Our Muddled Approach to Indigenous Advancement

There is no doubt that most of my readership might feel we are blessed to be Australians. I know I have had this debate before and some of us maintain we are “proud to be Australian” which is a sentiment I can’t relate to. Having become an Australian by a quirk of fate, an accident of birth, it seems ridiculous to take pride in it. Nevertheless I am very grateful that fate contrived to make me Australian. It is a source of great pleasure to me that we live in a democratic country, with substantial freedoms and with reasonable prospects of making our way successfully to secure a future for ourselves and our children. But that doesn’t seem to be the lot of all of us. One of the greatest disappointments I have regarding Australia (and I am sure many of you will share this) is the welfare of our indigenous population.

The mantra of governments in recent times has been about “closing the gap” – ie lifting the outcomes for indigenous people in comparison with the population generally. Unfortunately we have had scant success, although there have been some recent minor advances in health.

In an article he recently wrote, Alan Tudge, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister reported that the Government spends (according to the Productivity Commission) $44,000 per annum per indigenous person but it is likely to be twice that amount in remote communities. Now that seems a lot of money but I wouldn’t for a moment begrudge our spending it on the indigenous community if it was actually getting results, but the results being achieved are mixed at the best, and often quite appalling!

In his article Tudge revealed an astounding statistic. He reported that:

“Last year an Auditor General’s report found that a typical indigenous community is serviced by one government program for every five members. Wilcannia in western NSW for example, has 102 funded activities from 18 state and federal agencies, with a further17 activities proposed. The indigenous population is 474.”

Surely this is bureaucratic madness!

Like many such things, indigenous affairs have been distorted by politics. Consequently many of the programs, run supposedly to advance indigenous welfare, have often been cosmetic and more designed to win indigenous votes. And politics often rears its ugly head to muddy the waters in indigenous affairs through pointless symbolism and counter-productive interventions..

Many of us, and certainly most indigenous folk, will remember February 13, 2008. On that day thousands of indigenous people gathered in Canberra to assemble in the House of Representatives or on the lawns outside where a giant screen reflected proceedings inside. The reason for the gathering was to hear the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd express regret at injustices endured by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Rudd had come to do something no other Prime Minister had been prepared to do and that was to say “sorry”. Rudd received a standing ovation in the House and I suspect he might regard this as the pinnacle of his political career. Now I wouldn’t denigrate him for his action, even though the more cynical might say it was more designed to win political support from indigenous people than to make any discernible difference to their welfare. I am not against people wanting to feel good, but I am concerned when their “victimhood” status is reinforced. My principal reservations however, are about the fact that it did no good in a practical sense.

An aboriginal baby born on that day faced the prospect of a life that was 17 years shorter than other Australian babies born at the same time. That prospect has only marginally improved.

In the remote Aboriginal communities in Queensland after a lot of struggle and controversy many had opted to put in place restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. Prior to the most recent Queensland election the then Leader of the Opposition, Campbell Newman, declared that indigenous people in remote communities should have the same rights as every other Queenslander to come home from a hard day’s work and sit on the front porch and have a beer. Of course many of those in the remote aboriginal communities don’t do “a hard day’s work” but live off the benefits of welfare. And in many of these communities women and children suffer horrific abuse from the males of the community because of their excessive alcohol and drug consumption compounded by the fact they have meaningless lives because they have little prospect of employment. I can only conclude that Newman was very poorly informed or that he made a cynical grab for Aboriginal votes with little concern for their long-term welfare.

The Bligh Labour government commissioned the Griffith Youth Forensic Service to conduct a study of indigenous communities which has now been delivered to the Newman government. The Courier Mail and the Weekend Australian newspapers have leaked some of the purported findings of the report. The Director of this organisation, Professor Stephen Smallbone reportedly requested that the findings remain confidential “to allow time for problems in those communities to be addressed, without exacerbating those problems by publicly stigmatising the communities concerned.”

