Comment: The silent emergency

Australian elections are notoriously silent on Indigenous issues, argues Associate Professor Sarah Maddison, who has called for past election promises to be honoured.

There will be one issue ' and one portfolio ' about which we will hear next to nothing in this election campaign. Australian elections are notoriously silent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concerns. As a tiny portion of the Australian population (only around 2.5 percent), Indigenous peoples in Australia are not usually a focus of either major party.

Indigenous issues are also seen as politically risky, tapping into a deep vein of complex feeling among voters about our colonial past and the disadvantage experienced by many Indigenous people in Australia today. As a general rule, the voting public seems to neither notice nor care about this campaign silence.

The 2007 election was something of an anomaly in this regard. In June of that year John Howard announced his government's 'emergency response' to the issue of child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory, complete with a raft of extraordinary policy interventions requiring the suspension of the federal Racial Discrimination Act. Critics at the time suggested that this radical policy, from a prime minister not noted for his concern for Indigenous affairs, was little more than a cynical election ploy ' a so-called 'black children overboard' designed to distract the voting public from the government's general unpopularity.

But if the Northern Territory intervention was designed as an election wedge issue, however, the ALP wasn't playing. The then opposition supported the policy in its entirety, and since winning government in November 2007 Labor has continued the interventionist approach in the face of mounting domestic and international criticism. Indeed, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin seems committed to the NT intervention with an unfathomable zealotry.

Yet, despite the fact that controversy over this policy has burbled away uninterrupted since 2007, there will not be any debate on this issue in this election campaign. Both sides of politics are in complete accord on Indigenous affairs, and both believe there are no votes in black politics.

Thus far in the campaign the only policy 'initiatives' that have been announced come from unexpected sources and are unlikely to attract any serious attention. Who could have predicted that Rod Evans, a candidate for Pauline Hanson's former party, One Nation, would be calling for reserved seats for Indigenous people in the federal parliament?

And who would believe that controversial National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce would decide to use the election campaign to call for a 'tax holiday' for Indigenous people in regional areas in order to stimulate employment and investment? Joyce's call was quickly dismissed by Tony Abbott's office, which declared it 'not policy'.

What is interesting to note during the general campaign silence on Indigenous affairs is the extent to which this differs from the constant 'white noise' the rest of the time. Rarely a day goes by in Australia where Indigenous issues are not subject to media scrutiny and public debate. Except, it would seem, during an election campaign.

I have just returned from a Churchill Fellowship-funded trip to Canada and the United States where I examined Indigenous representative organisations. One striking difference in North America is the extent to which Native American and Canadian Aboriginal affairs go under the radar. Unlike in Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues remain a constant 'hot button', in Canada and the US Indigenous affairs are rarely, if ever, front page news.

Of course, the other difference in North America is that Indigenous peoples have a stronger legal foundation upon which to base their relationships with government. Whether it be constitutional recognition in Canada or a range of treaty arrangements in the United States there is a strong sense that greater legal certainty and a higher degree of autonomy are allowing native North Americans to get on with the job of improving their own lives and the lives of their children.

Impressive organisations like the National Congress of American Indians and the Assembly of First Nations are driven by strong tribal agendas, recognised by government, and are working from the principle that self-government is the only way forward for Indigenous peoples.

While not being front page news native North Americans are quietly getting on with the job of managing and improving their own lives.

In light of these observations I returned to Australia last week to an election campaign in which Indigenous concerns will barely rate a mention.

This is a great shame. The other important commitment made by both our previous prime ministers in the lead up to the 2007 election was to work towards the constitutional recognition of Australia's Indigenous peoples. It is time we saw that commitment honoured.

Associate Professor Sarah Maddison is the research director of UNSW's Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

A version of this opinion piece was published in the Canberra Times.