In recent years, increasing awareness of exploitation of indigenous culture and intellectual property has led to recognition of the need for more effective protection of indigenous rights in Australia. Aborigines, the indigenous people of Australia, are severely disadvantaged in terms of poverty, poor health, over-representation in the prisons, employment opportunity, and housing. There have been many reports, inquires and decisions about the need for more effective protection for indigenous culture. Although there has been relatively little progress in providing better protection, a number of recent developments have increased momentum.
The Mabo decision and Native Title Act, 1993 established a basis for the recognition of the Aboriginal People’s special attachments to Australia. The judgment found that a native title to land existed in 1788 and may continue to exist provided it has not been extinguished by subsequent acts of government and provided Aborigines continue to observe their traditional laws and customs. The Act has resulted in approximately forty-two percent of the territory becoming Aboriginal in perpetuity under inalienable freehold title. The Act gives Aboriginal traditional owners certain controls over use of their land including a veto on mineral exploration.
Another problem facing Aborigines is the quality of housing. All Australians have a right, as citizens, to decent, affordable housing and associated services-that is water, power, sewerage, waste removal and other related services. Responsibility for providing these things to Aboriginal Australians rests primarily with State, Territory, and Local Governments. At the 1996 Census, twenty-three percent of Indigenous people lived in public housing, while ten percent lived in community housing. There is a significant disparity between the living conditions and health status of many Aboriginal people, and those of other Australians. According to 1996 Census date, 6.2 percent of Aborigine households include more than one family, compared with 1.1 percent of other Australian households. Overcrowding leads to faster deterioration of housing and exacerbates environmental health problems. Sixty-four percent of Indigenous households are in rental accommodation compared with the overall Australian rate of twenty-four percent. There is a direct link between poor health and unsatisfactory housing and housing related infrastructure. In many areas where substandard housing exists, contaminated drinking and washing water, poor sanitation and unsafe housing are major factors associated with preventable illness and high morbidity rates.
Part of the housing problem is associated with the employment and economic status of Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged identifiable group within Australian society. The unemployment rate is an estimated twenty-six percent, as against an eight percent rate for the general Australian community. Indigenous incomes are approximately two-thirds the Australian average. Based on the 1996 Census data, the growth in jobs for Aborigines, is unlikely to keep pace with the rise in the indigenous working age population.
Lack of jobs and low incomes leads to crime. Indigenous people are fourteen times more likely to be imprisoned that non-Indigenous Australians. In the Northern Territory, 72.8 percent of the prison population is indigenous. Next highest is Western Australia with Aboriginal People making up 33.1 percent, then Queensland with 21.6 percent.
Despite full citizenship, the expenditure of much money and effort and twenty-five years of benign government policies, the material circumstances of many Aboriginal people have remained poor by all the standard social indicators. Their life circumstances are often a shock to those who have not seen them before and for those familiar with them the problems can seem intractable. Change in policies towards Aborigines has occurred, but it has been slow and not very forth coming. It doesn’t seem like this will change any time soon in the future.
INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S RIGHTS:
THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA