Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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HomeIssue 10The gap between activists and those they are speaking for

The gap between activists and those they are speaking for


Most Indigenous government programs continue to treat Indigenous people as one, very similar group and fail to take into account the fundamental differences between Indigenous peoples, according to level of need, as we reported in Part One.

Despite this many Indigenous people living with cities in major urban centres attempt to speak on behalf of, and represent the political interests, of those living in remote regions.

However, many urban Aboriginal activists have had little or no experience of the severe privations, poverty, violence and associated social problems existing within remote communities of Australia.

As a result, despite increasing resources being directed towards Indigenous Australians, there has been very little improvement in outcomes, and the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have not narrowed and in some cases, increased – particularly in remote regions.

In the 2016 Census, the latest figures available, there were nearly 650,000 people across Australia who identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin.

The majority (81%) lived in non-remote areas of Australia.

In the Northern Territory, just under 25% of the population identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in the 2016 Census. In all other States and Territories, 5% or less of the population were of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin. Victoria had the lowest proportion at 0.8% of the State total.

In the 2016 Census, over one-third (35%) of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived in capital city areas. States with relatively high proportions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in capital cities include South Australia (54%) and Victoria (50%). In NSW, 32% of the population identifying as Indigenous lived within Greater Sydney. 

In contrast, 78% of the population who identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in the Northern Territory lived outside the Capital City area. Likewise, in Queensland, 71% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived outside of the capital city area.

Prof Don Fuller and Roger “Stainless” Steele

Looking at the distribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across remote areas in 2016 compared to 2011, we can see how the proportion of those identifying as Indigenous changed between regions.

In 2016, there was an increase in the number of people identifying as Indigenous living in major cities and inner regional areas and an associated reduction in the proportion of Aboriginal people living in outer regional and remote areas. It is unlikely that many remote Aboriginal people could be expected to move to major urban centres to live.

In New South Wales and Queensland, where most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live, most people lived in major cities or regional areas. While a quarter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Western Australia lived in very remote areas, most (40%) lived in major cities.

Federal State and Territory taxpayer spending on Indigenous Australians increased from $21.9 billion in 2008-09, to $25.4 billion in 2010-11, $30.3 billion in 2012-13 and $33.4 billion in 2019-20. At first glance these figures are startling.

However, these expenditure figures include amounts spent on mainstream services, such as education and health that all Australians receive. It is important to note that Indigenous specific expenditure, covering programs, services and payments targeted at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, is a far smaller component, estimated to be around $6 billion a year.

This is made up of Federal Government expenditure of $3.3 billion, State and Territory Government expenditure of $2.4 billion and Indigenous Own Source Income of $224m.

Importantly, very little State and Territory funding was spent on programs and services to increase Indigenous people’s economic participation ($17m) with ACT, SA, TAS and QLD allocating none.

Given this relatively low amount it is not surprising that little progress has been made in the key area of Indigenous economic development, which many commentators see as fundamental to the human and social development of Indigenous Australians living in remote regions.

Unfortunately, the Centre for Independent Studies also found that misuse of funds for Indigenous programs is extensive. 

Currently, a number of organisations delivering Indigenous programs are under investigation for fraud. Duplication and waste is also very common.

For example, Roebourne in Western Australia, with a population of 1,150, was found to have 67 local service providers and more than 400 programs funded by both Federal and state government. This is a common situation in many remote communities throughout Australia.

To be continued.

AT TOP: Artwork by Alice Springs painter and writer ROD MOSS. He writes: “Destructive drinking dominated many campers’ lives.”


  1. How come the number of Aboriginal people keeps increasing in cities? Is it due to financial benefit not available to other Australians?

  2. Yes M&M, take Mr Pascoe for example.
    The three tribes he associated with deny he is one of their mob, a full genealogy report shows family lines on both sides leading back to English, yet he “identifies” as Aboriginal and low and behold, wins an Aboriginal literary award and has his thoughts of what life may have been like pre-colonisation.
    Interesting that the University of Melbourne has recently dropped their reference to him as an Indigenous author, and instead simply refers to him as a writer and farmer.
    Over the last 15 years there has been an increase in Aboriginal people in the country, and as you mention, this could well be for financial gain or more to do with being part of a groundswell movement.
    As the demographers commenting on that at the time said, it is not due to organic growth (births outstripping deaths) rather more people choosing to identify as Aboriginal.
    Maybe there was a stigma previously that meant people were embarrassed to admit to their cultural connections, however there seems to be more of a pride in identifying as Aboriginal, or as people prefer the Canadian descriptor these days, First Nations.

