It is an indictment of Australian capitalism that, more than 230 years since the British Empire’s invasion of this continent and the consequent dispossession and widespread massacres of the original inhabitants, most Indigenous people remain confined to the very bottom of the social pile.
Despite all the talk about closing the gap, the lives of Indigenous people are not getting better. There has been little improvement in the almost 50 years that have passed since the 1975 Henderson report into poverty. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain the most socially and economically deprived and marginalised section of the Australian working class, and continue to face appalling oppression and deep-rooted discrimination.
On virtually every measure—employment, income, health, life expectancy, education, homelessness, savings, imprisonment rates, home ownership and quality of housing—Indigenous people are much worse off than the mass of the population.
Let’s start with incomes. The 2021 census starkly reveals that the median weekly household income for Indigenous adults was $825, compared with $1,141 for non-Indigenous adults. In the Northern Territory, Indigenous adults received less than a third of the amount of non-Indigenous adults (an appallingly low $465, compared to $1,485).
The proportion of Indigenous adults living in households with an income in the lower half of the income distribution declined by only a meagre 2 percent, from 69 percent in 2011 to 67 percent in 2021. Indigenous Australians are vastly over-represented in the lower household income categories, 35 percent of Indigenous adults living in households in the bottom 20 percent of incomes.
About 30 percent of Indigenous households live in poverty; more than 120,000 Indigenous people live below the poverty line. One consequence of this is that, in New South Wales, Indigenous people account for 6 percent of the entire homeless population.
Indigenous children have the highest rates of poverty of any group in Australia. Half live in families with incomes below the poverty line, compared with 18 percent of non-Indigenous children.
In 2008, federal, state and territory governments set the goal of halving the employment gap between Indigenous people and other Australians within a decade. That required, by 2018, lifting the employment rate for Indigenous people from 48 percent to 60 percent (the rate for other Australians being 72 percent). But at the time of the 2021 census, there had been barely any improvement—the Indigenous employment rate was still only 51 percent, while that for other Australians was 74 percent.
The 2021 census also revealed the unemployment rate for Indigenous people was 12 percent, more than double the overall rate. For those living in remote and very remote areas, it is markedly worse, with unemployment rates between 15 and 25 percent. This dire situation in part is due to the federal government’s cancellation in 2021 of the Community Development Program, which threw thousands of Indigenous people in remote areas on to the unemployed scrap heap.
Even for Indigenous people living in the major cities, the unemployment rate is still double that of other workers, and it is even worse in areas like western Sydney, where many Indigenous people live.
While over the last quarter of a century a small Indigenous middle class of managers, small business owners, government bureaucrats and well-paid lawyers and other professionals has emerged, Indigenous people who work are still much more likely to be in poorly paid labouring jobs (18.1 percent compared to 11.8 percent of the total population) and in other lower paid blue-collar, sales assistant and clerical jobs than as professionals (14.2 percent compared to 24.7 percent) or managers (8.3 percent compared to 13.7 percent)
Most poverty in Australia is so-called relative poverty, but some Indigenous communities face absolute poverty, which results in high infant mortality rates and severe malnutrition. This is particularly the case in a number of remote communities, which have totally inadequate infrastructure and health provisions and are blighted by diseases that are largely eradicated in the rest of the country.
Approximately 50 percent of Indigenous adults are reliant on some form of welfare payment. Sole parents are particularly vulnerable to poverty, and a relatively high proportion depend on the Parenting Payment—more than 15 percent of young Indigenous women compared with around 4 percent of non-Indigenous women.
Indigenous people suffer ill health and disability at greater rates than non-Indigenous people. This leads to life expectancy being around eight years less than that for non-Indigenous people. Ill health limits work opportunities and places a significant burden on the individuals and communities that care for the sick and disabled, especially where support services are inadequate or non-existent.
Families relying on public or private rentals are much more vulnerable to poverty. Nearly 60 percent of Indigenous people are housed in some form of rental property, compared to about 30 percent of the total population, and the housing is commonly of poor quality. Conditions are worse for those living in camps on the outskirts of places like Alice Springs.
Indigenous people are much more likely to experience overcrowding or homelessness. Crisis support accommodation for Indigenous women and children escaping family violence is totally inadequate.
