A Little about Human Rights Australia

Questions and Answers about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
1.Who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ?
2.How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are there ?
3.Where do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live? How old are they ?
4.Are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples disadvantaged ?
5.Do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples get special treatment from the government ?
6.What are the new arrangements for the administration of Indigenous affairs ?
7.What is the history of government policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ?
8.What is the right to self-determination ?
9.What is Aboriginal reconciliation ?
10.What is native title ?
11.Further reading
Question 1. Who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first inhabitants of Australia. Old definitions based on skin colour or percentages of ‘Aboriginal blood’ have been replaced by modern definitions which stress ancestry and identification as the key to Aboriginal identity.

Today, the Federal Government defines an Aboriginal person as someone who:

is of Aboriginal descent;
identifies as an Aboriginal person; and
is accepted as an Aboriginal person by the community in which he or she lives.
Aboriginal people comprise diverse Aboriginal nations, each with their own language and traditions and have historically lived on mainland Australia, Tasmania or on many of the continent’s offshore islands. Torres Strait Islander peoples come from the islands of the Torres Strait, between the tip of Cape York in Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Torres Strait Islanders are of Melanesian origin with their own distinct identity, history and cultural traditions. Many Torres Strait Islanders live on mainland Australia.

The term ‘Indigenous’ is used to refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Click here for information on the term ‘Indigenous’
The use of the term ‘Indigenous’ has evolved through international law. It acknowledges a particular relationship of aboriginal people to the territory from which they originate.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has explained the basis for recognising this relationship as follows:

‘Indigenous or aboriginal people are so-called because they were living on their lands before settlers came from elsewhere; they are the descendants – according to one definition – of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived, the new arrivals later becoming dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means

(I)ndigenous people have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics which are clearly distinct from those of the other segments of the national populations.

Throughout human history, whenever dominant neighbouring peoples have expanded their territories or settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force, the cultures and livelihoods – even the existence – of indigenous peoples have been endangered. The threats to indigenous peoples’ cultures and lands, to their status and other legal rights as distinct groups and as citizens, do not always take the same forms as in previous times. Although some groups have been relatively successful, in most parts of the world indigenous peoples are actively seeking recognition of their identities and ways of life.’1

A note on terminology (Original, First Peoples/tribes, Origine are the most politically correct terms used today)
The ‘A’ in ‘Aboriginal’ is capitalised similar to other designations like ‘Australian’, ‘Arabic’ or ‘Nordic’. The word ‘aboriginal with a lowercase ‘a’ refers to an indigenous person from any part of the world. As such, it does not necessarily refer to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

‘Aboriginal people’ is a collective name for the original people of Australia and their descendants, and does not emphasise the diversity of languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. This diversity is acknowledged by adding an ‘s’ to ‘people’ (‘Aboriginal peoples’). ‘Aboriginal people’ can also be used to refer to more than one Aboriginal person.

The ‘I’ in ‘Indigenous’ is capitalised when referring specifically to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The lower case ‘i’ for ‘indigenous’ is only used when referring to people originating in more than one region or country such as the Pacific region, Asiatic region, Canada or New Zealand. 2

Aboriginal Australians have the longest continuous living culture in the world.

Question 2. How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are there?
410,003 people identified themselves as ‘Indigenous’ in the 2001 Census. 3

366,429 of these were Aboriginal.
26,046 were Torres Strait Islanders.
17,528 identified themselves as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
In June 2001, 2.2% of the total population of Australia identified themselves as Indigenous. The number of people identifying themselves as Indigenous has increased by 16% since the 1996 Census. 4

Question 3. Where do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live? How old are they?
Place of residence
Table 3.1: State or territory of residence of Indigenous Australians, 2001
State/territory Indigenous population % of national total
Indigenous population* Total
population Indigenous people as
% of state/territory population
New South Wales 119,865 29.2% 6,371,745 1.9%
Queensland 112,772 27.5% 3,655,139 3.1%
Western Australia 58,496 14.3% 1,851,252 3.2%
Northern Territory 50,785 12.4% 210,664 24%
Victoria 25,078 6.1% 4,644,950 0.5%
South Australia 23,425 5.7% 1,467,261 1.6%
Tasmania 15,773 3.8% 456,652 3.5%
ACT 3,576 0.9% 311,947 1.1%
Other territories 233 0.1% 2,740 8.5%
Australia 410,003 100% 18,972,350 2.2%

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001 Census: Basic Community Profile and Snapshot, Australia and all States and Territories, Canberra, 2002.

* Excluding overseas visitors.

Torres Strait Islander peoples
Over half (58%) of all Torres Strait Islander peoples live in Queensland. The rest of the population live in other States, with 18% in New South Wales and 6% in Victoria. Cairns had the highest Torres Strait Islander population in Queensland (1,814 people), followed by Townsville (1,379). Within the Torres Shire, the largest Indigenous populations were recorded on Thursday Island (1558 people). Bamaga (655) and Badu Island (518) also have relatively large Torres Strait Islander populations. A majority of the people in the Torres Shire settlements are Torres Strait Islanders (74%).5

As a whole, the Indigenous population is much younger than the non-Indigenous population. For example, nearly 60% of the Indigenous population in Australia are aged under 25 compared with around 34% of the non-Indigenous population. 6

Figure 3.1: Proportion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous population in specific age groups, 2001

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001 Census: Indigenous Profile: Australia (Catalogue No. 2002.0) Canberra, 2002;

Question 4. Are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples disadvantaged?
There are clear disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians across all indicators of quality of life. Indigenous Australians generally experience lower standards of health, education, employment and housing, and are over-represented in the criminal justice system compared to non-Indigenous people.

This disadvantage was highlighted in the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. In the Report, Commissioner Elliot Johnston QC stated that “the consequence of the history of Aboriginal people (since European settlement) is the partial destruction of Aboriginal culture and a large part of the Aboriginal population and also disadvantage and inequality of Aboriginal people in all the areas of social life where comparison is possible between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people”. 7

Life expectancy 2001:8
Indigenous males – 56 years
all Australian males – 77 years
Indigenous females – 63 years
all Australian females – 82 years
Death rate 2001:
The death rate among the Indigenous population was more than twice the death rate for the total Australian population. 9 The death rate for Indigenous people aged 35-54 in the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, was five times that of the total Australian population. 10
Infant mortality 2001:
The infant mortality rate for Indigenous Australians (11 deaths per 1,000 live births) was twice the infant mortality rate for all Australians (5.0).11
Causes of death 2001:
While heart disease and cancer remain the leading causes of death for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Indigenous people are more likely than other Australians to die from accidents, assault and self-harm (17% of Indigenous deaths compared to 6% of total deaths), and are more likely to die from diseases of the respiratory system and endocrine, nutritional and metabolic systems, such as diabetes. 12
Hospitalisation 2001:
13 Indigenous people were almost twice as likely to be hospitalised for most diseases and conditions as non-Indigenous people. Hospital admissions were most common amongst Indigenous children aged under 5 years and Indigenous adults aged 25 to 34 and 45 to 54 years (23% for each age group).
General health 2001:
Indigenous people were nearly twice as likely to report their health as ‘fair or poor’ (34%) compared to non-Indigenous people (18%). Based on self-reported height and weight, Indigenous people aged 15 years and over were more likely to be overweight or obese (61%) compared with non-Indigenous people (48%). Indigenous people were more likely to report asthma as a long-term health condition (17%) than the non-Indigenous population (12%). Indigenous people were more than three times more likely to report some form of diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians.14

Educational achievement 2001:
The proportion of Indigenous people over 15 years who had completed Year 12 was 25% in major cities and 8% in remote areas compared with 46% and 35% respectively for non-Indigenous people. 15
School retention 2002:
38% of Indigenous students continued to Year 12 compared with 76% of non-Indigenous students.16
Higher education 2001:
5% of Indigenous people aged between 18 and 24 were attending university compared with 23% of non-Indigenous people.17 The number of Indigenous people aged 15-19 who were attending an educational institution in 2001 was around 19500 compared with around 900000 non-Indigenous people of the same age.18
Employment and income
Labour force participation 2001:
52% of Indigenous people aged 15 and over were in the labour force compared with 63% of the total population in the same age group.19
Unemployment 2001:
The unemployment rate was 20% for Indigenous adults compared with 7.2% for non-Indigenous adults. This rate has improved since 1994 (when Indigenous unemployment was 27.8%) but has deteriorated since 2000 when Indigenous unemployment was 17.6%.20
Impact of CDEP 1996:
The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) is the Indigenous work-for-the-dole scheme. CDEP is not available to all Indigenous peoples. Indigenous unemployment rates rise significantly if participants in CDEP are counted as unemployed. In 2001, 7% of Indigenous people aged 15 years and over who reported their labour force status said they participated in CDEP.21
Income 2001:
The average weekly household income for Indigenous people ($364) was only 62% of that for non-Indigenous people ($585).22
Home ownership 2001:
32% of Indigenous people own or are buying their own homes compared with 71% of non-Indigenous Australians.23
Temporary dwellings 1999:
An estimated 13% of Indigenous people living in remote communities live in temporary dwellings, including tin sheds, caravans and ‘humpies’. 24
Overcrowding 2001:
15% of Indigenous households were overcrowded by accepted Australian standards, compared with 4% of other Australian households.25
Sewerage service 2001:
A survey of 1,216 Indigenous communities with a population of 50 or more found that 48% had reported sewerage system overflows or leakages in the 12 months prior to the survey.26
Criminal justice system
Adult imprisonment 2002:
Nationally, the imprisonment rate for Indigenous adults at June 2002 was approximately 15 times that for non-Indigenous adults. Western Australia recorded the highest imprisonment rate for Indigenous people (2,400 Indigenous persons per 100,000 Indigenous people) followed by New South Wales at approximately 2,100 per 100,000. The proportion of male prisoners who were Indigenous rose from 14% in 1992 to 20% in 2002.27

Juvenile detention 2001:
Indigenous youth aged 10 to 17 years were 19.9 times more likely than non-Indigenous juveniles to be detained in a juvenile justice centre 28

Deaths in custody 2002:
Although Indigenous people are now less likely to die in police custody compared to 20 years ago, they are more likely to die in prison custody. From 1980-1989, 67 Indigenous people died in police custody and 39 in prison custody. From 1990-1999, 21 Indigenous people died in police custody and 93 in prison custody.29
During 2002, 69 people died in all forms of custody in Australia. Of the 69 deaths, 14 were Indigenous people. During the period 1990 to 2002, the majority of deaths (65%) occurred in prison custody, while 34% of the deaths occurred in police custody. 18% of all deaths in prison custody during this period were Indigenous. 30

Women’s disadvantage
Women’s imprisonment 2002:
In 1992, 18% of all female prisoners were Indigenous. By 2002, this figure had risen to 25%. 31
Domestic violence:
Accurate statistics about the incidence of violence against women in Indigenous communities are scarce. However, research suggests that Indigenous women and children are more than 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence and more than 8 times more likely to be victims of homicide.32

Question 5. Do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples get special treatment from the government?
Generally, Indigenous people receive the same level of public benefits as non-Indigenous people. Individuals do not get extra funding because they are Indigenous. However, specific government programs, not additional income, have been introduced for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples because they are the most economically and socially disadvantaged group in Australia. Special programs are necessary to help overcome disadvantage. Examples of programs specifically designed to meet Indigenous needs include:

Community Development Employment Projects Scheme (CDEP) – Indigenous work-for-the-dole.
Aboriginal Medical Services and Aboriginal Legal Services – provide cost-free medical and legal services.
The Indigenous Employment Programme – provides flexible financial assistance to help create employment and training opportunities for Indigenous people in the private sector.
The Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Programme (IESIP) – provides supplementary funding to pre-schools, schools and vocational education and training providers to help improve educational outcomes for Indigenous students.
These programs supplement those available to the mainstream population. They are necessary because Indigenous people do not generally use mainstream services at the same rate as non-Indigenous people and because the level of Indigenous disadvantage is much more severe. Medical and legal services for low income and migrant communities are also available in Australia.

Click here for details of spending on Indigenous education, health and housing.
Public expenditure on education for Indigenous people is 18% higher per capita than for non-Indigenous people aged 3-24 years. The higher expenditure is a result of various factors including location (delivering education in rural and remote locations is more expensive) and lower than average income for Indigenous people which leads to a greater average need for assistance to students.33

Public and private expenditure on health services for Indigenous Australians rose by at least 15% per person between 1995-96 and 1998-99. This compares with 10% per person increase in non-Indigenous health spending over the same period. However, given the comparatively poor health indicators for Indigenous people, public expenditure on health services for Indigenous people was similar to that for non-Indigenous people in low income groups. The difference in health expenditure on Indigenous and non-Indigenous people reflects differences in income level, health status and cost of delivering health services to remote communities. While Indigenous people are more likely to use state-funded health services (hospitals and community health services), Indigenous people are low users of the major Commonwealth-funded health programs such as Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. 34 In 2002, the Commonwealth Government stated it would commit around $302.7 million on Indigenous health and ageing programs during 2002-03.35

There have been a number of estimates of the amount of extra spending needed to provide the same standard of health services to Indigenous Australians as are currently provided to non-Indigenous Australians, taking into account that Indigenous Australians have greater health needs:

In 2003, John Deeble, the architect of the Medicare system, calculated $250 million per annum extra should be spent, based on the shortfall in Medicare spending on Indigenous Australians when compared to non-Indigenous Australians. 36
Access Economics estimated $400 million per annum extra should be spent in a report published in May 2004 37. The difference in John Deeble’s and Access Economics’ figure is because the latter is based on a greater estimate of Indigenous health needs. 38
Another 2004 report by Econtech estimated the cost of extending universal primary health care to Indigenous communities would cost between $409 million and $570 million depending on the quality of service offered 39.
In 2002-03, the Government said it would spend approximately $350 million on Indigenous-specific housing and related infrastructure programs. In addition to Indigenous-specific housing programs, an estimated 22% of Indigenous households are tenants in mainstream public housing.40

Click here for further information aimed at addressing popular myths and misconceptions about government spending in relation to Indigenous Australians http://www.atsic.gov.au/news_room/As_a_Matter_of_Fact/index.asp

Question 6. What are the new arrangements for the administration of Indigenous affairs introduced by the Federal Government in 2004?
In April 2004, the Federal Government announced the introduction of new arrangements for administering Indigenous affairs from 1 July 2004.41 Under these arrangements, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) were abolished (effective from 30 June 2004 and 30 June 2005 respectively) and responsibility for Indigenous specific programs transferred to mainstream government departments and agencies.

The Federal Government established the following bodies to administer Indigenous Affairs:

The Ministerial Taskforce on Indigenous Affairs – comprised of government ministers who set the direction for the Federal Government’s approach to Indigenous affairs;
The Secretaries Group on Indigenous Affairs – comprised of heads of federal government departments and reports to the Ministerial Taskforce;
The National Indigenous Council – a Government appointed Board of Indigenous people to advise Government. It is not intended to be representative or to perform the role previously held by ATSIC;
The Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination – located in the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs, it coordinates federal government activity on Indigenous affairs; and
Indigenous Coordination Centres – 27 regionally-based offices which engage with Indigenous communities at the local level to coordinate government service delivery to communities.
The new approach is based on a process of negotiating agreements with Indigenous families and communities at the local level (‘Shared Responsibility Agreements’) and setting priorities at the regional level (‘Regional Participation Agreements’). Central to this negotiation process is the concept of mutual obligation or reciprocity for service delivery. 42 The Government has stated that the new approach also involves:

the creation of a single budget submission across government for Indigenous affairs;
supporting regional Indigenous representative structures;
a focus on implementing the commitments made by the Council of Australian Governments to address Indigenous disadvantage; and
improving accountability for mainstream programs and services.
What were ATSIC and ATSIS?
ATSIC stands for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It was made up of a national Board and Regional Councils whose membership was elected by Indigenous people every three years. ATSIC was established in 1990 and was the main organisation responsible for:

Developing programs for Indigenous people supplementary to mainstream programs and services.
Monitoring how government agencies provide services to Indigenous people.
Advising national, regional and local governments on Indigenous issues.
In May 2004, the Government introduced legislation into Parliament to abolish ATSIC.43 The Prime Minister stated that the Government believed ‘very strongly that the experiment in separate representation, elected representation, for Indigenous people has been a failure’44.

ATSIC’s National Board of Commissioners ceased to exist from midnight 23 March 2005. 45 However, ATSIC Regional Councils continued to function until 30 June 2005.

Until 2003, ATSIC was also responsible for administering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and making individual funding decisions. From 1 July 2003, these functions were transferred to a new Executive Agency, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS). ATSIS was required to administer these programs in accordance with the policy directions provided by ATSIC. Under the new arrangements, ATSIS was abolished on 30 June 2004 and its responsibilities transferred to mainstream government departments and agencies.
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2004Social Justice Report http://www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/sjreport04/ Click here for information on the new Government arrangements for delivering services to Indigenous Australians http://www.oipc.gov.au/publications/default.asp

Question 7. What is the history of government policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
Terra nullius
From 1788, Australia was treated as a colony of settlement, not of conquest. Aboriginal land was taken over by British colonists on the premise that the land belonged to no-one (‘terra nullius’). Australia’s colonisation resulted in a drastic decline in the Aboriginal population. Estimates of how many Indigenous people lived in Australia at the time of European settlement vary from 300,000 to 1 million. Estimates of the number of Indigenous people who died in frontier conflict also vary widely.46 While the exact number of Indigenous deaths is unknown, many Indigenous men, women and children died of introduced diseases to which they had no resistance such as smallpox, influenza and measles. Many also died in random killings, punitive expeditions and organised massacres.

It is estimated that there were 250 Indigenous languages at the time of European settlement.47 It is estimated that today, approximately 20 languages remain strong.48

In 1992, the premise of Australia’s colonisation, terra nullius, was dismissed by the High Court of Australia in the Mabo decision49. In Mabo, the High Court acknowledged the occupation of Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples prior to European settlement.

Protection policies
Indigenous survivors of frontier conflicts were moved onto reserves or missions. From the end of the nineteenth century, various State and Territory laws were put in place to control relations between Aboriginal people and other Australians. Under these laws, protectors, protection boards and native affairs departments segregated and controlled a large part of the Aboriginal population. It has been estimated that the Aboriginal population during the 1920s had fallen to only about 60,000 from perhaps 300,000 or even one million people in 1788.50

Assimilation policies
In 1937, the Commonwealth Government held a national conference on Aboriginal affairs which agreed that Aboriginal people ‘not of full blood’ should be absorbed or ‘assimilated’ into the wider population. The aim of assimilation was to make the ‘Aboriginal problem’ gradually disappear so that Aboriginal people would lose their identity in the wider community.

Protection and assimilation policies which impacted harshly on Indigenous people included separate education for Aboriginal children, town curfews, alcohol bans, no social security, lower wages, State guardianship of all Aboriginal children and laws that segregated Indigenous people into separate living areas, mainly on special reserves outside towns or in remote areas.

Another major feature of the assimilation policy was stepping up the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families and their placement in white institutions or foster homes.

‘Stolen children’ or ‘stolen generations’
The history of the ‘Stolen children’ varies depending on time and place. Table 7.1 shows where and when Indigenous children could lawfully be taken away without their parents’ consent and without a court order. Non-Indigenous children could also be removed without their parents’ consent, but only by a court finding that the child was uncontrollable, neglected or abused.

Table 7.1: State and Territory laws authorising forcible removal of Indigenous children
Where When Why
NSW and ACT 1915 – 1940 If the Protection Board believed it was in the interest of the moral or physical welfare of the child.
Northern Territory 1911 – 1964 Being ‘aboriginal or half-caste’ if the Chief Protector believed it was necessary or desirable.
Queensland 1897 – 1965 For ‘aboriginal’ children, and ‘half-cast’ children living with Aboriginal parent(s), if the Minister ordered it. These laws did not apply to Torres Strait Islanders.
South Australia 1923 – 1962 Legitimate children (that is, children whose parents were lawfully married) could only be removed if they were over 14 or had an education certificate. Illegitimate children could be removed at any time if the Chief Protector and State Children’s Council believed they were neglected.
Victoria 1871 – 1957 If the Governor of the State was satisfied the child was neglected or left unprotected. From 1899, for the better care, custody and education of the child.
Western Australia 1909 – 1954 Police, protectors and justices of the peace could remove any ‘half-caste’ child to a mission. Extended to all ‘natives’ under 21 in 1936.

Source: Appendices 1-7, Bringing them home, Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, HREOC, 1997.

Where were the children placed?
Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities to the care of non-Indigenous people with the aim of assimilating them into non-Aboriginal society. In Queensland, this often meant separating the children into dormitories on reserves. In New South Wales and Western Australia, many children were trained in Aboriginal-only institutions to become domestic servants or farm labourers. Other children were transferred to orphanages and children’s homes where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children were brought up together. In other cases, and especially after the 1940s, Aboriginal children were fostered or adopted into non-Aboriginal families.

How many children were removed?
In its 1997 report Bringing them home, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission estimated that between one-third and one-tenth of all Aboriginal children growing up during the years in which forcible removal laws operated were removed. The full scale of removals is still not known because many records have been lost.

What were the consequences of the removals?
Many members of the Stolen Generation reported during the Bringing them home Inquiry that they were forbidden to speak their Aboriginal language, they were told their parents did not want them, they experienced neglect as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse, they received little or no education, and were refused contact with their families.

The effects of the separation from their parents and communities, being institutionalised and being abused, have been reported to impact on self-esteem, cultural identity, social skills and survival skills, developing relationships and parenting. Many members of the Stolen Generations still have not been reunited with their families. The legacy of forcible removal remains in the lives of Indigenous individuals and communities today.

Bringing them home Report http://www.humanrights.gov.au/bth/index.htm
In May 1967, a Constitutional referendum to include Indigenous people in the national census and to enable the Commonwealth Government to make laws on Aboriginal affairs passed with a ‘Yes’ vote of almost 91%.

Before 1967, Aboriginal Affairs was a state responsibility and the Commonwealth Government was only in charge of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. After 1967, the Commonwealth Government shared power over Aboriginal Affairs with the States.

To read more about the 1967 referendum click here: http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bp/1996-97/97bp11.htm
Equal pay
Having repeatedly rejected Aboriginal claims to equal pay for equal work during the 1930s and 1940s, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission finally granted Aboriginal stockmen award wages in 1966.51 This determination had a flow-on effect to other employed Aboriginal people nationally.

Self-determination policy
The federal Labor Government led by Gough Whitlam adopted the policy of ‘self-determination’ for Indigenous communities in 1972. This policy was described as ‘Aboriginal communities deciding the pace and nature of their future development as significant components within a diverse Australia’. It recognised that Aboriginal people had a right to be involved in decision making about their own lives.

Self-management policy
The federal Coalition Government led by Malcolm Fraser, which came to power in late 1975, adopted the policy of ‘self-management’ which focused on Indigenous communities managing the government projects and funding locally, but with little say in what projects would be created. The Hawke and Keating Labor Governments from 1983-1996 used both self-determination and self-management as key principles in their Indigenous affairs policies. The Coalition Government led by John Howard from 1996 has reverted to a policy of self-management.

Land rights
In 1976, the Federal Government passed land rights law for Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory. Most other states also have some form of Land Rights legislation in place although the degree of control given to Indigenous peoples over the land in question differs significantly from state to state.

Native title
In the Mabo case of 1992, the High Court of Australia rejected the long-standing doctrine of terra nullius. It found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have maintained a continuing connection with their land, according to their traditions and customs, may have their rights to land under traditional law recognised in Australian law. This is native title.

Click here for more information on the history of contact between Aboriginal people and governments in Australia http://www.dreamtime.net.au/indigenous/timeline3.cfm


Question 8. What is the right to self-determination?
Self-determination is the right of all peoples to ‘freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’ (Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). 52 Self-determination is a collective right (belonging to a ‘peoples’) rather than an individual right. The claim by Indigenous peoples to the right of self-determination raises two questions: (1) Do Indigenous groups constitute a ‘peoples’? (2) Does self-determination give indigenous peoples the right to secession (that is, to break away from an existing nation)?

The application of self-determination to indigenous people is the subject of ongoing negotiations in the United Nations. Many countries now accept that self-determination applies to Indigenous people, although they do not accept that self-determination would authorise secession, and are unwilling to formally recognise indigenous self-determination unless it is accompanied by a guarantee against secession. Indigenous peoples have responded to this concern in international negotiations by noting that international law provides protection against secession.

Most Indigenous people in Australia want self-determination within the existing nation. This would require recognition by the Government of their distinct cultures and forms of social organisation, governance and decision-making. It would mean transferring responsibility and power for decision-making to Indigenous communities so they can make decisions in relation to issues that affect them.

Question 9. What is reconciliation?
Reconciliation aims to promote understanding of the history of contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and develop better relations for the future.53

The formal reconciliation process began in 1991 with the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation for a ten year period. The Council was established by legislation with 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous members appointed by the Government. The Council was required to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community. At the end of its ten-year period, the Council was also required to make recommendations to the Government on actions for achieving reconciliation.

The Council developed a declaration towards reconciliation, a Roadmap for Reconciliation which contains four national strategies and a final report, titled Reconciliation: Australia’s Challenge, which sets out a comprehensive program of activities to address the ‘unfinished business’ of reconciliation. The Council’s proposals relate to four areas: achieving economic independence, overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, recognising Indigenous rights and sustaining the reconciliation process.

Reconciliation Australia was established by the Council in December 2000 to carry forward the reconciliation movement.

Click here for more information on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation:

(Please see endnote for more up to date Original Perspectives)

Question 10. What is native title? (Please see endnote for more up to date Original Perspectives).
‘Native title’ is the name given by Australian law to Indigenous peoples’ traditional rights to their lands and waters. Those rights can range from a relationship similar to full ownership of the land through to the right to go onto the land for ceremonies or to hunt, fish or gather foods and bush medicines. To have their native title rights recognised, the Indigenous group has to prove they still have a connection with their country according to their traditional laws.

Australian law gives all other land titles priority over native title. In many cases the creation of an interest in land under western law has the effect of extinguishing any native title rights that might have existed. However, in some cases Indigenous and non-Indigenous interests in land can co-exist – for example, Indigenous people might be able to visit their country freely even though it is on a cattle station. Even in these cases, wherever there is a conflict between the two sets of interests, the non-Indigenous interest will prevail.

