Who Are Indigenous Australians?

By the time of the 2002 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) election, feuding among Tasmanian Aborigines had long been public. In the 2001 Census, 15,773 Tasmanians identified as being of “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin”.

Because of previous disputes, the Australian Electoral Commission decided to experiment with an indigenous roll for the Tasmanian component of the ATSIC election. When the rolls closed in May 2002, 1298 people had applied for enrolment. By June, 2572 objections had been received to 1128 applicants. Only 170 applicants were not challenged. The debate became toxic.

Twenty-six people nominated for the nine places on the Independent Indigenous Advisory Committee that was to determine the electoral roll. The Commonwealth Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock, selected nine candidates, two of whom were subject to objections so that their validity first had to be considered by the other seven members of the committee.

Only 60 per cent of the objections were upheld. But when 131 of the rejected applicants appealed to a Commonwealth Administrative Appeal Tribunal, 130 of the cases were reversed, suggesting that had the other 997 enrollees challenged, most might have also been reinstated. Only 754 of the original 1298 applicants were ultimately accepted on the electoral roll, so that only about 10 per cent of those over eighteen years of age who had identified as Aborigines in the 2001 census were able to vote as Aborigines in the ATSIC elections.

There is no agreement on who are indigenous Australians. Even the term “indigenous” is disputed. Although dictionaries define indigenous as being born in a country, in everyday use indigenous has come to be widely accepted as a convenient shorthand to describe the descendants of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who were living in Australia when it was found and settled by Europeans.

Though Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were identified by explorers and settlers, classifying the children of cohabitation became an issue from the first days of European settlement. While many children remained with tribal mothers, others began to be absorbed into European settlements. In the era of racial stereotyping and discrimination, indigenous men and women who moved to mainstream society, and the children of cohabitation, their children and their children’s children, tended to blend into mainstream society. The paucity of written or oral records became evident when Tasmanians sought to claim Aboriginal descent.

Colonial governments began to count Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, in conjunction with, but also separately from, colonial censuses. Enumeration conventions varied from colony to colony, but those living in mainstream society and their descendants, notably the children of mixed marriages, tended to be covered by censuses, while those continuing to live in discrete indigenous settlements were only spasmodically and partially counted by “Aboriginal protectors” and others charged with indigenous administration. Without an accepted definition of “Aborigine”, census counts differed from colony to colony and from year to year. As Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders became British together with the rest of the population when Australia was annexed by Great Britain, they were nominally entitled to vote, but in most of the colonies, as parliaments evolved, only those who merged into mainstream society were placed on the rolls. Only Western Australia and Queensland specifically excluded Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders from the electoral rolls.      

The first Commonwealth national census in 1901 was carried out by the six states of the Australian Federation. All people were to be counted to obtain a total population estimate, but Aborigines and other “races”, including “half-castes” were to be shown separately, so that they could be subtracted if required. The states still did not follow uniform definitions. Only Victoria and Tasmania produced tabulations in an agreed format.

From 1911, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (established in 1905), became responsible for the national census. Section 127 of the Commonwealth Constitution Act famously decreed that “in reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted”. Confusingly, considering that there were already indigenous voters on colonial rolls, the founding fathers did not want Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—or Chinese and other non-Europeans—included in the calculation of quotas that determined electorates in the federal House of Representatives or in federal financial arrangements. Some indigenous people and the children of mixed marriages living in mainstream society nevertheless continued to be counted in censuses.

As South Australia insisted that all voters enfranchised in the colonies would remain eligible to vote in the Commonwealth to protect the women’s vote it had pioneered, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and their descendants living in mainstream society who were on colonial electoral rolls remained on federal electoral rolls. Some continued to be on, and were added to, electoral rolls in spite of the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 that excluded “Aboriginal natives of Australia, Asia, Africa and Pacific Islands except New Zealand” unless they were on the roll before 1901. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders began to be removed from electoral rolls. Those thought to be of indigenous “blood” faced difficulties if they attempted to enrol, but there was no uniformity. Within a family, one brother could be on an electoral roll while another was ineligible to vote.

