Racial discrimination in Australia
Discrimination is a subtle sword white Australians use against Aboriginal people.
Read how Joan Marin made international headlines when she was discriminated against.
What is discrimination?
Discrimination happens when you are unfairly treated because you have a particular characteristic or come from a particular group.
There are several types of discrimination :
- Race discrimination. You are treated unfairly because of your race, colour, ethnic background, religions background, descent or nationality. This is the most common form of discrimination against Aboriginal people.
- Sex discrimination. Unfair treatment happens because you are a man or because you are a woman (for example because you are pregnant or breastfeeding). Transgender people also face sex discrimination.
- Age discrimination. You are treated differently because of your age (too old, too young).
- Marital status discrimination. Unfair treatment because you are married, single or living in a de facto relationship.
- Sexual discrimination. You are discriminated against because of your sexuality, e.g. you are, or someone thinks you are, gay or lesbian.
- Disability discrimination. You are treated unfairly because you have a disability (physical, intellectual, psychiatric, learning, emotional).
No-one should be discriminated when they
- try to get goods or services,
- try to enter a registered club,
- rent accommodation,
- are in employment, or
- visit an educational institution.
Is discrimination an issue in Australia?
Since white people arrived in Australia it has always been difficult for them to understand Aboriginal culture. Ignorance led to many thousand Aboriginal people being killed by white settlers, and attempts were made to “breed out” their culture through assimilation.
Aboriginal people continue to feel misunderstood by white Australian politics. They claim that many legislative acts reflect a white point of view where at least a dual view would be necessary. Some activists even speak of “genocide” still going on in Australia today.
A 2011 survey of academic staff in higher education revealed that more than 70% of Aboriginal academics and professional staff had experienced discrimination and racist attitudes in their workplaces . The academics especially described discrimination, tokenism and paternalism.
“The survey confirms that racial discrimination continues to exist in the higher education sector,” says Jillian Miller, Chair of the National Tertiary Education Union’s Indigenous Policy Committee .
Only 18.6% of employers had taken positive action to address discrimination and racism.
Anti-discrimination laws have failed to result in any successful prosecutions since they were introduced in 1989, despite more than 27 public complaints about alleged breaches .
Racial discrimination is embedded in the Australian Constitution and continues to be enacted in the laws and policies of our states and territories.—Rachel Siewert, Greens Senator 
White Australians reserve for the First people of this country a particular discrimination, both raw and insidious.—John Pilger, journalist and author 
Stories of discrimination
Where were the Aboriginal people we invited?
Elizabeth Jones, an intern working at Reconciliation Australia, remembers how a day during Reconciliation Week had gone wrong .
“I remember one day in 2007 when I had just started university my parents were going over the events of that afternoon [during Reconciliation Week].
As it turned out, my mother, who had been organising a community meeting with a local Indigenous group, had come home disappointed — none of the expected guests had shown up.
On enquiring as to why this was my mother was surprised to hear someone respond — ‘I am sorry but we did turn up, a whole mob of us, and after only a few minutes someone had called the police concerned there was a bunch of black people congregating in the park and we were asked to move on’.”
Joan Martin vs Homeswest
In March 1997 public housing provider Homeswest evicted Aboriginal Yamatji artist Joan Martin from her home in Paris Way, Karrinyup (north-west Perth, Western Australia), where she had lived for 17 years. Neighbours had filed racially motivated complaints  about her son’s alcohol problems and her grandchildren ‘terrorising the neighbourhood’ .
Joan fought the eviction all the way to the Western Australian Supreme Court which upheld her complaint in March 1998, finding that Homeswest had indirectly discriminated by evicting on the grounds of overcrowding. This was the first time that the WA Supreme Court had found in favour of an Aboriginal person on the grounds of racial discrimination.
Joan’s victory made international headlines. Sadly, the court’s decision was overturned later by its Full Bench.
Joan Martin died on 6 October 2008, aged 67.
Membership refused based on race
In July 2006 Aboriginal Elder Matilda House and her daughter-in-law Antoinette House applied to join the radio station QBN-FM 96.7, near Canberra. Their application was refused because they ‘lived at different addresses’ .
Leaked draft minutes from the station’s board meeting told a different story.
The minutes recorded the station manager as saying that the women ‘wanted to take over the station’ and that ‘the Aboriginals were fighting on street corners’. A board member was minuted as having suggested to ‘kick them all out’.
A complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was unsuccessful because there was no prospect of settlement by conciliation. It took the Federal Magistrates Court to decide in February 2007 that the two women were unlawfully rejected membership.
The court ruled AUD 12,000 in compensation plus court costs to be paid by the radio station.
