Indigenous Australians: Social Issues and Policy Essay

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An Examination of Indigenous Australians' Social Issues and Policy


The Indigenous population at the time of European settlement is estimated to have been at least 750,000.  In the years that followed, the this population declined significantly as a result of increased mortality and reduced fertility, and by the 1930s the total Australian Indigenous population was estimated to be only 20 per cent of its original size.  Following a referendum in 1967, the Australian Constitution was altered to allow the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people, and to include them in national censuses, from which they had been largely absent.  In the 2006 census, 455,031 people identified themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, comprising 2.3 per cent of the total Australian population.

Between 1996 and 2001, the average annual growth rate of the Indigenous population was 2 per cent, compared with 1.18 per cent for the total Australian population. The 2006 census also found that the Indigenous population is younger than the non-Indigenous population, with a median age of 21 years compared to 37 years for non-Indigenous Australians. Only 3 per cent of Indigenous Australians are aged 65 years or older, compared to 13 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians (‘Indigenous Peoples: An Overview’ 2008).


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In 1770 English explorer Captain James Cook claimed the eastern portion of the continent in the name of King George III.  At that time Indigenous Australians were divided into approximately 600 different tribes with hundreds of different languages. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the modern Indigenous people of Australia migrated to the continent more than 50 000 years ago. Isolated from external influences, the Aboriginal peoples developed their own way of life, in accordance with their religious and spiritual beliefs of the Dreamtime, the indigenous time of creation.

Essay on Indigenous Australians: Social Issues and Policy Assignment

Despite the knowledge of these people, the British considered the Australian continent to be a terra nullius under English law. Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning land belonging to no one.  Soon thereafter the British decided to establish a penal colony in New South Wales and on 26 January 1788, the First Fleet, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in Sydney Cove. 

Soon after the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales, colonial governments began to grant, lease and sell land to white settlers.  As the colonial wool industry began to flourish, more settlers arrived in the colony to stake their claims on grazing land from which they could amass their own fortunes.  As the availability of suitable grazing land diminished expeditions to search for more fertile grazing land were conducted.  Efforts were made to curb the spread of new settlements in the colony by New South Wales Governor Darling, however, this was done more to ensure that the settlers could still be controlled by colonial law enforcement, than out of concern for the Indigenous inhabitants of the land. 

As these unauthorized settlements began to claim unoccupied land outside the boundaries set by Governor Darling, they began to encroach more and more on Indigenous sacred sites, hunting grounds and food supplies.  The displacement of Aboriginal peoples from their land resulted in a drastic decline in their population.  Many Aboriginal people were killed in conflicts over land use and many more perished from malnourishment.  Restriction from access to clean water and an adequate food supply exacerbated the plight of the indigenous people by increasing their susceptibility to disease. Furthermore, the settlers brought with them a number of European epidemic diseases.  These diseases included chickenpox, smallpox, typhoid, measles and influenza.  The Aboriginal peoples had no immunity to these diseases and, particularly within densely populated communities, were rapidly devastated.  The introduction of venereal disease was also an issue, causing Indigenous fertility and birth rates to be reduced. 

From the beginning relations between the settlers and the Indigenous peoples were characterized by fear and curiosity.  Unfortunately, a clash of cultures and disputes over land use doomed any chance of peaceful co-existence.  Fighting was fierce at times with both sides believing their survival was at stake and acts of bloodshed and other atrocities were committed in all parts of the country.  Settlers poisoned native water sources and dispersed poisoned food.  The settlers also formed the Native Police Forces, made up of only Indigenous people, and used tribal rivalries to instigate violence between different clans of Aboriginal people.  It was inevitable that the settlers, with the support of soldiers and police, and an advantage in fire power and numbers, would eventually prevail.  Violence against the Aboriginal peoples continued, in some parts of Australia, until the third decade of the twentieth century.  It has been estimated that between 1788 and 1900, violence, displacement and disease caused the Indigenous population to decline by 90 percent.

