Political Issues Affecting Aboriginal Australians

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face complex political issues, as demonstrated in the latest Closing the Gap report. This shows that since the campaign launched in 2007, it has failed to achieve targets around health equality and reducing disparities in life expectancy.

There are numerous challenges, from land rights to an overrepresentation of First Nations people within the criminal justice system, as well as high unemployment statistics to ongoing marginalisation, stigmatisation, and a lack of political self-representation.

How did the assimilation policy affect the Indigenous people, and why does this difficult part of Australia’s past still contribute to political issues and inequalities today? Let’s explore this topic to try and understand how colonisation has influenced every generation since.

The Link Between Socioeconomic Status and Political Issues

One of the points we should understand is that Indigenous people are not homogeneous. While we can refer to statistics, research, and literature, it is essential to recognise that First Nations communities may have different experiences, views, and perceptions.

However, to attempt to summarise and highlight the key political issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we will use verified data produced by the Australian Government, noting that this may be generalised to arrive at a national average. 

Socioeconomics refers to characteristics such as education, gender, age, social status, and income, all of which contribute to the way people trust in governments, education systems, and healthcare providers–or do not. When we break this down, we build a better picture of understanding and acknowledge how assimilation policy created a long-standing climate of distrust, fear and, in some cases, a reluctance to engage in public services. We know that, at one point, those services represented racism, forced familial separations, and the loss of land rights and cultures from entire communities.

Perhaps the biggest single political issue is this: without working towards reconciliation and giving time and space to reflect on the effects of the assimilation policy, we cannot address any of those more easily defined political challenges, barriers to engagement or disadvantages so many Indigenous people experience.

Understanding the Divide: Key to Closing the Gap

Structured inequalities persist throughout Australia, which means that income, wealth, power, and status are distributed unequally, influencing life opportunities and the access Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to achieve a higher level of education, employment, or income.

Beginning life from a position of social disadvantage leads to multiple persistent inequalities, with the most recent data showing that:

  • Mortality rates among children up to age four born to Indigenous families between 2015 and 2019 were 2.1 times higher than those born to non-Indigenous families.
  • Homeownership rates for Aboriginal households were 42% in 2021, compared to 68% for other ethnicities and communities.
  • Between 2016 and 2021, employment rates for First Nations people aged fifteen to sixty-four increased to 52%, yet still remained 22% lower than employment rates for non-Indigenous people.

The Index of Disadvantage further shows that one in two Indigenous people live in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas (recorded in 2015) and that Aboriginal people are overrepresented in the most deprived areas and underrepresented in others. Barriers to education and training result in restricted employment opportunities, and inconsistent mentoring for young people entering the workforce may further mean that chances to become qualified professionals are significantly lower.

What Work Is Being Done to Address Aboriginal Political Issues?

Progress is limited and sporadic, often based around localised campaigns and projects such as building culturally safe work spaces and finding inclusive ways to welcome a broader range of views and voices when making decisions that affect communities. The gap remains, with the Closing the Gap initiative renewing its focus on partnerships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their chosen representatives, ensuring they have an active participatory role in deciding how to move forward.

Land rights remain a high-profile issue, with many Indigenous communities stripped of land custodianship during colonisation. Between 2018 and 2019, only 27% of First Nations adults stated that they lived in areas they recognised as their Country or their traditional homelands.

Schemes such as employment initiatives in Western Australia, investments in education in South-East Arnhem Land, and therapeutic support plans in New South Wales are all positive yet remain fragmented and may not, based on current trends, be enough to achieve equality targets.

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