Under the university’s new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Status Policy 2022, a draft of which was presented to students last week, applicants for identity-dependent scholarships or staff positions can no longer sign a statutory declaration to confirm they are Indigenous.
Instead, they must produce a confirmation of identity letter from a Local Aboriginal Land Council or other Indigenous community-controlled organisation, showing they meet the Commonwealth three-part identity test: that they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, identify as such, and their identity is accepted by a community in which they live or previously lived.
This news comes at a time of increased focus on indigenous affairs, owed in part to the Albanese government’s announcement of a referendum to change the constitution to include a new section that includes a statement of recognition of Aboriginal people in Australia’s history, and to enshrine an advisory committee made up of Aboriginal Australians, described as a ‘Voice’, which must be consulted by Parliament when decisions are made that are said to affect Aboriginal people.
Given this heightened level of attention, both by politicians and the media, the question of who exactly is Aboriginal is again in the spotlight, a topic that is hotly contested. Just who is and isn’t Aboriginal has been the subject of legal proceedings in the case Eatock v Bolt (2011), where journalist Andrew Bolt was found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act for an article he wrote in which he expressed doubt as to the veracity of the claims to Aboriginality of several people based on their physical appearance.
According to the ABC in an article posted July this year, “Award-winning Indigenous actor, musician and activist Uncle Jack Charles has accused the Stolen Generations Advisory Committee of racism after being asked to prove his Aboriginality.”. Clearly this is a fraught topic, and these examples demonstrate that some Aborigines feel uncomfortable about having to provide evidence to prove their status, perhaps owing to the personal nature of their identity, and their perspectives on the history of their people since British settlement.
The other factor that is likely to be playing into the university’s decision is that the number of Australians claiming to be indigenous has been increasing, from 649,200 in 2016 to 812,700 in 2021, according to census data, which cannot be accounted for by natural increase. As the SMH reported back in July
Michael Mansell, […] said he found it “unbelievable” that 5 per cent of Tasmanians now identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Writing in The Mercury last week, Mansell argued the increase in Tasmania was largely due to “identity seekers” who are “poor and white” and believe they will have more cultural cachet if they identify as Aboriginal.
The original article re: the University of Sydney in the SMH continues:
The proposed changes follow lobbying from Aboriginal land councils, who believe staff and students who do not meet the Commonwealth criteria are taking part in Indigenous programs.
Last November, the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council complained to the Independent Commission Against Corruption about the number of students at the university identifying as Indigenous using statutory declarations. Council CEO Nathan Moran said the provision was “embarrassing”.
“It’s open fraud. We say to academic students: can they pass a paper without citing a verified source?,” he said.
Legal and academic experts themselves have many criticisms of the three-leg test, some of which are expressed in Current Issues Brief no. 10 2002-03 Defining Aboriginality in Australia where the authors explain that
The advantages of this three-part definition were not, however, apparent to all. In 1988 the Victorian State president of the RSL, Mr Bruce Ruxton, called on the Federal Government: “to amend the definition of Aborigine to eliminate the part-whites who are making a racket out of being so-called Aborigines at enormous cost to the taxpayers.”
Given the diminishing role of ancestry in the accepted processes of Aboriginal identification, Aboriginality may continue expanding further across the Australian population, as more descendants with better access to historical records, education about indigenous languages and culture, and genetic testing pass along their knowledge of their Aboriginality to their children.
The implications of this process, if it is not arrested by a tightening of rules around definitions as attempted by The University of Sydney, may pose challenges for the allocation of resources intended for disadvantaged and remote Aborigines, as well as for the cultural and social impressions of what a modern Australian society understands an indigenous person to be and to look like.