Racist taints were strongly embedded in censuses. In 1911 and 1921 the census included a question asking a respondent’s “race” to identify Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and their descendants in mainstream households. In the four censuses from 1933 to 1961, non-Europeans were asked to state the “race” to which they belonged, with examples including “Aboriginal and half-caste or H.C. Aboriginal”. Censuses were then edited to provide a full population count.

Because censuses were not picking up Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in indigenous settlements, state and federal authorities also began to make arrangements to estimate the total indigenous population. In 1921 the Commonwealth Statistician asked the states to estimate the size of their indigenous populations to enable total population counts to be compiled. In 1925, a conference of state and federal statisticians recommended an annual census of Aborigines in states and territories. Data for “full blood” and “half-caste” Aborigines were then collected annually by “protectors”, patrol officers and police in indigenous settlements until 1945. Coverage tended to peter out with remoteness. Western Desert Aborigines were not counted until the 1930s.

Discrimination against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders went beyond voting. They were usually not paid full wages. They were not entitled to maternity allowances and old-age pensions. They were subject to restrictions on purchases of alcohol and had to endure curfews. In some indigenous settlements they needed a permit to leave and a permit to return. During the early 1930s those working as shearers, construction workers, fruit pickers and other seasonal workers were struck by unemployment, but they were not eligible for the dole. Many “protectors” saw their responsibilities in terms of overseeing a dying race of “full-bloods” while ensuring that “half-castes”, particularly children, melded into the mainstream working class. All Australians were expected to conform to one mould. In the terminology of the late 1930s, assimilation was seen as the way of forging Australian nationhood. Aboriginal children were not the only children to be forced to abandon their traditional languages while learning English. In 1939 immigrants who spoke a European language on a Melbourne tram were told, rudely, to speak English. 

The Second World War changed Australia. The Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders conscripted in 1941 for the army and war work for the first time worked under the same conditions as other Australians. In 1945 those who had completed military service or were on state electoral rolls were enfranchised by the Commonwealth. The formation of the United Nations marked global changes, drawing attention to the rights of peoples in colonies and to minorities within countries. Advances in communications and transport brought changes in ideas. Australians recognised that it was not the role of governments to tell people how to behave in their private lives, but to establish rules of conduct for a decent Australian society.

The absence of racial discrimination, the equality of women, education for equality of opportunity and mutual obligation, notably in labour markets, emerged as non-negotiable Australian standards within which state, territory and federal laws established the parameters for individuals and social groups. While English has remained the lingua franca that all Australian migrants are expected to learn, the ability to speak several languages—multilingualism—has become an asset instead of a liability.

Recognition of the uniqueness of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as the first immigrants to Australia was a key component of changing social attitudes. In 1962 the Commonwealth enfranchised Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and the states that had excluded them fell into line, with Queensland passing appropriate legislation in 1965.

The 1966 census was to cover all Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and their descendants wherever they were located as well as including others of non-European descent, though racism was still rife. Respondents were asked whether they were “European, Aboriginal, Chinese, Negro, Afghan etc”. If of more than one “race”, respondents were asked to “give particulars, for example European-Aboriginal, Aboriginal-Chinese”. These census definitions and census editing procedures were so ill-defined that census staff had an impossible task. Many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were still not counted. The “fractions of blood” approach to “race” was clearly no way of determining indigenous identity.

When the 1967 referendum deleting Section 127 of the Constitution was passed by an unprecedented majority of over 90 per cent, the vote was seen as a long overdue recognition of the right of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to equal treatment with other Australians. The 1971 census removed fractions of “race” and inaugurated indigenous self-identification. Respondents were asked their “racial origin” in four categories: European, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, or other. If of mixed origin, a respondent was asked “to indicate the one to which he [sic] considers himself to belong”. The 1976 census followed the same format. From 1981 to 1991, censuses asked: “Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?” From 1996 in addition census forms have provided for mixed Aboriginal and Torres Islander origin though not for any other descent.

Racial discrimination in the census has not, however, ended. In 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics still used a Household Form for all Australians, including Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in mainstream society, but a separate Interviewer Household Form for Aborigines deemed to be living in remote settlements. The mainstream Household Form covers a household of eight people, with individual forms available for additional household members. Heads of households fill out these forms. Assistance is available for households not literate in English. The Interviewer Form covers twelve members, with forms also available for additional household members, all to be filled out by an interviewer. It is assumed that all twelve persons are illiterate.

