• Indigenous peoples in Australia

    Indigenous peoples in Australia

    The Aboriginal population in Australia is estimated to 745,000 individuals or 3 per cent of the total population of 24,220,200.
  • Peoples

    The Aboriginal population in Australia is estimated to 745,000 individuals or 3 per cent of the total population of 24,220,200.
  • Rights

    Australia has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169, but although it voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, it went on to endorse it in 2009
  • Current state

    The health situation is particularly alarming. The gap in mortality rates remains 1.7 times higher for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders than for non-indigenous people (2009-2013).

The Indigenous World 2021: Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 3.3% of the nation’s population. Geographically, 62% of the Indigenous population live outside of Australia’s major cities, including 12% in areas classified as very remote. The median age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is 23 compared to 38 for the non-indigenous population.[1] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are vastly overrepresented in the Australian criminal justice system, with 2,481 prisoners per 100,000 Indigenous people—15 times greater than for the non-indigenous population.[2]

Official government targets set for 2018 in 2008 to halve the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians as regards child mortality, employment, and reading and numeracy, as well as closing the gap in school attendance, were not met this year. The target to close the gap in life expectancy by 2031 is not on track.[3] The government has established 16 new targets under a new agreement to close the gap.

There are approximately 3,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations registered under the federal Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act), including 186 registered native title land-holding bodies.[4]

There is currently no reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the national Constitution although the movement towards constitutional recognition has intensified.

The impact of COVID-19

Owing to the unique health challenges faced on a day-to-day basis by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, they are at a higher risk of morbidity and mortality during a pandemic. Consequently, COVID-19 created some particular challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, one of the real success stories to come out of 2020 was the effectiveness with which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) managed the impacts of the pandemic.

As of 13 December 2020, a total of 28,031 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Australia. This included 25,473 recovered cases and, unfortunately, 908 deaths. As of 13 December 2020, there have been 147 cases reported among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The strength of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander response from communities, ACCHOs and everyone involved can clearly be seen in these numbers. The number of cases among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is six times lower than it would have been had the population been affected at the same rate as the rest of Australia.[5]

The success of the COVID-19 response is due to the role of the Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Sector. This was able to deliver culturally-appropriate solutions, demonstrating the importance and effectiveness of community control and self-determination. In the Australian state of Victoria, which has been hardest hit by the pandemic, ACCHOs quickly moved to deliver a range of support measures. Budja Aboriginal Cooperative provided COVID-19 testing in people’s homes because many people were struggling to access clinics during isolation. Other organisations, including Wathaurong Aboriginal Cooperative and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, set up local partnerships with nearby foodbanks and cafés to ensure people had the supplies they needed. Many ACCHOs also delivered written information to the homes of community members’ who do not have access to the Internet while Kirrae Health Service delivered iPads to people.[6]

The effective use of a wide range of communication mediums was key to the success of ACCHOs across Australia. The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of New South Wales distributed resources promoting COVID‐19 prevention via their website,[7] Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram accounts. In addition, they created the Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Service Pandemic Response Tool Kit,[8] which was distributed through similar channels. Apunipima, a Cape York ACCHO in Queensland communicated via platforms including TikTok, and by distributing printed resources. As early on as 6 March 2020, Apunipima was distributing simple, evidence-based prevention messages about handwashing, followed by infographics and short localised video updates.[9]


Cultural heritage – destruction of the Juukan Gorge site

On 24 May 2020, the mining company Rio Tinto conducted a blast as part of its extension of the Brockman 4 iron ore mine. The blast destroyed Aboriginal Heritage sites at Juukan Gorge, including two rock shelters of great cultural, ethnographic and archaeological significance.[10] One of these shelters had provided evidence of continuous occupation by Aboriginal people going back some 46,000 years, making it a site of national and international significance. For the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples, however, it was something even worse—the theft of a vital part of their living culture. Their grief at the loss is indescribable.