Native title cannot be recognised on land which is fully owned by someone else. It can only be recognised in areas like:

Vacant land owned by the government (this is called ‘Crown land’).
Some national parks and forests.
Some pastoral leases (where the pastoralist rents a cattle or sheep station from the government without owning the land).
Aboriginal reserves.
Beaches, seas, lakes and rivers that are not privately owned.
How many native title applications have been successful?
As at 15 April 2005, the total number of native title determinations (decisions made on a claim) in Australia numbered 59. Of these, 39 were determinations that native title exists. 54

Click here for more information about native title decisions.
Table 10.1: Native title decisions by outcome and state/territory to 15 April 2005
State/territory Native title exists in some or all of the area Native title does not exist Total decisions
NSW 1 14 15
NT 6 0 6
Queensland 23 2 25
South Australia 0 1 1
Victoria 0 1 1
WA 9 2 11
Total 39 20 59

Source: National Native Title Tribunal, ‘Native title determinations by State or Territory’ (website accessed 26 April 2005)

Click here to see a map of native title applications and determination areas as at 31 March 2005: http://www.nntt.gov.au/publications/data/files/National_FC_NTDA_Schedule.pdf Click here to see a map of native title determinations as at 31 March 2005: http://www.nntt.gov.au/publications/data/files/Determinations_A4.pdf

Is native title the same as land rights?
Native title is not the same as land rights. Land rights are granted through legislation whereas native title is the recognition of rights based on the traditional laws and customs that existed before white occupation. Unlike land rights, native title rights are not granted by government so cannot be withheld or withdrawn by Parliament or the Crown, although they can be extinguished by an Act of government.

A land rights grant may cover traditional land, an Aboriginal reserve, an Aboriginal mission or cemetery, Crown land or a national park. Native title only covers land on which a traditional relationship continues to exist.
Table 10.2: Australian land rights laws
State/territory Act/s and year Major effects
South Australia Aboriginal Land Trust Act 1966 Established the Aboriginal Lands Trust of South Australia made up of Aboriginal members and provided for the transfer of former Aboriginal reserves to the control and management of Aboriginal communities.
Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 Returned over 103,000 square kilometres in remote north-west South Australia to the traditional owners.
Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 Returned 81,000 square kilometres of former reserve land in central western South Australia to the traditional owners. 120 square kilometres contaminated by British atomic testing in the 1950s were excluded from the original land grant. These blocks were finally returned once they were made safe in March 2000.
Victoria Six Aboriginal Lands Acts, five passed by the Victorian Parliament and one by the Federal Parliament. The first was the Aboriginal Lands Act 1970 Each Act transferred ownership of small areas of reserve or mission lands to trusts or Aboriginal organisations. No claims process established. These small areas make up a very low proportion of the area of Victoria.
Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (a federal law) Former Aboriginal reserves (about 20% of the land in the NT) were returned to Aboriginal land trusts for the benefit of the traditional owners. Some national parks, including Uluru and Kakadu, were also returned on condition that the owners would share their management with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. A claim process was set up which allowed traditional owners to lodge claims to other Crown land until 1997. Claims are heard by Aboriginal Land Commissioners who make recommendations to the Federal Government. Four Aboriginal Land Councils assist with claims and with land management. The Act also established a regime for development, exploration and mining on Aboriginal land, and the payment of ‘mining royalty equivalents’ by government to traditional owners.
Pastoral Land Act 1992 Indigenous people with a historic residential connection to land forming part of a pastoral lease, and who ‘can demonstrate a present need for a community living area’ may apply to a Tribunal for a recommendation (which the Minister has the discretion to act upon) that the government excise the land from the lease and transfer it to an incorporated Aboriginal association. The estate transferred is a fee simple estate, but the pastoral lessee may apply to have it reincorporated into the lease if it is not occupied by the Aboriginal claimants for a period exceeding five years.
New South Wales Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 Transferred Aboriginal reserves to Local Aboriginal Land Councils, and enabled them to make claims for unoccupied Crown land not needed for a public purpose. It is not necessary for claimants to prove a traditional relationship with the land; a historical relationship may be sufficient. By 7 August 2001, 6,598 claims had been made but only 1,957 had been granted, totalling 75,952 hectares – less than 1% of the State. The Act also established a fund for land purchases, 13 Regional Land Councils and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
National Parks and Wildlife (Aboriginal Ownership) Amendment Act 1996 Allows Indigenous communities to claim land in national parks. The total area of National Park affected by the legislation is 113,000 hectares.
Jervis Bay, a Commonwealth defence territory Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay Territory) Act 1986 Provides for grants of land in the Jervis Bay Territory. The Jervis Bay National Park was transferred to the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council in 1995, with the community leasing the Park back to the Director of National Parks and Wildlife. The transfer of land in the Territory has resulted in about 93% of the Territory’s 7,400 hectares being Aboriginal-owned.
Queensland Land Act 1962 In 1982, an option was given to communities living on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Reserves to take trusteeship of the land under a Deed of Grant In Trust (DOGIT) under this Act. The trustee is usually a community council but can be a group of individuals. Some 31 DOGIT Council communities were established throughout Queensland.
Aboriginal Land Act 1991; Torres Strait Islander Land Act 1991 Transferred ownership of existing reserves and DOGIT land already run by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander councils to their communities. Claims could also be made for specified Crown land and claims would be decided by a Land Tribunal. Indigenous people in Queensland may claim land on the grounds of traditional affiliation or historical association or economic / cultural viability. At 2001, 80 parcels of land had been transferred to Indigenous communities, comprising a total area of about 540,000 hectares.
Tasmania Aboriginal Land Act 1995 Established an elected Aboriginal Land Council and transferred ownership of 12 areas of particular significance to Tasmanian Aboriginal people to the Council’s ownership. The amount of land concerned is 0.06% of the state.
Western Australia No land rights legislation. Under the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority Act 1972, Aboriginal reserves were vested in the Western Australian Aboriginal Land Trust (WAALT). The WAALT has leased these lands to communities for 99 years. The Bonner Report of the WAALT in 1996 recommended that title to WAALT lands be transferred to Aboriginal corporations in trust for Aboriginal people by 2002. The area of land under review made up 12% of Western Australia. The Bonner Report is in the process of being implemented.

Source: Pollack, D.P. (2001), ‘Indigenous land in Australia: a quantitative assessment of Indigenous land holdings in 2000’, CAEPR Discussion Paper No. 221, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra; and pages 136-142, Native Title Report 2003, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, HREOC,2004.

Land for Aboriginal communities or enterprises may also be purchased with money from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Account (formerly Land Fund) created in 1995. The Land Account was the second part of the Federal Government’s response to the High Court’s Mabo decision (the first part of the response being the introduction of native title legislation), in recognition of the fact that the majority of Indigenous people had been dispossessed and would be unable to regain ownership and control of their land through the native title processes. The Land Account was established to help address this issue by providing cultural, social, environmental and economic benefits for Indigenous people.

The Land Account was created by a fixed annual allocation ($121 million) from the government over 10 years to 30 June 2004. Around two-thirds of this amount has been retained in the Account and invested, with the remainder available to the Indigenous Land Corporation to fund its ongoing activities. Government allocations to the Land Account have ceased. It is expected that the work of the Indigenous Land Corporation will be funded from the investment income earned by the Land Account. 55 With the abolition of ATSIC and ATSIS, the Indigenous Land Account and Indigenous Land Corporation were transferred to the Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs portfolio of the Federal Government. 56

Table 10.4: Indigenous Land Corporation purchases by state and territory, 1995-2002
State/territory Number of properties Total area (hectares)
NSW 46 187,109.4
NT 12 494,136.1
Queensland 39 1,368,852.1
South Australia 25 835,228.7
Tasmania 5 11,780.0
Victoria 27 3,963.6
WA 36 2,281,751.7
Total 190 5,182,821.6

Source: Indigenous Land Corporation, ‘Indigenous Land Corporation Property Acquisition’ (website accessed 10 May 2005)

Native title landmarks
1992: First recognition of native title – the Mabo case
In the Mabo case of 1992, the High Court of Australia recognised the native title rights of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait. This decision rejected the doctrine of terra nullius. It recognised for the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have maintained a continuing connection with their country, according to their traditions and customs, may have their rights to land under traditional law recognised in Australian law. This is native title.

Click here to read the Mabo Case (No. 2) http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/175clr1.html
1993: The Native Title Act
In 1993, the Native Title Act was passed to recognise and protect surviving native title rights throughout Australia and set up a process for settling claims and conflicts about native title. The Act:

Established a claim process for Indigenous people seeking recognition of native title, including the establishment of the National Native Title Tribunal.
Provided a definition of native title.
Provided that, in relation to future developments on the land, native title would have no lesser protection than other interests in land.
Allowed Indigenous groups claiming native title to negotiate about mining developments proposed on the land before proving their claim (the ‘right to negotiate’).
Validated non-Indigenous interests that would have been invalid as a result of the recognition of native title.
Click here for more information about the Native Title Act http://www.nntt.gov.au.
1996: The question of pastoral leases – the Wik Case
In the 1996 Wik case, the High Court held that pastoral leases in Queensland do not necessarily cancel out native title rights and interests and that they could co-exist with the rights of pastoralists.

