Current state of play  
Issues facing Indigenous Australians today
The Indigenous Australian population is a mostly urbanised demographic, but a substantial number (27%) live in remote settlements often located on the site of former church missions. The health and economic difficulties facing both groups are substantial. Both the remote and urban populations have adverse ratings on a number of social indicators, including health, education, unemployment, poverty and crime. In 2004 the then Prime Minister, John Howard, initiated contracts with Aboriginal communities, where substantial financial benefits are available in return for commitments such as ensuring children wash regularly and attend school. These contracts are known as Shared Responsibility Agreements. This saw a political shift from 'self determination' for Aboriginal communities to 'mutual obligation', which has been criticised as a paternalistic and dictatorial arrangement.

In 2002 data collected on health status reported that Indigenous Australians were twice as likely as non-indigenous people to report their health as fair/poor and one-and-a-half times more likely to have a disability or long-term health condition. In 1996-2001, the life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian was 59.4 years for males and, in 2004-05, 65.0 years for females, approximately 17 years lower than the Australian average.

Health problems with the highest disparity (compared with the non-Indigenous population) are outlined below:

  • Dementia: 26 times more likely to develop dementia than the rest of the Australian population and in some cases, an earlier onset of symptoms
  • Circulatory system diseases: 5 to 10-fold increase in rheumatic heart disease and hypertensive disease, 2-fold increase in other heart disease, 3-fold increase in death from circulatory system disorders. Circulatory system diseases account for 24% of total indigenous deaths
  • Diabetes 11% incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in Indigenous Australians, 3% in non-Indigenous population. 7 to 10 times more deaths in Aboriginals from diabetes than expected. 18% of total indigenous deaths
  • Chronic kidney disease 2 to 3-fold increase in listing on the dialysis and transplant registry, up to 30-fold increase in end stage renal disease, 8-fold increase in death rates from kidney disease, 2.5% of total indigenous deaths
  • Cancer: 60% increased death rate from cancers. In 1999-2003, cancer accounted for 17% of all Aboriginal deaths
  • Respiratory disease 3 to 4-fold increased death rate from respiratory disease accounting for 8% of total indigenous deaths
  • Communicable diseases: 10-fold increase in tuberculosis, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C virus, 20-fold increase in Chlamydia, 40-fold increase in Shigellosis and Syphilis, 70-fold increase in Gonococcal infections
  • External Causes: Of Indigenous fatal injuries, 24% are from suicide, 26% from motor vehicle accidents and 17% from assault. Combined, external causes account for 16% of all Indigenous deaths
  • Vision problems: A 2-fold increase in cataracts
  • Oral health: 2-fold increase in children with dental decay
  • Mental health: 5-fold increase in drug-induced mental disorders, 2-fold increase in schizophrenia, 2 to 3-fold increase in suicide, 3-fold increase in death rate
  • Infant mortality: Over the period 1999-2003, in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, the national infant mortality rate for Indigenous infants was three times the rate for non-Indigenous infants

The following factors have been at least partially implicated in the racial inequality in life expectancy:

  • poverty (low income)
  • poor education
  • substance abuse (smoking, alcohol, illicit drugs)
  • for remote communities poor access to health services including immunisation
  • for urbanised Indigenous Australians, social pressures which prevent access to health services
  • cultural differences resulting in poor communication between Indigenous Australians and health workers.
  • exposure to violence or other types of abuse

Additional problems are created by the reluctance of many rural indigenous people to leave their homelands to access medical treatment in larger urban areas, particularly when they have need for on-going treatments such as dialysis.

Successive Federal Governments have responded to the problem by implementing programs such as the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health. There have been some small successes, such as the reduction of infant mortality since the 1970s (down to twice the non-Indigenous levels in 1996-2001), effected by bringing health services into indigenous communities, but on the whole the problem remains unsolved.

Indigenous students as a group leave school earlier, and live with a lower standard of education, compared with their non-indigenous peers. Although the situation is slowly improving (with significant gains between 1994 and 2004), both the levels of participation in education and training among Indigenous Australians and their levels of attainment remain well below those of non-Indigenous Australians.

An Indigenous Australian is 11 times more likely to be in prison than a non-Indigenous Australian. In June 2004, 21% of prisoners in Australia were Indigenous. This over-representation of Indigenous Australians in prisons was drawn to public attention by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Violent crime, including domestic and sexual abuse, is a problem in many communities. Indigenous Australians are twice as likely to be the victim of violence than non-Indigenous Australians, with 24% of Indigenous Australians reported being a victim of violence in 2001.

In May, 2006, Alice Springs crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers publicly declared child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities a "National problem". Australia-wide, Indigenous Australian children are 20-fold overrepresented in the juvenile corrective service and 20-fold more likely to be involved in child abuse and neglect cases.

In August 2007, the government announced the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, a package of welfare reform, law enforcement and other measures designed to address endemic levels of child abuse in the Northern Territory. Legislation was rushed through Parliament in support of the measures. Critics of the Intervention claim that it does not address the problem, but reduces land rights of the Aboriginal communities. Others supported the tough stance on child abuse.

