Memo: we're not all sharing in the common wealth

Date: March 17 2006

Over the next two weeks, the eyes of much of the world will be on Australia and its sporting achievements. But there is another area of endeavour where our country falls way short of comparable Commonwealth nations such as Canada and New Zealand: delivering justice and equity for indigenous people in Australia.

Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, yet indigenous people still on average have lives that are 20 years shorter than those of non-indigenous people.

Indigenous people, living in more than 400 nations on this continent, who have looked after and maintained this land for more than 40,000 years, were once very wealthy. They had a rich culture, comfortable lifestyle, strong connecting beliefs and, most importantly, lots of land on which to live. Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land, and therefore their wealth, by the arrival of non-indigenous people and as a result of colonisation became and remain the single most marginalised and disadvantaged group on this continent.

Unlike New Zealand and Canada, Australia has made few inroads into the appalling state of indigenous health. Unlike both of these countries, Australia has made no treaties with the original occupants who were dispossessed of their land.

Despite the many hurdles placed in their way, indigenous people have succeeded. A number are members of the Australian Commonwealth Games team. Others are artists performing in cultural festivities associated with the Games. We congratulate these indigenous athletes and artists and applaud their achievements. But their success should not be used to gloss over the brutal reality of what most indigenous Australians have to confront on a daily basis - racism, opportunities denied and lives tragically cut short.

At this time of national celebration and international attention, we call on the Australian and Victorian governments to start the process of developing a fair and just settlement of the grievances between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. This should culminate in formal treaties between our peoples.

We also call upon governments, churches, NGOs and those in the corporate world to commit themselves to brokering genuine agreements which respect indigenous self-determination.

Only when our different histories and life circumstances are reconciled can there be genuine unity within the Australian nation.

Jill Webb, chairwoman, ANTaR Victoria; Sharan Burrow, president, Australian Council of Trade Unions; Eleanor Bourke and Diane Sisely, co-chairs, Reconciliation Victoria; Ian Wishart, national executive director, Plan; Cath Smith, CEO, VCOSS; Andrew Rowe, CEO, Victorian Local Governance Association.