Discrimination between Aboriginal people
You may be surprised to learn that discrimination is also an issue between Aboriginal people. Based on their skin colour Aboriginal people discriminate against each other, mirroring the stereotypes that usually non-Indigenous people apply to them. This form of discrimination is also called lateral violence.
The living discrimination between very dark skinned Aboriginals and lighter skinned ones is an issue that is alive and well.—Richard Frankland, Aboriginal director 
Discrimination linked to Aboriginal suicides
Aboriginal community members of Narrogin, a small West Australian town 200km south of Perth, attribute a spate of suicides which occurred in 2008 to racism and discrimination.
They claim that discrimination included being told there were no jobs at the council, only to see the jobs offered to white people .
Discrimination and racism can have a negative impact on people’s mental and physical health.
Members of Aboriginal communities have a perception that also police treats them differently than white people when they respond to calls.
One lawyer said that I wasn't black enough to be black the other lawyer said I wasn't white enough to be white. They then argued this point in front of me for sometime. Both my parents were Aboriginal. It was such an insult to me and my family.—Gordon Syron, Aboriginal painter 
Uniting Church acknowledges wrongs
In the first review of its constitution since 1977 the Uniting Church acknowledges in the new preamble that some of its members had acted towards Aboriginal people in ways that were racist and paternalistic .
“They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land,” the preamble now says. It was developed over two years.
Australia and the United Nations (UN)
Non-Government organisations (NGO) have taken on responsibility of the racial conditions seen in Australia. They have filed numerous reports to the UN addressing the racial discrimination problems found in Australia. Many reports complement, if not contradict, the official statements of the Australian Government.
The UN reviews racial discrimination on a regular basis and established several committees for this area.
Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
The UN Human Rights System sees many so-called “treaty-based” committees, i.e. committees which oversee the fulfillment of international human rights treaties. While with no power to issue measures to countries which don’t follow these treaties they can make comments on the treaty’s implementation and receive petitions from individuals against a state party.
Since Australia has signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination it has to report regularly on the progress made.
In the past, Australia received critique for the lack of constitutional protection against discrimination, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act during the Northern Territory intervention, the high incarceration rates for Indigenous people, continuing deaths in custody and the disproportionate disadvantage of Aboriginal people in Northern Territory communities .
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
On 3 April 2009 Australia supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The move came after the declaration was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly on 13 September 2007 with the support of 143 member states and the opposition of just four—Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand.
At that time the then-Howard government claimed that it would elevate Aboriginal customary law above national law, an argument which was clearly an excuse because the UNDRIP is a non-binding document.
The declaration was 20 years in the making and sets out basic standards for the recognition and protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide, including identity, land and resources, self-determination, freedom from discrimination, culture, traditions and language. You can read more about many of these areas on this website exploring Australian Aboriginal culture.
Human rights do not dispossess people. Human rights do not marginalise people. Human rights do not cause their poverty and they don't cause the gaps in the life expectancy and other life outcomes. It is the denial of rights that is the largest contributor to these things. The value of human rights is not in their existence; it is in their implementation.—Prof Mick Dodson, Australian of the Year 2009 
The Indigenous Human Rights Network Australia (IHRNA) is a network of people who advocate and promote the awareness of Aboriginal human rights in Australia.
The Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW was set up in 1977 to administer the Anti-Discrimination Act. It investigates and tries to settle complaints, educates about anti-discrimination laws and suggests changes to the law.
Last updated: 29 November 2013
 'Joan Martin mourned', Koori Mail 438 p.17
 Legislative Assembly, Grievance, 30 June 2005, http://www.parliament.wa.gov.au/hansard/hans35.nsf/16ab30a0303e54f448256bf7002049e8/9a7364f48ebc38ed4825706000224cf8?OpenDocument
 'Women win case', Koori Mail 436 p.19
 'Judgement By His Peers', painting by Gordon Syron, blackfellasdreaming.com.au/judgmentbyhispeers.html (3/1/2009)
 'Govt wins praise, but also warned', Koori Mail 448 p.6
 'Focus on Moffatt', Koori Mail 469 p.45
 'Australia blasted by UN committee', Koori Mail 484 p.6
 'Uni racism finding in new report', Koori Mail 515 p.26
 'Injustices acknowledged', Koori Mail 456 p.12
 'Treated unfairly because you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person?', flyer, Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, 7/2008
 'Internal thoughts on reconciliation', Reconciliation News 4/2011 p.18
 'Racist taunts an ongoing problem: inquiry', The Tracker 9/4/2013
 'John Pilger on racism in Australia', The Stringer 4/5/2013
Related articles & resources
Articles and resources related to "Racial discrimination in Australia":