  3. I recently found out that my Huguenot ancestors (one of my grandmothers’ maiden name was Durrant) actually came from what is now Germany. Not a drop of Gallic blood! Did this change my identity? Not a bit (I now identify as a white Australian).
    How about we give Bruce Pascoe a dinky-di Australian Fair Go?
    He’s written a brilliant and most enjoyable book which has thrown into question many of the historical assumptions and preconceptions we’ve been burdened with.
    I don’t care if he is a Tralfamaldorian or what he chooses to identify as, he is a brilliant writer.
    I quote from Bruce Pascoe’s writing (from memory): “The greatest impediment to wisdom … the assumption.”
    The identity / ethnicity dichotomy is so nuanced that mere statistics cannot adequately deal with it.

  4. The weakness in this argument is the assumption that a massive increase in funding for remote Aboriginal communities will close the gap.
    There is no evidence whatsoever for this proposition.

  5. @ Jon: There is also the question as to where this massive increase in funding ends up.
    The Closing the Gap gravy brain being but one cohort with its snout in the trough.
    Like Virga (rain that doesn’t hit the ground) we on remote communities don’t get to see much of this massive increase in funding except mostly as multi million dollar construction projects carried out by outside contractors.

  6. This is a rapidly growing industry, builders, IBA loans, housing loans, studying, scholarships etc where one can get a financial leg up for ticking the box as an Aboriginal person.
    All of the Aboriginal boards in Alice Springs have their own Aboriginality forms and the list of forms that are rolling in these days has grown and continues to grow. And its for the financial gains that can be accessed by providing an Aboriginality form, signed off by an Aboriginal organisation.
    There needs to be a more stringent process and policy with Aboriginality forms.
    At the moment a person can get knocked back in one organisation then apply at one of the other organisations and then be approved. It happens all the time!

  7. @ Frank: The issue with Pascoe is he actually tries to present what he has written as truth, which it simply is not.
    There is a mountain of evidence from qualified and experienced anthropologists coming out now that use an evidence based approach to debunk his claims.
    He has redrawn maps and misinterpreted what the original journals said, either that or he fails to use complete quotes.

  8. @ M&M, May 4: “How come the number of Aboriginal people keeps increasing in cities? Is it due to financial benefit not available to other Australians?”
    You will find that many of those people who identify as of Aboriginal ancestry choose white people as partners. Many others choose partners with a lighter skin colour than themselves.
    A quick Google at high profile people of Aboriginal ancestry will show how common it is.
    So every white female who partners with a person of Aboriginal ancestry has the potential to add two or three or more Aboriginal people to the census.
    Children born of these relationships often look white and in turn often choose white partners too, adding forever more “Aboriginals” to the list.
    Of course not all mixed race people can or do do this, preferring to partner with mixed race people like themselves.
    It is easy to look at all the light skinned people who identify as Aboriginal today to understand that there have been a lot of white people involved in making up their numbers.
    In fact far more are part white today than ever before and most of them live in the mainstream.

  9. The expansion of an Aboriginal population by including those who are not disadvantaged is a mechanism to close the gap.
    In 10 years’ time the remote cohort of Aboriginal people will be a small proportion of the total.
    They will remain an inconvenient statistic but counter balanced by a huge number of “Aboriginal” university graduates, lawyers, doctors and other professionals along with business owners.
    Governments will point to these as evidence of their success in closing the gap.
    But nothing will change in remote Aboriginal communities.

  10. Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalised.
    The belief is that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.
    The Commonwealth leads the campaign to promote racism within Australia by the use of ethnic labels to identify, to exclude, promotes racism.
    The Commonwealth claimed authority to be racist to Australians identified as Aboriginal, while at the same time arguing it held no legal authority to legislate for Aboriginals.
    Australians moving towards Federation sought to prevent racism being an influence within their Constitution.
    Australia’s voters in the 1967 referenda voted overwhelmingly to eliminate racism, particularly where Commonwealth, state and Territory promoted racist legislation and regulations.
    The Commonwealth still promotes racism.
    Those who permit racism enable anyone, everyone, to be targeted.
    Compensation for past racism by governments rarely provides victims of government racism with meaningful compensation, such as home-ownership for them. So most remain bound to rental leases managed by others.


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