One of the striking findings of Australia’s 2021 census, is the growth in the indigenous population. In the five years since the last one, the number of people identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has increased by 162,800 to 812,728. That is a staggering 264,328 more than recorded in the 2011 census. In other words, in just one decade, the indigenous population has exploded by 48.2 per cent, more than three times the rate of growth of the population as a whole. If true, this would take the Aboriginal share of the population from 2.5 per cent to 3.2 per cent.
But is it true? It certainly isn’t the result of natural increase. Indigenous women may have 12 children more per 1,000 than all Australian women, but that doesn’t account for the anomaly.
Because each census is conducted in anonymity and under strict privacy laws, it is impossible to know how many indigenous people have previously hidden their ancestry or, the number of non-Aborigines who engage in ‘race shifting’. But, as whiteness continues to be devalued and, as guilt for the dark side of colonisation gathers intellectual and political momentum, pretending to be of Aboriginal descent has become fashionable.
Michael Mansell, chair of Tasmania’s Aboriginal Land Council, has been outspoken on this and pointedly called on high profile author, Bruce Pascoe, to stop claiming Aboriginality. Pascoe has variously identified as non-Aboriginal, as a Yuin man and as being related to the Boonwurrung people. However, checks on his genealogy reveal no evidence to support his claims, and he refuses to produce documentation.
Mr Mansell’s disapproval is echoed by many prominent Aborigines. They point to a ‘growing cohort of fraudsters’ with non-indigenous background who are making dubious claims to Aboriginal heritage and are cashing in on indigenous scholarships, corporate sponsorships, top jobs and welfare benefits. All of them see race shifters as diverting attention from more meaningful forms of engagement.
They are right. Whatever the motivation, race shifting, and the popularisation and, appropriation of indigenous culture, devalues public understanding and become detrimental to Aboriginal ambitions.
Take the customary acknowledgement of traditional custodians ‘and their elders past, present and emerging’. Some Aborigines see this as ‘paternalistic’ and, ‘tokenistic’. Acknowledgement presumes a mostly absent welcome to country and undermines the very ideal of inclusivity and attachment to the land. Moreover, the concept of ‘future’ (as in ‘emerging’), has no place in Aboriginal culture where time is multidimensional and circular.
Tokenism and the misunderstanding of Aboriginal traditions of kinship, have led authors of a Tasmanian government-commissioned report to highlight:
palpable resentment, anger and frustration among many Aboriginal people about the burgeoning numbers of Tasmanians claiming Aboriginality and of allegations of government facilitation of this phenomenon.
Indeed, until 2016, the test for Aboriginality in Tasmania was stricter than that of the Commonwealth. At that time, the census counted 18,000 Tasmanian Aborigines, while the Tasmanian government recorded only 6,000. In the five years since, that number has exploded to 30,000 descendants.
The legal historian, John McCorquodale, observes that since the time of white settlement, governments have used at least 67 classifications, descriptions or definitions to determine who is an Aboriginal person.
Historically, different states have adopted different definitions. In Western Australia, the test was ‘a person with more than a quarter of Aboriginal blood’. In Victoria, it is ‘any person of Aboriginal descent’. The definition most commonly used by the Commonwealth is:
a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (or she) lives.
When consistency varies, even within jurisdictions, disputes over interpretation are inevitable. And, for many, having to prove descent is offensive. But that still doesn’t explain the census anomaly.
Inarguably, the number of people claiming indigenous status exceeds reality. Aboriginal academic Victoria Grieve-Williams says the ‘race shifting phenomenon is pervasive and well recognised by Aboriginal people…The race shifters hold the power; they stifle debate and resist scrutiny in various ways…’
Aboriginal playwright Nathan Maynard believes ‘This issue around identity is a result of the government not letting respective Aboriginal mobs determine who belongs to their communities’. ‘When we’re distracted fighting for control of our identity, we’re not fighting for our other rights like land rights and treaties.’
This is the Aboriginal dilemma. Enjoy modern day materialism or return to pre-European-settlement life.
Fortescue Mining chair Andrew Forrest says he has grown up among Aboriginal people and has seen the ‘wanton destruction of their culture and their livelihoods through welfare and royalties’.
Indeed, the evidence is in. Despite annual expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of $45,000 per person, double that on non-indigenous people, their misery abounds. And that expenditure excludes the hundreds of millions of dollars received in mining royalties and the 40 per cent of Australia now covered by native title, both exclusive and shared.
Clearly, fiddling with census data, expanding already generous budget allocations, land rights and tokenism may be good for the heart of sanctimonious elitists and rent seekers but keeping Aboriginal people set in aspic and out of the mainstream of modern society has done little to alleviate their misery.
Now elitists want to institutionalise this segregation through a constitutional ‘voice’ to parliament. This will encourage envy and more race shifting with the majority of genuine Aboriginal people seeing few tangible benefits. Moreover, they risk the commoditisation of their culture and the inevitable loss of public goodwill. The 2021 census says it all.
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