Sensitivity Warning

First Peoples

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this resource may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.

Policy report

This paper uses the successful COVID-19 health messaging in an Indigenous language as a lever to explore the ways in which communication rights for Indigenous people is more linguistically and culturally accessible. The Northern Territory is the most linguistically rich state or territory in Australia, with 70% of Aboriginal residents speaking an Aboriginal language.

There is a fundamental relationship between the recognition of language rights and Aṉangu people that extends beyond issues of comprehension and enabling freedom of opinion and expression in language. This paper traces the ways in which Indigenous multilingualism in the Northern Territory, and central Australia more specifically, has been marginalised by state and territory governments, notably in parliament and in relation to conveying fundamental information about new policies that will impact on the everyday lives of Aṉangu people.

Key findings/recommendations:

  • Translation of health messages into local Indigenous languages is an essential need for a dialogue with communities in their mother tongues. This translation of important health advice illustrates that taking account of language diversity is both possible and beneficial, and it underscores the question of why it has failed to happen in other Indigenous public policy contexts.
  • In the recent example of the COVID-19 crisis, it was regarded as essential to translate the message into the local vernacular so that Aṉangu people could understand and take appropriate action.
  • The threat of the pandemic has affected Indigenous Australians in very different ways from the general population. Because the collective rights and identities of Indigenous peoples are bound to place via language and territory, there is a fear that if members of the community pass away – through an event like a pandemic –  cultural threads that bind the group are lost.
  • Just under 69% of the NT Aboriginal population are enrolled to vote, and voter participation is even lower. The Australian Electoral Commission has said the electoral system lacks relevance for Aboriginal people. If Members of the Legislative Assembly were permitted to speak their own languages in the Legislative Assembly, this could help engage Aboriginal electorates and boost voter turn-out.
Publication Details
License type:
All Rights Reserved
Access Rights Type:
Policy Insights Paper No. 03/2021