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Australian Aborigines and Racial Discrimination

Aborigines is the term used to describe the class of people defined by the law as being members of the race that originally settled the Australian continent before the arrival of Europeans. In legal terms, an Australian Aborigine has been defined as “a group of people who share, in common, biological ancestry back to the original occupants of the continent (Plevitz and Croft, 2003)”. They have also been defined as “person of Aboriginal descent, albeit mixed, who identifies himself as such and who is recognized by the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal (Dean, 1984)”. The Aborigines were displaced and maltreated by the English settlers and the maltreatment continues to this day. The affront to the human rights of the Aborigines has diminished Australia’s reputation as a progressive First World Country.

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As with most indigenous peoples who came into contact with Europeans the Aborigines suffered from European disease from which they had no immunity. They were also driven from their traditional homes by the European settlers. The net effect was a decline of the Aborigine population such that by 1900 there were only 93,000 of them left. Those who chose to go “mainstream” are employed in low-income blue-collar jobs like shepherd and cattle hand. The rest prefer to remain living traditionally. This would begin to change in the 1960s when the Aborigines began asserting their civil and political rights. In 1966 a certain Vincent Lingiari led a protest of aborigine employees of the Wavehill station to protest their poor working conditions. Then the following year a referendum called by then PM Harold Holt granted the Australian Commonwealth the right to pass laws specifically for the Aboriginal peoples.

However, the march towards equality with the whites was derailed when Justice Blackburn (1971) ruled in Milirrpum v Nabalco that Australia was terra nullus or unoccupied before the British arrived. Hence all claims to land by the Aborigines were void. Land ownership by them based on their claim of ancestral dominion was rejected. Land grabbers soon encroached upon their territories and titled the lands turning the previous owners into squatters in their lands. It was not until 1992 that the jurisprudence of Milirrpum v. Nabalco was overturned. In the case of Mabo vs. Queens, the concept that Australia was terra nullus was abandoned.

Perhaps one of the worst crimes committed against the Aborigine people is the so-called Stolen Generations. This is a term for those Aborigine people who were forced to leave their families by the Australian government. These forced removals were continued from 1869 to 1969 (Read, 1981). The alleged reason for this practice was to allow the Australian Aborigines to mainstream by learning to live in modern society. Instead what occurred was outright destruction of the Aborigine way of life as their children were taken from them and forced to live in white communities. The damage was irreparable and indicative of the typical attitude about them at the time which was that they were uncivilized and needed to be guided into modernity by force if necessary.

These affronts are just some of the issues that bind the Australian Aborigine people together. Bound by ethnic descent and by shared customs and lifestyle, like the New Zealand Maori they have come together to assert their civil and political rights in the face of the oppressive behavior of the whites.

At present the native Australian population is almost entirely urbanized, the exception to this is a group of about 27% who continue to live in remote places similar to those occupied by their ancestors many years ago. Regardless of where they live Aborigine people have many health and economic problems. Nearly all social indicators suggest that they are suffering from very low quality of life. At present Strife in resource towns are common to people of all races, what is new is that resource companies have to deal with traditional landowners who have legal standing and political support from the land councils (Johns, 2002). Since the rights of the traditional landowners were again respected, the owners are now eligible for royalties, government benefits, and philanthropic support programs. Yet the relative poverty of the Aborigine subsists.

Aborigines are relatively immobile both physically and socially. As those who remain settled in the traditional ways do not have access to the public education system that levels the playing field while those who are in the urban zones are often poor and discriminated against. Opportunities for social and economic advancement are present but limited only to exceptional and hard-working individuals. Unlike perhaps, in South Africa, there is no prohibition against the physical mobility of the Aborigine but lack of financial ability and opportunity form effective blocks to their development.

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The lack of development on the part of the aborigines is attributed to the fact that they are unable to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them because they are culturally too different or because they are materially disadvantaged. If it is true that they are too culturally different then Australia’s natives, apparently can no longer live here and rely on support to existing (Johns, 2002). If it is true that their poverty is due to material disadvantage then this bodes more the ill because material disadvantage should be easy to overcome considering the relative wealth and prosperity of Australia. Instead, policies that are allegedly designed to address the material disadvantage of the natives are often misdirected. They might be sufficient in benign settings but not in the traditional settings of the natives.

One such policy is that of former PM John Howard who offered substantial benefits to the aborigines in exchange for a commitment to send their children to school. These Shared Responsibility Agreements were seen as a devolution of the national policy to the detriment of the natives. It represented a decline of their view from allowing the Aborigines to pursue self-determination to binding them to mutual obligations.

The plight of the natives has not gone unheard. Like many indigenous populations, their plight has been gaining increasing awareness from international organizations since the Second World War. The United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights and his office have been vocal in expressing their support for the disenfranchised native people of Australia. International organizations such as the UN and Amnesty International have roundly condemned such acts as the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and the dispossession of Native lands.

For example, just last March, the PM earned himself a letter of complaint from the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (SBS World News, 2009a, p. 1; Maley, 2009). Specifically, the UN questioned the National Government’s interference in the operation of the local councils such as managing assets not purchased using federal funds and suspending the customary laws of the Aborigines peoples, and in applying coercive powers during investigations of crimes solely to one ethnic group. There are also allegations of enforcing blanket income management according to race and irrespective of whether the couple has children or not (National Indigenous Times, 2009). Finally, Amnesty International scorns the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act as a direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (SBS World News, 2009). Hence it is apparent that the international organizations are aware and exerting pressure for the government to reverse its policies against the aborigines.

As a people, the Aborigines are advocating greater rights for themselves, specifically the freedom to conduct their lives with a minimum of intervention and the paternalistic meddling that is common in Australia dealings with the natives. They also demand an end to the exploitation they suffer at the hands of white Australians especially when it comes to the encroachment of their property to exploit their lands. Sadly, barring major international support, the Aborigines themselves are not likely to be an effective force for change. There are too few of them to overturn the existing balance of power in Australia’s government. Even if all of them were to unite behind a distinctively pro-Aborigine slate they would still only be able to elect a woeful number of MPs. Hence any hope of change will require support from both international organizations and local groups who should be made aware of the gross unfairness of their plight. Given proper support, the dreadful conditions of the Aborigines might finally be abated and the blemish upon Australia’s reputation caused by their plight might finally be removed.


AAP (2009) Racial Discrimination Act to be re-instated. Web.

Blackburn, R (1971) Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd 17 FLR 141

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Dean, J (1984) Tasmania v Commonwealth. 158 CLR. p. 243.

Johns, Gary. (2005), Strife amid plenty: Aboriginal policy after land rights

Mason C.J (1992) Mabo v Queens 17 FLR 141(1992) Also 175 CLR 1, and (1992) HCA 23

Plevitz, Loretta D & Croft, Larry (2003) “Aboriginality Under The Microscope: The Biological Descent Test In Australian Law” QUT Law & Justice Journal Number 7

Read, Peter (1981) (PDF). The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969. Department of Aboriginal Affairs (New South Wales government). ISBN 0-646-46221-0. Web.

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