Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 15:14 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Australia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Australia, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 19 January 2018]
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.

Indigenous Australia

The year 2011 has been a significant one for indigenous peoples in Australia. A referendum to recognize indigenous Australians and remove racially discriminatory provisions in the Constitution now seems likely, following a recently released expert report which received bipartisan support. The report recommended, among other things, the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the insertion of a prohibition on racial discrimination.

Another important national initiative to recognize the fundamental place of indigenous peoples in Australia is the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, whose first board took office in July 2011. Established with the support of the Australian government, the Congress is a national representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which has been notably lacking since the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 2005. The Congress is independent and will provide a formal national mechanism with which the government, the private sector and community groups can partner with indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples on reform initiatives.

Much attention in previous years was paid to the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) laws, which put in place a number of extraordinary measures, including an income management regime, imposition of compulsory leases, and community-wide bans on alcohol consumption and pornography, purportedly to protect indigenous children and communities. These measures were internationally criticized as discriminatory and in breach of Australia's international human rights obligations. The federal government recently announced a new legislative framework intended to replace the NTER, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011. Yet a Senate Committee inquiry has already received criticism of the proposed legislation, namely that it extends many aspects of the measures introduced in 2007 as part of the NTER and continues to raise serious human rights concerns.

Statistically, indigenous Australians still continue to occupy the bottom rung across the full range of development indicators. Education, health and life expectancy indicators fall significantly below non-indigenous averages. Moreover, indigenous peoples are highly over-represented in the criminal justice system: according to figures released in 2011, the imprisonment rate increased by 59 per cent for indigenous women and by 35 per cent for indigenous men between 2000 and 2010. Indigenous people are 14 times more likely to be sent to jail than non-indigenous people.

Indigenous minors are particularly at risk; indigenous girls and boys are 23 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-indigenous counterparts. The situation of extreme indigenous disadvantage has been addressed by a number of targeted nation-wide policies, most notably the 'Closing the Gap' strategy, launched in 2006 that has set clear targets to improve the lives of indigenous Australians. However, recent analysis indicates that the government is on track to meet only two of its six targets under this initiative.

While Australia has been found to contain a plethora of high-demand natural resources, the mining sector does not appear to have benefited indigenous peoples, upon whose lands these resources are often found. To the contrary, it appears that many traditional owners have not been properly consulted regarding the development of such projects on their lands, and many are outright opposed to their development.

For example, the Yindijbarndi people have been challenging a proposed project by Fortescue Metals Group to develop the Soloman Hub iron deposit in the Pilbara region. The land on which the iron ore is found is subject to a long-standing native title claim by the Yindijbarndi people, who have requested that emergency powers be invoked to stop the development. Yet in December 2011, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs of Western Australia removed or amended previously imposed conditions requiring the company to identify and protect Yindjibarndi heritage, allowing the project to proceed without key safeguards for the more than 200 sites of cultural significance contained on the proposed project site.

The Anindilyakwa traditional owners of the region near Groote Eylandt, off the Northern Territory coast of Arnhem Land, are also deeply opposed to the development of a project to undertake open-cut mining of manganese on the sea bed. The area has very important cultural significance for both the Waunindilyakwan, and the Nunnggubuyu peoples who inhabit the area; communities carry out burial rites and believe the sea is where reincarnation takes place. It is also a key source of subsistence and economic resources for the communities.

Another highly controversial project is the processing plant for an offshore gas hub off the Kimberley coast at James Price Point, Western Australia. A deal was struck between some of the indigenous traditional landowners of the region, Woodside Petroleum and the State of Western Australia. The agreement included a generous benefits package; foresaw high-level cultural and economic engagement from traditional landowners in the proposed project; and gave traditional landowners rights to oppose the development on environmental grounds, in return for foregoing native title claims over that land. The deal caused a lot of tension within the community. Opponents of the project claimed that not all traditional landowners were consulted, that the project would destroy ancient Aboriginal sacred sites, and that it was pushed through under the threat of compulsory acquisition. In December 2011, the Western Australian Supreme Court ruled the notices of compulsory acquisition invalid, but state authorities and the company insisted that the decision would not stop the project.

Indigenous peoples also fought the proposal to build the Limmen Bight iron ore mine inside Limmen National Park in 2011. The project would involve the construction of a pipeline out to Maria Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, which would impact on the land and waters of the Marra people, for whom the island is a deeply sacred site. The community are not opposed to the mining project per se, but they have objected to the transport of the ore via pipelines through traditional sacred areas.

To mitigate some of the concerns around the dominance of the resource industry, including environmental issues, and to ensure that the Australian society as a whole benefits from the resource boom, an important national discussion evolved around a government proposal to introduce a controversial 30 per cent minerals resource rent tax (MRRT or mining tax) on big mining companies. After much discussion, the tax cleared the first major hurdle, passing through parliament's lower house and will go to the senate in early 2012, with predictions that it will enter into force later in the year.

Minorities and migration

Topics of migration and asylum-seekers continued to capture Australian national attention. In 2011, a number of boats transporting migrants ran aground or sank in Australian waters, leaving many people dead, including women and children. Nevertheless, the Australian government maintained bipartisan support for its mandatory detention policy for all refugees and asylum-seekers. While the government has indicated a shift in policy to release all children from detention, there still appear to be numerous minors mandatorily detained for extended periods. A government proposal to send 800 asylum-seekers to Malaysia in return for 4,000 processed refugees, the so-called Malaysia Solution, was declared unlawful by the High Court of Australia. The government has declared that it will pursue the initiative through legislative amendments.

Strong political desire to criminalize and prosecute all aspects of illegal migration led to the passing of anti-people-smuggling laws with mandatory minimum sentences in 2011. The laws have resulted in the arrests of over 493 people, however criticism of the scheme has been strong. In particular, of those charged under these offences, only six people were actual organizers or facilitators of the smuggling operations. The rest are reportedly deceived into working on these ships as crew members, and thus may themselves have been victims. Moreover, some of the detained crew members claim to be children, yet the processes used to determine their age are such that, to date, all are nonetheless held in adult prisons.

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