Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2017, 15:40 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Australia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 1 July 2010
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Australia, 1 July 2010, available at: [accessed 12 December 2017]
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.

Progress was made in 2009 towards undoing the damage done by several previous setbacks for indigenous rights in Australia. In November, the federal government introduced a law to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory. The Act had been suspended for the purpose of the 2007 National Emergency Response (NER), a military-backed intervention in the Territory's indigenous communities, that was prompted by reports of widespread sexual abuse against Aboriginal children, principally by adult male Aborigines. The NER involved far-reaching measures, including alcohol bans, prescribed spending patterns and state control of Aboriginal land, prompting an investigation by the UN's Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights, James Anaya, in August 2009. The NER will be adjusted to comply with the Act from July 2010, but Aboriginal groups argue that the most controversial measures will remain in place.

The government also announced that it will establish a new representative body for indigenous Australians to replace the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which was abolished by the federal government in 2004 following claims of corruption among its leadership. The body is expected to be functioning by January 2011. The government also signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in April 2009. The step was particularly significant, given that Australia had voted against the declaration when it was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007.

In Western Australia, the government signed an initial agreement with the Noongar people over a native title claim covering the city of Perth and large parts of the south-west of the state. Court claims over the issue were first lodged 12 years ago, but were rejected by Australia's Federal Court on appeal in 2008, as a result of doubts about how a lower court had assessed evidence of traditional owners' links to the land. The new deal would settle all claims within two years, Western Australia's attorney-general said.

Meanwhile, Australia's 517,000 indigenous Australians remain far behind the majority population in a range of measures, including health, life expectancy, educational attainment and employment. Northern Territory students came last in national literacy tests in September 2009, with some age groups recording a decline on the previous year's scores. The results reignited a debate over bilingual education in remote indigenous schools, which the Territory government wants to enforce from 2010 to enhance English-language literacy. Indigenous groups fear the plans will threaten the survival of Aboriginal languages; 110 of Australia's 145 indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing and the government committed A$9.3 million during 2009 to preserving them.

The federal government also acted in 2009 to abolish some draconian legislation regarding refugees. A rule barring asylum-seekers from working or receiving health benefits if they fail to apply within 45 days of arriving was lifted, and a law was passed to end a policy of charging refugees for their time in immigration detention, which in some cases resulted in bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, an increase in boat arrivals of refugees off Australia's north-west coast tested the popularity of the Rudd government's more liberal refugee policy, particularly in October 2009, when an Australian coastguard vessel rescued 78 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Indonesian waters, sparking a stalemate when Indonesia refused to allow it to dock. The refugees were eventually allowed to disembark in Indonesia from where they will migrate to several countries, including Australia. The government's Human Rights Commission continued to criticize conditions at Australia's offshore Christmas Island centre, saying that its isolation limits detainees' access to legal advice, counselling and health care. Previous research has highlighted particular problems of gender insensitivity towards women in Australian migrant detention centres. The site is also outside Australia's migration zone, meaning that refugees there are assessed at ministerial discretion and have minimal rights of appeal.

Bilateral ties between Australia and India came under pressure following violent attacks on some of Australia's estimated 100,000 Indian students, mostly in western Melbourne. Australian officials said that most such attacks were random robberies, but the Federation of Indian Students of Australia claimed that the authorities were downplaying evidence of racial motivation. Following extensive coverage of the issue in Indian media and promised boycotts of Australian-based shoots by Bollywood's biggest labour union, John Brumby, premier of the state of Victoria, visited India to reassure potential students. Australia's Tourism Forecasting Committee, an industry group, predicted a 20 per cent drop in Indian overseas student numbers in 2010 as a result of the negative publicity.

Around 60 per cent of Australia's population belongs to Christian denominations and a further 30 per cent are of no stated religion. Australia's 420,000 Buddhists form the second-largest group, making up 2.1 per cent of the population, according to the 2006 Census, followed by 340,000 Muslims.

In January 2009, the Queensland Retailers' Association called for a ban on people wearing any clothing that covers the face, including the Muslim niqab, in shops, but the proposals were not taken up by the state government. In December, the New South Wales administrative decisions tribunal upheld a complaint of racial vilification against talk radio broadcaster Alan Jones and ordered him to pay A$10,000 in damages over comments made on air in the run-up to the 2005 Cronulla riots. Using strongly derogatory language, Jones had said that persons of Middle Eastern origin had 'taken over' the beach in southern Sydney and called for a 'community show of force' against Lebanese Australians visiting it. More than 100 people, from both majority and minority ethnic groups, were charged following the subsequent riots and retaliatory unrest.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld