Colonialism Continues To Echo Through Australian Aboriginal Policy


The United Nations have accused Australia’s Close the Gap Campaign of being “woefully inadequate,” asserting that the incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians is a human rights violation and criticizing government policy for being culturally insensitive. UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, released a report on Tuesday on the treatment and condition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, after a visit earlier this year.

Tauli-Corpuz maintains that Australia’s failure to improve the inequality and disadvantage suffered by its Indigenous peoples, despite the last two decades of considerable economic growth, is unacceptable. “The extraordinarily high rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, including women and children, is a major human rights concern.” The UN Special Rapporteur reported that “there have been allegations of serious abuses, including violent strip-searches, tear-gassing, hooding and prolonged isolation committed against Aboriginal children in custody.”

Tauli-Corpuz continued stating that the “the most distressing aspect of her visit” was the detention Indigenous children and youth. “Detention of those children has become so prevalent in certain communities that some parents referred to it as an achievement that none of their children has been taken into custody so far,” she says. 

Close the Gap’s 2017 report shows that only one of seven targets are on track, with Indigenous life expectancy a massive 10 years less than non-Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal infant mortality rates are almost double that of white Australians, while an Aboriginal person is three times as likely to have diabetes, four times as likely to have chronic kidney disease, and 64 times as likely to have rheumatic heart disease. Only 64% of Indigenous students finish high school, and the employment rate of Indigenous people is 47.5% compared to the national rate of 72.1%. Perhaps the most distressing statistic is that while only constituting 3% of the Australian population, Aboriginal people account for over 25% of the prison population, with an Aboriginal man being 15 times more likely to be imprisoned, and Aboriginal women being the fastest-growing demographic in the justice system. The report attributes these “escalating” rates of Indigenous incarceration to the significantly lower standards of Indigenous education, health and employment. According to Tauli-Corpuz, these issues are, or should be, a “national priority,” and she has accused the Australian government of failing to sufficiently address them.

Australian Aboriginal people have suffered devastating hurts at the hands of the Australian colonial era – their land taken, children stolen, and people enslaved, massacred, and unrecognized until 1967. The inter-generational trauma caused by these atrocities requires measures that respect the Indigenous culture and offer healing and empowerment. While Indigenous policy fails to fully recognize and address institutionalized and structural racism, discrimination and inter-generational trauma, it continues to echo the colonialism that attempted to destroy the Aboriginal culture. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians reflects a “non-recognition and non-enjoyment of their human rights and cultural characteristics.” 

With this in mind, it is clear that policy must be changed in order for the gap to close. One avenue for this would be to honour the decisions made at Uluru in the 2017 National Constitutional Convention. The UN openly supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart Report, which called for a referendum to establish an enshrined Indigenous voice in parliament, and a truth-telling and treaties commission. “Such measures would carry momentous significance to resetting the relationship with the First Peoples of Australia,” Tauli-Corpuz said, a relationship which must be reset for the survival and success of Indigenous Australians.

Eleanor Goodbourn