The last week of the federal election campaign opened with news that Indigenous people in Western Australia’s Kimberley region are seven times more likely to take their own lives than other Australians. If ever a revelation might halt an election in its tracks, prompt politicians and the media who trail them around Australia on their set-piece campaign operations, to pause and reflect for a day – even an hour or a moment – then a disclosure of such tragic human import should, surely, have done so. But the major party caravans just bumped along, each attacking the other with fallacious claims about alleged changes to Medicare and border protection policies. While policy argument was anchored in the illusory, there was no substantive, mainstream political engagement with this real tragedy in the Kimberley. The social, political and economic indicators of Indigenous Australian wellbeing have, since the 1950s, been an acute source of international embarrassment to Australian federal and state politicians. Indeed, international opprobrium – which rightly lumped Australia’s treatment of its first people in with South Africa’s apartheid regime – were, together with the burgeoning civil rights movement, instrumental in delivering the federal vote to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 1962.
As leading suffragette and Indigenous rights campaigner Jessie Street told the United Nations in 1961: “Australia, South Africa, and the southern states of the United States seem to be the only countries where the colour bar still operates.”
The enfranchisement of Indigenous Australians coincided with a civil rights movement that had earlier vigorously fought to obtain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access to some pensions, unemployment benefits and maternity allowances.
But there is no doubt that the decision to grant Indigenous Australians the vote, state by state and then federally, was driven by assimilationist ideology – that Aboriginal people who integrated with the rest of Australia should, in theory, therefore enjoy the same civil and political rights.