GLOBAL DIALOGUE Volume 12 ● Number 2 ● Summer/Autumn 2010óRace and Racisms

Racism and Indigenous People in Australia


David Hollinsworth is an adjunct professor in the Aboriginal and Islander Unit of the University of Queensland and an adjunct researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. The third edition of his Race and Racism in Australia was published by Cengage in 2006.


Australia was claimed by the British in 1770 and settled without serious consideration of the status or prior ownership rights of its Indigenous people. No treaty was struck, in marked contrast to other Anglophone colonies, including the United States of America, Canada, and New Zealand. The current national population is 22.4 million, of whom 550,818—or 2.5 per cent—identify themselves as Indigenous. In current Australian official language, the term “Indigenous” is used to refer to descendents of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Often, regional local-language names such as “Murri” in Queensland or “Koori” in Victoria are preferred by Indigenous people; sometimes territory-based language names such as “Wakka Wakka” or “Pitjantjatjara” are used to indicate the complex mosaic of some six hundred different nations prior to colonisation. This article will use the term “Indigenous” but notes that language is a key site for contestation about identity, power and representation in relations between Indigenous people and the state. 

‘Closing the Gap’ 

On 3 December 2007, Kevin Rudd, leader of the Australian Labor Party, won the federal election, ending twelve years of conservative rule under Prime Minister John Howard. Among many campaign promises, the party committed itself to radical reform of Indigenous affairs and to end the often bitter conflicts between Indigenous Australians and the Australian government. On the first sitting day of the Australian Parliament, 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Rudd apologised on behalf of all previous Parliaments and governments for the many wrongs done to Indigenous people, and in particular to the “Stolen Generations”, those thousands of children removed from Indigenous families under past government policies. Rudd also committed his government to “close the gap” of disadvantage between Indigenous and other Australians, with specific targets within specific timelines.


The gap, disparities between the lives of Indigenous people and other Australians, is stark, often immense, and should be a source of shame for all Australian governments and the broader population. The most well-known statistic is the gap in life-expectancy of seventeen years between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Recent government figures have adjusted that gap to eleven years but it remains a graphic indicator of the poverty and marginalisation experienced by many Indigenous families and also of their difficulties in accessing health services. Other critical gaps in social indicators include the following: only 47 per cent of Indigenous students complete high school compared to the national average of 87 per cent; Indigenous juveniles are imprisoned at a rate seventeen times the national average; and the Indigenous unemployment rate is four times as high as the national figure.


Significant increases in expenditure on Indigenous social programmes have commenced and there are some indications of small improvements on certain measures. However, it has been calculated that achieving the targets will take up to one hundred years and that population increases will outstrip improvements in employment and housing, for example. A key problem in the capacity of the current government to “close the gap” is the failure to acknowledge fully the historical underpinnings of Indigenous disadvantage and the entrenched and systemic nature of Indigenous oppression. A related issue is the question of whether all or even most Indigenous people want to attain the lifestyles and social and economic outcomes of non-Indigenous Australians, share their values and aspirations, and if so, at what cost? Many certainly do want significant improvements in health, income, employment, and housing, and also in how they are dealt with by education, welfare, judicial, and similar institutions. The issue is whether such improvements require Indigenous people to abandon their unique political status as “first nations” people and to assimilate into some non-Indigenous, mainstream identity that has historically been denied them and was championed by those who oppressed and harmed them.


Rudd’s 2010 report, “Closing the Gap”, did not mention racism and social exclusion. It did refer to the need to “Re-set the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians”,1 but was silent on the critical need to recognise the inter-generational impact of historical oppression and the embedded nature of structural inequalities. Without a genuine acknowledgement of the extent and ongoing impact of racism towards Indigenous Australians any efforts to improve their situation will be compromised and largely ineffective. This paper will provide a survey of that history, of struggles by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to overcome that racist treatment, and especially of the continuing battle to combat institutional racism in Australia. 

Colonisation and Dispossession 

One legacy of the arrogance of the colonisers is that little is known about the pre-invasion lives of Australia’s Indigenous people, especially in the eastern and southern regions that were the first where Indigenous people were dispossessed. It is estimated that the population in 1788 was some seven hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand people, whose presence on the island continent dated back at least sixty thousand years and perhaps one hundred thousand years. Indigenous Australians are often referred to as constituting the oldest continuous living human culture. Enormous environmental variations across the huge land mass led to radically different population densities, lifestyles, languages, religious beliefs and social practices. There were some 250 distinct languages with hundreds more local dialects. The dominant lifestyle was as small kin groups of mobile hunter–gatherers without permanent dwellings or formal political hierarchies.


