Reconciliation Australia has released its second biennial Australian Reconciliation Barometer amidst growing debate for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. This Q&A examines the key results and provides some analysis of the direction of reconciliation in Australia.
1. What is the Australian Reconciliation Barometer and why do we need it?
The Australian Reconciliation Barometer is a national research study that looks at the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. The idea came from South Africa and was tailored to suit our unique situation here in Australia. It is a quantitative attitudinal survey which is designed to be repeated every two years.
The Barometer functions as an impact measurement tool that reveals how we see ourselves, how perceptions affect progress towards reconciliation and closing the gaps, and where we aspire to be as Australians.
The Barometer will enable us to track our progress in four key areas essential to progressing reconciliation—awareness, attitudes, perceptions and actions.
2. Is the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians important to us?
The 2010 Barometer shows that a majority of respondents believe the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians is important for the nation. Ninety-nine per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents, and 87 per cent of general community respondents, indicated the relationship is ‘very’ or ‘fairly important’.
The survey also found that the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations was important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the relationship with other Australians. Around 3 in 5 Indigenous respondents and 2 in 5 other Australians believe that the Apology has made the relationship between the two groups better.
3. Do the levels of trust and prejudice between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to affect the relationship?
There was strong agreement, particularly from the Indigenous respondents, that there are high levels of prejudice between the two groups. Around 7 in 10 Australians believe that the level of prejudice towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is ‘very high’ or ‘fairly high’. A similar number of general community respondents (72 per cent) believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are prejudiced towards other Australians.
There is a low level of mutual trust between the two groups with nine per cent of general respondents believing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have ‘fairly high or ‘very high’ levels of trust for other Australians. Conversely, 12 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe that other Australians have ‘very high’ or ‘fairly high’ levels of trust towards Indigenous Australians.
This shows that while Australians see the relationship as important, there is a general acknowledgement that a lot of work needs to be done to build the quality of the relationship.
4. Are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures important to better relationships?
Encouragingly, the Barometer found that the general community believe Indigenous culture is important for Australia as a nation and many agreed it should be a compulsory part of the history curriculum in schools. However, only 44 per cent of all Australians said Indigenous people are open to sharing their culture.
The general community’s knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures is fairly low. This is despite the fact the research showed around 4 in 5 Australians believe it is important to know about Indigenous histories and cultures and are therefore open to learning more.
Both groups agree that previous race-based policies continue to affect some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. However, both groups ranked different perceived reasons for Indigenous disadvantage. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identified external factors such as poor access to health care and education services, while general community respondents identified Indigenous people as being responsible for their own disadvantage.
5. What role does the media play in shaping our perceptions of Indigenous people?
Only 16 per cent of the general community agree that the media provides a balanced view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Perceptions of media bias are stronger amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with only nine per cent agreeing that the media provides a balanced view of Indigenous Australia.
This is an interesting finding given that the survey also identified the general community’s attitudes to Indigenous people is more likely to come from secondary sources, such as the media, rather than personal experience. Only 35 per cent of the general community nominated personal experiences as their main source of information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
However, many did agree that though they had limited contact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they wanted more contact than they currently have, with 61 per cent of respondents wanting ‘frequent’ or ‘occasional’ contact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
6. What have been the key changes since 2008?
One significant change in the 2010 Barometer is a new focus on the role of business in reconciliation. While there was uncertainty from respondents as to the role businesses should take, there was widespread support for a range of business initiatives that address Indigenous disadvantage, such as educational opportunities provided by scholarships and traineeships.
An encouraging finding to come out of the Barometer is that Indigenous Australians are less likely to believe they are disadvantaged or affected by race-based policies of the past. For example, 25 per cent (from 35 per cent in 2008) of Indigenous respondent agree they are mostly disadvantaged and living on the edge of mainstream society. This suggests a positive change in how Indigenous people see themselves.
The Barometer, however, did reveal a slight drop in a number of areas. General community respondents revealed they are less likely than previously to believe the relationship between Indigenous and other Australians is good (51 per cent to 43 per cent) and there was a slight decrease in the number of respondents who say Indigenous people are open to sharing their culture with other Australians (47 per cent to 37 per cent). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander role models have become less visible to the general community (around a 10 per cent drop), perceived levels of contact with Indigenous people has also fallen slightly (45 per cent to 34 per cent) and there is a perception of less cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders (22 per cent to 17 per cent).
7. Are we getting anywhere?
It is important to consider these findings in context. While there was a general drop in some of the key areas of the Barometer in 2010, this does not necessarily represent a step backwards as there are a number of factors that may explain declining figures. These include some important changes in the social, political and economic environment in the last two years.
For instance, the Australian Government’s Apology to the Stolen Generation in February 2008 set an optimistic tone for the future and was generally well received by the broader community. This may have created slightly more optimistic results in the 2008 survey. The Northern Territory Intervention in late 2007 highlighted themes of abuse, disadvantage and neglect, which generated significant media attention that has since fallen. The Global Financial Crisis in 2009 saw an increase in general concern regarding financial security and less concern regarding ‘non-financial issues’ such as reconciliation. These suggest a general shift in the mood of the nation rather than a shift specific on Indigenous issues.
Overall, the 2010 Barometer has revealed that our attitudes to reconciliation and Indigenous issues remain broadly similar and that the changes in the past two years have been relatively small. For instance, agreement that Indigenous culture is important remains high at 70 per cent of general community respondents.
This is a longitudinal study and it will take time to tell whether the results are part of a short term or long term shift in the national psyche on the path to reconciliation.