Issues of Citizenship in Present-Day Society: Australian Aboriginal Rights

Active citizenship is crucial in achieving a thriving democratic society where all members of the community’s needs and concerns are heard and addressed. Active citizenship refers to the participation of citizens in activities that promote and maintain democracy. These activities range from the local level to the national level including community services like volunteering, civic engagement, and civil participation in social movements such as protesting and signing petitions as well as traditional political participation such as voting. These activities which demonstrate active citizenship require mutual respect which do not “contravene human rights”. The establishment of social institutions provides societal frameworks in organizing society, which contribute to delivering opportunities and challenges for active citizenship. In a growing digital world, digital media in particular social media, has provided new opportunities for civic engagement and civic participation. These opportunities include maintaining and building relationships with others, mass information sharing to bring awareness as well as fostering social movements on a large platform, potentially a national or global stage, calling on governing powers to take action.

For Aboriginal Australians, a long history of oppression and neglect for their rights and concerns which still carries on today has left this marginalized group facing severe challenges in civic participation. The lack of Aboriginal representatives in parliament which is an exemplar of the lack of ability for Aboriginals to have a say in what affects them, in hand with a history of embedded discrimination has led to Aboriginal Australians being constantly treated as second-class citizens. Lack of recognition, continual frustrations of not being heard, and issues of Aboriginal citizenship, which governing powers continue to push aside, builds further distrust for political elites. Social media is being used as “a powerful organizing tool” by Aboriginal Australians to bring awareness to Aboriginal issues on a global scale through digital social movements. Nevertheless, social media is not without its limits, the ability to have a voice also gives room for this voice to be lost among the thousands that are out there on social media. Another limitation of civic participation through social media is the likelihood of being subjugated to discrimination, criticism, and racism.

The current political climate in Australia is one where its Indigenous people’s rights and concerns have continued to be neglected and subsequently, they are yet to be recognized constitutionally. Aboriginal Australians have had a troubled relationship with citizenship involving a harsh history of colonization encompassing “Indigenous dispossession of land, citizenship rights, and justice”. This fraught relationship Aboriginal Australians have with citizenship is demonstrated through the “legal framework embedded within Australian constitutional government” and the policies made within the past century, which saw citizenship being used as a tool to coerce and control Aboriginal Australians by granting certain rights whilst taking away their self-determination and sovereignty. A significant call for recognition in terms of constitutional reform in the Uluru Statement of the Heart in 2017 was grievously rejected by the (Turnball) government as it was considered “not desirable”, highlighting the struggles Aboriginal Australians face in demanding justice for years of oppression. The continual lack of consideration for Aboriginal rights and concerns has kept Aboriginal Australians within the constraints of marginalization.

Aboriginal Australians are persistently faced with challenges for active citizenship as issues of discrimination and embedded racism remain in existence in today’s society, characterizing them as second-class citizens. The disparity between Aboriginal and non-aboriginals rights and concerns was exacerbated during the recent Covid-19 situation. The strict social distancing laws imposed by the government had no regard for the effect these laws had on rural Indigenous communities. These laws were reported by Faa, Stunzner & staff of ABC News as “discriminatory” against Aboriginal Australians as they restricted these communities from accessing basic amenities such as food (from fishing), warm clothes, and toiletries which was identified as a “breach of human rights”. This exemplification of the lack of concern for Aboriginal rights in conjunction with the lack of Aboriginal representatives in parliament reinforces Greene & O'Brien’s theory that issues related to Aboriginal Australians can only be brought forward by parliamentary delegates who have shared experiences. However, this has not diminished the Indigenous plight for self-determination and symbolic recognition through activism.

The rise of digital media, in particular social media, has enhanced opportunities for Aboriginal Australians to demonstrate civic participation in the current political environment. Aboriginal Australians were recognized by recent research to be using social media “at rates 20% higher” than non-Aboriginal Australians. Social media has allowed members of the Indigenous community to connect with other Indigenous people that they might not have known or been able to establish a relationship with, prior to the existence of social media due to distance and historical dispossession. The opportunity to connect through social media ignited the #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA campaign which began by informing other members of the Aboriginal community about the government’s discriminatory proposals to force the closure of their homes. It instantly gained widespread attention as tens of thousands responded, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The social media campaign was placed on a national and global stage which brought awareness of Aboriginal concerns not only to Aboriginal Australians but also non-Aboriginal Australians, exemplifying Petray’s argument that social media extends the “Indigenous solidarity” to include its non-indigenous supporters globally. As a result of the successes of the #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA online campaign, Indigenous Australians see the affordances of social media as an effective method for social activism for the Indigenous voice against government policies versus traditional media methods.

While social media allows for a sense of (digital) citizenship through an ability to speak out on a global stage, this social institution does have its restrictions to civic participation. While many Aboriginal Australians use social media to share their voice in political activism, the extent to which this voice may be heard is limited due to the grand scale of the platform. Macnamara argues that this ‘voice’ might not be heard among the sea of voices that are made available on this virtual platform. The affordances of social media yield the ability for Indigenous ‘voice’ to undergo scrutiny among the millions of other voices online that have differing opinions. A survey conducted by Carlson & Frazer found over 80% of Aboriginal Australians have witnessed racism against Aboriginal people online. These acts of trolling suppress “civic and political engagement” and give way for inaccurate information to be dispersed. The possibility of ‘voice’ not being heard or faced with acts of trolling through mediums of digital media, which Born argues are aimed at “upsetting or silencing audiences”, recapitulates the challenges to civic participation Indigenous Australians face in the current political environment.

Although certain challenges exist for active citizenship through social media, the enormity of the impact of online social movements is seen to outweigh these restrictions, in the current political climate of discrimination of certain races. The affordances of social media, Vromen argues are the “digital extensions” for informing, engaging, and organizing citizens for civic participation. These features of social media have placed Aboriginal Australians and other races facing discrimination in a position to “counter the deficit discourse that plagues” Australia and the globe. The injustices of the George Floyd case in America ignited the globalization of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The dramatic increase in global awareness of cases of racial injustices faced by the African American communities in America called on Australians to look at “what happens in our own backyards” and to show their support for the Aboriginal issues. The momentum and support for this online social movement have led to the assembly of tens of thousands of Australians physically protesting across the country in what media reports as the “largest-ever demonstrations against racism in the country” calling for an end to discrimination against Indigenous Australians. The magnitude of the awareness, engagement, and support displayed through social media of the current social movement is an exemplar of the degree with which digital media, particularly social media provides opportunities for active citizenship.

Indigenous Australians are continually faced with issues of citizenship in present-day society, as the implications of a history of colonization and oppression still endure along with consistent neglect for Indigenous concerns by governments, maintaining this aura of marginalization. The rise in digital media, particularly social media has paved new opportunities for active citizenship for Aboriginal Australians. The features of social media allow connections to be built between Aboriginal Australians and their communities that are geographically separated by vast distances, mobilizing Aboriginal Australians to participate and have a political ‘voice’ on a potential national and global stage. As a tool to bring light to Aboriginal issues and concerns especially non-Aboriginal Australians, social media allows for civic participation on a global platform as seen in the #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA campaign and the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Australia. Although certain limitations exist within social media, in which a sense of voice can be lost among the thousands or the likelihood of being targeted for abuse might restrict civic participation. The benefits of digital media including social media towards Aboriginal civic participation offset the negatives, particularly in the current political climate.

Reference List

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01 August 2022
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