Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

First Nations communities continue to be left behind



In season and out of season, in these times of COVID-19 emergency as well as when they were first written, the words of dual Miles Franklin award author Rodney Hall OAM remain true: ‘That our overseas image is so deeply dependent on the people we oppress is the deepest shame to us all.’

Main image: No Nulcear SA protest (Dr Jim Green)

During the crisis that sweeps over us all, there has been a strong implicit admission by government that the health and wellbeing of the First Nations people in Australia has been long disregarded; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the only group listed as vulnerable over the age of just 50 — a full two decades below that of the general population so listed.

On the other hand, while there have been literally billions of dollars allocated to the crisis in general and to very many organisations, it is astounding that the most vulnerable group of all remains at the bottom of the pile. First Nations people themselves and their allies remain nonplussed at the clear lack of resources allocated to First Nations people. No one left behind? The facts suggest otherwise.

Who else in our nation is living in housing with another 26 or so people?

This huge, rarely mentioned and ongoing deeply shameful situation regarding the health and housing of First Nations people comes into sharp relief by the present crisis.

The searing shame of the Coalition’s Northern Territory 2007 Intervention and its aftermath by Labor’s terrible ten-year extension has seen, despite elaborate promises, little benefit in housing. 13 years on overcrowding is rampant in NT's 72 remote Aboriginal communities and 500 homelands, leading to grave fears in the present crisis.


Pat Turner CE of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) grimly summarises, ‘If coronavirus gets into our communities, we are gone.’


My article in Eureka Street, 'Funding cut signals the destruction of Aboriginal life in Australia' was published back in April 2015. Many articles and other reports in Eureka Street and other publications have revealed the scandalous situation of funding cuts over past decades including under the immediate past Minister for Indigenous Affairs in his six-year tenure to May 2019. It would be tedious to recite the many continuing allocations of funds to non-Aboriginal organisations rather than direct to Aboriginal communities. A shameful zenith was reached with allocations to organisations that were actually opposing Aboriginal claims.

As a result of course First Nations leaders/health authorities are deeply concerned about the impact an outbreak of COVID-19 would have because of high rates of chronic disease in Indigenous communities and the difficulty of isolating people who live in overcrowded housing.

In SA, the state government and NGOs are currently making commendable moves within the capital. Much is being done to transfer Aboriginal people from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands living rough in the Adelaide CBD, or in overcrowded housing, to safer, staffed campsites in the Adelaide Hills.

However, the situation for Anangu in the APY Lands themselves remains in grave contrast. As in NT communities, overcrowding is rife. Homelands which could be the saviour of the people in the present situation have, by the funding cuts outlined above, become mostly unliveable, forcing people back into the already overcrowded, very run down Aboriginal housing in the various settlements. Obviously physical distancing, sufficient hand washing and other advised precautionary measures are impossible. People are fearful. Elders have been asking for evacuation to Adelaide for weeks with so far no response.

During the Spanish Flu of 1919, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families accounted for 30 per cent of the death toll in Queensland. A hundred years later as Pat Turner CE of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) grimly summarises, ‘If coronavirus gets into our communities, we’re are gone.’

As well as their own real fears for their health in the COVID-19 pandemic as documented in their recent submission (number 25) to the Senate Standing Economics Legislation Committee of Inquiry the Barngarla peoples of South Australia’s Eyre Peninisula are being forced to counter attempts to further their dispossession in new schemes by federal government. The Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Committee (BDAC) plead with the federal government to delay the current procedures so that the public hearings regarding the site of the federal nuclear waste facility in the Kimba region may take place ‘on Country’ rather than by teleconference, which would greatly disadvantage their cause.

Even more seriously, the BDAC submission (among others) denounces the purposeful strategy by the Resources Minister in refusing to make a formal declaration. Instead, the Minister made ‘a policy decision’ in naming the chosen site of Napandee, having ‘presented it as a declaration’.

BDAC points out, ‘The Government is now seeking to legislate directly, as an indirect but very effective means to prevent judicial oversight.’ That is, the Minister is seeking to change the current legislation of the National Radioactive Waste Management Act so that Parliament itself will ‘select’ Napandee as the site and thereby stopping any judicial oversight of anything untoward in the long administrative process to date.