The material “simplicity” of Indigenous culture allowed the British government to refuse to recognise prior Aboriginal ownership and sovereignty, contrary to practice in most colonies. Australia was declared to be terra nullius (land legally owned by no one), an unencumbered wilderness able to be claimed by the British Crown. This strategy enabled the British to class their occupation as peaceful settlement rather than invasion. Unlike the British colonies in North America, southern Africa, India and New Zealand, in Australia there were no treaties or agreements with Indigenous leaders. No compensation or legal recognition of Indigenous property rights was made.


The establishment of a penal colony at Sydney Cove in 1788 was apparently met with Indigenous bemusement and curiosity, as the local Eora people had never encountered non-Aboriginal people before. Conflict over food resources led to killings on both sides, and the Eora were devastated by smallpox and other introduced diseases against which they had no immunity. Fear of attack, and the pitiful condition of the dispossessed, caused British attitudes to harden as Aboriginal people were seen feeble and irrelevant, if occasionally dangerous.


This pattern of tentative contact, followed by conflict as the number of settlers and their animals threatened Indigenous food supplies and sacred sites, was repeated across the continent. A frequent source of violence was Indigenous outrage at the abuse of Indigenous women and children by the largely male settler population on the frontier. The frontier was not so much a line but a zone of unstable interpenetration, with Indigenous people opposed to settler intrusions and dependent on them. Remnant populations sought safety from settlers and missionaries while trying to keep families together on traditional lands. In more remote areas this was possible because the settlers needed Aboriginal (unpaid) labour, but in more settled regions the high rate of immigration usually made Aboriginal labour unnecessary. 

Racial Ideas 

European explorers who ventured to Australia brought not only new diseases and commodities unknown on the island continent; they also brought ideas and attitudes towards native peoples that had developed over centuries of contact in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Most of these ideas were supremacist, elevating European civilisation while casting non-whites as savages and heathens. By the late eighteenth century, romantic notions of the noble savage unencumbered by urban materialism and the corrosive effects of modernity emerged as well. William Dampier, in his New Voyage around the World (1697), described western Australian Aborigines as the “miserablist People of the World”, while James Cook (1770) admired their idyllic simplicity. Conflict over land and resources rapidly cemented hostile verdicts and the colonists’ inability to educate Indigenous children or compel adult behaviour generally extinguished romanticism. As violence spread, frontier attitudes worsened to deny the very humanity of Aboriginal people. In 1837, the Reverend E. Yates declared: 


I have heard again and again people say that they [Aborigines] are nothing better than dogs, and that it was no more harm to shoot them, than it would be to shoot a dog when he barked at you.2  


Humanitarian elements in the Colonial Office in London expressed concern about massacres of Aborigines, and local individuals spoke out against the abuses but the relentless pace of expansion ensured that official action to protect Indigenous people was rare. European and American theories also played a role in dehumanising Indigenous Australians and justifying their dispossession, while grave-robbing and shipments of Australian skeletal remains to England provided the “data” for more theorising. The Great Chain of Being suggested by Linnaeus and others invented and ranked racial groups from primates through lower “coloured” races to Europeans and on up to Angels and the Almighty.


Such a hierarchy allowed for the Christian belief in the unity of God’s children and the improvability of those as yet unconverted and uncivilised. Indeed the “white man’s burden” of evangelising and uplifting the heathen (along with the desire for wealth and military advantage) was a major element in the drive to colonise. But of all the peoples of the world, Indigenous Australians showed no interest in cultivating the soil or domesticating animals except for the dingo (dog). By the mid-1840s, opinion generally held that Aborigines were so uneducable as to challenge the belief they were genuinely human. Increasingly, they were believed to be a different species and not simply like Europeans prior to their social and cultural development. Australian observations came to add weight to the theory of “polygenesis”, that is, the separate origins of human peoples, resulting in their permanent distinction as, in effect, different species. Polygenesis rapidly was applied to African races to justify slavery and in Australia to excuse massacres and explain the abandonment of efforts to protect Indigenous people or improve their lot. The pseudo-sciences of craniology and phrenology confirmed for most colonists the radical dissimilarity of Indigenous skulls, minds, capabilities and character from their non-Indigenous counterparts.