The details leaked show disturbing findings. Statistics reported in the Weekend Australian include:

  • The rate of reported sexual offences in Aurukun was six times the state average between 2001 and 2012.
  • The average age of a sexual assault victim was 14, 85% were under 17 and the youngest was 4.
  • Teenage pregnancies accounted for one third of births.
  • More than 200 children under 16 years of age and 29 under 10 were being treated for STDs. In total almost 3000 STD infections were recorded which is 56 times the rate of infection among the wider Queensland population.

“The report expressed concern about increasing violence, abuse and dysfunction in the western suburbs of Cairns where many indigenous families have moved from the Cape York communities, the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea and are living in social housing.”

With such appalling outcomes it seems only reasonable that we should reappraise our approach.

Historically, the big debate in indigenous affairs was whether we should pursue either assimilation or self-determination. The political conservatives argued for assimilation. Their ideal was that aboriginal Australians should take their place in society alongside everyone else. The more liberal, however, argued for self-determination.

In 1967, not long before his disappearance in the surf at Portsea, Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that a Council for Aboriginal Affairs would be formed to advise the government. The man he chose to lead the Council was, in some ways, a surprising choice, viz Dr Herbert Cole (“Nugget”) Coombs. Coombs had a distinguished career as a public servant which culminated in his role as the Governor of the Reserve Bank. At the time of his appointment to head the Council he had recently retired. (As an indication of the breadth of his interest, it is noteworthy that he was the lover of probably Australia’s pre-eminent poet at that time, – and maybe of all time – Judith Wright!)

Although he had not previously worked in this space, Coombs had a life-long interest in the Aboriginal community. He had been raised in Kalamunda in Western Australia and there he had seen first-hand the extent of the tension between Indigenous and Non-indigenous Australians.

Nothing I write here is meant to denigrate “Nugget” Coombs. He was a great Australian trying to do his best to assist an afflicted people. But as is often the case well-meaning people can sometimes precipitate bad outcomes.

Coombs opened the 1968 Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In his speech he assured those present that the Council he chaired would “strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life.” This, obviously, was at odds with the views of the Liberal Country Party Government that was espousing assimilation. Coombs also championed the notion that indigenous people should be able to be repatriated to their traditional tribal lands. He supported the establishment of remote aboriginal communities and had a romantic notion that they would thrive if allowed to take up more traditional lifestyles.

In the 1970’s aboriginal land rights became a major issue.

In 1968, the Yolngu people living in Yirrkala, who were the traditional owners of the Gove Peninsula in Arnhem Land obtained writs in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory against the Nabalco Corporation which had secured a mining lease from the Federal Government to extract and process bauxite. The intention was to establish a right in law to their traditional ownership of the land. This case was finally decided in 1971. Justice Richard Blackburn found in favour of the defendants.

Although the decision went against the indigenous protagonists it established some precedents which would later help their cause. Blackburn acknowledged for the first time in an Australian court the existence of a system of Aboriginal law.

Subsequently the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 established the basis upon which Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory could claim rights on the basis of traditional occupation. Consequently four Land Councils were set up in the Northern Territory under this law, which essentially transferred almost 50% of the land in the Northern Territory to collective Indigenous ownership.

Similar legislation in South Australia returned 10% of that state’s land to the Pitjantjara Yankunytjatjara people in 1981. Successive tranches of legislation in the next five years ceded traditional ownership of further packages of land to traditional owners.

Meanwhile at the Federal level the coming to power of the Whitlam government facilitated an environment more conducive to granting native title.

A significant event in the development of Aboriginal land rights commenced with the strike by Aboriginal stockmen at Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory which was then owned by the British company Vesteys. The strike was essentially over the pay and working conditions of the Aboriginal stockmen. The leader of the protest was Vincent Lingiari.

In April 1967 the pastoral workers, along with their wives and children, picked up their cooking pots and clothes and other meagre belongings and moved camp, walking to Daguragu (Wattie Creek).

At this time many Aborigines of the Gurindji people were employed as stockmen on pastoral properties. However because of their reduced status under law they weren’t protected by industrial legislation and in comparison with other Australians were consequently lowly paid.