As the BDAC submission summarises, ‘This is highly concerning to the Barngarla people as it should be to all Australians.’

In the last few days, the federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has written a report critical of the treatment of Barngarla Traditional Owners. It is a unanimous report, endorsed by Coalition members of the Committee.

And there we have it. As Aboriginal communities still await the needed funding to ensure their survival during this pandemic, the wheels of another government ministry are confidently seeking to further dispossess and disempower by such proposed legislation. Shameful indeed.



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent over 40 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: No Nulcear SA protest (Dr Jim Green)

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, COVID-19, Aboriginal Australians, First Nations, health, housing



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Michele Madigan. I am convinced that the unstated but obvious policy of the Australian Government (whichever party is in power) is slow genocide of the First Nations people of this land. It is not a new policy. I have seen it in operation now for more than 70 years. It is hard to know what any of us can do to change this.

Janet | 22 April 2020  

I always read your articles Michele. They disturb me and prod my conscience.

Steve Sinn | 22 April 2020  

You present with great clarity the dire situation facing Aboriginal people. The Government's neglect of their plight and its refusal to allow self-determination around critical issues is a deep shame. Gen

Genevieve Ryan | 23 April 2020  

Again, Michele Madigan examines Australian government's political manipulations in regard to the well-being of our First Nations people. And, once again, she finds them not just wanting, but downright duplicitous. Let's not just give up,and let Matt Canavan and those other government puppets of the nuclear industry get away with this. There are 102 submissions now published, to that Senate Inquiry - 74 opposing the Napandee nuclear waste dump, 19 in favour, remainder neutral. 47 of those opposing select indigenous rights as their main consideration. https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Economics/RadioactiveWaste/Submissions

Noel Wauchope | 23 April 2020  

Well done Sr Pat. This is so well written and very timely. You point to shameful matters.

Marie Bourke | 25 April 2020  

Use your numbers. 30% of the Northern Territory’s population is Aborigine. A fair proportion of those must be entitled to vote. There are only twenty five seats in the Legislature, with electorates so small, around 5000, that votes-catching is very personal, and there may be native under-enrolment: https://apo.org.au/node/271916. Get out the vote, maybe even channel it through an Aborigine party that does what the Country Party used to do, wag the Liberal (or Labor) party dog, rather than dilute its potency through the major parties. Encourage Aboriginal internal migration into seats that can be captured by the new party. Run some ‘math’, community-organise and go for it.

roy chen yee | 02 May 2020  

Any better future - for us as well as Aboriginal Australia - requires that we introduce some truly ground-breaking radical social and economic reforms to meet the severe pressures of a late Limits-to-Growth world suffering collapse of a (brutal and exploitative) international order and Damaging Climate Change. Our society is suffering increasing stresses that the politicians owned by transnational capitalism are anxious to ignore. Betterment needs to be done in consultation with the Aboriginal groups affected, carried out by an ATSIC with more extensive powers, assisted by an independent, apolitical public service – one actually listening to its current victims. Any true balance requires that work, and income, and funding, be made to serve social interests. In remote areas, work may be expected to fit in with culture. How is an Aboriginal CDEP worker collecting rubbish doing a less “real” job than the industry of superannuation industry financial advisers whose main aim is to screw their clients? Politicians as a group have however long shown a disgraceful neglect of their proper role, which is to make a progressive and bipartisan effort to minimise such social conflicts. That costs us all.

R. Ambrose Raven | 16 May 2020  

Wow! This could be one particular of the most useful blogs We've ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Wonderful. I'm also a specialist in this topic therefore I can understand your hard work.

Caffyn | 02 June 2020  

Similar Articles

We need to go beyond Australians First thinking

  • John Warhurst
  • 28 April 2020

We have done a lot right as a nation during the pandemic, but on the whole we have not treated foreigners as well as we might have. The inequality of treatment has been in evidence during the twin health and economic crises brought on by COVID-19.


Remember to be kind to yourself, too

  • Marnie Vinall
  • 28 April 2020

The notion that we’re stronger together and we all just need to be kind to each other is reinforced by our leaders, from celebrities and public figures, and broadcast widely across social media. Yet something is missing from this encouraging messaging set to keep our spirits up and that’s the need to offer kindness within, too.