The Garma Festival cultural showcase aims to address contentious political and social issues. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)
From historic parliamentary appointments, progress on treaty and constitutional recognition, to a suicide crisis, deaths in custody and alarming rates of child removal, it’s been a year of ups and downs in Indigenous affairs.
The past 12 months have seen positive progress for Indigenous Australia, with political milestones, cutting-edge performances on stage and screen, a renewed focus on reviving traditional language and history-making sporting success.
But there have also been allegations of systemic racial bias, funding cuts, a remote housing shortage and disproportionately high incarceration rates.
Ash Barty became the first Aboriginal woman to win the French Open since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1971. (AP: Michel Euler)
Historic moment in Parliament
Ken Wyatt’s appointment as Minister for Indigenous Australians brought a sense of great expectation and optimism, marking a significant and long-overdue moment in Australian political history.
The subsequent appointment of Linda Burney as shadow minister made achieving cross-party support on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues seem possible.
Mr Wyatt committed to addressing the longstanding social issues that have plagued Indigenous communities.
He identified a revision of the Closing The Gap targets, youth suicide, education as well as job and economic prosperity as his main areas of focus.
Ken Wyatt says he is committed to tackling longstanding social issues. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
In June, Mr Wyatt told the National Press Club of his plans to develop a framework for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and hold a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition within three years.
Despite urging a cautious approach, his plans for an Indigenous voice were met with considerable pushback from within his own party.
Subsequently, a senior advisory group was established to develop a structure for an alternative, in the form of a legislated Indigenous Voice to Government and options for constitutional recognition.
Co-chaired by Tom Calma and Marcia Langton, the group is made up of some of Australia’s sharpest and most respected minds.
Advocates for the Uluru Statement from the Heart have been vocal in their criticism of a legislated approach, calling for the aspirations of the historic 2017 declaration to be upheld.
The CEO of the National Community Controlled Health Organisation, Pat Turner — also a member of the Senior Advisory Group — said she understood community disappointment.
“It will more likely, under this current Government, be a legislated process which is what our people don’t want because they’ve … [seen] former federal bodies established for our benefit and then abolished, and they’ve seen a long history of that,” Ms Turner said.
As a new year approaches, she said it was important Indigenous communities remained well informed.
“I think we need to have a very open and transparent process and keep people posted on process and enable people to have a real say,” Ms Turner said.
Kumanjayi Walker, 19, was shot and killed in police custody in Yuendumu in November. (ABC News: Katrina Beavan)
Progress on treaty
A national treaty has not been on the agenda since the late 1980s, but this year several states and territories made considerable progress.
In Victoria, despite a voter turnout of only 7 per cent, the election of a First Nations Assembly was seen as a historic moment.
Treaty Advancement Commissioner Jill Gallagher said the next step was to gain the support of the broader Australia public.
“Treaty is not a scary word, no-one should fear treaties, there will be challenges but they can be overcome and it’s the right thing to do,” Ms Gallagher said.
Queensland also commenced its own discussions, with Cairns hosting the first of 26 consultation sessions in October.
Ms Turner applauded the initiative taken on a state level this year.
“I commend those governments and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who have been engaged in these processes,” she said.
If these conversations prove successful, she said it may force broader conversations nationally.
“The Commonwealth has to start thinking about, ‘Where does it fit and what is it going to do for a final acknowledgement and recognition of us taking our rightful place in our own country?'”
Jackie Huggins says the Path To Treaty process will help acknowledge past wrongs. (ABC Wide Bay: Jenae Jenkins)
The year began with shocking revelations there had been at least 35 suicide deaths of Indigenous people (in the 12 weeks to April), three of which were children aged 12.
The incidents led community leaders to urge Prime Minister Scott Morrison to declare the situation a national crisis.
The director of the National Critical Response Service, Adele Cox, said the current trends were difficult to comprehend.
“One of the things that we’re trying to get a better sense of is how do we better support our young women in communities across the country?” Ms Cox said.
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Poverty, socio-economic disadvantage, poor access to services and intergenerational trauma were all identified as contributing factors, but the diversification of each incident made developing solutions difficult.
“Every suicide is different and that’s what adds to the complexity of the issue, but we know more broadly that there are issues around the social determinants which have a great impact on people’s lives and therefore their wellbeing,” Ms Cox said.
This year also saw the release of the WA coroner’s report into the deaths of 13 young people — five aged 10 to 13 in the Kimberley region.
Coroner Ros Fognini’s findings were critical of government-run, suicide-prevention initiatives, which although well-meaning were often too mainstream to work in Indigenous communities.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar said self-determination remained imperative.
“There are too many examples of where bureaucracies and policy designers who do not understand and appreciate the complexity of the environment, the challenges, issues and strengths that Indigenous people have in order to navigate this complex space,” Dr Oscar said.
Water is life
Environmental concerns dominated the news cycle this past year, with drought and water security at the forefront.
However, little was made of the sustained impact of the ongoing water crisis on Indigenous communities who depended on their town’s waterways for cultural and practical uses.
In January, the situation facing the Murray-Darling river system made international headlines, after a massive fish kill in the Menindee Lakes region of western NSW.
Barkindji man Badger Bates is concerned about the cultural impact of a Darling River in crisis. (ABC News: Paige Cockburn)
The Darling River has been known as the Baaka by the Barkindji people for thousands of years, and Barkindji elder Uncle Badger Bates says the cultural impact of a river in crisis has been devastating local communities.
“When I was growing up, it was like a supermarket for us,” he said.
“We went there, we got everything and it really looked after us, but this is the first time that I’ve seen the Baaka in the state it is in now.”
He’s been advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have greater control over the management of their waterways.
“We’ve got to have a say in how our country should be managed, all Aboriginal people have to be entitled to cultural water.”
As the 250th anniversary of first contact approaches in 2020, reflection on the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will no doubt occur.
Whether good, bad or indifferent, Ms Turner reaffirmed the longstanding belief that Indigenous Australia knew the solutions to its own problems.
“Governments on all sides need to change the way that they work and negotiate with our people, not just come out and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a program for you’, or continue to fund non-Indigenous organisations to deliver services, when we know we can do much better than everyone else.”
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