Advance Australia Fair? Not for Indigenous Australian Citizens

Mark Evans

Professor Mark Evans, Director of Democracy 2025, UC-IGPA

Max Halupka

Max Halupka is a research fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. He is also Managing Editor of 'The Policy Space'

The Power of Us survey, commissioned by the Museum of Australian Democracy and designed by the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) at the University of Canberra presents compelling evidence that indigenous citizens continue to be disillusioned with Australian democracy and have limited trust in politicians and political institutions.  It also provides strong clues as to the democratic innovations that might make a difference.

Thirty-four percent of indigenous citizens (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – ATSI) are dissatisfied with the way that democracy works in Australia, compared with 27% of non-indigenous citizens (see Chart 1).  By implication satisfaction rates are equally weak, with only 28% of indigenous citizens being satisfied with the way that democracy works in contrast with 41% of non-indigenous citizens.

Chart 1. How satisfied are indigenous citizens with democracy?

Over half (58%) of indigenous citizens feel that the levels of honesty and integrity of elected politicians in Australia today are low (see Chart 2).  This is in line with non-indigenous citizens at 60%.  Significantly, more indigenous citizens believe that politicians are more honest than do non-indigenous citizens (19% compared with 11%); although both sets of views are a telling indictment of the behaviour of contemporary politicians. 

Chart 2. Indigenous and non-indigenous perceptions of standards of honesty and integrity displayed by politicians

      Chart 3. Perceptions of standards of honesty and integrity displayed by politicians

Moreover, 17% of non-indigenous citizens feel that levels of honesty and integrity of elected politicians in Australia today are improving compared with only 7% of non-indigenous citizens.  However, both indigenous and non-indigenous citizens (both at 53%) feel that levels of integrity are declining.

Further insights emerge when we look at specific questions regarding trust in politicians.  We asked both indigenous and non-indigenous citizens their views on whether they agreed with the following statements:

“Statement 1: the scandals involving elected politicians that are reported in the newspapers and on television are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the misconduct that actually goes on”.

“Statement 2: Politicians are in it for themselves”.

“Statement 3: Individual rights are well protected in Australia today”.

The findings presented in Table 1 demonstrate consistent views on these issues between indigenous and non-indigenous citizens in response to these statements.  There is significant agreement with the statements that “scandals involving elected politicians that are reported in the newspapers and on television are only the tip of the iceberg” and “politicians are in it for themselves” and similar concern over whether “individual rights are well protected in Australia today”.

Table 1. Indigenous and non-indigenous perceptions of trust in politicians

“Statement 1: the scandals involving elected politicians that are reported in the newspapers and on television are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the misconduct that actually goes on”.
  Strongly disagree Tend to disagree Neither agree or disagree Tend to agree Strongly agree  
ATSI 4% 1% 17%

40%

38%

131
Non                               2% 8% 23% 39%

28%

1113
“Statement 2: Politicians are in it for themselves”.
 

Strongly disagree

Tend to disagree

Neither agree or disagree

Tend to agree Strongly agree  
ATSI 18% 20% 34% 20% 8%  
Non 9% 22% 32% 30% 6%  
“Statement 3: Individual rights are well protected in Australia today”.
  Strongly disagree Tend to disagree Neither agree or disagree Tend to agree

Strongly agree

 
ATSI 18% 20% 34% 20% 8%  
Non 9% 22% 32% 30% 6%  

 

Why do indigenous Australians feel this way?

The survey did not deal directly with this problem (focus groups will be held later this year to explore the issue in detail) but existing research provides some strong clues as to why indigenous citizens feel this way.  Three narratives deserve careful consideration. 

Firstly, given that indigenous Australians suffer most in terms of life expectancy, child mortality, and education and employment opportunities, it is hardly surprising that they should continue to feel disconnected from Australia’s democracy.[1]  In sum, democratic disenchantment is an inevitable manifestation of indigenous disadvantage.

The second narrative proceeds from the view that Australian democracy is simply not their democracy but a colonial invention – a product of European conquest and settlement or what Thomas Keneally (2009: 14) has referred to as “the grand intrusion”.  This narrative dominates indigenous perspectives on Australian democracy leading to low levels of engagement with the formal institutions of democracy.

The third narrative is the absence of indigenous representation in the federal Parliament.  There have only ever been three indigenous representatives in the history of the Australian parliament.  We presently only have one indigenous member of Parliament, Liberal MP Ken Wyatt, for 2.9% of the population.  Indigenous citizens do fair better in state and local government.  This problem is compounded by the dominance of majoritarian politics in the way in which Australian political parties work.  For example, in the ALP, candidate selection more often than not requires factional support and this combined with the limited number of candidates coming forward, means that it would very difficult for indigenous candidates to break through even if they wanted to.

Closing the Democratic Gap – Is there a way forward?

The answer to this question depends on whether you subscribe to a majoritarian view of democracy (the view of the majority should prevail) or a consensus view (social stability and progress requires ensuring that the rights of minorities are protected and fostered and this moral imperative is magnified with respect to first people’s).  The latter perspective, associated with the political thought of Arend Lijphart (2012), would need to work at several levels of governance.  Constitutional recognition is of symbolic importance but would not address the structural problems of under-representation and disempowerment in the system itself.  Deeper forms of democratization are often required here.  For example, in New Zealand the issue of representation has been addressed through dedicated parliamentary seats for indigenous representatives since the passing of the Maori Representation Act of 1867 (see Geddis 2006).  A similar approach has been adopted by the US State of Maine for First Nations Peoples (see Schmidt 2003).  In Finland, Norway and Sweden, more radical steps have been taken with the creation of separate indigenous parliaments for Sami peoples (Lloyd, 2009).  Indeed it is worth noting that the 1998 report of the New South Wales Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues, Enhancing Aboriginal Political Representation, recommended the creation of a separate Aboriginal Assembly (Reilly, 2001).  We currently have a National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples which was established in 2010 and serves as a special interest lobby but it could easily be transformed into a more representative institution with primary powers given specific governance reforms.[2]

In New Zealand, there is also significant devolution of decision making power to community in specific policy domains.  For example, Whānau Ora (loosely translated as ‘extended family’) is an innovative Māori-centred approach to empowering Māori communities to achieve better health, education, housing, skills development and economic outcomes.  The approach recognizes that traditional ‘top-down’ ‘government-knows-best’ Westminster systems of service delivery simply do not meet the needs and aspirations of indigenous communities and that community-driven development models provide the trust systems that are integral to achieving social cohesion and development.[3]

It is noteworthy that countervailing democratic indigenous institutions have also been created in a number of policy areas in Australia to give voice to the interests of indigenous citizens (for example, water management in the Murray Darling Basin and the creation of the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations which is funded under the Murray Darling Basin Plan).[4]  But many of these have often been criticized for lacking representativeness and real teeth in affecting decision-making and continue to marginalize rather than empower indigenous Australians (see Kit, 1997).

There is, of course, a further very significant narrative that is not discussed in Australia because it is too socially and politically difficult – the large numbers of Australian citizens of indigenous ancestry who do not formally disclose their identity.  In many ways this is the most significant barometer of ‘advance Australia fair’.  Until they do disclose we cannot make claims about the achievement of social equality in Australia.

[1] Data on indigenous disadvantage can be found at the Productivity Commission’s website at: http://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/overcoming-indigenous-disadvantage and details of ‘Closing the Gap’ measures can be found at: https://www.coag.gov.au/closing_the_gap_in_indigenous_disadvantage

[2] See: http://nationalcongress.com.au/

[3] See: Whānau Ora at a glance at: https://www.tpk.govt.nz/en/whakamahia/whanau-ora/

[4] See: http://www.mdba.gov.au/media/mr/northern-basin-aboriginal-nations-receive-further-funding

 

 

References

Chesterman, J. (2006), “Chosen by the people”? How federal parliamentary states might be reserved for Indigenous Australians without changing the constitution, Federal Law Review, 34, 2, pp. 261-262.

Geddis, A. (2006), ‘A dual track democracy?: the symbolic role of Maori seats in New Zealand’s electoral system’, Election Law Journal, 5, pp. 347-71.

Keneally, T. (2009), Australians. Origins to Eureka. Volume 1. Allen and Unwin.

Kit, J.A. (1997), Reconciliation and constitutional issues: participation in government – sovereignty or subjugation?  Australian Reconciliation Convention, May 1997.  

Lijphart, A. (2012), Patterns of Democracy, Yale University Press.

Lloyd, B. (2009), Dedicated Indigenous representation in the Australian Parliament, Parliament of Australia, Research Paper, 23, 2008-8, 18 March 2009.

Reilly, A. (2001), Dedicated seats in the Federal Parliament for Indigenous Australians: the theoretical case and its practical possibility, Balayi: Culture, Law and Colonialism, 2, 1.

Schmidt, J. (2003), Aboriginal representation in government: a comparative examination, Law Reform Commission of Canada, December, pp. 13-15.

 

 

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