By the 1930s a policy of assimilation, designed to integrate Aboriginal people into white society by forcing them to live in the same way and hold the same beliefs and values as white Australians, was beginning to emerge.  Many reserves were closed due to overcrowding and increasing costs.  This forced Indigenous peoples into cities and towns where they were left few options other than to live on the outskirts, or in public housing.  This led to the even further deterioration of traditional Aboriginal culture.  The most unfortunate aspect of the assimilation policy was that it led to many children being forcibly taken away from their parents and families and placed in foster care or group homes. These children have become known as the Stolen Generation (‘Impact of European Settlement on Indigenous People’ 2011). 

Current Social and Policy Issues 

Many people in the Australian community hold negative attitudes toward Indigenous Australians (Griffiths & Pedersen 2009).  This attitude puts Indigenous Australians at a considerable disadvantage in almost all areas of wellbeing.  Before anti-racist strategies are adopted, however, it is essential that strategists have a clear idea as to why people hold their attitudes. 

According to Hart, Thompson, and Stedman (2008) the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia was flawed from the beginning by its references to the Aborigines of Australia. The Federation was founded on the assumption that the Aborigines would, quite literally, disappear. The two mentions they received in the Constitution were both negative. This leaves Indigenous citizens exposed as individuals to the partiality displayed by the Constitutional architect, federation activist and Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin when he argued that federation acted on: 'the desire that we should be one people, and remain one people, without the admixture of other races'. Compounding this, the founding Prime Minister Edmund Barton, had proposed in 1889 that an Australian constitutional power was needed so that the Commonwealth could 'regulate the affairs of the people of colored or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth'. 

Indigenous Australians have become recognized as one of the most disadvantaged of Indigenous nations across all developed Western countries.  The inequities suffered by Indigenous Australians, when compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, extend across a wide range of quality-of-life indicators including higher levels of unemployment, lowered levels of physical health and economic well-being, and an increased prevalence of negative mental health outcomes and psychosocial stressors.  In addition, Indigenous Australians are the most educationally disadvantaged Australians. This is of great concern, given that education predicates life opportunities.  Bodkin-Andrews, O’Rourke and Craven (2010) believe that education should be recognized as a pivotal point of intervention for righting the inequities suffered by people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, identifying culturally appropriate methods of redressing the inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is also of paramount importance.

In a review of articles published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues between 1961 and 2005 Melissa Johns and Will Sanders identified five key recurrent themes in the journal’s coverage related to Indigenous issues: education; health; alcohol use; violence and the criminal justice system; and child welfare.  From 2005 to the present many significant and controversial changes in Indigenous policy, many of which have been implemented under the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) Intervention and the more recent Council of Australian Governments (COAG) commitment to ‘Closing the Gap’ on Indigenous disadvantage.  Notable in recent years have also been former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and stated commitment to ‘reset’ its relationship with Indigenous Australians (Jordan & Bulloch 2010). 

However, Johns and Sanders argue that there was ‘more continuity than change’ in the debates surrounding Indigenous policy.  For example, some of the earliest articles Johns and Sanders identified concerned the question of ‘assimilation’. This was understood in a 1968 paper by Henry Schapper as a project of advancement including the narrowing of socio-economic gaps between Indigenous and other Australians.  While the term ‘assimilation’ is no longer in vogue, replaced by ‘mainstreaming’ or ‘normalization’ this perspective has retained strong currency. Aspects of the NTER have focused on normalization, sometimes suggestive of converting Aboriginal settlements into ‘normal’ suburbs with private… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Indigenous Australians: Social Issues and Policy.  (2011, June 28).  Retrieved March 8, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Indigenous Australians: Social Issues and Policy."  28 June 2011.  Web.  8 March 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Indigenous Australians: Social Issues and Policy."  June 28, 2011.  Accessed March 8, 2021.