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge sites gave rise to widespread condemnation of Rio Tinto’s actions. However, Rio Tinto were legally authorised to destroy the rock shelters under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) (the Act), the principal legislation affording protection to Aboriginal Heritage in Western Australia. Under the Act, significant power is given to the Minister to authorise destruction of a site, and to provide immunity from committing an offence under the Act. Yet despite the power vested in the hands of the Minister, there are some requirements under the Act to consult with and gain the consent of the Aboriginal people affected by the decisions made.[11]

In September 2020, the Western Australian government released a draft version of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 (WA) for public consultation. The draft Bill seeks to establish a new approach to protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage in Western Australia and to how Aboriginal cultural heritage is identified, managed and conserved. The Bill does have improved procedures; however, it still contains a Ministerial override “in the interests of the State”. Significant concerns have been raised over this by Aboriginal groups in Western Australia.[12] The PKKP Peoples argue that, in its current form, the new Bill:

still positions Aboriginal cultural heritage, heritage that Traditional Owners have serious responsibilities to protect, as being somehow owned by the State of Western Australia and something that a Minister of the State has the power to make decisions over… Although this Bill does set out a process for the involvement of Aboriginal people in the management and protection of Aboriginal heritage, the ultimate power still rests with the Minister to make decisions about the destruction of sites.[13]

Closing the gap – A new National Agreement

On 12 February 2020, the Australian Prime Minister tabled the 12th Closing the Gap Report before the Australian Parliament. Two of the seven targets were on track to be achieved: the target to have 95% of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025, and the target to halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 in Year 12 attainment or equivalent by 2020. Unfortunately, four targets expired in 2020 without being met:


  • halve the gap in child mortality rates;
  • halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy;
  • close the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous school attendance; and
  • halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

The headline Closing the Gap target – to close the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous Australians by 2031 – is not on track.

The 2020 edition of The Indigenous World discussed the decision to refresh Australia’s Closing the Gap targets in 2019, noting the slow progress being made towards achieving the original targets set in 2009.[14] On 30 July 2020, the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap was released. Under the new agreement, four priority reform areas have been established that focus on changing the way in which governments throughout Australia work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These reforms are intended to:


  • strengthen and establish formal partnerships and shared decision-making;
  • build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector;
  • transform government organisations so they work better for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and
  • improve and share access to data and information to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to make informed decisions.

In addition, the new National Agreement has established 16 new Closing the Gap targets across the following outcome areas: education, employment, health and wellbeing, justice, safety, housing, land and waters, and languages. In a departure from the previous Closing the Gap agreement, the new National Agreement has established joint accountability across the Commonwealth Government, state and territory governments, local governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. Reviews of progress against targets and the National Agreement will be led every three years by the Australian Productivity Commission, as well as independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led reviews within 12 months of each independent review by the Productivity Commission.

Black Lives Matter and Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989, 99 Aboriginal people died in custody. Following a widespread community outcry, including a representation to the United Nations by Helen Corbett of the National Committee to Defend Black Rights, the Australian government established a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987.[15] The Royal Commission made 339 recommendations to the government. By 2018, however, only 64% of these recommendations had been implemented in full.[16]

Since the 1991 report of the Royal Commission, the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody has remained significant. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to be overrepresented in the justice system with high death rates. As of December 2020, there had been at least 441 deaths of Aboriginal peoples in custody without anyone being convicted for these deaths, an increase of 345% in 30 years. Justice is urgently needed along with accountability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives.[17]

Black Lives Matter rallies were held across Australia following the American rallies over the death of George Floyd. Tens of thousands of people rallied across Australia to call for an end to Indigenous deaths in custody, the abuse caused by historical policies, unjustifiable behaviour and ignorance, and to call out racial inequality.[18]