Click here to read the Wik Case http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/unrep299.html
1998: The Wik amendments to the Native Title Act
In 1998, after the Wik case, the Federal Government amended the Native Title Act. The amendments:

Weakened the ‘right to negotiate’ for native title claimants.
Confirmed and validated the extinguishment of native title on a range of leases and other land tenures.
Upgraded pastoral leaseholds by increasing the activities that could take place under the lease without having to negotiate with native title holders.
Made it more difficult to register native title applications.
Introduced ‘Indigenous land use agreements’ (ILUAs) which allow a native title group to negotiate on a range of matters about land and waters with others.
2001: Croker Island (Commonwealth v Yarmirr)
The Croker Island case recognised that native title could exist on sea country but that any native title rights that were recognised must not exclude the rights of any other person.

Click here to read the Croker Island case http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/HCA/2001/56.html
2002: Ward (Western Australia v Ward)
In the Ward case, the High Court found that native title is made up of a bundle of rights and that these rights can be extinguished either in part or as a whole. One way native title rights are extinguished is by the grant of inconsistent non-Indigenous interests in the same area of land. For example, the creation of a pastoral lease in Western Australia extinguishes the right of the traditional owners to exclusive possession of that land. However, it does not extinguish the rights of the traditional owners to enter the land in order to hunt or fish or perform ceremonies, because these rights can co-exist with the rights of the pastoralist. In the case of freehold, native title is completely extinguished.

Click here to read the Ward case http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/HCA/2002/28.html
2002: Yorta Yorta (Members of the Yorta Yorta Community v Victoria)
The High Court found that in order to have native title recognised, the claimant group must show that it, or its members have practised their traditional laws and customs continuously since European settlement.

Click here to read the Yorta Yorta Case http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/HCA/2002/58.html


Further Reading
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2004, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 2004.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Native Title Report 2004, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 2004.

Australian Bureau of Statistics publications:
1996 Census of Population and Housing: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Catalogue No. 2034.0) 1998.

2001 Census Community Profile Series: Indigenous Profile: Australia (Catalogue No. 2002.0) 2002.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) (Catalogue No. 4714.0) 2002

Hospital statistics relating to Indigenous people, Occasional Paper, 1997-98.

Kate Ross, Population Issues: Indigenous Australians (Catalogue No. 4708.0), Australian Bureau of Statistics, 15 February 1999.

Self-assessed health status of Indigenous Australians, Occasional Paper, 1994.

Productivity Commission Reports
Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision Reports, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2005

Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, Report on Government Services 2005 – Indigenous Compendium.

Other Indigenous health publications:
R W Edwards &amp Richard Madden, The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003.

Indigenous mothers and their babies – health statistics, 1994-96, National Perinatal Statistics Unit, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1999.

Publications about contact and colonial history:
Bain Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989.

Bringing them home, Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, HREOC, Sydney, 1997.

Robert Manne, ‘In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right’, The Australian Quarterly Essay, Issue 1, Schwartz Publishing, 2001.

Peter Read, The stolen generations: the removal of Aboriginal children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969, NSW Government Printer, Sydney, 1982.

Henry Reynolds, Frontier: Aborigines, settlers and land, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987.

Henry Reynolds, The other side of the frontier: an interpretation of the Aboriginal response to the invasion and settlement of Australia, James Cook University, Townsville, 1981.

Henry Reynolds, Why weren’t we told? A personal search for the truth about our history, Viking, Ringwood Victoria, 1999.

Lyndall Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Allen & Unwin, 2nd Edition, St Leonards, 1997.

Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, (Volume One: Van Dieman’s Land 1803-1847), Macleay Press, Paddington NSW, 2002.

Publications about reconciliation:
Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 2000.

Roadmap for Reconciliation, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 2000.

Reconciliation Australia: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/car/

Reports of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner:
On social justice: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/sj_reports.html

On native title: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/nt_reports.html

(Note that 2005 reports will be released in November 2005)

Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody:
National Report (Volumes I-V), Commonwealth of Australia, 1991.

For information about the new arrangements in the administration of Indigenous Affairs:
Office of the Indigenous Policy Coordinator: http://www.oipc.gov.au/

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney.

(Note that 2005 report will be released in November 2005)

For information about CDEP:


See also, Race Discrimination Commissioner, The CDEP Scheme and Racial Discrimination, HREOC, Sydney, 1997.

For information about ATSIC:

For information about the Torres Strait Regional Authority:

For information about the Mabo Case:
Mabo No. 1: Mabo and Another v The State of Queensland and Another (1989) 166 CLR 186.

Mabo No. 2: Mabo and Others v Queensland (No. 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1.

Read about Mr Eddie Mabo, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1998.

For information about the National Native Title Tribunal:

For information about land rights legislation and land purchases:
Pollack, D.P. (2001), ‘Indigenous land in Australia: a quantitative assessment of Indigenous land holdings in 2000’, CAEPR Discussion Paper No. 221, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Native Title Report, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney. (Note that the 2005 report will be released in November 2005)


1.United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fact sheet No.9 (Rev.1), The Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

2.NSW Health “Communicating Positively – A guide to appropriate Aboriginal terminology”, NSW Department of Health, 2004.

3.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Characteristics: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians 2001 (Catalogue No. 4713), 30 October 2003, Table 2.8; Census Counts, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Origin 2001, p 25.

4.Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001 Census Basic Community Profile and Snapshot: Australia, 19 November 2002.

5.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Distribution, Indigenous Australians, (Catalogue No. 4705.0), 26 June 2002.

6.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Characteristics: Aboriginal and Torres Starit Islander Australians 2001, (Catalogue No. 4713), 30 October 2003, p20.

7.Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, “National Report by Commissioner Elliot Johnston” QC, AGPS, Canberra, 1991, p6.

8.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population: Article – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population.

9.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Deaths, 2001, (Catalogue No. 3302.0) p20.

10.Australian Bureau of Statistics, The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2003 (Catalogue No. 4704.0).

11.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Deaths, 2001, (Catalogue No. 3302.0) p23.

12.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Deaths, 2001, (Catalogue No. 3302.0) pp24-25.

13.Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Health Survey: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Results, (Catalogue No. 4715.0), 2002. Note: The Survey was conducted by the Australian Bureau of statistics from February to November 2001.

14.Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Health Survey: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Results (Catalogue No. 4715.0), 2002.

15.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Characteristics: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians 2001 (Catalogue No. 4713), 30 October 2003, p49.

16.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, Education and Training: Article – Indigenous Education and Training, 2004. Note: apparent retention rates for full-time Indigenous secondary school students from Year 7/8 to Year 12 rose 5.9 percentage points from 1998 to 2002, compared to a rise of 3.6 percentage points for non-Indigenous students.

17.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Characteristics Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians 2001 (Catalogue No. 4713.0), 30 October 2003, p48.

18.Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001 Census Community Profile Series: Indigenous Profile: Australia (Catalogue No. 2002.0), 2002, Table 101: Selected Characteristics by Indigenous Status by Sex (1st release processing).

19.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, Labour: Article – Labour Force Status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2004.

20.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Occasional Paper: Labour Force Characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, Experimental Estimates from the Labour Force Survey (Catalogue No. 6287.0), 20 December 2000.

21.. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Characteristics Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians 2001 (Catalogue No. 4713.0), 30 October 2003, p65.

22.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Characteristics Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians 2001 (Catalogue No. 4713.0), 30 October 2003, p81.

23.ATSIC Press Release, ‘Home ownership still a dream for many Indigenous Australians’, 5 August 2002.

24.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia 2002, Housing: Special Article-Housing in Remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities.

25.Australian Bureau of Statistics, The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (Catalogue No. 4704.0), 29 August 2003.

26.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Housing and Infrastructure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, Australia (Catalogue No. 4710.0), 6 May 2002.

27.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year book Australia, Crime and Justice; Article- Indigenous Prisoners, 2004.

28.Kate Charlton and Marissa McCall, Statistics on Juvenile Detention in Australia: 1981-2003, Australian Institute of Criminology Technical and Background Paper No.10, 2004, p 11.

29.Paul Williams, Deaths in Custody: 10 Years on from the Royal Commission, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 203, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, April 2001.

30.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, Crime and Justice: Deaths in Custody, 2004.

31.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year book Australia, Crime and Justice; Article- Indigenous Prisoners, 2004.

32.Sue Gordon et al, Putting the picture together, Inquiry into response by Government agencies to Complaints of Family Violence and Child Abuse in Aboriginal Communities, Department of Premier and Cabinet (Western Australia), 2002, p46.

33.Neutze et al, Public Expenditure on Services for Indigenous People: Education, Employment, Health and Housing, Discussion Paper No. 24, The Australia Institute, September 1999, pp12-13.

34.Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Improvements in Indigenous Health Expenditure, Media Release, 20 August 2001.

35.Statement by the Hon. Philip Ruddock MP, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, 14 May 2002, p15.

36.Deeble J, Expenditures on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health 2003, Australian Medical Association, Canberra, 2003, p. 5.

37.Access Economics, Indigenous Health Workforce Needs, AMA, 2004, pp. See the report.

38.ibid. p. 39.

