Indigenous Christians in Australia call for social justice
Indigenous Christian leaders questioned Australia’s progress on social justice as the nation celebrated NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week, July 3-10.
The event highlights indigenous people’s achievements and their contributions to Australian society.
Australian denominations officially recognised NAIDOC week. But indigenous leaders are concerned that the needs and perspectives of Aboriginal communities are not being recognised.
NAIDOC week was established in 1972, with the support of Australian church groups, as a positive counterpoint to events such as National Sorry Day that mark Australia’s mistreatment of Indigenous people.
“NAIDOC week is a time when the Church stops and recognises that Australia has the longest continuously surviving culture in the world,” said Graeme Mundine, Sydney Archdiocese’s Aboriginal Catholic Ministry’s Executive Officer and a member of the Bundjalung people.
However, Mundine said that Australia had failed to make substantial progress on social justice.
“In many ways, we’ve actually gone backwards,” he said. “People from outside [Indigenous communities] are continually coming in and pushing their own agenda. If it’s not supported by local people, it won’t work, and there won’t be any real change.”
Australia’s Aborigines continue to fall behind the general population on many indicators of wellbeing. Government statistics show that life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is 17 years lower than the general population. Only 48 per cent of Indigenous workers are employed, compared with 72 per cent for the general population.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) has called on Australia to address this inequality by consulting with Indigenous people and giving them full participation in creating and implementing solutions.
In the last decade, reconciliation has occasionally commanded national attention. In 2000, more than 300,000 people marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to show their support for reconciliation.
In 2008, Australia’s then-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, received international praise when he apologised to Aborigines for past injustices, including the removal of children from their parents.
However, Mundine said that the government had not kept its promise to restore its relationship with Aborigines.
“The apology was great and it was well-received in [indigenous] communities, but now a lot of people are saying it was just words,” he said. “The same bad policies continued after that.”
Mundine also said that, for many churches, Indigenous issues have been displaced by newer social justice challenges such as Australia’s treatment of refugees. People who come to Australia illegally are sent to detention centres and sometimes vilified.
Mundine said that non-Indigenous Australians’ hostility towards refugees stems from a lack of understanding of Australia’s history of settlement.
“Churches celebrate these days for refugees. But the biggest issue in Australia isn’t refugees; it’s reconciliation,” he said. “We never got the relationship [between Indigenous and non-indigenous people] right.”
By Matt Fenwick, Ecumenical News International