The Black Lives Matter movement in Australia has supported increased awareness of the racism faced by Indigenous Australians.[19] The 2020 Australian Reconciliation Barometer[20] notes that 60% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents agree that Australia is a racist country, up from 51% in 2018. In addition, 43% of the non-indigenous community agree that Australia is a racist country, up from 38% in 2018. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have also reported being more likely to have experienced racial discrimination from institutions in the last 12 months, with racist interactions with police at 30% compared to 16% in 2018.[21]


The Australian bushfires of 2019-2020 were catastrophic. They were the worst bushfires in Australian history, with up to 19 million hectares burnt. Thirty-three (33) people lost their lives, over 3,000 homes were destroyed, and an estimated 1.25 billion animals were killed.[22]

Fire for Aboriginal peoples is an important symbol of great spiritual meaning. Aboriginal peoples have used fire for tens of thousands of years to manage their lands, and for warmth, hunting and cooking. Aboriginal traditional fire management is often called “cultural burning” and utilises low-intensity fires that are both quick and cool. Cultural burning has many benefits, including saving the flora and fauna, being self-extinguishing and avoiding the need for chemical weed killers.[23]

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (2020) was established in response to the extreme bushfire season of 2019-2020. The report recommended that Australian, state, territory and local governments should engage further with Aboriginal Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience and should explore further opportunities to leverage Indigenous land and fire management insights in the development, planning and execution of public land management activities.[24]


Cultural achievements

Founded in 1921, the Archibald Prize is one of Australia’s most prestigious art awards and is awarded annually for the best portrait “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia”. In 2020, the Archibald Prize was won by Vincent Namatjira OAM, a Western Arrernte artist, for his painting Stand strong for who you are. The grandson of one of Australia’s most iconic Aboriginal artists, Albert Namatjira, Vincent Namatjira is the first Aboriginal artist to win the Archibald Prize.[25] The painting shows Vincent standing alongside Australian Rules Football great Adam Goodes, whom Vincent contacted after hearing about the racism Adam Goodes had experienced in the sport. Vincent stated:


[Adam and I] share some similar stories and experiences – of disconnection from culture, language and Country, and the constant pressures of being an Aboriginal man in this country. We’ve also both got young daughters and don’t want them to have to go through those same experiences.[26]

On 10 December 2020, Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch became the first Aboriginal author to win both of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes – the Miles Franklin Literary Award in July 2020 and the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction in December. The Miles Franklin Award is awarded each year to a novel that is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.[27] Her latest novel, The Yield, is her third and also won a number of other awards during the year. The Yield explores the legacies of colonial violence, shame, intergenerational trauma and environmental destruction. Winch celebrates and amplifies the contemporary resurgence and relevance of the Wiradjuri language.[28]


Iain Gately trained as an archaeologist and worked with traditional owners in the Pilbara to protect and record their cultural heritage before transferring to the public sector to work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy. He has been involved in a number of audits and evaluations of significant government programs that target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Iain is a strong believer in the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as an integral part of the Australian story.


Belinda Kendall is a Worimi, Barkindji, Wailwan and Wiradjuri woman from NSW and is a Director of Aboriginal enterprise Curijo Pty Ltd. Belinda’s studies and employment have primarily been in the human and community services, and the child, family and adult education sector, with her passion being to improve the lives of and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all Australians through leadership and healing.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here

Notes and references

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics. “Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.” June 2016. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples/estimates-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-australians/latest-release#:~:text=The%20final%20estimated%20resident%20Aboriginal,of%20the%20total%20Australian%20popul

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics. “Prisoners in Australia.” 2020. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/prisoners-australia/latest-release

[3] Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. “Closing the Gap Report 2019.” 2019 6-10.


