THE BLOG
05/07/2013 11:18 BST | Updated 05/07/2013 11:18 BST

Where Next for Human Rights in Australia?

Australia recently introduced new guidelines allowing intersex individuals an official legal status on personal documents. It's an important move for Australia's intersex individuals and for equality in the country, and also for transgender, gender diverse and intersex people around the world.

But in other ways Australia falls short in matters of equality.

I am of course referring to Australia's Aboriginal people. These people have a remarkable history. In 1770, when British fleets arrived in Australia with colonisation in mind, they found Aboriginals calmly sitting on the beach, ignoring the arrival of their boats. They had no words in their native tongue for 'yesterday' or 'tomorrow', indicating the lack of a concept of the past and the future. What food they came by, they did not save with the future in mind, but ate when they could. They had somehow survived in an arid land of weather extremes and countless poisonous species, yet they lived off the land without sowing seeds, making permanent shelters or attempting to cultivate the land in any way. European settlers took the opposite approach and lost many lives in numerous failed attempts to triumph over nature.

When the white man arrived in Australia, he brought with him the usual colonial diseases that pared down the number of indigenous people significantly, but also the pervading disease of racial intolerance. Scores of Aboriginals died through both unintentional and deliberate means - Aboriginal people were not even considered to be Australian citizens for a long time, and were not included in national censuses until 1967. Schools in Queensland taught that Aboriginal people were 'feral jungle creatures' as late as the 1960s. Yet these supposedly primitive people had somehow created sailable vessels at least 50,000 years before westerners were able to, navigated the seas without maps or compasses, and migrated to Australia without, presumably, even knowing it was there. (Human remains of Aboriginals that have been found in Australia have been dated as 45,000 years old.) These people made an exceptionally hostile climate their home - a climate that can still be experienced through a visit to the Australian bush, which still regularly claims lives - but their land rights were taken away from them virtually overnight, and their ancestral homes claimed as government property.

As often happens with displaced indigenous societies around the world, Aboriginal people soon lost the knowledge of their traditional communities and ways of life, and succumbed to modern problems of alcoholism, depression, gambling, drug abuse and lifestyle-related health problems. This is the toughest wrong for the Australian government to address, as there is no way of turning back time and starting again, which makes rehabilitation a must. In addition, many Australian citizens reject the need for reparation for Aboriginal people, as many of them fail to understand the history of these people and how they have come to live the way they do.

Aboriginal people have become an emblem of Australia's fight for equality.

While the Australian government has taken some measures to rehabilitate Aboriginal families into their own communities under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act and these have had significant success, only 21 per cent of Aboriginals have been aided this way. Certainly such measures do address some of the prevalent problems. Since being granted their own spaces to live in ancestral homelands reclaimed from the government and away from the highly developed cities, many Aboriginal people have taken up some of their old lost skills of hunting, fishing, foraging, communal cooking, caring for the land through controlled fires, and so on. General health in these communities has increased as Aboriginals have been given space to carve their own paths, away from the prejudices of modern Australian society and access to gambling and drugs. Levels of alcoholism, obesity, diabetes and depression have declined, and in fact some of these communities do not even allow alcohol into their midst.

There is, then, much that government can do to help reintegrate Aboriginal people into a land that was taken from them many years ago - and it is reparation that has been long owed to them. Australia also needs to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people formally, but although the process of acknowledging Aboriginals in the Australian Constitution began in May this year, some MPs are concerned that politicians keep delaying the recognition of indigenous people in Australia's founding document. In additional, resistant public opinion still needs be addressed, as incidents of racism against Aboriginal people in Australia are high. It is imperative that the government looks at providing Aboriginals with the resources they need to follow their own paths and create their own identities, and educating Australians on Aboriginal history in order to overcome the age-old 'primitive' stereotype that is attached to these people. Certainly this debate has been raging for many years, and must continue if Australia is to recognise the equal rights of all of their citizens, whether they are intersex, transgender, or indigenous. There are more than half a million Aboriginal people in Australia, and currently 21 per cent of them are able to live freely in remote areas. When will the other 79 per cent receive their slice of the equality pie?