Unemployment and housing
According to the 2001 Census, an Indigenous Australian is almost three times more likely to be unemployed (20.0% unemployment) than a non-Indigenous Australian (7.6%). The difference is not solely due to the increased proportion of Indigenous Australians living in rural communities, for unemployment is higher in Indigenous Australian populations living in urban centres. The average household income for Indigenous Australian populations is 60% of the non-Indigenous average. Indigenous Australians are 6 times more likely to be homeless, 15 times more likely to be living in improvised dwellings, and 25 times more likely to be living with 10 or more people.

Substance abuse
A number of Indigenous communities suffer from a range of health and social problems associated with substance abuse of both legal and illegal drugs.

Alcohol consumption within certain Indigenous communities is seen as a significant issue, as are the domestic violence and associated issues resulting from the behaviour.

To combat the problem, a number of programs to prevent or mitigate against alcohol abuse have been attempted in different regions, many initiated from within the communities themselves. These strategies include such actions as the declaration of ‘Dry Zones’ within indigenous communities, prohibition and restriction on point-of-sale access, and community policing and licensing. Some communities (particularly in the Northern Territory) introduced kava as a safer alternative to alcohol, as over-indulgence in kava produces sleepiness, in contrast to the violence that can result from over-indulgence in alcohol.

These and other measures met with variable success, and while a number of communities have seen decreases in associated social problems caused by excessive drinking, others continue to struggle with the issue and it remains an ongoing concern.

Current Population
The 2005 Australian Bureau of Statistics snapshot of Australia shows the indigenous population has grown at twice the rate of the overall population since 1996 when the indigenous population stood at 283,000. As at June 2001, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated the total resident indigenous population to be 458,520 (2.4% of Australia's total), 90% of whom identified as Aboriginal, 6% Torres Strait Islander and the remaining 4% being of dual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parentage. The proportion of indigenous adults married (de facto or de jure) to non-indigenous spouses was 69%, up from 46% in 1986 and the majority of Aborigines are now of mixed descent. Much of the increase since 1996 can be attributed to higher rates of people identifying themselves as Aborigines and changed definitions of aboriginality. The preliminary census of Indigenous estimated resident population of Australia, at 30 June 2006, is 517,200.

Current estimated population: 455,031

  • New South Wales 138,506 
  • Queensland 127,578 
  • Western Australia 58,711 
  • Northern Territory 53,662 
  • Victoria 30,141  
  • South Australia 25,557 
  • Tasmania 16,767 
  • Australian Capital Territory 3,873 
  • Other regions 233 

While the State with the largest total Aboriginal population is New South Wales, as a percentage this constitutes only 2.1% of the overall population of the State. The Northern Territory has the largest Aboriginal population in percentage terms for a State or Territory, with 28.8%. All the other States and Territories have less than 4% of their total populations identifying as Aboriginal; Victoria has the lowest percentage (0.6%).

The vast majority of Aboriginal people do not live in separate communities away from the rest of the Australian population: in 2001 about 30% were living in major cities and another 43% in or close to rural towns, an increase from the 46% living in urban areas in 1971. The populations in the eastern states are more likely to be urbanised sometimes in city communities such as at Redfern in Sydney, whereas many of the populations of the western states live in remote areas, closer to a traditional Aboriginal way of life.

Political representation
Indigenous Australians gained the unqualified right to vote in Federal elections in 1962, but it was not until 1967 that they were counted in the population for the purpose of distribution of electoral seats. Only two Indigenous Australians have been elected to the Australian Parliament, Neville Bonner (1971-1983) and Aden Ridgeway (1999-2005). There are currently no Indigenous Australians in the Australian Parliament.

ATSIC, the representative body of Aborigine and Torres Strait Islanders, was set up in 1990 under the Hawke government. In 2004, the Howard government disbanded ATSIC and replaced it with an unrepresentative network of 30 Indigenous Coordination Centres that administer Shared Responsibility Agreements and Regional Partnership Agreements with Aboriginal communities at a local level.

Proposed Charter
A National Strategy to Promote Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rights will be based on the principles that all Australians should share equal rights and responsibilities as citizens; should be able to participate, as they choose, in all levels of decision-making on matters which affect them and their communities; and should enjoy equal social and economic conditions, according to their aspirations.

The strategy will recognise the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original custodians of Australia, their continuing cultures and heritage, and their rights under the common law. It will recognise the unique relationships of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters and the importance of traditional land management knowledge in sustaining the natural environment. The strategy will also recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' continuing aspirations for greater recognition and self-determination within the framework of the Australian Constitution, and will propose strategies for increased representation in Australian parliaments.

A National Strategy to Sustain the Reconciliation Process will build on the existing peoples' movement for reconciliation. It will promote knowledge and understanding of the history of Australia's colonisation and will assist Australia to celebrate the diversity of the origin of its peoples. It will acknowledge the cultural, social and economic contributions made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the nation. The strategy will describe how governments at all levels, organisations and community groups can recognise and adopt appropriate protocols, as well as establish symbols of reconciliation that reflect our shared history and culture.

The strategy will propose the establishment of a reconciliation foundation to provide leadership for reconciliation, monitor progress, and support the many groups which currently contribute to the reconciliation process, including State and Territory Reconciliation Committees and local reconciliation groups. The strategy will also seek recognition and protection of the Declaration of Reconciliation in the Constitutions of the Commonwealth, States and Territories.