Jon Altman

In Fair Share Judith Brett evocatively notes that Australian indigenous people for a long time occupied a space “on the edge of the nation’s consciousness.” She also notes that today 70 per cent live outside the cities and that Noel Pearson’s goal of an economic base for such communities is crucially important. Brett then effectively eschews this section of rural Australia in her analysis. This bifurcation of black and white that subjects the two populations to separate analysis is commonplace. I want to challenge such an approach.

Two things have fundamentally altered for indigenous people in the last few decades. First, with land rights and then native title, legal recognition of indigenous ancestral lands has grown rapidly. Today, 23 per cent of the continent is either under indigenous ownership or covered by successful native-title determinations. Brett notes the dual meaning of the term “country” in English: rurality as well as nation. But in recent discourse there is a third use of the word, based on continuity of Aboriginal tradition and connection. An emerging set of new Aboriginal-English idioms deployed by indigenous people, such as “caring for country” and “working on country,” takes the notion of country well beyond Brett’s dualism and has even found a place in policy parlance.

Second, indigenous people have recently come to occupy a different place in the national consciousness due to the heightened awareness of deep and troubling disadvantage, especially since the Northern Territory intervention in 2007; and then, following Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, with the commitment to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous. While social indicators show that indigenous disadvantage is everywhere, most effort and money is directed at discrete communities in remote and regional Australia. 

Brett ends Fair Share by seeking a recalibration in relations between the city and the country, with more focus given to the strengths and potential of the country. What prospects might this give indigenous communities?

The geographer John Holmes documents a transition in tropical Australia from industry and agriculture to tourism and conservation, in the form of services to preserve environmental values and biodiversity. A mapping of indigenous lands onto natural resource atlases shows that these are some of Australia’s most intact areas of high conservation value. Consequently, more and more of the indigenous estate is being included in the conservation estate through the declaration of Indigenous Protected Areas. There are currently forty-two such areas, covering 230,000 square kilometres and constituting 24 per cent of Australia’s National Reserve system. 

While there is a dominant view that remote Aboriginal Australia is dysfunctional and unproductive, community-based ranger groups spread across the indigenous estate are delivering environmental, biosecurity, coast-watch and carbon-abatement services funded by the federal government, multinational corporations and environmental philanthropists. The dominant narrative pays little heed to such contributions.

Indigenous people are members of Norforce. John Sanderson, the retired head of the Australian Army, has noted that the population presence in northern Australia is important for national defence. And while there are some who advocate for indigenous migration off the indigenous estate for employment, if we are to continue to populate the continent it makes little sense for the recent legal rejection of terra nullius to be followed by a policy goal of terra vacua – a landscape populated by no one.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, projections indicate that the indigenous population in rural Australia will grow in both absolute and relative terms and that the indigenous estate will also grow, due to indigenous land-use agreements. At the same time, the national dependence on indigenous land for mineral extraction, conservation benefit, carbon abatement and clean energy generation will escalate. So there seems to be much economic potential and need for a future recalibration of relations.

An enduring message from Fair Share is that political representation in Canberra and political alliance-building are crucial to getting a fair share. One is left to ponder: how differently might development have gone if indigenous people were afforded suffrage and reserved positions in parliament after federation, as enjoyed by Maori representatives in the New Zealand parliament since the nineteenth century? And how might our political system be reconfigured so that rural indigenous Australians acquire the voice, political leverage and associated benefits enjoyed by white rural dwellers?


Jon Altman is professor of anthropology in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. From 1990 to 2010 he was the foundation director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, and recently co-edited (with Melinda Hinkson) Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 42, Fair Share. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News.


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