Australians interested in Indigenous issues, but ‘modern racism’ remains

Half of Australians disagree with changing the date of Australia Day, believing January 26 is historically significant and should remain

Only a small minority of Australians not interested in Indigenous issues, according to the Ipsos Australian Perceptions of Indigenous Issues report.

Data collected in June 2020 showed more Australians (49%) are interested in Indigenous affairs than disinterested, particularly those with at least a diploma-level education.

Despite the increase, non-Indigenous Australians continue to have little interaction with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples – just over a quarter of people (27%) said they had regular contact with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Conversely, nearly 75% of Aboriginal people said they had ‘a fair bit’ of interaction with non-Indigenous Australians.

When asked about a Treaty between the government and Indigenous people formally recognising and repatriating their history and prior occupation of the land, the majority of Australians (57%) said they understood what a Treaty would mean, and two-thirds (67%) considered a Treaty as important for reconciliation. Figures were particularly high among women (72%) and younger Australians (71%).

For those that did not think a treaty was important, the majority believed Aboriginal people already got “more than their fair share” and said it was “time to move on”.

Calls to move Australia Day were also examined, with half of Australians disagreeing with a date change, citing January 26 was historically significantly and should remain. Those that agreed with a change said the current date was offensive and Australia Day should be for everyone.

Perceptions of current relations between Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous people were also mixed, with 29% of Australians unsure if relationships with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples had changed. Most Australians believe there is still a way to go in “closing the gap.” While more than seven in 10 Australians (77%) said acknowledgment of country had been well-integrated into major Australian events, the majority admitted other issues like learning Indigenous languages and history in schools, was lacking.

The data also revealed modern racism still exists in Australia, with nearly 50% of Australians believing the myth that money given to fund Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander housing and health programs was often wasted because Indigenous people “couldn’t manage it”. Amongst those surveyed, modern racism was most prevalent in older men.

Ipsos Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Unit (ATSIRU) Director, Sharon Barnes, said: “It is heartening to see Australians’ interest in Indigenous issues, and wide-spread support and understanding of a Treaty and its importance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But there is still a lot of work to do – modern racism remains, along with views about Indigenous people being ‘unable’ to manage funding for housing and health programs.

“We will continue our commitment in sharing this important research. This work is part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ipsos Research Unit’s mission of ensuring we look at all research through the eyes of Indigenous people, while helping to collect their community’s voices.”

Professor Michael Dodson AM, who co-chairs the Ipsos ATSIRU Advisory Group and is the Northern Territory Treaty Commissioner, said: “It is heartening to see that understanding is gradually replacing misunderstanding in the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians. However, we need to come with a good heart and in good faith to address, in an open way, our shared history, there can be no moving forward until we do. A treaty or treaties can be the instrument to facilitate a lasting reconciliation between us and provide the platform for future proper relationships.”

Dr Maggie Walter, who co-chairs the Ipsos ATSIRU Advisory Group, said: “This data provides evidence that the non-Indigenous Australian understanding of Aboriginal people and their issues has both increased, and become more nuanced over recent years. For example, the fact that nearly half of the non-Indigenous group reported they were interested in Indigenous issues is an important step forward. Similarly, the level of understanding of what a Treaty is, and its importance, demonstrates the nation is maturing in how we think about reconciliation and moving together to a new and fairer relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“Yet, at the same time, the fact that only a quarter of non-Indigenous Australians regularly interact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that nearly half still believed the myth that money given to Indigenous groups for housing and health programs is often wasted, is reason for concern. And, while the measures of modern racism indicate it is a minority that hold these views, their continued existence helps explain why only 37% think relations between Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous Australians in their area are relatively good. There is still a considerable way to go.”

Roland Wilson, member of the Ipsos ATSIRU Advisory Group, said: “This continent is blessed with the knowledge, wisdom and resilience of the oldest continuing living cultures on the planet. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, reconciliation is more than a journey. It is a space where our rights, and our very existence as First Nations peoples, are respected, and a space to forge relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that will enrich us all. This report demonstrates that although significant gains have been made, that challenge remains. That, along with continuing with what we are currently doing as a society, perhaps we need to consider new ways of working together to reach the goal of a reconciled Australia.”