The battle for Aboriginal rights

An apology from Kevin Rudd to Australia's aboriginals and a pledge about closing the life expectancy

How wistfully Gordon Brown must look on the honeymoon period that newly elected Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd, is still enjoying.

Where Brown fears passing Olympic symbols, he is unable to hold a torch to Australia’s most famous Mandarin speaker’s forceful rejection of China’s now infamous athlete security guards.

Where Brown is fearing the next general election, Rudd is basking in a 73 per cent approval rating, compared to a nine per cent rating for the new Liberal leader Brendan Nelson. It would hardly help Brown to point out the similarities with those heady days after Tony Blair's 1997 election win.

The analogy of 1997 Britain was furthered by Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people for the "profound grief, suffering and loss” that his predecessors inflicted upon them, leading to an outpouring of emotion that could at least be compared to, if not rival, the death of Diana. It is not often that the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, weeps while watching CNN, though this is what he claimed happened while watching Rudd’s historic moment.

But are words enough? As John Pilger quite rightly pointed out on these pages, the answer is 'no'. By focusing on past injustices – including the “Stolen Generations,” which saw indigenous children taken from their families up until, unbelievably, the 1960s – there is a danger that present inequalities could be quietly swept under the carpet. And these inequalities are all too real: an infant mortality rate that is almost three times higher than the non-indigenous population, rates of death from treatable and preventable conditions ranging from three times to eight times higher than for non-indigenous Australians and, for some, a lack of access to adequate health care, housing, food or water, according to Human Rights Watch. All this in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Critics correctly point to the lack of a move to allow the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act with regards to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response – which deals with alleged child abuse in the region – thereby continuing the legalisation of discrimination of the indigenous population. As well as this, there have been calls to alleviate the lack of funding for the Aboriginal Legal Aid services, which is to blame for the indigenous legal service’s inability to deal with the civil and family law issues, according to a recent article in Criminal Law Journal.

Words, however, are undoubtedly a start, especially when they are backed up by Rudd’s latest promise, announced in London this week, to use the first day of parliament every year to provide an update on progress to close the life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians by 2030 – which incredibly stands at 17 years at the moment.

But as well as this extremely welcome concrete policy proposal – and arguably as importantly – the words of apology have huge merit in themselves. An analysis of Rudd’s speech in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested the apology is no more than a “shrewd manoeuvre” designed to “respond to some of (Labor's) own supporters' emotional needs”. But, even if this were true, an apology issued so soon after gaining power undoubtedly places the rights of indigenous Australians at the heart of the political agenda, and is an essential step in changing the attitudes of ordinary non-indigenous Australians – attitudes which often leave a lot to be desired.

These inequalities will not dissipate until attitudes move away from the perception that the indigenous people naturally have a predilection for alcohol and self-destruction, despite white Australians’ best efforts – attitudes which, if not predominant, are still depressingly mainstream – toward acknowledgement of European settlers’ role in creating the inequalities and low sense of self worth that may give rise to substance abuse. These were attitudes that, incredibly, allowed John Howard to send the troops in to stop child abuse in the Northern Territory.

Australians need only to look over the Tasman Sea to New Zealand to see how an indigenous and non-indigenous population can live together. Crucially, and contrary to many Australians’ wishes, it is not a case of assimilation by the indigenous population. True, there are still inequalities and racial tensions bubbling under the surface, but through gestures such as making Maori an official language and having a dedicated Maori free-to-air TV channel, New Zealand has embraced its Maori heritage and it is a source of pride for non-indigenous New Zealanders. Until Australians feel the same, inequalities will remain – but words, even if they are hollow, are a positive step.