[4] Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. “Annual Report 2017-18.” 2018. https://www.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/annual_reports/2018-19-HTML/index.html

[5]National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19, 14 December 2020.” 16 December 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.naccho.org.au/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-advisory-group-on-covid-19-14-december-2020/

[6]Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. “VACCHO, our Members, and the State Government work together in creative and responsive ways to protect the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal Victorians.” 14 September 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.vaccho.org.au/news-media/mr/covid19-partnership/

[7] Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council Of NSW. “COVID-19 Outbreak.” 2020. https://www.ahmrc.org.au/coronavirus/

[8] Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council of NSW. “Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services Pandemic Response Toolkit: Preparing a Comprehensive Plan and Response to Pandemics.” March,2020. https://n8p4t5m5.stackpathcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/AHMRC_Pandemic-Toolkit_Final_March-2020-v5.0.pdf

[9]Finlay, Summer and Mark Wenitong. “Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations are taking a leading role in COVID‐19 health communication.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 44, 4 (2020): 251-252 https://doi.org/10.1111/1753-6405.13010

[10] Wahlquist, Calla. "Rio Tinto Blasts 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site to Expand Iron Ore Mine". The Guardian, 26 May 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/may/26/rio-tinto-blasts-46000-year-old-aboriginal-site-to-expand-iron-ore-mine

[11]Southalan, John. “Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia: Submission 130 to Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia.” Parliament of Australia, 1 October 2020. https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/publications/inquiry-into-the-destruction-of-46000-year-old-caves-at-the-juuka

[12]Knowles, Rachael. “Over 60 per cent of stakeholders oppose new WA cultural heritage bill.” National Indigenous Times, 20 November 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://nit.com.au/over-60-per-cent-of-stakeholders-oppose-new-wa-cultural-heritage-bill/


[14] Gately, Iain, and Belinda Kendall. “Australia.” In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 598-605. IWGIA, 2020. http://iwgia.org/images/yearbook/2020/IWGIA_The_Indigenous_World_2020.pdf

[15]Marchetti, Elena. “Critical Reflections upon Australia's Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.” Macquarie Journal of Law, 5 (2005): 103-125.

[16]Deloitte Access Economics. “Review of the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. “Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra, 2018. https://www.niaa.gov.au/resource-centre/indigenous-affairs/review-implementation-royal-commission-aboriginal-deaths-custody

[17]National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service. “Black Lives Matter.” 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.natsils.org.au/blm/

[18]ABC Behind the News. “Australian Black Lives Matter.” 16 June 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/btn/classroom/australian-black-lives-matter

[19]Jenkins, Keira. “Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness & understanding of racism in Australia.” NITV, 30 November 2020, Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2020/11/30/black-lives-matter-movement-has-raised-awareness-understanding-racism-australia

[20]The Australian Reconciliation Barometer is the only survey conducted in Australia that measures progress in reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-indigenous Australians. It is a biennial, national research study undertaken by Reconciliation Australia since 2008. It maps Australia’s progress towards the five dimensions of reconciliation – race relations, equality and equity, unity, institutional integrity and historical acceptance.

[21]Reconciliation Australia, Australian Reconciliation Barometer Report, 2020, Reconciliation Australia, Canberra.

[22]World Wide Fund for Nature. “Emergency response to the Australian bushfires.” 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.wwf.org.au/what-we-do/bushfires#gs.oo1del  

[23]Creative Spirits. “Cool burns: Key to Aboriginal fire management.” 2 January 2021. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/aboriginal-fire-management

[24]Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. “Report October 2020.” 28 October 2020. https://naturaldisaster.royalcommission.gov.au/

[25]Ocula. “Vincent Namatjira.” 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://ocula.com/artists/vincent-namatjira/

[26]Art Gallery of New South Wales. “Winner: Archibald Prize 2020.” Accessed 17 January 2021.


[27] Perpetual. “Miles Franklin Literary Award.” 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.perpetual.com.au/milesfranklin

[28]Perpetual. “Tara Junes Winch’s The Yield Wins the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award.” 15 July 2020. Accessed 17 January 2021. https://www.perpetual.com.au/insights/tara-june-winchs--sp-the-yield-wins-the-2020-miles-franklin-literary-award



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand