Despite the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have been here longer than anyone else, they are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australian society. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up around 2.8 per cent of the Australian population, but they are disproportionately overrepresented in every adverse social indicator.
This section will give a brief overview of the situation of indigenous Australians as they relate to certain key social indicia: life expectancy and health, employment, education and good communities. It will also provide links to more specific information about the situation of indigenous Australians on other parts of the Justice and Peace Office website.
Life Expectancy and Health
Indigenous Australians have long faced a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians and as at the time of publication of the Closing the Gap Report 2019 the target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy by 2031 was not on track.
For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population born in 2015–2017, life expectancy was estimated to be 8.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males (71.6 years compared with 80.2) and 7.8 years for females (75.6 compared with 83.4) (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).
A compounding factor is that life expectancy was significantly lower for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males and females in Remote and Very Remote areas combined (65.9 and 69.6) than for those who lived in Major Cities (72.1 and 76.5 respectively). (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Life Tables for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2015-2017).
In 2017, there were 976 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths per 100, 000 persons compared to 556 per 100,000 non-Indigenous Australians (around 1.8 times higher) (Closing the Gap Report 2019).
Between 2013–17, the five leading causes of Indigenous mortality were circulatory diseases (23 per cent), cancer and other neoplasms (22 per cent), external causes (15 per cent), respiratory diseases (9 per cent) and endocrine disorders (mainly diabetes) (9 per cent).
The non-communicable chronic diseases account for more than half the deaths of Indigenous Australians, and are also responsible for the stark difference in mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Tragically, Many of the non-communicable diseases are preventable (Closing the Gap Report 2019).
The MyLife, My Lead report from 2017 highlights t he importance of social determinants such as housing, education, employment, involvement in the justice system on health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.” Closing the Gap 2019. At least 34.4 percent of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australisns is tied to social determinants. (My Life, My Lead).
Having a safe, stable job that pays a minimum of a living wage is essential for any person or any dependents that the person is responsible for. Good employment is one of the key factors that enables people to have a dignified life as it makes it possible to life in decent housing, live a healthy lifestyle, and attain an education. Unfortunately indigenous Australians are far more likely to experience poverty, and unemployment, underemployment and lower incomes are key reasons for this.
According to the 2016 Census figures, only 47% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 to 64 years were employed compared with 72% for non-Indigenous people” (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, 2016).
Even After adjustment for household size and composition, the household income of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is lower than the income of non-Indigenous people. Over half (53%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported an equivalised weekly household income between $150 and $799 (wheras 51% of non-Indigenous people reported an equivalised weekly household income of between $400 and $1249.” (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, 2016).
Community Development Program
The Community Development Program (CDP) purports to “support job seekers in remote Australia to build skills, address barriers and contribute to their communities through a range of flexible activities.” (Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business).
However the program is in reality discriminatory against those who work in rural areas and indigenous people, as 80% of people in the Community Development Program are Indigenous Australians. The Human Rights Law Centre has recognised CDP workers currently have to work up to 500 hours more per year than those in the ‘Jobactive’ program. The requirements for the CDP are far more stringent, making compliance difficult and participants are having payments docked at 25 times the rate of Jobactive participants.”
Having a safe, affordable home with adequate facilities and room for everyone in the household also contributes to better social outcomes. In housing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are disproportionately disadvantaged.
Despite making up 3% of the Australian Population in 2016, they accounted for 20% of all persons who were homeless on Census night. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples made up 3% of the Australian population in 2016. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016). In addition, one in four clients of specialist homelessness services (24 per cent) in 2015-16 were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (My Life, My Lead).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were three times more likely to live in overcrowded dwellings (Closing the Gap, 2019, p. 138). In addition around one quarter of dwellings in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people resided had major structural problems causing a lack of safety (My Life, My Lead). In remote areas, one in six households did not have working facilities for preparing food and 15 per cent did not have facilities for washing clothes and bedding.
Education from the early years of life until after high-school is another factor that can assist in obtaining a job that pays a decent wage. Despite the gap in attaining qualifications between indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, two of the Closing the Gap targets concerning education are on track. These targets are to have 95 per cent of Indigenous four year olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025 and to halve the gap of year 12 or equivalent attainment by 2020. The proportion of Indigenous people aged 20–24 who had Year 12 or equivalent attainment increased from 47% in 2006 to 65% in 2016. However, the target to halve the gap in literacy and numeracy is not on track.
A safe and strong community life is an essential part of indigenous culture. Sadly, according to the Closing the Gap Report 2019, indigenous Australians are still far more likely to experience, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence and incarceration than non indigenous Australians. The disproportionately higher percentage of indigenous youth in detention is particularly troubling.
A particularly sad reality is that despite making up 3 per cent of the total population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represented 27 per cent of persons counted in prisons on Census night. Young Indigenous people continued to be over represented in the justice system, representing 43% of young people in youth-justice supervision in 2014–15. Our page on Incarceration in Australia discusses in more detail the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in prison.
In 2017, 165 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons died as a result of suicide, with a standardised death rate of 25.5 deaths per 100,000 persons. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Intentional Self-Harm in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People). Suicide accounted for 5.5% of All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths compared with 2.0% for the non-Indigenous Population. Intentional self harm is the 5th leading cause of death for Indigenous Australians (but being the second leading cause of death for Indigenous males) compared with 13th for non-Indigenous Australians. Suicide is also attributable to 40% of all Indigenous child deaths.
Trauma, of various different types and sources has in some communities become so common that it is considered normal. (My Life, My Lead). The lasting trauma of forcible removal of children from their families of the Stolen Generations still has a devastating impact on many families and communities.
International Human Rights
In the international context, Australia consistently gets criticised for its deplorable treatment of its indigenous population. When the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was first voted on at the United Nations in 2007, Australia was one of only four countries (along with the United States, Canada and New Zealand) to vote against it. Australia has since changed its mind and endorsed the Declaration but has not yet met its obligations under it.
In 2016, a UN’s Special Rapporteur gave Australia a scathing assessment on its treatment of Indigenous people. Ms. Tauli-Corpuz’s noted as “alarming” the “failure to respect the right to self-determination and the right to full and effective participation”. And that failures to commit to the targets of the Closing the Gap Strategy had “contributed to aggravating the escalating incarceration and child removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”