The forms differ markedly. Any mainstream person may obtain a Personal Form for privacy, but there appears to be no privacy provision for the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders served the Interviewer Form. The two forms do not ask identical questions. Some of the differences merely accommodate perceived differences in lifestyles but do not affect the census outcome. The Interviewer Form specifies absence on “hunting, fishing or on sorry business” though this is presumably no different from a mainstream person’s absence from home on business or at a funeral. A difference of concern is the inclusion of CDEP participation as a separate question and its classification as employment on the Interviewer Form, although CDEP participation may take the form of “home duties” or attendance at a funeral. It is not clear who is entitled to the Household Form and who is given the Interviewer Form. Do indigenous teachers in remote communities fill out the Householder Form while their neighbours respond to interviewers filling out the Interviewer Form on their behalf? Or are all households in remote settlements deemed illiterate? This vestige of racial discrimination will presumably be dropped in the 2011 census, with one census form and the same assistance provided to all illiterate respondents wherever they may reside.

Statistics of births, marriages and deaths, hospital and other medical outcomes and schooling remain the responsibilities of territories and states, although the Australian Bureau of Statistics fosters uniformity and compiles national totals. State and territory medical and education series miss many of those identifying as indigenous in censuses. Definitions vary considerably within a self-identification framework. Questions about indigenous identity are frequently not asked or answered in hospitals, medical practices and schools.

Those who identify as indigenous for one purpose may not do so for another. Identification, for example, changes between a census and the follow-up post-census enumeration three weeks later, partly because respondents change their minds and partly because census staff edit their answer. In 2006 the post-census enumeration added 14 per cent to the indigenous population, raising numbers from 455,000 to 517,000. The margin of error is also considerable because of non-responses to the questions about ethnic origin and the failure to reach respondents. In 2006 these “no answers” accounted for 1.3 million Australians.

The weakness of data produced by self-identification did not matter until indigenous identity was linked to entitlements. But the 1967 Referendum also enabled the Commonwealth to legislate separately for indigenous Australians. Instead of reinforcing and supporting the social and economic rules that have given Australia one of the highest standards of living in the world, policies towards Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders established positive discrimination that created entitlements to special benefits and hence conflicts over who was indigenous.

The return of land to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders had strong support. It was perceived as leading to income benefits, with royalties from mining, tourism and pastoral leases flowing to the land trusts and councils that administer native title land. But because of population movements and intermarriage, entitlement to benefits was contentious, leading to disputes and conflicts that have been a principal cause of the violence that has became endemic on communal land. Fired by boredom, alcoholism and drugs, entitlement disputes break up communities, leading to “payback” violence against women and child abuse. Communal enterprises languish. There is increasing awareness that communal ownership has left native title dwellers land-rich but income-poor, but unravelling communal ownership will also entail establishing entitlements.

The homeland movement complemented native title legislation. The stated aim was to preserve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional lifestyles. The Commonwealth provided grants of $10,000 for movement to homeland settlements in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. But it was immediately evident that families moving to the homelands had to be supported by welfare allowances. The humpies of the original homelands settlements had to be replaced by houses, and with welfare incomes this meant public housing. Local governments, even with heavy Commonwealth subsidies, could not provide water, sanitation, electricity and roads.

The idleness of people on welfare was debilitating. CDEP was introduced to meet employment and infrastructure needs. Despite the early indications that hunting and gathering were being replaced by welfare dependence, Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory introduced separate indigenous schooling deemed appropriate for hunting and gathering societies but leaving school leavers without basic literacy and numeracy so that they could not become employed even where jobs were available. Customary law was resurrected. Homelands dwellers were locked into their settlements.

The large financial flows that accompanied positive discrimination led to the creation of thousands of indigenous organisations. Most have been registered by the Office of the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations or by state and territory legislation. They are therefore not required to conform to normal Australian prudential rules. Membership eligibility in these organisations and the entitlements of members to the considerable public and private resources they manage have also become highly contentious, leading to financial mismanagement and bankruptcies.