Indigenous people are also greatly disadvantaged in the education system. Poverty is a major factor impeding access to quality learning experiences. Indigenous people typically experience rates of school attendance, achievement, retention and completion well below those of the general population. In turn, this contributes to higher unemployment, lower family incomes and a higher incidence of poverty.
Almost half of Indigenous people (49 percent) do not have a qualification beyond secondary education, compared with 31 percent of other Australians. About 12 percent of Indigenous people attain university qualifications of a bachelor’s degree or above, compared with about 37 percent of other Australians.
For the 6.7 percent of Indigenous people who leave school before year 10, the unemployment rate is more than 25 percent. For those with no qualification beyond secondary school, the rate is 16.7 per cent.
Indigenous people are more likely to suffer reduced quality of life due to ill health, to experience disability and to die at younger ages than the non-Indigenous population. Poorer employment opportunities, education and housing have a decisive impact on health outcomes. Health risk factors (for example, smoking, alcohol misuse) and other risk factors (for example, poor housing, exposure to violence) are much worse for Indigenous people.
The effects of poverty begin at birth. Babies born to Indigenous mothers are much more likely to be of low birth weight compared with non-Indigenous mothers; and Indigenous infant mortality is double that of non-Indigenous infants. Indigenous children have high rates of illness, greater risk of injuries resulting from accidents, higher risk of asthma and lower developmental achievement.
To make things even worse, Indigenous people experience much lower levels of access to health services than the general population, even though they are twice as likely to be hospitalised.
The Indigenous imprisonment rate is more than 12 times that of the rest of the population—2,470 persons per 100,000 compared to an overall imprisonment rate of 206 per 100,000. In New South Wales alone, where Indigenous people make up slightly less than 4 percent of the population according to the state’s Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, they accounted for a record 29.7 percent of the state’s adult prison population in February 2023.
The situation is only getting worse. In Victoria, the Indigenous imprisonment rate soared by 42.1 percent between 2012 and 2022.
For Indigenous women, whom police routinely arrest when they are defending themselves in a domestic disturbance and who are at a distinct disadvantage in accessing legal support, the situation is even worse. By June 2023, the imprisonment rate for Indigenous women had surged to 15 times the rate for all women: 467 per 100,000 for Indigenous women, compared to 31 per 100,000 for all women.
Indigenous imprisonment, which is overwhelmingly for minor offences or long periods on remand awaiting a hearing, disrupts both the lives of the prisoner and that of their family. It compounds poverty and increases the risk of family breakdown, violence, homelessness and addiction.
Poverty—the lack of money, jobs, inadequate housing and lack of proper health provisions—combined with the inter-generational trauma caused by dispossession and the attempted destruction of Indigenous culture—leads to the breakdown of personal and social relations, chronic mental health and addiction problems, domestic violence and high rates of incarceration. This is the “division on the basis of race” that plagues Australian society, not the proposal to increase token Indigenous representation to the parliament that is responsible for myriad policies that reinforce Indigenous disadvantage.
This situation is not going to change, let alone be overcome, without a massive struggle by both Indigenous people and the mass of the rest of the working class. And while it is vital to fight for specific reforms to improve the lives of Indigenous people, such as improved job opportunities, an expansion of public housing, improved services and health provision in remote communities and basic measures to prevent deaths in custody, the lack of any significant progress in closing the gap over the past 25 years highlights the fact that a few changes around the edges are not going to be anywhere near enough.
Much more fundamental change in the way Australian society as a whole functions will be necessary to eliminate Indigenous oppression. This is not going to happen within the confines of the profit-driven capitalist system. The ruling class and their supporters in all the major parties are simply not going to invest the money and resources needed to improve a health system that fails to meet the needs of the mass of the working class, let alone those of Indigenous people, or engage in the massive expansion of public housing needed to resolve the housing crisis or pay workers adequate wages or boost the child care and aged care systems.
Nor are the bosses going to be prepared to seriously curb the police, let alone defund the prison system, as this repressive state apparatus is vital not just for persecuting Indigenous people but also for keeping the mass of the exploited in their place and protecting the rulers’ capital and investments.
The reality is that the whole existing order needs to be uprooted in a revolutionary struggle. What’s needed is a socialist society that puts human needs above corporate profits and allows Indigenous people to achieve genuine control over their lives. That makes it a vital task to build a movement that unites all of the exploited and oppressed in a class war against the rich and powerful.