39.Econtech, Costings Models for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Care Review: Consultant Report No.3, Commonwealth of Australia, 2004 p xi

40.Statement by the Hon. Philip Ruddock MP, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation, ‘Indigenous Affairs’, 14 May 2002, pp 13-15.

41.Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2004, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 2004, p 67.

42.Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2004, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 2004, p 67.

43.Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2004, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 2004, p172.

44.Howard, J, (Prime Minister), Transcript of the Prime Minister, The Hon John Howard MP, Joint Press Conference with Senator Amanda Vanstone, Parliament House, Canberra, 15 April 2004, pp1-2.

45.Media Release, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Amanda Vanstone, 24 March 2005.

46.Richard Broome, ‘The Statistics of Frontier Conflict’, in Bain Attwood and S. G. Foster, Frontier Conflict. The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, pp. 88-97.

47.Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Valuing cultures: Recognising Indigenous cultures as a valued part of Australian heritage, AGPS Canberra 1994, p9.

48.See: Aboriginal languages of Australia virtual library website and the ‘Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ Aboriginal Studies Electronic Data Archive.

49.Mabo and Others v State of Queensland (No.2) (1992) 175 CLR 1.

50.R Broome, Aboriginal Australia, 2nd edition, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994, p 174.

51.Australian Trade Union Archives, Timeline website.

52.See: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

53.Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Reconciliation Information Sheet 1: Building New Relationships, 1998.

54.National Native Title Tribunal website, Native Title Determinations.

55.Indigenous Land Fund website.

56.See Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination website, New Arrangements in Indigenous Affairs.

Source: http://www.hreoc.gov.au/racial_discrimination/face_facts_05/atsi.html


Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised this article may contain images and references to the deceased. 

#5 July 2011

Damian Smith

Damian Smith, (1973 – ) Born New South Wales, Damian was raised in government housing by a widowed, single mother in the Industrial city of Newcastle. As one of six children, his interest in performance came through chance when at the age of ten, his mother was given tickets to the ballet. It was here that his love began. His natural ability was impressive and under the tutelage of Robin Hicks, he began to train free of charge. Being teased and bullied did not deter him and it was not long before he received a scholarship to perform at the McDonald College School of Arts, creating a safe space to explore and hone his craft with likeminded peers. 

With a dream to have lessons with Baryshnikov, Damian was supported to attend and audition for the School of American Ballet. On the strength of his first audition, he was signed up and began his international pathway through the arts. He was almost 17. 

After dancing with Ballet du Nord, he joined San Francisco Ballet in 1996. He was promoted to soloist in 1998 and to principal dancer in 2001 at the age of 27. Preparing for his inevitable retirement, Damian returned to Australia to present International Stars of Ballet in Noosa, Queensland. Through his remarkable journey hopes to be seen as a role model for Indigenous children.

Would you like to read more about this Great Moment in Blakistory …
· http://www.sfballet.org/about/company/dancers/view.asp?id=12340020
· http://www.abc.net.au/tv/messagestick/stories/s3064647.htm

Source: Sam Cook


Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised this article may contain images and references to the deceased. 

#3 July 2011

Torres Strait Islander Railway Workers

The modernization of Australia and its foundation of vital mining and economic pathways, owes a significant debt to the blood, sweat and song Torres Strait Islander community. Officially permitted to travel to mainland Australia in 1947 Torres Strait Islander workers were primarily sought to fill the labour shortage in the agricultural industry. In the 1960s, many men, moved to the mainland to support their families. It was here they found employment building railways to mines in Mount Isa and Weipa in Queensland, and in the Pilbara and Port Hedland regions of Western Australia. 

The work was tough and so was being away from family and country. Some Torres Strait Islanders would never return to their homelands. One of the noted rail gangs was led by Father Elemo Tapim. Comprised mostly of Eastern Torres Strait Islanders, they began work constructing the massive Queensland and Western Australian inland rail system. In doing this they documented every mile in a remarkable collection of songs in the Meriam language. The songs created by the Eastern Torres Strait Islanders also act as a roadmap for future generations – figuratively and literally inadvertently mapping the tracklines from outback Queensland and remote Western Australia in song.

To this day, one Torres Strait Islander railroad gang holds the world record for laying track by hand. On the 8 May 1968 they laid 7¼ miles of track in 12 hours. This took 910 tons of rail and 13,000 sleepers. 

Would you like to read more about this Great Moment in Blakistory …
· http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2007/05/23/1930521.htm
· http://railwaysongs.blogspot.com/2009/02/torres.html
· http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/island-fettlers/clip2/?nojs

Source: Sam Cook


Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised this article may contain images and references to the deceased. 

#2 July 2011

Freda Glynn

Freda Glynn spent her early childhood in and around Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. She was one of forty children to be evacuated from Alice Springs during World War Two following Japanese advances into the Pacific, particularly the bombing of Darwin and Katharine. With her mother and sister, she travelled via Melbourne to a Church Missionary Society evacuee camp in the Blue Mountains. 

In 1980, with John Macumba and Philip Batty, Freda Glynn co-founded the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Group of Companies (CAAMA). CAAMA incorporates Imparja, the first Aboriginal commercial television station, which commenced broadcasting in 1988 in Alice Springs and was chaired by Glynn for a time. Imparja was responsible for broadcasting Urrpeye, an Aboriginal current affairs program. Freda Glynn also established the first licensed Aboriginal radio station, Radio 8KIN FM, broadcasting in regional languages. 

In 2002, she played Grandma Nina in the short film Shit Skin, a drama about a young man who takes his grandmother back to the place of her childhood so that she can reconnect with her surviving family. In May 2002, Glynn received the Award for Contribution to Indigenous Media at the Third Tudawali Indigenous Film and Video Awards held at the Sydney Opera House.

Would you like to read more about this Great Moment in Blakistory …
· http://www.womenaustralia.info/exhib/cal/glynn.html
· http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/mediarpt/stories/s898147.htm
· http://homepage.mac.com/will_owen/iblog/C570458628/E20060217214941/index.html
Source: Sam Cook

Aboriginal Spirituality: Interview with an Australian Aboriginal senior man


Michael Williams gives an insight into the depth and richness of Aboriginal spirituality, estimated by some researchers to span 125,000 years. Aboriginal spirituality is based on an ancient cultural belief that life is a vast web of inter-connected relationships. Everything has meaning and purpose and everything is connected – the land, the people, the ancestors and the animals. The past is viewed as being inextricably linked to the present and throughout time the over riding spiritual value has been respect for Aboriginal cultural law.

What do you consider to be the most important aspects of Aboriginal spirituality?
Following your Law.  Don’t break Law.  Respecting all things, animate and inanimate in the entire natural world.

How do Aboriginal perceptions of spirituality differ from western interpretations?
A profound connectedness to land.  Living on your land is essential to maintaining the strongest possible links with land and ensuring proper practice of Aboriginal spiritual life.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Aboriginal spirituality?
People try to make sense of it from their own perspective [spiritual] and do not often open themselves up to knowing it from the inside.  This is not unusual or surprising.  This is an ancient spirituality embedded in a culture that is acknowledged as being the longest continuously surviving culture in the entire world.  By the time the British and others arrived on Australian shores they had long-established behaviours relating to Indigenous cultures. With this entrenched behaviour, coupled with Christianity and Missionary zealousness, there was little chance of Aboriginal spirituality being assessed from a standpoint of respect and a desire to understand it on its own terms.

Is Aboriginal spirituality today different from what it was in the past, how has it changed (or not)?
The spirit has not changed. The Law lies in the land and the spirits of our ancestors have continued to inhabit the landscape during ancient times, during periods of colonisation and after our peoples have been removed from their lands.  Human engagement with Aboriginal spirituality is now challenged by the intervention of other spiritual and religious beliefs and doctrines, as well as the demands of a world filled with technology that infiltrates every corner of human existence.  It is now increasingly hard, except for the committed individual, to stay true to the old ways.  Moving in and out of vastly different domains requires discipline of a high order, but many do so by staying on Land.

What lessons can us ‘white folk’ learn from Aboriginal spirituality?
Simply be. Respectful attention to a commitment to a spiritual path will bring what is meant to be.  Don’t have expectations.  If it is meant to come your way – it will.  Stay on task.  The spiritual domain and practices of the longest continuously surviving culture in the world must have something to offer humanity.  Limit the overlay of other spiritual traditions and try to let Aboriginal ways stand for themselves.

What have been the most important spiritual lessons you have learnt as an Aboriginal man?
Never doubt the presence of spirit and the ability of old ones who have passed to be there for you.  Ask and they will come and ‘show’ themselves in some way.  The land is alive with the spirits and presence of our ancestors and creation heroes.

What works best for you/what do you do when you need some spiritual upliftment?
Go to my Homeland – visit my traditional lands. I engage with my old ones every day and ask for their guidance.