With prevalent and increasing conflicts over indigenous entitlements, though self-identification became the rule for data collections, the Constitutional Section of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1981 attempted a tripartite definition of “an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander” as “a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander and is accepted as such by the settlement in which he (she) lives”. But “acceptance by a settlement” has proved to be the source of conflict, as rights of residence on native title land, and hence to royalties and other benefits, have continued to be disputed. With long queues for public low-rental houses, Aboriginal corporation housing entitlement has been a constant source of strife.

The tripartite definition has been used in voting for boards of homeland associations, land trusts, land councils, housing and health organisations, school councils and the many other indigenous organisations. It leads to conflict when such positions are remunerated and give access to public and private funding. Establishing the right to residency and hence to voting has proved no easier than establishing other entitlements.

The creation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1989 as a representative umbrella body brought the issue of indigenous identity to a head. The Australian Electoral Commission was charged with organising ATSIC elections. The number of regional councillors was initially 788, fell to 375 in 1996 and rose to 404 in 2002. Ultimately regional councillors elected ATSIC’s peak representatives. Positions were keenly contested because before it was abolished in 2004, annual ATSIC expenditures were running over $1.1 billion.

The Australian Electoral Commission used the federal electoral roll as a base for ATSIC elections. An indigenous liaison officer appointed by the Electoral Commission scrutinised declarations of indigenous identity signed by voters at the time of nomination for office or at the voting booth. Declaration and voting paper were placed in one envelope for processing, so the secrecy of the ballot was thought to be compromised.

Postal voting became a problem. Initially a postal vote merely had to include a declaration of indigenous descent and the signature of an office holder of an indigenous organisation. Postal voting became popular in Victoria and Tasmania until it was curtailed by a requirement that the voter’s eligibility had to be confirmed by a statutory declaration by the voter together with a letter from an indigenous organisation on official notepaper. The secrecy of the ballot was also thought to be compromised in postal voting.

Only a little over 20 per cent of the voting-age numbers that had identified as indigenous in censuses voted in ATSIC elections. The proportion rose to nearly 40 per cent in the Northern Territory, nearly 30 per cent in Western Australia and was about 25 per cent in Queensland—the three jurisdictions where most ATSIC funds were disbursed. It was the seething dissatisfaction with ATSIC voting procedures that led to conflicts in Tasmania because it was seen as infringing the rights of individual Australians.

The same issue has arisen in a different context in current elections for three members at large for the Queensland Torres Strait Regional Authority. These are to be added to the seventeen members of the Authority already elected in local government elections. Entitlement claims by non-resident Torres Strait Islanders who have moved away from the region to mainstream jobs have been avoided by making voters eligible only if they reside in the region. But the Torres Strait Regional Authority has local government functions. The Queensland legislation establishing the Authority appears to be racially discriminatory in disenfranchising non-indigenous teachers, nurses, doctors and others who work and live in the region.

Given the stumbling evolution of counting Australians who were indigenous or of indigenous descent, the weakness of indigenous population estimates is not surprising. Estimated numbers of indigenous people at the time of European settlement range from 300,000 to over a million. In 1901 the count was 93,000 but coverage was clearly partial with both mainstream and tribal Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders poorly covered. In 1966 the count was still only 102,000. Only with the post-1967 Referendum change in the social climate and growing appreciation of indigenous identity and culture did Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have an incentive to shift to identifying as indigenous on the census. Positive discrimination with the promise of material benefits no doubt also contributed to a movement to indigenous identification.

The count of Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders rose rapidly, with a 45 per cent increase from 1966 to 1971 and a further 39 per cent increase from 1971 to 1976, when the indigenous population reached 161,000. Increased self-identification was also evident in the rapid rise in urban location: in 1966 only 27 per cent of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders lived in urban areas; by 1996 only 27 per cent lived outside urban areas.

The indigenous population continued to grow faster than the rest of the Australian population in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, but changing self-identification became a lesser factor. It is often reported that faster indigenous than non-indigenous growth is the result of higher indigenous birth rates, but this is merely one of the prevalent indigenous statistical myths. Indigenous birth rates are only slightly higher, even in the Northern Territory where they are highest, than non-indigenous birth rates.

