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Indigenous stats sound alarm bells

Indigenous stats
sound alarm bells

Victoria is one of the more enlightened states in looking after Indigenous people…but still the statistics are appalling, as this analysis by Keith McEwan points out. “Life is not so good for an Indigenous person living in Victoria…or, for that matter, anywhere in Australia.”

Report: Indigenous in Victoria

By Keith McEwan*

As a person keenly interested in Indigenous affairs for more than 60 years, I find that the 2008-09 Indigenous Affairs Report of the Victorian Government, presented in an “easy to read” format along with beautiful art work, contains most useful information.

After reading so many negative, alienating stories about Indigenous life over the decades, it is heartening that this report, when offering a profile of the 33,000 Indigenous people living in Victoria, affirms that “Indigenous culture and heritage is a fundamental part of Victoria’s identity” and calls on all Victorians to “recognise, respect and celebrate” Indigenous contributions.     

In times when populism can adversely influence governments, and obfuscation becomes a defence mechanism, it is refreshing to read a report that is frank, honest and free of false, unrealistic promises.

The IA Report details what is widely known: life is not so good for an Indigenous person living in Victoria…or, for that matter, anywhere in Australia.

Mothers of babies: of the mothers admitted to hospital a month before delivery of a baby, 40% of Indigenous women were smokers compared with 8% of all women  (statistics from 2007-08 year). The report unfortunately does not analyse alcohol, the most common drug damaging babies: the foetal alcohol syndrome does not feature.

Babies dying before delivery: Indigenous perinatal mortality rate increased to 20.4 per 1000 births compared to the non-Indigenous rate of 9.8 per 1000 births (2007).

Police interaction: Indigenous young people aged 10-17 were 3.1 times more likely to be processed by Victoria Police than non-Indigenous young people (2008-9).

Who police caution: Police caution (instead of charging) 54.7% of non-Indigenous young people they come across in their duties, but only 34.3% of Indigenous young people (2008-9).

Repeat offenders: the proportion of Indigenous prisoners who returned to prison within two years after being discharged was 49.1% compared with 33.1% for non-Indigenous prisoners. Released Indigenous prisoners are almost 16 times more likely than non-Indigenous released prisoners to return to prison under sentence within two years (2008-9).

Appendix A, in highlighting  the disadvantages experienced by Victorian Aboriginals contains no surprises – for example it says:

Life Expectancy: Indigenous Victorian males live 12 years less on average than non-Indigenous males, to age 67 compared with age 79.  For females, it is 10 years less, to 73 by comparison with 83 (2009).

Jobless:The unemployment rate was 15.7% for Indigenous Victorians, 5.3% for non-Indigenous Victorians (2006). (There are many Indigenous people receiving disability support pensions, and thus also unemployed. Many suffer from ongoing trauma and disadvantages they and their families have experienced over many decades).

Owning your home: 37.3% of Indigenous Victorians own their homes compared with 74.6% of non-Indigenous Victorians (2006).

Protecting children: with Victorian children 0-16 years, almost 5 children in every 1000 are in need of protection from abuse or neglect. By comparison, just on 11 times as many – almost 55 per 1000 Indigenous children – need protection (2008-9).

The Strategic Action Area Target mentioned in the IA Report, for this most disturbing situation, is limited to reducing the number to 51 per 1000 Indigenous children in 2013. It is obvious that there are sensitive, family and community issues involved in overcoming this problem, especially those relating to the long-term harm that could result in removing children from their families in the worst cases. Nevertheless, if “Little children are sacred” – as the NT report said –  more resources and qualified staff must be deployed to tackle such a stark violation of a vital human right belonging to those most in need of the community’s protection, children.

Imprisonment: Again the figures are alarming: For every 1000 Indigenous Victorian adults, 10 are in prison. For every 1000 non-Indigenous Victorian adults, 1 is in prison (2008).

Space considerations must limit such a report from covering such a wide range of issues, but it is surprising that there is little is mention of the justice system and the sentencing alternatives to imprisonment, which should be firmly acknowledged as a sanction of last resort.  The progress being made with the Indigenous Restorative Justice Scheme, Community-Based Orders and Suspended Sentences, for example, would enable readers of the IA Report to learn how effective these much less-costly to the taxpayer alternatives to prison have been in protecting the community and rehabilitating offenders.

Many leaders of Australia’s First Peoples have sought self-determination over the decades as they struggled to break free of the missions and reserves, and fought through the courts to claim land rights.  In this regard, the IA Report tells of the distinct Indigenous communities in Victoria, with 38 Indigenous networks now in place and with 8 Regional Indigenous Councils established. It is also a notable achievement that 200 Indigenous, community-run organisations are operating, covering health, culture, sport, justice and legal advocacy.

Of the utmost importance, in view of the long-term harm done to Indigenous Australians over generations due to the forcible removal of their children by government authorities until relatively recent times, the 2009-10 State Budget allocation of $6.2 million to Stolen Generations Victoria is to be applauded. This means that the vital work of attending to the special needs of many Indigenous families, who suffer trauma and disadvantages as a result of such inhuman actions, can continue.

As Deputy Premier, Rob Hulls, states in the preface to the IA Report:
“We are still working towards our goal of  closing the considerable gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian…we are making progress…it is up to all Victorians, however, to help provide the opportunity for current and future Indigenous generations.”

This report offers a guide to what has to be done by all of us.

– Keith McEwan, member of Civil Liberties Australia, 7 March 2010

Keith McEwan has been a close observer of Indigenous matters in Victoria and nationally for more than 50 years, as a concerned individual and as an adoptive parent, with wife June, of an Indigenous child.

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