The 'special treatment' of Aboriginal people

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

By Jorge Andres

On October 9, Aboriginal Australia was granted 12.4 hectares of its stolen land, enough for dignity but hardly a fair swap. This was the first recognition of native title in mainland Australia. If only we could say "Australia is not the same today as it was yesterday", as did John McCarthy, counsel for the Dunghutti people, after the NSW minister for lands signed the agreement with Kempsey elder Mary-Lou Buck.

If this was ever really the "lucky country", it never was for some — not if you consider the "privileges" of being native to this country which the bigots rail about. The right to be human was granted by a referendum only in 1967. Till then we didn't have to care even about how many Aborigines there were, let alone about how many were kidnapped and taken from their families.

This is the result of centuries of encouraging ignorance and racial prejudice. Those who encourage it are the powerful and wealthy minority, who never tire of pitting the oppressed against each other and who now stand by and watch with glee as we fight among ourselves and blame everyone except the culprits for the problems this country faces.

When these culprits and their political agents claim that Aborigines receive "special treatment", they are quite right:

  • Aborigines have got much better odds than most when it comes to getting jailed: 18 to one. One hundred Aborigines have died in custody since 1989.

  • Life expectancy is 18 to 20 years lower than for other Australians.

  • Infant mortality rates are three times higher.

  • Spending on health is $370 a year for each indigenous Australian, compared to an average of $1034 for the rest of the population.

  • Only 26% of Aboriginal people live in a house which is owned or being bought by someone in the family, compared to the national average of 69%.

  • 48% of Aborigines attain schooling below year 10 or have no formal education.

  • The unemployment rate for Aborigines is 38%; 50% if you are between 15 and 19, and 46% between 20 and 24 years of age.

  • Over 40% of Aboriginal people are employed on work for the dole schemes.

  • An estimated 59% of Aborigines aged 15 years and over receive an annual income of $12,000 or less. An estimated 11% have no income.

  • One fifth of Aborigines aged 13 years and over had been arrested at least once between 1989 and 1994. 38% of males 15-44 had been arrested.

  • Of Aborigines aged 15 years and over, 29% worry or sometimes worry about going without food.

In the small tropical paradise of Yarrabah near Cairns this "special treatment" has taken on a special form — funerals have become a status symbol among young Aborigines, the one place you can expect or at least hope that many will turn out to shed a tear and maybe share a meal. The suicide rate among black youth there is eight times that of the Australian population average. "It's an established problem solving option, so if you have a problem which gives you the shits, you try to neck yourself", says Steve Larkin the indigenous health adviser of the Australian Medical Association.

Yarrabah is a prison, made up of Aborigines from many tribes from all over Queensland, thrown together by successive governments — more of the special treatment that Australian governments have given Aborigines.
[Statistics mainly from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey, the first and so far only nationwide survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1994.]