With immigration adding to the non-indigenous population, the latter would be expected to grow faster than the indigenous population. However, because the children of the increasing number of mixed marriages are identifying as indigenous, this raises the share of indigenous people in the overall population. As intermarriage—formal or informal—has taken place since the earliest days of settlement, had the form of self-identification that was established in 1971 been adopted from the beginning of European settlement, not only the 540,000 estimated for 2008, but perhaps several million Australians would now be identifying with pride as being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. The share of the indigenous and indigenous-descent population could be as high as 10 per cent of the Australian population. Many more families throughout Australia in all walks of life have indigenous ancestors than those who identify as indigenous in the census. As both increasing marriage and the self-identification as indigenous of the descendants of mixed marriages are likely to persist, the descendants of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are moving out of the shadows and the share of indigenous people in the Australian population will continue to rise. When the progress being made in DNA testing makes it possible to test for indigenous descent easily, many Australians will no doubt become interested in determining objectively whether they are of indigenous descent.

The 2006 census reported 455,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The number rose to 517,000 after post-enumeration, but details of employment, housing and other characteristics are only available for those counted in the census. New South Wales (29 per cent) and Queensland (27 per cent) have the largest shares of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Aborigines account for 28 per cent of the Northern Territory population, but in the rest of Australia the indigenous share of the population is low, with Tasmania surprisingly highest at 3.5 per cent.

On the basis of 2006 census employment and housing data, about half of the 455,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders live in mainstream society. The proportion living in mainstream society ranges from 53 per cent in Queensland to 35 per cent in the Northern Territory. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders began the transition to mainstream society in unskilled jobs, but by 2006 worked in a wide range of skilled occupations that included trades, professions and management. These mainstream Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders own or are buying their homes or renting them commercially from real estate agents. They live normal mainstream Australian lives, participating in sport and other leisure activities and being members of clubs and other civil society organisations. Their socio-economic characteristics are still skewed towards less skill-intensive occupations, but their health and expectation of life are those of mainstream society. Like other upwardly mobile socio-economic groups, mainstream Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders send a disproportionately high number of their children to universities. Their children have higher than average Year 11 and 12 retention and performance rates.

The poor personal, family and social outcomes that characterise significant numbers of indigenous Australians are not the result of ethnicity. Nor are they due to remoteness from shops, schools, medical or recreational facilities. In 2002 most welfare-dependent Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders lived within commuting distance of jobs and within the reach of mainstream infrastructure, schools, medical services, supermarkets and other commercial facilities. This includes areas that are classified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as “remote” such as Darwin, Alice Springs and Nhulunbuy, but also capital cities and regional centres. As for non-indigenous welfare families, heavy reliance on public housing, which tends to reinforce the dysfunctional effects of welfare dependence, is primarily a consequence of low labour force participation and high unemployment.

Only some 70,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders lived on traditional lands away from mainstream labour markets and services. But there is little “hunting and gathering” except for recreation. It was clear from the beginning that policies that sought to confine indigenous Australians to remote homelands were unrealistic. Hunting and gathering could not provide a varied diet, or modern houses with flush toilets, televisions and DVD players. Indigenous Australians wanted access to medical services, particularly for their children. Most indigenous people in remote homelands have therefore coalesced in town-sized settlements such as Wadeye, Maningrida, Aurukun and Palm Island. Because these towns are located on native title lands that lack private property rights, their economic development has been stalled.

Only a very small number of those Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote areas, perhaps 20,000, live on outstations. This is a smaller number than the 25,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who have graduated from universities. Homeland outstations have weak schools, poor medical services and no economic opportunities. Housing is usually grossly inadequate, but families often cannot move because housing is not available in larger settlements. 

The effects of positive discrimination have been even more disastrous than the previous eras of discrimination against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Communal property entitlement conflicts, welfare dependence, Aboriginal education and other separatist policies have resulted in new depths of relative deprivation. Permits kept knowledge of “Third World” indigenous living conditions hidden, but even their return cannot turn the clock back. Nor can averaging socio-economic outcomes for mainstream indigenous Australians with welfare-dependent ones.