Mixed with these beliefs, Social Darwinism was invoked to explain the plummet in the Indigenous population following colonisation, with a drop from eight hundred thousand to perhaps fifteen thousand by the end of the nineteenth century. The anticipated extinction of Indigenous Australians was seen as natural selection or the “survival of the fittest”, rather than as the result of violence, malnutrition and the impact of introduced disease. Instead of lamenting their “passing”, Australians were urged to celebrate the eugenic enhancement of the superior British stock in a sunny and healthy new land. As James Collier explained in his heroic account of the white settlement of Australia,


The last of the continents was converted from a black to a white. With the disappearance of the indigenous dark race and the advent of the most robust of the fair races it was definitely launched on its career as a rival and leader of other continental peoples ... There can be no question of right or wrong in such a case. The only right is that of superiority of race, and the greater inherent capability on the part of the whites; the only real wrong on the part of the blacks is their all-round inferiority and their inability to till the ground or even make use of its natural pastures ... Their disappearance was a natural necessity. It came about in obedience to a natural law. It was effected by natural processes, and followed on the lines of the substitution of vegetal and animal species all over the world.3


Absolved of any guilt for the Aborigines’ demise, white Australians could largely ignore Indigenous people, to the extent that they could barely be remembered in popular consciousness or official policy. In Queensland, north-western Australia and central Australia, violent dispossession continued into the first decades of the twentieth century, but the eventual disappearance of the dispossessed was almost universally assumed. The birth of a nation independent from Britain in 1901 saw a Constitution that excluded Aboriginal people from the national census and denied Australia’s Parliament the key power to legislate about them; Parliament could make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth “with respect to the people of any race other than the Aboriginal race”.4 Indigenous people were thus excluded as potential beneficiaries of Commonwealth legislation that might have protected and assisted them, and were left open to invidious treatment by state government authorities until 1967 (see below).


The first law passed in the new Australian Parliament prohibited immigration by “non-whites” but it was believed that a “White Australia” would also be preserved by the rapid disappearance of Indigenous people. Thus, the Australian state was always a racial state, one in which both by specific reference and by omission Indigenous Australians were “othered”, marked out as irrevocably different from other Australians and destined to play no role in the emerging nation. 

Life in the Twentieth Century 

As noted, the situation facing Indigenous people varied widely across the continent, but generally they were an object of pity at best and of contempt at worst when thought of at all in the rush to develop the new nation’s wealth. Remnant groups either worked for the settlers or huddled on the margins of towns. Eventually, state governments enacted legislation that sought to control tightly the lives of Indigenous people on their way to supposedly inevitable extinction. These ruthless and oppressive laws regulated where Aborigines could or could not reside or go, whom they could marry, whom they could work for and for what pay, what they could own, what schooling if any their children received, and most aspects of daily life, especially those to do with public order such as drinking alcohol or gambling or the threat of “contamination” of the white community, either literally, by spreading infectious diseases, or metaphorically, through “race-mixing” or uncouth and immoral behaviour.


The classic piece of legislation was The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Queensland), which was followed over the next twenty years by similar laws in most states. Such laws in effect stripped Aboriginal people of all civil and human rights, supposedly in order to “protect” them from themselves and from the vices introduced by unscrupulous settlers. For nearly a century, Indigenous people in Queensland lived under the suffocating pressure of this law and its amendments, years longer than in most other jurisdictions. 

Segregation and Discrimination

A central element of the system of management and control was the creation of segregated reserves or missions where Aboriginal families could be kept separated from the surrounding society. Any person declared by the authorities to be subject to the 1897 act could be taken by police and incarcerated permanently. Property, including land, could be seized from Aboriginal people. Children could be separated from their parents, husbands from wives, at the whim of management. Initially, these “gulags” were assumed to be temporary, as eventually the inferior Indigenes would die out. Consequently, little was done to prevent Aboriginal deaths by providing adequate healthcare, nutrition, housing and education. Many reserve residents, including adolescent children, were sent out to work for the settlers, but their wages, set well below standard rates, were taken by the government and used for the upkeep of all Aboriginal people on the reserves. Often, these “stolen wages” were simply embezzled or used for general public purposes like roads and hospitals.


A key issue was who was subject to these laws. Despite the best efforts of government, settlers (almost universally males) had sex with Aborigines. Sometimes this was rape or abuse of employees, but sometimes these were loving relationships.


The children of such unions were ambiguous in the racial calculations of White Australia. As more complicated ancestries emerged and combined, the authorities invented a calculus of racial engineering well before genetics was understood. A whole new language of “half-caste”, “quadroon”, “octoroon” was created, with estimated fractions of Aboriginal “blood” being reckoned up to 1/64th and beyond. A further complication, especially in the remote northern zone, was the mixing of Aboriginal women with men from Asia who had managed to avoid prohibition of their entry to Australia. While the so-called “full-blood” numbers continued to decline, the rise in this part-Aboriginal population came to be seen as a threat to national integrity and racial purity. 

The Stolen Generations

In the 1930s, various officials used racial science to argue that Aboriginality was recessive in that it could under strict regulation be “bred out” and disappear through merging lighter castes with low-class whites. This experiment was never fully endorsed but thousands of children, especially girls, were taken from their families and many were raised as “whites”, trained to despise and reject their Aboriginality. These children and their children came to be known as the “Stolen Generations”. Adult, part-Aboriginal people with exemplary character and behaviour could gain Exemption Certificates releasing them and their families from government supervision on condition they ceased all contact with non-exempt relatives.


A national inquiry (1997) into the forced removal of these children found that from 1910 to 1970, between 10 per cent and one-third of Indigenous children were removed. While after 1970 removals continued at a disproportionate rate,5 they were carried out under child welfare laws. Most of those removed in earlier times were taken from their families in order that they “cease to be Aboriginal”, a practice controversially ruled genocidal under international law since 1946. The racial underpinning of this tragic abuse is obvious, despite the oft-repeated excuse that it was done in the “best interests of the children”. The campaign by members of the Stolen Generations for an apology and compensation was a key element in recent Indigenous political struggles, leading to Prime Minister’s Rudd’s historic speech of 2008. 

Forcible Assimilation

Alongside these efforts to eradicate Aboriginality within families, governments came to adopt policies of assimilation, whereby Indigenous people would be encouraged to leave reserves and fringe communities to live among white Australians according to their values, lifestyles and behaviours. More or less forcibly, families were moved to urban centres, a process also voluntarily undertaken as work became harder to get in rural areas. At the same time, non-English speaking and later non-white migrants were also being told to assimilate to Anglo-Australian ways.


While many Indigenous families did “join the mainstream” in order to obtain schooling for their children and to gain access to jobs, housing and healthcare, issues of identity remained. Many Aboriginal families made strenuous efforts to maintain kin connections and contact with the lands of their ancestors. Racism, poverty and marginalisation often meant that even when a family was prepared to abandon its Aboriginality, it was reasserted by hostile officials and neighbours. The offensive presumption at the heart of assimilation policies was increasingly criticised by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organisations, while internationally the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous population attracted condemnation from communist and non-aligned states. 

Indigenous Political Struggles 

Activism for Indigenous civil rights (especially over land), intermittent since settlement, re-emerged in response to the new policy of assimilating Aborigines out of existence, but with more non-Indigenous support and a sense of international solidarity. A key national organisation, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, highlighted neglect and abuse while campaigning for the repeal of discriminatory state laws. A major victory was the 1967 constitutional referendum to repeal the clauses that prevented Indigenous people from being counted in the national census and for other administrative purposes. As one Aboriginal activist commented, 


The pigs were counted, the horses, the emus were counted—but the Aboriginal people were not. We really had to work hard. We had a body of Aboriginal people going out and speaking to the community and pleading to the public. We said, “we are here, we have been here for a long time and for God’s sake, somebody look at us, accept that our colour is different. We are human beings and we want self-management.6 


Most referendums in Australia fail, but this one gained a record 90.77 per cent “yes” vote, and allowed the national government the constitutional powers to make laws about, and potentially for the benefit of, Indigenous people. This was a high-water mark in the gradual process of rolling back discriminatory legislation, as was the eventual (in the 1960s) gaining by Indigenous people of the right to vote, equal pay, and in 1975 the passage of laws against racial discrimination.


These laws and amendments were hard won, but worked at the level of universal civil rights. They did not recognise Indigenous Australians as in any way unique or entitled to special rights or compensation for dispossession. Many Aboriginal people had strong feelings of injustice and trauma resulting from racist treatment, the loss of parents or children, forced relocation, and other forms of discrimination. Others demanded recognition of their Aboriginality, regardless of their current lifestyles or aspirations. Such conscientisation was fuelled by a growing awareness of decolonisation movements and Black Power and indigenous-rights campaigns in the United States and elsewhere. Radical Aboriginal people visited Africa, China and the Pacific Rim, networking with fellow activists and successfully embarrassing conservative Australian governments of the day by publicising abroad the unjust treatment and unequal status of the country’s Indigenous people. A key demand was for the restoration of rights to traditional lands, or where that was impossible, for full compensation to secure an independent economic base.