In your 30 years of university teaching, were there any spiritual (or other) changes you noticed in students undertaking Aboriginal studies?
Students have always been interested in Aboriginal spirituality. There are two issues to consider here.  Most students who choose to take a course in Aboriginal studies are already interested in all matters regarding Aboriginal culture and are thirsting for knowledge.  Then there are students who are required to take courses in Aboriginal culture as part of their degree and sometimes these students are resistant to the content raised in these courses. In my experience, the vast majority of students who showed some resistance at first end up thoroughly enjoying the course and go on to take other Aboriginal studies  courses as electives.

From all your years of experience, what spiritual advice would you pass on to others?
Never doubt the existence of spirit and of a Creator – however you may wish to term it.  Spend time regularly [daily] pondering the importance of a spiritual approach to life and take time to care for others and all things.  Respect Planet Earth and the Universe.

Where do you see (or hope to see) Aboriginal spirituality heading in the future?
It is here, always has been here and remains.  The spirit never leaves the land.  People leave the land.  In my experience the spirit presence in my traditional homeland has become more overt since my mother died and there has not been anyone living there permanently.  I notice them when I visit.  It demands that I establish a more active presence there.

Michael Williams:  Australian Aboriginal senior man

Michael Williams was born into the Goorang Goorang peoples of the South East Queensland area.  He has had a long career in public life, mainly in the tertiary education sector, and has recently retired as Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland after almost 20 years.  He is currently working independently as a consultant and holds an honorary position as an Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland where he continues his research interests.  He is also a long serving member of the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra.

Michael has maintained a strong interest in the cultural and spiritual life of his people throughout his life, from spending hours listening to stories as a child through to his continuing interest as an adult in researching family history with his nuclear and extended families. This research has led him (at the age of 50) to being accepted into Aboriginal Law/Lore in the Central Desert region of Australia where he follows ceremonial and cultural life through several annual visits.

Source: http://spiritualspace.com.au/aboriginal-spirituality/

Spiritual space magazine is new from Brisbane.

I bet u thought u were safe from interventions harm…wrong

Budget – New participation measures for long-term unemployed, jobless families, teen parents and people with disability, income management trials.

*** E & OE – Proof only ***

MADONNA KING: Now under this week’s Budget there are big changes to the way welfare is handed out and it’s teenage parents in Logan and Rockhampton who will really feel the heat first. They are two of ten disadvantaged communities to trial the Government’s welfare to work policies. One trial will see parenting payments frozen to young mums and dads if they don’t complete Year 12 or look for a job. Another involves income management where families considered at risk could have up to half their Centrelink payments set aside to buy the basics. Jenny Macklin is the Federal Minister for Families, Housing and Community Services. Good morning.

JENNY MACKLIN: Good morning Madonna.

MADONNA KING: Logan is one of ten communities for two of these trials. It’s one of only five for another. What makes Logan stand out for something like this?

JENNY MACKLIN: It has a particularly high unemployment rate. I am sure your listeners in Brisbane would be aware that the unemployment rate in Logan is around twice that for the average for the rest of the country. So what we really do want to do is work very closely with those people, teenage parents, single parents, people who have been long term unemployed in the Logan area get back to work.

MADONNA KING: Let’s go through some of those. So what is the unemployment rate in Logan?


MADONNA KING: And is there any breakdown on what category that is? Is it older workers, is it young people?

JENNY MACKLIN: I don’t have the breakdown with me but I can certainly get that for you.

MADONNA KING: Let’s look first at the help teenage parents to finish school. How about work, what do they have to do?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well what they have to do is first of all when their baby is six months old, they need to go to Centrelink and start talking with Centrelink about a participation plan that will apply when their child reaches twelve months old. And the focus of the plan for these young parents will be on getting them back to school, making sure that they’ve got the skills that they need so that when their child is going to school itself then the parent will be able to go to work.

MADONNA KING: So if they don’t comply what happens?

JENNY MACKLIN: The normal Centrelink rules will apply if people don’t attend these compulsory interviews then their payments will be suspended until they engage with Centrelink.

MADONNA KING: If a nineteen year old or a seventeen year old has a twelve month old child and you want them to go back to school, who looks after their child?

JENNY MACKLIN: The vast majority of their child care payments will be met so we recognise that providing child care and also very substantial child care assistance is necessary, so that will be made available.

MADONNA KING: And are their spots, do you know, for their children to fill in these child care centres?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well there’s certainly since we put this policy out, there have been many child care centres come out indicating that they do have vacancies. We know that it’s important that teen parents are able to find a child care place and we’ll make sure that they can afford that place.

MADONNA KING: It’s not just young parents, another trial targets parents who have been on income support for at least two years, just explain what that entails.

JENNY MACKLIN: It’s a similar approach so for parents who have been on income support for more than two years they will also be required to come into Centrelink, work through the issues that are relevant to them. What they will need to do in the early years of their children’s lives is to really focus on the health and early development of their children. So make sure their children are getting the health checks they should be getting, getting them into pre-school, getting them ready for school. And from the time the parent’s youngest child turns four, the parent will be required to start getting themselves ready to go back to work.

MADONNA KING: And they can also see their payments stopped?

JENNY MACKLIN: If they don’t attend the workshops or they don’t attend the interviews. These are normal Centrelink rules. They’re no different from what everybody has to do.

MADONNA KING: Are their jobs waiting for them in Logan to apply for?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well there are certainly jobs in Brisbane and I think you’d be aware that across Brisbane there are many, many jobs going and what we want to do is make sure that those families, especially families with young children can see a way to getting a job. It will be better for them and better for their children.

MADONNA KING: All right. These many, many jobs vacant in Brisbane, where are they?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think you’d be aware that the unemployment rate across Brisbane is much lower than it is in Logan and so what we’re trying to do (interrupted)

MADONNA KING: But it still doesn’t mean there’s a lot of vacancies. Certainly each day I’m hearing from people, particularly in their forties, unable to get a job in Brisbane.

JENNY MACKLIN: And we’re talking here about a lot of young people who might have young children but we want to make sure that they don’t face a life on unemployment benefits, or the single parent payments. We want to make sure that they’ve got the chance to get an education and then get a job.

MADONNA KING: And you’re sure those jobs do exist?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well they certainly do exist for people who have a decent education and that’s why helping young people finish their education, making sure that jobless families get the chance to improve their own education, and get their children into preschool will mean that the families and the children will be better off.

MADONNA KING: There’s also income management trials, who’ll qualify for that and how does that work Minister?

JENNY MACKLIN: The way it works is similar to the way it’s been operating in Western Australia for a couple of years now. So if the child protection authorities in Queensland recommend that there are parents in the Logan area or in Rockhampton would benefit from income management then they can recommend that to Centelink. So what that will mean is that up to 70% of a parent’s welfare payments can be income managed and that will require 70% of their welfare payments to be spent on the essentials of life like food and clothing and (interrupted)

MADONNA KING: And who polices that?

JENNY MACKLIN: Centrelink.

MADONNA KING: And so does Centrelink staff go shopping with them or how does that work?

JENNY MACKLIN: No, everybody gets a Basics Card and this is what operates right across Perth now. So if you’re income managed because you’ve been neglecting your children you’ll get a Basics Card and you can take that to Woollies or Coles and you can spend it on things that are good for your children but you can’t spend it on alcohol.

MADONNA KING: That’s the compulsory component. I understand there’s also a voluntary component here. Who do you think would willingly take it up?

JENNY MACKLIN: We’ve had quite a few people in Western Australia take it up. Sometimes it’s people who have been, who know someone who was compulsorily income managed and they can see that they’ve got control of their finances. So we’ve had older people, young families, quite a range of different people decide voluntarily to have their welfare payments income managed.

MADONNA KING: What’s the safety net here? What if after all these trials, cutting the welfare income still doesn’t work, how will you ensure children aren’t going hungry, families aren’t evicted because they can’t pay the rent?

JENNY MACKLIN: Of course, families, these families will continue to receive their Family Tax Benefits. One of the reasons that people might be income managed is if they’re not paying their rent. So this would be a way of helping people to organise their finances so that in fact their rent was paid.

MADONNA KING: And just before I let you go, there’s criticism today the welfare changes for single parents where if they have a child between twelve and fifteen they get moved from the parenting payment to the Newstart Allowance and that’s going to leave 50,000 people $56 less a week even if they are fulfilling work requirements. Is that too harsh?

JENNY MACKLIN: I don’t think so. What we’re really saying to parents of teenagers is that we want to help you get back to work and so what we’re doing is providing a lot more support to those single parents of teenagers and we’re also improving the income test so that those parents can keep more of what they earn. So if a parent gets a part time job for example, they’ll be able to keep more of the income they earn rather than losing it.

MADONNA KING: Minister, thank you.

JENNY MACKLIN: No problem.

Source: http://www.jennymacklin.fahcsia.gov.au/transcripts/2011/Pages/budget_longterm_unemploy_ABC_12052011.aspx

Mental illness or spiritual illness: what should we call it?

Dr Ross Ingram Memorial Competition Winner

Mental illness or spiritual illness: what should we call it?

Lindy L Moffatt
MJA 2011; 194 (10): 541-542
With permission from my son I am able to tell this story. I have not used his name for privacy reasons.

