It has been a year since the Tasmanian Government significantly relaxed the criteria for claiming Aboriginality, sparking claims the community would be “swamped with white people”.
So what has the impact been on the state’s Aboriginal programs and services?
State Government figures show the total number of participants across its Aboriginal programs and services (with some individuals accessing more than one) was 818 in 2014-15, 684 in 2015-16, and 876 in 2016-17.
After the policy change was announced, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre raised concerns people were being encouraged to “tick a box” to say they were Aboriginal, which could lead to over-hunting and a strain on services.
Why the policy change?
The Tasmanian Government scrapped its eligibility policy and replaced it with Commonwealth guidelines as part of a commitment to “reset the relationship” with the Indigenous community.
At the time, Premier Will Hodgman said the change was designed to address inequality.
Under the previous policy, implemented in 2005, people had to prove their Aboriginality by a three-part test which included documentary evidence of ancestry.
Now people only require self-identification and communal recognition.
Historian Lyndall Ryan says people are becoming more open to claiming their Aboriginality. (Supplied: University of Newcastle)
Historian and author of The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Lyndall Ryan, said many people struggled to provide documentary evidence of their Indigenous ancestry.
“The definition that had been agreed to in Tasmania was quite restrictive,” she said.
“There are many families who until fairly recently either weren’t aware of Aboriginal descent or had hidden Aboriginal descent.
“I think people are much prouder today to acknowledge Aboriginal descent. Even 20 years ago there was a sense of shame.”
‘It gave us hope’
Flinders Island Aboriginal Association chairman John Clark said changing the Aboriginal eligibility criteria created hope but changed little.
“It gave us a fair bit of hope but unfortunately it has not eventuated like it should and we are still being excluded a fair bit,” he said.
“Unfortunately, some government departments and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, they [still] want documentation.
“We went into it with much enthusiasm thinking things would change and we would fall in line with the rests of the states in Australia.”
Mr Clark said while he successfully fought to have his Aboriginality recognised in the Federal Court, that was not possible for everyone.
“Unfortunately those that didn’t go through that process keep getting knocked back [and asked for] more information,” he said.
Number of Aboriginal Tasmanians rising
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre this week called for a forensic audit of the number of people who claimed Aboriginality in the latest census.
In the 2016 census, 23,000 Tasmanians identified as Aboriginal or Islander. At the previous census the figure was 19,000.
The TAC’s Trudy Maluga said the increase did not add up.
“It is widely known that Tasmania came closest to wiping out all our people than any other state in Australia,” she said.
“Yet today we see Australia-wide the proportion of Indigenous people is 2.8 per cent whereas in Tasmania it is 4.6 per cent. How is that physically possible?”
Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance co-chair Patsy Cameron said many people had oral history but no documentary evidence of their Aboriginality.
“I just can’t come to terms with the notion that people would want to claim Aboriginality if they are not,” she said.
Number accessing Aboriginal legal services doubles
The change of eligibility criteria came after a Victorian legal service was controversially awarded the contract for Aboriginal services in Tasmania in 2015, after the Federal Government cited concerns some people had missed out on legal assistance due to eligibility criteria being applied by the TAC.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Community Legal Service CEO Wayne Muir said the number of people accessing legal services had roughly doubled in the past 12 months.
“We’ve seen a substantial upturn, particularly in the last 12-months,” he said.
“We now have 5,924 discrete services provided to community members — approximately double what the figure was last year.
“That may or may not be a result of the State Government’s changed position [to eligibility criteria].”
Sonya Searle found the process of claiming Aboriginality difficult. (Supplied: Hilary Burden)
Sonya Searle from the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC) said she was asked to provide archival evidence when she tried to access legal services in 2006.
“Everything I had grown up to believe in, I was being questioned about it,” she said.
“It was really confusing for me.
“I was told to provide my family tree and I didn’t understand why I would have to if I had already grown up being told I was Aboriginal.”
Mr Muir said greater resourcing was needed to meet the needs of a growing Indigenous population.
“If you ask any Aboriginal service provider ‘is there enough resourcing to meet unmet demand and future unmet demand’ the answer is no,” he said.
“If you think about it in the Tasmanian context and the change of direction, if more people can put their hand up to access services then that would, by its very nature, bring some pressure to bear on service provision.”
TAC has ‘excellent record’
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has been the dominant voice in the state since it was established in the 1970s.
Ms Ryan said the organisation had an excellent record of providing services to its members, but a number of people had been excluded.
“Those people have felt that the TAC has gained too much power in determining if you were an Aboriginal person or not,” she said.
Ms Ryan said the TAC had successfully challenged the State Government on several occasions.
“State governments do not like that and I suspect that if one had a conspiracy theory of history, it could say that the State Government began to turn to Aboriginal groups to undermine the hegemony of the TAC,” she said.
“It is a very successful organisation and it is often held up in other parts of Australia as the kind of Aboriginal organisation that will remain eligible for government funding.
“Maybe it has been too successful in Tasmania. Maybe governments prefer to deal with Aboriginal organisations that have problems staying afloat.”
|July 2014-June 2015||July 2015-June 2016||July 2016-June 2017|
|Aboriginal education services accessed||158||204||226|
|Aboriginal housing services accessed||27 houses allocated||31 houses allocated||21 houses allocated|
|Cultural muttonbird permits issued||3 (due to low chick numbers)||68||78||73|
|Aboriginal fishing unique identifying codes issued||14||12||8||22|