Indigenous autonomy in Australia: Some concepts, issues and examples

Author/editor: Arthur, W
Year published: 2001
Issue no.: 220


This paper explores the concept of autonomy as it might apply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Literature dealing with the concept of autonomy is considered and several analytical approaches are discussed. Principal amongst these are the distinction between corporate autonomy for a people and regional autonomy, whether autonomy might apply to only Indigenous people or to all people in a region, and the possible relationship between political and economic factors. Although autonomy may be considered as a right, the paper takes the view that it is a status which has to be negotiated with the state, and so requires legitimation.

With these principles in mind, the concept of autonomy is discussed at the national level and in four regions: Torres Strait, the Tiwi Islands, the Miwatj region in Arnhem Land, and the Murdi Paaki ATSIC region in New South Wales. These examples suggest that Indigenous people perceive autonomy as something that would apply to largely to Indigenous-specific services; only in Torres Strait is consideration being given to a form of regional autonomy that might apply to issues relating to all of the people in the region. The example of Murdi Paaki in New South Wales suggests that in the more heavily populated regions of the country Indigenous people may well view autonomy in terms of devolving more economic power to the regions within the ambit of the ATSIC system.

In general, the examples suggest that Indigenous views of economic autonomy include increased control over Indigenous-specific funding. The only exception to this is in Torres Strait where one goal is greater Indigenous control of local fisheries. There is a significant point of divergence between Indigenous and government views of the economic aspects of autonomy, with governments considering political autonomy as something that might result in a reduction in welfare costs either through greater regional efficiencies or through increased Indigenous participation in the market economy.

The paper suggests that the concepts of negative and positive autonomy may be useful in the Australia context as they may help illustrate that a particular form of autonomy is possible even when there is continuing economic dependence on the welfare system.

ISBN: 0 7315 2655 4

ISSN:1036 1774

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