. The final demand the Aborigines would like addressed is that their land be protected from others for commercial use. This is an issue that is of great importance, particularly to the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Commission. The federal government has been more concerned recently with protecting the Aboriginal lands from commercial interests, particularly farming.

The Aborigines have a long history of protesting their treatment going as far back as World War II (PROT45X = 3). This level of protest continued, reaching its highest point in the late 1980s (PROT85X = 4). This pattern of protest remained through the Sydney Olympics in 2000, which gave the Aborigines a world stage to express their dissatisfaction (PROT00-03 = 3) and have their issues known. There have been no reports of militant activity by the group (REB03 = 0).

References

Lexis-Nexis news reports. 1990-2003.

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