In 1972, a flimsy tent was erected on the lawns outside Parliament to house the “Aboriginal Embassy”, a powerful symbol of the alienation of Indigenous people in their own land; the embassy was eventually destroyed by police, with mass arrests and publicity. Later that year, Gough Whitlam led the Australian Labor Party to a historic election victory, promising to make Indigenous affairs a measure of his government and in particular to enact land-rights laws.


While these laws were limited to the Northern Territory, federal intervention did force the Australian states to provide more funding for Indigenous health, education and housing, enabling the creation of community-controlled services to rival often neglectful state agencies. The Whitlam government also established advisory bodies that served alongside community organisations as powerbases for an Indigenous sector able to challenge the various states and powerful interests, including mining companies.


Whitlam’s government also funded homelands or “outstations”, small kin-based communities that left the large government settlements to return to ancestral lands and resume more traditional cultural ways, in direct opposition to assimilation priorities. The policy became one of self-determination (albeit without independence from government funding) and strengthened self-esteem and public regard for Aboriginality. One aspect of this transformation was the growth of a lucrative Indigenous art movement; another was the dramatic increase in the number of people identifying themselves as being of Indigenous descent. 

Mixed Results 

The defeat of the Whitlam government in 1975 saw a stepping back on Aboriginal self-determination and a failure to force reluctant state governments to grant land or provide better services to Indigenous people. However, some gains were made: land-rights laws were passed in South Australia and New South Wales.


A key issue during the Labor government of Bob Hawke (1983–91) was Aboriginal deaths in police custody and prison. A Royal Commission held between 1987 and 1991 investigated ninety-nine such deaths. It made hundreds of recommendations, ranging from changes in police procedures to health and welfare measures to reduce Aboriginal criminalisation; it also addressed major issues such as Indigenous self-determination and institutional racism.


The last recommendation of the Royal Commission was for a process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This ran from 1991 to 2000 and embraced many local efforts to learn about Indigenous cultures and history. However, the election in 1996 of the Liberal–National coalition government under John Howard blunted official support for the process and reduced the likelihood of a treaty or equivalent constitutional settlement of what for many Indigenous people remains unfinished business.


The bicentenary in 1988 of the establishment of the first English settlement in Australia focused international attention on the situation of Indigenous Australians and the need to acknowledge a “Black History”. One response was to create an elected regional and national representative body, the “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission” (ATSIC). This organisation rather uncomfortably combined a political advocacy function with limited administration of government-funded programmes; it was eventually abolished by the conservative Howard government in 2005. In 2010, the Rudd government announced a non-elected representative body, the “National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples”, but this had only a limited mandate to advise on government policy. 

Native Title 

A crucial event in the decades-old ongoing struggle for Aboriginal land rights and compensation for dispossession was the 1992 case in the Australian High Court which found that British and therefore Australian common law could recognise Indigenous customary property rights. This “Native Title” ruling became known after one of the claimants as the “Mabo decision” and in effect overturned the notion of terra nullius—the fiction that Australia was uninhabited when Captain Cook landed in 1770.


While the decision in fact accepted that the Crown had the power to extinguish Native Title by granting other forms of tenure to the settlers, it caused pandemonium among the latter, with hysterical claims that private homes and farms were under threat of Aboriginal expropriation. The Labor government under Paul Keating enacted compromise legislation that retrospectively ensured legality for existing titles, but allowed claimant groups who could prove ongoing connection to traditional lands to claim unallocated Crown land. The vast majority of Indigenous Australians are not able to satisfy these requirements given the massive reassignment of land tenure and the removal of most people from their traditional lands. Indeed, many Indigenous people are unable to trace their clan ancestors.


The Native Title Act of 1993 has enabled some Indigenous groups, especially in remote areas, to gain recognition and limited rights to pursue traditional activities. In 1998, the Howard government amended the act to reduce the economic implications of Native Title and to make recognition more difficult. Despite this, Native Title claimants have been able to negotiate compensation from mining and other enterprises through Indigenous Land Use Agreements outside the formal legal process.


Opposition to Native Title and a treaty between the Australian state and its Indigenous people reflected the Howard government’s general animosity towards any special rights for Aborigines. One aspect of this animosity was Howard’s attack on what he called a “black armband” view of history that highlighted racism and abuse and punctured national pride. Howard weakened Native Title, defunded Indigenous programmes, abolished ATSIC, denounced calls for Aboriginal self-determination, and mainstreamed Indigenous programmes by absorbing them into universal departments. While carefully avoiding the term “assimilation”, his policies echoed earlier eras with their explicit denial of past racism and adherence to a unitary rather than a multicultural understanding of the nation. 