The report of the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, ignores indigenous achievements in mainstream society and grossly underestimates deprivation in welfare-dependent indigenous settlements. The claim that “the life expectancy of Indigenous people is estimated to be around 17 years lower than that for the total Australian population” is simply wrong. It is not true that “in 2005, death rates in all age groups were higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people” and that “in 2005-06, Indigenous children were nearly four times as likely as other children to be the subject of a substantiation of abuse or neglect”.

Averaging data for mainstream and welfare-dependent Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is lying with statistics. Averaging education data is particularly pernicious because the data that shows that mainstream indigenous children’s education performance is better are readily available. So are the literacy and numeracy data that show an almost universal lack of basic literacy and numeracy in predominantly Aboriginal schools in the Northern Territory.

Averaging outcomes over mainstream and welfare-dependent communities demeans indigenous people in mainstream society and reduces the magnitude of the problems of welfare dependence. It implies that ethnicity, not welfare dependence, is the cause of violence, criminality and high unemployment. Outcomes for welfare-dependent Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders must not be confused with those for mainstream indigenous families, but compared with those of other welfare-dependent Australians. Child neglect and domestic violence are also to be found in non-indigenous welfare-dependent households in the Blue Mountains, the outskirts of Adelaide and Brisbane and in Melbourne suburbs.

Positive discrimination has also been damaging. Some Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have moved to the mainstream in every generation. But during the past thirty years the transition has become harder. Unskilled jobs have been disappearing, so that higher educational standards are needed for job entry, but separate Aboriginal schools have lowered standards. In missionary days the basics that children were taught for rural and domestic jobs were not too different from the mainstream primary education that had to suffice for most boys and girls. Today’s graduates from Aboriginal schools do not have enough literacy to be able to read driving licence instructions, use chain saws, or mix the chemicals required in janitors’ jobs. Some 10,000 teenagers and young adults in the Top End cannot read, write or count. Youngsters who cannot meet occupational health and safety rules are unemployable. Generous welfare, topped up by CDEP earnings, has created a “welfare stack” of income that is often higher than entry wages in low-skilled jobs. Men and women lacking the work habits created by years of schooling and unable to read, write or count do not have the confidence to risk starting jobs where they may earn less than their welfare cheque until they gain experience.

While differences about the policies necessary to end the conditions in welfare-dependent indigenous settlements remain, there is widespread agreement that such conditions are intolerable and must be ended. The importance of indigenous culture is also widely acknowledged, but it is also evident that culture is not static or tied to “country”. Indigenous design and art have moved from rock faces, bark and sand paintings to paper, cloth, pottery and canvas to evolve vibrantly in the new media. Indigenous music is played on steel guitars and its impact is growing. Dance is seen in formal performances on mainstream stages. Drama, film and literature are beginning to thrive but would be greatly encouraged by universal literacy. So would the preservation of indigenous languages.        

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and their descendants are now identifying in censuses and other data series, but margins of error remain considerable. The number of Australians of ethnic indigenous descent is grossly underestimated in census counts. Ethnicity, in any case, cannot be the basis of policy in a modern society where the emphasis must be on equality of opportunity and freedom of choice.

If welfare-dependent Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are to have the same choices as other Australians, including indigenous Australians in the mainstream, separatist policies have no place. The experience of the past thirty years indicates that positive discrimination towards Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, no less than past discrimination against them, not only leads to degradation in welfare-dependent settlements, but also prevents the transition to mainstream society of those who wish to enjoy high Australian living standards. Indigenous education policies are in crisis. Introducing private property rights, abolishing CDEP and reforming welfare, insisting on mutual obligation rules in labour markets and maintaining the mainstream rule of law are also essential. Unless policies are reformed, expenditures on welfare-dependent settlements will at best continue to ameliorate social dysfunction. Attempts to create employment on a significant scale will fail.

Policy reform must be based on evidence and this requires reliable socio-economic data. When Mr Rudd reports at the beginning of the 2009 parliamentary year on indigenous disadvantage, he should abandon nonsensical gaps that insult mainstream indigenous families so that he can focus on areas of real deprivation, their causes and the policy remedies that will end them.

Helen Hughes contributed “Strangers in Their Own Country: A Diary of Hope” in the March issue. Last year the Centre for Independent Studies published her book Lands of Shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander “Homelands” in Transition

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