Impact, Indigenous Populations

To people around the world, Australia is known as a land of plenty, of golden beaches, bronzed surfers and an enviable lifestyle.

Not many would know that it wasn’t until 1965 that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples won the right to vote, with the state of Queensland last to join.  It wasn’t until 1967 that Australia’s First Nation peoples were counted in the Commonwealth census.

The history of the Stolen Generation makes for heart-breaking reading.  No official figures were kept, but estimates state between 20,000 and 100,000 children were taken from their families by government agencies from the late 1800s through to the 1970s under assimilation policies.  Raised in orphanages and foster homes, many children were abused and became disconnected from their identities as indigenous people.

More recently, Australia has turned a corner.  On 13 February 2008, then newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tabled a motion in Parliament issuing an apology for these wrongs.  More than 10 years after the first National Sorry Day of 26 May 1998 — a year after the tabling of the Bringing them Home report investigating the Stolen Generations — this official apology was a significant step in the journey of reconciliation.

AECOM in Australia recently reached a milestone on its own journey, with the launch of its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).  Based on a model of three pillars — Relationships, Respect and Opportunities — the RAP commits AECOM to clear, authentic and measurable first steps to improve our relationships, to build respect and to provide greater opportunities for Australia’s first people.

The RAP program supports organisations across all sectors to be part of the solutions in closing the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians in areas including life expectancy, child mortality, health, education and employment.

The current gaps demonstrate how much work there is to do.  Looking at one statistic — the rate of imprisonment — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners are 27% of the total prison population but make up only 3% of the Australian population.

Nearly a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are reported to have experienced high rates of psychological distress — more than twice the rate of other Australians.  Beyond Blue, an independent, not-for-profit organisation working to increase awareness and understanding of anxiety and depression in Australia, has released an advertisement about the impacts of racial discrimination in Australia — search YouTube under “Stop Think Respect” to see the powerful 90 second clip.

AECOM has a long history of working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, whether planning community services, designing essential infrastructure like waste water treatment plants, upgrading roads to survive intense wet season conditions or leading cultural heritage surveys.  It also has a history of connections through its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program.

One example of this partnership is in the remote community of Warburton in central Australia, situated more than 900km from Alice Springs in the north-east and 900km from Kalgoorlie in the south-west.

In 2009, AECOM joined with the University of Western Australia (UWA) and the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku to enhance the liveability of this Aboriginal settlement through participatory design.  Students, UWA lecturers and AECOM mentors have visited Warburton twice yearly for three years to understand the community’s needs and preferences to inform design solutions.

The community is actively involved in the design process and the first construction on site is due to be finished this year — a cemetery shelter to provide shade in the harsh desert conditions of the region.

August 9th was the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and this year’s theme was “Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of Indigenous peoples”.

Australia has one of the oldest living cultures including the world’s oldest oral histories, and is believed to be home to the first modern humans to leave Africa 70,000 years ago. Today, it retains 145 distinct languages, although many are under threat of extinction.

What can you discover to help build pride in the unique histories and cultures of Australia’s first peoples?  Check out to learn more.

Originally published Aug 8, 2014

Author: Nicola Young