Symposium: Indigenous Futures

Indigenous affairs: Post ATSIC, not post-colonial

Stuart Bradfield, AIATSIS

Both Indigenous affairs policy in Australia and debate about it currently suffer from a serious lack of depth. Generally made on the run by individuals who may be well meaning but appear to have a low knowledge base, policy parameters are set not according to close consideration of the issues themselves, but by external factors such as the ebb and flow of electoral politics. There is a real question as to the level of input from Indigenous people. Of course the big losers in this process continue to be Indigenous peoples themselves.


The tragic, intransigent facts of Indigenous disadvantage are well known to all but the most uninterested Australians. Only the most ignorant could fail to recognise the national crisis reflected by Indigenous life expectancy which is around twenty years less than that of non-Indigenous Australians. According to a recent Canadian study the quality of life for Aboriginal people in Australia is the second worst on the planet. Australia’s general population ranked fourth (best) on the same index (Jackson 2004).

Common sense and decency suggest that all people should be treated with equal respect.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the political divide sees this disadvantage as a failure of service delivery. On this view, if you increase co-ordination and efficiency in the way services and programs are delivered to Indigenous peoples, you will improve their standards of living. The major parties differ only in the extent to which they would see services entirely mainstreamed (the Coalition), or delivered in consultation with an elected national Indigenous representative body (Labor).

Implicit in both approaches is acceptance of a line run in recent years by commentators relatively new to Indigenous affairs, such as Gary Johns (2003) and Keith Windschuttle (2004). These commentators argue that ongoing Indigenous disadvantage reflects the failure of what they called ‘Aboriginal separatism’. The creation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the recognition of native title, and demands for a treaty (the argument goes) are based on a philosophy of treating Aboriginal people ‘differently’ to other Australians. This approach, the argument goes, effectively accepts a lesser standard of care for Indigenous people, and must be abandoned.

This argument equates the idea of treating people ‘equally’ with treating them ‘the same’. Common sense and decency suggest that all people should be treated with equal respect. If Aboriginal peoples had been treated equally, they would have received better outcomes from services such as health and education which have long (or always) been ‘mainstreamed’. However, treating people equally does not always mean treating them exactly the same. As visiting First Nations Professor John Borrows recently put it after analysing ‘practical reconciliation’, you don’t make a rich man and a poor man equal by giving them each a hundred dollars (Borrows 2004). It was Aristotle who said it is as unjust to treat unequals equally as it is to treat equals unequally. For instance, if individuals in Balgo and Balgowlah are to receive the same standard of health care, its delivery must be mediated by factors such as distance to services, income—and Aboriginality.

Such as it is, the unsophisticated national conversation on the place of Indigenous peoples in Australia does not allow consideration of the subtleties of such arguments. Prime Minister Howard—nothing if not doggedly consistent—stated in 1988 he ‘abhor[s] the notion of an Aboriginal treaty because it is repugnant to the ideals of one Australia’ (Howard 1988). Such a bald assertion doesn’t win the argument so much as foreclose it.


Once again in Indigenous affairs, Australia comes up badly in comparison with Canada. While in recent times Australian and Canadian approaches have been very different, the two countries share essentially the same status as settler societies dealing with the existence of a distinct and vocal Indigenous minority.

That said, the juxtaposition of events in Canada and Australia is instructive.

In August 1998, amendments to the Nunavut Act were adopted by the Canadian Parliament, foreshadowing the creation of its newest territory, called Nunavut (the Inuktitut word for ‘our land’), to be self-governed by the Inuit people. In the very same week, Australia became the first settler society to be hauled before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and asked to explain its Indigenous policies, in particular those relating to native title.

Once again in Indigenous affairs, Australia comes up badly in comparison with Canada.

In April 2004, more than 70 Indigenous leaders met with the Canadian Prime Minister and several other ministers in the first ‘Canada-Aboriginal Peoples Roundtable’. In outlining his approach, the new Prime Minister Paul Martin stressed the bilateral nature of Indigenous-state relations, promising Indigenous communities and leaders ‘a full seat at the table … No longer will we in Ottawa develop policies first and discuss them with you later’ (Martin 2004). In the same week Prime Minister Howard unilaterally announced the abolition of Australia’s peak representative Indigenous body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, to be replaced by some yet to be detailed ‘advisory body’.

The contrast could not be greater. Elsewhere in the world settler societies like Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand pursue a nation-to-nation or government-to-government approach with Indigenous peoples. At its best, this approach facilitates creative discussions about accommodating different peoples within the one state, and is backed by processes of genuine negotiation that result in treaties or treaty-style agreements. The recent opposition-led white backlash against Maori ‘privilege’ across the Tasman indicates that this approach receives less than total support, and remains vulnerable when the flames of discontent are fanned in the name of electoral advantage (Brash 2004). Yet in Australia, policy debate seems to take place at a lower level of complexity; completely failing to consider any approach which looks to include an as yet largely undefined concept of Indigenous nationhood. Here, as part of what Noel Pearson described as ‘the negative electoral logic that prevails in Indigenous affairs’ (2004), the ‘whole-of-government’ approach is sold as a necessary departure from the norm to deal with a subsection of the community defined negatively by their disadvantage rather than positively by their distinct identity.