The ‘Intervention’ 

Government policy under Howard exhibited a mean-spirited and harsh approach that was certainly paternalistic and authoritarian in ways reminiscent of the “protection” laws of a hundred years ago. In particular, welfare reform, justified in terms of child protection and alleged general Indigenous-community dysfunction, resulted in the “Northern Territory Emergency Response” (NTER), also known as the “Intervention”, introduced by Howard in August 2007. Troops were sent into remote Indigenous communities to “restore order”. The 1975 Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was suspended to allow new laws that stripped more than forty-five thousand Indigenous people of their civil rights and their entitlements under social security provisions. Restrictions were imposed on the consumption and distribution of alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal communities. Locally issued permits to protect communities from unwanted visitors were over-ridden, and a system of computerised controls quarantined half of the welfare income of Indigenous people to food and other government-approved expenditures. Indigenous townships, land and infrastructure were compulsorily acquired in five-year leases and new managers imposed by the Australian government. The scheme was highly expensive,7 racially based, in direct violation of sound principles of community development, ideologically driven, and lacking justificatory evidence.


Intense criticism, especially of the suspension of the RDA, was ignored. The Rudd government largely continued the scheme but vowed to extend it to non-Indigenous welfare recipients to escape the charge of racial discrimination. What this manoeuvre ignores is that the NTER applies to every Indigenous person in the designated area, while it will apply only to specific non-Indigenous welfare recipients who have actually breached child-welfare or other obligations. In June 2010, Rudd was replaced as prime minister by Julia Gillard. Indigenous policy was virtually absent from the election campaign that followed (won by Gillard) but both major parties are committed to continuing the NTER, now rebadged as “Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory”. 

The Persistence of Racism 

It is inconceivable that such a ruthless and oppressive programme directed at an entire population within the designated area could have been devised and implemented except in relation to Indigenous Australians. The heavy legacy of centuries of racism and the routine denial of human and civil rights continue to distort policy on Indigenous people and virtually to disqualify them as full citizens. Where their common membership of Australian society is acknowledged, it appears conditional or reliant on the “tolerance” of the dominant, non-Indigenous population.


The NTER exemplifies the problem of Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous people. There have been great achievements in furthering recognition of the rights of Indigenous people and awareness of the injustices they still endure, and there is widespread affirmation of the contribution of Indigenous cultures, but an underlying racism persists. Partly, this racism is fuelled by media and public opinion that alleges Indigenous people are the beneficiaries of “special treatment” or favouritism, when by every measure they suffer disadvantages compared to national averages. Partly, it is maintained unconsciously within most institutions where supposedly fair or universal criteria function to exclude or penalise difference. This can be seen in arrest statistics, figures for school attendance and achievement, transplant decisions in hospitals, the availability of rented accommodation, life expectancy and hundreds of other aspects of Indigenous existence.


Despite this legacy of a colonial past, many thousands of Indigenous people are living rewarding lives within Australian society to a degree inconceivable to their grandparents or even their parents. However, their success often is used to deny the reality of entrenched racism and as evidence that Australia is a non-racial state. The task remains of combating ideological and institutional racism and forcing powerful agencies to take responsibility for re-engineering themselves to partner genuinely with Indigenous communities and families to “close the gap”. 



1. Australian Government, Closing the Gap: The Prime Minister’s Report (Canberra, 2010), p. 3.


2. Quoted in Michael Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 1835–86 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1979), p. 36.


3. James Collier, The Pastoral Age in Australasia (London: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1911), pp.129–30.


4. Australian Constitution (1901), section 51 (xxvi), cited in David Hollinsworth, Race and Racism in Australia, 3rd ed. (South Melbourne: Cengage, 2006), p. 99.


5. For example, today in Queensland, Indigenous children make up more than a third of children in out-of-home care even though they are only 3 per cent of the state’s population. See Francis Tapim, “Indigenous Kids in Care Rate ‘Alarming’ ”, ABC News, 4 August 2010 [].


6. Maude Tongerie, quoted in Christobel Mattingley and Ken Hampton, eds., Survival in Our Own Land, 2nd ed. (Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), p. 55.


7. There is much debate about the full costs of the intervention, but the 2010–11 budget provided the figure in Australian dollars of $793.3 million plus $165.8 million on funding Northern Territory police instead of Australian federal police over three years from 2009–10.