I would like to dedicate this essay to the many Indigenous people who have passed away in psychiatric hospitals and did not make it home to their families and communities.

“Historical trauma” is defined as the subjective experiencing and remembering of events in the mind of an individual or the life of a community, passed from adults to children in cyclic processes as “collective emotional and psychological injury . . . over the life span and across generations”.1

Iwas raised in a foster family from the age of two, in suburban Brisbane, Queensland, with three of my siblings. I am a proud Aboriginal woman with close family ties across south-east Queensland and the north coast of New South Wales. My mother is from the Wakka Wakka clan group in Cherbourg and Brisbane. My father is from the Gumbaynggir and Dunghutti communities of the north-coast region of New South Wales.

Recently, I arrived in Canberra from Brisbane with my son to take up a Research Fellowship with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. My research is on the question of “Mental health: what treatment options are working for Indigenous peoples?”. I have chosen this topic because of my personal experience as a mother.

The day before we left our home in Margate, a suburb in the north of Brisbane on Moreton Bay, to travel to Canberra, we attended my son’s mental health review tribunal hearing, an event that was life-changing for both of us. My son has suffered from a mental illness (schizophrenia) for many years, which saw him hospitalised for ten-and-a-half years. During this time he was on a forensic order as an involuntary patient, because of crimes he had committed while being unwell. I was expecting to be seeking the tribunal’s permission to take my son interstate for the three months that I would be working. Instead, to our surprise, his forensic order was revoked, meaning he was able to leave Queensland and live wherever he wanted. Overwhelmed by the decision, my son kept repeatedly asking the tribunal panel what it meant for him.

As a mother I have struggled, mostly because I was only seventeen years old when my son was born. Of course, you can never imagine or prepare yourself for the way life can take such a turn some twenty years later. I had lived with my biological mother on and off since I was fifteen, so she took on significant caring responsibilities for my baby, who was her first grandchild. She was very close to him. My mother had also suffered from “mental illness” as a young woman and had been hospitalised (I don’t know how many times). I remember being told about it in quite a negative way. Mum was admitted to what was the “old” Wolston Park Hospital some forty years ago. This hospital was located on the same grounds as the hospital called The Park, Centre for Mental Health, where my son has spent his years. She had grown up in Cherbourg Aboriginal community in Queensland where she spent some of her childhood in the dormitory while her mother travelled away for work. I know she did not have good memories of the dormitory days, as she later shared some stories with me about the abuse that she witnessed and was subjected to in the dormitory. My mother died at the age of fifty-seven from kidney failure caused by diabetes, when my son was only twelve.

What I have read and come to understand about transgenerational trauma within Indigenous communities is that the suffering of individuals and communities from trauma and pain results in many unresolved issues not just for those immediately affected, but for those around them, their families and their descendants, and from what I know about my family history the trauma reaches much further than my mother. Personal experience has left me with no doubt that transgenerational trauma contributed to the mental/spiritual unwellness of both my mother and my son.

After my mother’s death our lives changed dramatically. I was in deep grief. It was difficult to “be there” emotionally, or in any other way, for my son. I felt vulnerable and extremely fragile. The grief was unbearable. It took me to a place that I found hard to come back from, to the point where I thought that I would die from it. At the time part of me wanted to. Fortunately, I did come back, just as my son was about to travel down his own road of self-destruction, which began with bizarre behaviour patterns. At about age fourteen, he started to use drugs — first marijuana, then amphetamines, known on the street as speed.

This is a parent’s nightmare. Drug taking was not something I had experience with, nor did I expect this to be happening to my child. What followed was years of risky behaviour, crime, eventually juvenile detention and then prison! As a mother, the pain of this is beyond imagination: it reaches into the very core of you. When your child is locked away, you are too. I was overcome with feelings of shame and guilt. I felt emotionally, psychologically and spiritually immobilised and trapped within myself. Of course, eventually it took its toll on my mental and physical health, and I was diagnosed with my own life-threatening illnesses. One of the many challenges was dealing with blame from people who were close to me. Some made conscious and unconscious hurtful comments because of their own pain and lack of understanding of my son’s illness.

We also experienced discrimination arising from the general community’s ignorance of mental illness. When going out in public — going shopping, for instance — people would stare, laugh or make comments.

The effects of this trauma are still with me today.

In prison, my son’s mental illness started to become very obvious, through the signs of self-harm, and symptoms of mental unwellness such as crying and responding to voices. Eventually, he was hospitalised and I visited him regularly, took him on leave many times and had him living with me for short periods. Unfortunately, he was so unwell that he would abscond from the hospital, and would run away from me as well. This caused immense anxiety, not only for me and our family and friends, but also for staff at the hospital who were genuinely concerned about his welfare. My son would go missing for days, sometimes weeks, without his medication. The police were, of course, alerted and it was their responsibility to find him, but I would usually locate him before they did, and would then seek help from the Indigenous workers or nurses to return him safely to hospital. This happened on many occasions.

Throughout these years of experience with my son and his illness, there were many moments when I questioned my own thoughts and feelings. I did know, however, that I was experiencing something that was deeply spiritual and unknown. My son’s thin and pale, ghost-like appearance haunted me, and I could feel him detaching from what was real. That is why it was important for me to be around to keep the strong spiritual and emotional bond between us — I knew from a sickening feeling inside me there was a very real risk of losing him through suicide. He was haunted by voices, and would respond by talking to people that he believed were real. Sometimes he was happy and laughing along with them; other times he would be screaming back at them to leave him alone, and would cry in a very mournful way that made me cry as well. I remember all this very vividly, especially the times at night when I would lie awake listening to him talking in another language which I knew to be an Aboriginal language. This did freak me out a little, as he appeared to be having conversations and speaking the language fluently. I thought that I was imagining what I had heard until family members and workers at the hospital told me that they had witnessed him doing the same thing. It was through this experience that I came to know and believe that Indigenous mental illness is also spiritual illness, as it is deeply connected to our spirituality and cultural beliefs. I also believe that this spiritual connection is what helped my son get through his illness to where he is today. A quote from the Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW newsletter has been helpful in supporting my thoughts around mental–spiritual illness.

Wellbeing is an holistic and collective issue, with specific individual health problems being of little relevance if not considered as part of wider social, spiritual and community health . . . Mental illness or disturbance may be seen as a ‘soreness of the spirit’ caused by loss of social and family networks, destruction of kinship and family, dislocation from ancestral lands and the conflict between tradition and the pressures of trying to exist within and alongside European culture.2

On one very memorable visit to the hospital I sat with the treating psychiatrist to discuss my son’s “progress”. She explained to me that there were “two very sick patients in the hospital at the time, [my son] being one of them”, and that “out of the two, he [was] the most unwell”. In a roundabout way, I guess she was trying to tell me that my son was the sickest patient in the hospital at that moment. To this day I don’t remember how I drove myself home.

During his long hospital stay of over ten years, my son lost elders and friends, mostly Indigenous patients, who passed away in hospital. He dealt with this in his own way, showing courage and strength. The thought was always at the back of my mind that he himself would not survive. I questioned myself all the time as to whether I was in denial of the possibility that he would be institutionalised forever, but remained convinced that it was important to rise above this thinking, and to try to stay positive, and most of all to believe that things can change and be different. My son is now very well, the best he could possibly be. He lives with me full-time and is actively seeking employment.

I have presented at workshops on mental illness in Indigenous communities and received positive responses from people who appreciated honesty and openness in talking about this sensitive area. There is definitely a need for more understanding and education in our communities so people can come together to share and talk openly without any shame or blame. I always tell people that talking about it and seeking help can mean the difference between life or death for a loved one. Through the years, I have always felt very strongly that “someone” was around, guiding me through this time in our lives. I listened to the messages and acted intuitively, particularly when my son was at his most critical times of illness, and the times when he went missing from the hospital. I give many thanks to all the people who were there supporting us on this long journey, such as family, friends, hospital staff and community, who gave us hope and encouragement. If it weren’t for them, I know we would not be here today to tell this story.

This story is difficult to tell because I know that I will be revisiting the trauma, reliving the memories of events that took place, and visualising the images that will forever haunt me. With permission from my son, I wanted to document and share this story in the hope that it may give strength and support to some other family who is going through the same or similar circumstances.

Author details
Lindy L Moffatt, DipCommWelfareWork&Counselling, Indigenous Visiting Research Fellow
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, ACT.
Correspondence: Lindy.MoffattATaiatsis.gov.au
Atkinson J, Nelson J, Atkinson C. Trauma, transgenerational transfer and effects on community wellbeing. In: Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. Purdie N, Dudgeon P, Walker R, editors. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2010: 138. http://www.health.act.gov.au/c/health?a=sendfile&ft=p&fid=1708785562&sid= (accessed Apr 2011).
Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW Inc. Quality of life. Indigenous: mental illness as understood in Aboriginal communities. 2008. http://www.sfnsw.org.au/About-Mental-Illness/Quality-of-Life/Indigenous/default.aspx (accessed Apr 2011).
(Received 4 Apr 2011, accepted 19 Apr 2011)

Source: http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/194_10_160511/mof10395_fm.html

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