In contemporary Indigenous policy there is no genuine attempt to understand contemporary Aboriginal communities, which are made up of individuals whose worldview flows, to differing degrees, from traditions which predate and diverge from those of the majority. Even more rare is enlightened discussion on the way these communities—or nations, or peoples—might be accommodated within the Australian state on just terms that they themselves have helped define.

The situation is so much more complex than an argument between a ‘rights-based’ approach which accepts the centrality of inherent Indigenous rights, versus a ‘practical reconciliation’ approach which denies their existence in order to focus on the citizenship rights all Australians can expect. Of course Indigenous people need to be integrated more fully into the Australian economy. Of course Indigenous disadvantage needs to be attacked head on, as a priority. But can we do it by ignoring the possibilities opened up by direct negotiations with an Indigenous nation (such as the Noongar Nation in the south west of Australia), or a confederation of nations (such as the Murray Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations in the south east)? At present there seems limited willingness to engage with such potentially exciting new political entities.

The recognition of native title in 1992 provided a firm basis for such negotiations, which in turn could have provided for new mechanisms to both increase Indigenous autonomy, and attack disadvantage. State and federal governments of all colours have done little since to support processes of direct negotiation still being promoted by Native Title Representative Bodies and other Indigenous groups with chronically limited resources. In a post-ATSIC world, potential exists for the development of regional authorities which could satisfy at least some of the Indigenous demands for a form of self-government as well as state and federal calls for improved service delivery. As things now stand, people will have to rely on mainstream departments to promote Indigenous self-determination, both domestically and internationally.

Australia’s Indigenous peoples have consistently maintained their distinct identities.

Despite the obvious fears of the majority, recognising the distinct nature of Indigenous societies that will both coexist with, and at times remain distinct from, the ‘mainstream’ does not automatically equate to a damaging and dangerous separatism. Again, comparisons with Canada are salient. The fledgling territory of Nunavut has certainly had its difficulties, particularly in raising the socio-economic status of its Inuit people. But it has certainly not led to any dissolution of the Canadian federation. Some would argue that in creatively redrawing its internal boundaries to better reflect its cultural diversity, Canada has strengthened that federation. On signing the Nisga’a treaty in British Columbia, Chief Joe Gosnell famously declared ‘We are negotiating our way into Canada, not out of it.’

Of course reconstructing Indigenous nations to the point where they are ready to negotiate will take time. Some will be ready now, others not for decades. Yet the barriers to real and meaningful negotiation as a principle of Indigenous policy remain as much conceptual as structural. We must not continue to allow new approaches to be denied by what Professor Larissa Behrendt and others have described as a ‘psychological terra nullius’ (2003), a state of mind which refuses to remember that Indigenous people today are the descendants of what many would describe as free, independent, and sovereign nations.

It is likely those nations, however they are constituted, may never again fully enjoy the independence they once did. However, our inevitable coexistence could just as easily be put forward as an argument for, rather than against, the negotiation of a treaty relationship. In time, treaties and self-government arrangements may well grow out of current processes of agreement making between Indigenous peoples, industry, and governments. Australia’s Indigenous peoples have consistently maintained their distinct identities—as Noongar, as Yorta Yorta, as Martu, as Wik, and so on. Acceptance of this historical fact, combined with an emerging culture of agreement making, makes the development of local treaty-style agreements possible. Treaties won’t provide any magical solutions but, at the very least, they can offer a new framework for approaching enduring problems.

It belittles all of us that policy makers fail—or refuse—to prioritise a national conversation which considers all approaches to alleviating Indigenous disadvantage, particularly those which look to build on, rather than deny, Indigenous traditions. Abolishing ATSIC without consulting Indigenous people about that radical shift or future alternatives does nothing to move Australia towards a post-colonial future.


Behrendt, L. 2003, Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia’s Future, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Borrows, J. 2004, ‘Practical reconciliation, practical re-colonisation?’, in Land, Rights, Laws: Issues of Native Title, (forthcoming).

Brash, D. 2004, ‘Nationhood’, Speech to Orewa Rotary Club, 27 January [Online] Available: [2004, May 18].

Howard, J. 1988, ‘Treaty is a Recipe for Separatism’, in A Treaty with the Aborigines?, ed. K. Baker, Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne.

Jackson, A. 2004, ‘Life of Aborigines second worst on earth’, The Age, 28 April.

Johns, G. 2003, ‘The Gulf Between Aboriginal Policies and Aboriginal People in Australia’, (Paper delivered to Libertad y Desarrollo Institute, Santiago, Chile, 6 June).

Martin, P. 2004, Transcript of address by Prime Minister Paul Martin at the opening of the first Canada-Aboriginal peoples roundtable, Ottawa, 19 April [Online], Available: [2004, May 5].

Pearson, N. 2004, ‘Australia needs you’, The Weekend Australian, 10 April, p.10.

Windschuttle, K. 2004, ‘Assimilation already a reality’, The Australian, 11 March.

Dr Stuart Bradfield is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Native Title Research Unit at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). He is currently researching comprehensive agreement making in Australia.

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