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Content type
Family Matters article

August 1993


This paper begins by presenting statistics on Aboriginal families derived from the 1986 Census. The author then discusses how the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is developing a National Family Strategy. The author asserts that the future of Aboriginal society depends on the strength of the family. Her definition of the family is broad and it includes the extended family. The author asserts Aboriginal family life has not been destroyed; despite the policy of successive governments to destroy it under the banner of assimilation. The article also presents a brief account of the author's life and describes how she was taken away from her mother when she was two years old and how many years later they were reunited.

The very future of our society depends on the strength of the family. My definition of 'family' is a broad one. By 'family' I mean the various arrangements people make to ensure that the young are nurtured and people looked after. I am not restricting myself to the traditional nuclear family. The extended family is very important in Aboriginal society.

If non-Aboriginal people are to understand the Aboriginal family they need to know the history of the last 205 years. Aboriginal culture has been subjected to the most profound shocks and changes. It is a history of brutality and bloodshed. The assault on Aboriginal people includes massacres, diseases, dispossession and dispersal from the land. Aboriginal people were not only dispossessed of the land, but also much of the traditional culture and language was taken from them. For many years, in many parts of Australia, Aboriginal people were herded onto reserves and missions. Until very recently, Aboriginal children were taken away from their mothers, placed in institutions and in some States used as cheap labour.

The loss of the land has meant the destruction of the Aboriginal economy, the result of which has been poverty and a dependency on handouts and welfare.

I cannot overstate the traumatic consequences of policy and the destruction of Aboriginal and community life that resulted. It seems incredible now, but it was the policy of successive governments to destroy Aboriginal family life under the banner of assimilation. It is fortunate that Aboriginal family life has not been destroyed.

The demographic make-up of Aboriginal family life is important in the Commonwealth Government targeting services for the Aboriginal people. As the detailed results of the 1991 Census were not available at the time of writing, the most recent figures about Aboriginal families are in the 1986 Census.

  • There were 265,492 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in Australia in 1991, a 16.6 per cent increase on 1986 (preliminary 1991 Census figures).
  • In 1986, 95 per cent of Aboriginal people lived in private dwellings. Of these people, 96 per cent were in family households. About 70 per cent of all Aboriginal families lived in urban areas.
  • Over half of Aboriginal families were two-parent families and one quarter were one-parent families. Only 8 per cent of Aboriginal people lived alone, compared with 19 per cent of non-Aboriginal people.
  • Multi-family households accounted for 11 per cent of Aboriginal households, compared with only 2 per cent of all Australian households.
  • There were 54,134 Aboriginal families in 1986. Seventy- five per cent of these families had dependent children. By comparison, 50 per cent of all Australian families had dependent children.
  • Aboriginal families tend to have more children than the whole population, nearly 40 per cent of Aboriginal families compared with 24 per cent of non-Aboriginal families having three or more children.
  • Other adult family members in the household were more common for Aboriginal people. One third of all Aboriginal families with dependent children had other adult family members in the household.
  • Homelessness was much higher among the Aboriginal population than for non- Aboriginals. Six per cent of Aboriginal people lived in hostels for the homeless, night shelter and refuges on Census night in comparison to only 1 per cent for all other Australians.
  • Aboriginal family life can be characterised as one where the family is larger than the non-Aboriginal 'nuclear' family.

However, Census figures alone can not reveal the Aboriginal life experience. Major economic and social indicators highlight the type of programs the Commonwealth Government needs to deliver for Aboriginal families.

Aboriginal life expectancy is 15 to 20 years less than for other Australians. Aboriginal infant mortality is three times higher than for other Australians. Income levels are about a half those for other Australians.

The poverty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has created a number of social problems. The Commonwealth Government and ATSIC have developed policies in order to counter these problems. The programs include Family Violence Intervention, the Community Housing and Infrastructure, Aboriginal Home Ownership, and Aboriginal Hostels.

A Family Policy is being developed by ATSIC which deals with child care and family issues. Services for children are especially important as 70 per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population are under 30 years of age. Indeed, on current Aboriginal population growth rates the Aboriginal population is expected to reach 300,000 by the year 2000.

ATSIC is currently working to develop a National Family Strategy. In order to develop the strategy, a series of workshops and conferences are being organised to provide a foundation or common thread for specific issues. These include the rights of children, family violence, gender bias, drug/alcohol abuse, social inequity and traditional roles and responsibilities within the community.

A paper is being drafted for consideration by the ATSIC Board, in September, to support a proposal to fund the development of the proposed National Family Strategy as part of the International Year of Family activities.

Appendix 1

Lois O'Donoghue

The Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Lois O'Donoghue's personal history reflects the trauma of the Aboriginal experience in Australia.

She was born at the 'Granite Downs' property at Indulkana, in South Australia. Her mother was from Yunkunytjatjara people and her father was an Irish station manager, whom she never knew.

When she was two years old, she was taken away from her mother for what the Church called 'her own moral good', and placed in the United Aborigines' Mission Colebrook Home, for 'half-caste' children at Quorn. She was not to see her mother again until 27 years later. At the home, her Aboriginal name, Lowitja, was taken away from her and she was re-named 'Lois'. She wasn't allowed to speak her own language, to ask questions about her origins or about her parents. That home became her family.

Having been raised by the Church, she went into domestic service - like many other girls at that time - before starting training as a nurse in a small coastal hospital in South Australia. After initial training, she was refused entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital to continue her studies, because she was an Aborigine.

It was a decision she would not accept. She fought the decision and it was overturned. In 1954, she became the first Aborigine to enter as a Trainee Nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. She graduated and became a Charge Sister at the Hospital, where she stayed for ten years.

In the mid-1960s she went to Assam in India to work with the Baptist Overseas Mission. After a year she returned to Australia to start a new career in Aboriginal Affairs.

At 29, she was working as a Welfare Officer and Nursing Sister with the South Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs. On a visit to Coober Pedy, her aunt and uncle recognised Lois in a supermarket. They had noticed the family resemblance and they told her that her mother was at Oodnadatta.

After three months, Lois was finally re-united with her mother. She proudly introduced Lois to everyone in town, but carefully steered her away from the camp where she was living, realising that Lois had been brought up differently and not wanting Lois to see the poor conditions she was living in. Later, Lois brought her mother south to meet the other four children she had lost, long ago.

Lois O'Donoghue remembers those days: 'I learnt what kinship means to Aboriginal people - how in traditional society everyone has a place and a relationship with all other members of the group - the family. These relationships help ensure that everyone is looked after.'

Summing up the Aboriginal experience, Ms O'Donoghue said: 'These values still prevail in Aboriginal society despite the battering we have received. We are still faced with the legacy of this terrible damage to our people. We are just beginning to pick up the pieces.'

When Lois O'Donoghue received the Australian of the Year Award in 1985, she concluded her acceptance speech by saying: 'I will use the title you have honoured me with to bring Australian people together. Together we can build a remarkable country, the envy of the rest of the world.'