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Does the route to equality include Indigenous peoples?

At the time of writing, many Australians are preoccupied with the recent result of the same-sex marriage survey (with 61.6% voting in favour of marriage equality). The survey’s result is indicative of a shift in the thinking about ‘rights’ in general, but also about ‘equality’ and what it means in practice. Unsurprisingly also, and as evidenced throughout the public and social media, all those who advocate for more open and inclusive society are pleased by what looks like a public surge for a social change. How then does that affect, if at all, Indigenous peoples in Australia?

Shireen Morris of the Cape York Institute argues that the same as the matter of recognition is important to the same-sex couples (who otherwise can legally co-habit in Australia), the time for recognition has also come for Indigenous Australians: The case for marriage equality is just and right. The case for Indigenous people having a guaranteed voice in their affairs is just and right.

Australians are ready to say ‘yes’ to all groups in the society to be equally represented and be given equal opportunity to participate in the making and shaping of Australian society. However, for the time being at least, the Government sees otherwise.

Do Indigenous peoples need (more) welfare or recognition?

At the global level, there is the political will to recognise what is otherwise obvious. The United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) calls upon States to promote their full and effective participation in all matters concerning them. It has been widely recognised that the protection and promotion of rights of Indigenous peoples contribute to the strengthening of democracy and consolidation of peace. In the same vein, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which overall focus is on reducing inequality within and among countries, in its political declaration identifies Indigenous peoples as one of the vulnerable groups who require to be ‘empowered’.

Despite those political commitments to ensuring that ‘no one is left behind’, any closer interrogation of the available data shows that we are far from reaching those goals. There are over 370 million Indigenous peoples living across the globe, and although they represent 5% of the world’s population, they also represent 15% of the world’s poorest people. Indigenous populations continue to be the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in the world.

At the national level, and taking the example of Australia, despite the many positive steps being taken, the latest UN Human Rights Committee’s report on Australia’s human rights record under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) concluded that Australia continues to struggle to protect basic human rights of the most vulnerable members of the society.

If we look at the life expectancy of Indigenous peoples in Australia it is estimated to be 10.6 years lower for male and 9.5 years lower for female than for non-Indigenous population. This is despite Australian government launching the Closing the Gap Campaign in 2007. The annual reports indicate some improvements in some of the key areas, but the ultimate aim of offering the same opportunities in life to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children as there are for other Australian children by 2030 might be still far away.

Shifting social inequalities

Where lies the problem then? There is no denying that there is a close link between development, empowerment, enjoyment of rights and freedoms, and access to education and health. This relationship is also circular, in that it is much more difficult to enjoy good health if the person’s other rights are not upheld. Also, one’s agency will be significantly curtailed when denied equal access to education or when not able to take up opportunities due to (preventable) health conditions. Any debate about legal justice (and fulfillment of one’s civil and political rights) is necessarily intertwined with social and economic justice (thus one’s enjoyment of social, economic, and cultural rights).

But, power imbalance and inequalities in a society can be moved and changed. The most obvious ways are through education, the law, but also through more targeted social interventions leading to changing norms and behaviours, i.e. social marketing. Social marketing has been used for over 40 years to influence behaviour, ranging from tobacco use cessation, to encouraging healthy eating, to the use of car seat belts. Governments, international organisations, and public bodies use social marketing to shape our ways of thinking and doing. Given the prevailing inequality gaps, Indigenous peoples are often the target of the varied legislative interventions, policies as well as social marketing campaigns.

The latest study into the social marketing campaigns targeting Indigenous peoples reveals that the identified campaigns were carried out in a diverse range of contexts, but mostly focusing on social issues relating to improving health of Indigenous populations. Yet again, the issue of lack of inclusiveness or limited opportunities for the Indigenous population to fully engage with and participate in the development and implementation of these interventions was identified as a pressing issue requiring greater attention by social marketers and governmental or public bodies that invest considerable amounts of public funding in these programmes.

“The time has come for the principle of ‘nothing about me without me’ to be actioned upon. Equality denotes not only the lack of discrimination but also, in practical terms, availability of choice.”

The way forward

Giving voice to Indigenous peoples and their ways of knowing (including Indigenous methodologies) is not necessary only in relation to political recognition but also to social recognition, which affects the everyday decision-making that adds up to the totality of the fabric of the society.

The time has come for the principle of ‘nothing about me without me’ to be actioned upon. Equality denotes not only the lack of discrimination but also, in practical terms, availability of choice. Yet, for choices to be truly exercisable by individuals, it requires lifting the political, social, and economic constraints that impact on individual action.

We need to re-conceptualise the way we think about ‘equality’. The treacherous experience in Australia, and elsewhere for that matter, with Indigenous affairs shows that offering ‘welfare’ is not the same as ‘empowerment’ and creating opportunities for one to be able to exercise their agency. Leaving anyone behind means that the equality route is not travelled at all.

Featured image credit: Australia Aboriginal Culture 002 by Steve Evans. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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