The coming to power of the Whitlam government in 1972, on a platform which promised to legislate for land rights, brought new hope to the Gurindji. The original Wave Hill lease was surrendered and two new leases were issued: one to Vesteys and one to the Murramulla Gurindji Company. The Gurindji lease of approximately 3300 square kilometres included important sacred sites.

On 16 August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam came to Daguragu. As he poured a handful of Daguragu soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, he said:

“Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”

The Aboriginal stockmen were finally covered by awards which compelled employers to provide them with the same wages and working conditions as other workers. An unfortunate outcome of this was that employers hired far less of them. Many cattle stations as well as providing employment for the men as stockmen also housed and fed many of their families. Consequently, the cessation of employment brought with it other social problems. Many older Aboriginal men look back with nostalgia and pride to those days when they worked the cattle.

The efforts of the Aboriginal land rights movement culminated in 1992 when the High Court of Australia handed down its decision on the Mabo case. This decision rejected the application of terra nullius upon Australian settlement and recognised that Indigenous people were in possession of a system of laws and practices governing their communities.

Whilst Native Title has provided some Aboriginal communities with a revenue stream from resource companies exploiting mineral deposits in their traditional territories, it has seldom led to opportunities to develop economic ventures of their own.

It is difficult to talk about the current malaise suffered by the Indigenous population without making reference to the Aboriginal missions and reserves set up by governments and churches ostensibly to guard the welfare of the Aboriginal peoples. In Queensland alone, according to the records of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, there have been over thirty missions. Although these missions were set up under very paternalistic conditions, and tried to instil foreign religious beliefs upon Indigenous peoples, they did provide education and employment to many Indigenous people. The closure of these missions has left a huge vacuum and has provided fruitful ground for Aboriginal dysfunction to flourish. Many of the remote Aboriginal communities are located on sites that were once mission stations.

Nugget Coombs championed these remote communities as a vehicle for enabling Indigenous self-determination. (It is difficult not to infer in Coombs philosophy that he had in mind some modern equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage”) Self-determination might be defined as the right of a group of people to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, most of these communities are not sustainable because they don’t provide reasonable economic opportunities. Consequently they contain large numbers of Indigenous people who are doomed to exist on welfare. As their social and cultural mores have declined (as evidenced by the statistics that began this essay) it is unlikely their circumstances can be improved without again some paternalistic intervention.

The person who seems to make most sense when debating the current state of indigenous affairs, Noel Pearson, is inclined to agree. He supports alcohol management plans and the withholding of welfare payments for parents who don’t send their children to school. Pearson is also advocating the Direct Instruction model of education which trials have proved effective in the remote indigenous communities of Cape York. (The Federal Government has just announced that it will provide $22M in funding to extend the trial of Direct Instruction.) He has also been a proponent of taking children out of these dysfunctional communities and sending them off to boarding school to further their education. I admire him because he is prepared to advocate that which is effective for indigenous communities rather than that which might have popular support. In recent days he has suggested that the Newman government should pursue “sly groggers” and those who avert the intention of alcohol management plans by home brewing just as assiduously as they have pursued members of bikie gangs!

Pearson’s philosophies stand in contrast to the stance of the Labour opposition who seem to believe that the solution to indigenous disadvantage is to simply throw more money at the problem. This is despite the fact that that a review by the Finance Department in 2010 of indigenous expenditure found it had achieved “dismally poor returns”.

Another great champion of indigenous advancement is Andrew Forrest. The mining magnate has not only been a generous benefactor but also founded the Generation One jobs initiative which has seen many major employers pledge jobs to Indigenous applicants.

Forrest recently delivered the Abbott government a 230 page blueprint that calls for radical changes to the nation’s indigenous jobs strategy. He emphasised the need for early intervention and the support of indigenous children in the first three years of their lives in health and early childhood education.

Some of his more controversial recommendations include:

  • Denying young Aboriginal people access to welfare if they drop out of school.
  • Allowing Aborigines the opportunity to keep subsidized housing in remote communities if they accept employment.
  • Co-location and coordination of health, nutrition and other support services in schools and nearby community hubs.
  • Addressing fetal alcohol syndrome which impairs the ability of Aboriginal children before they start participating in school.
  • Ensuring training makes young people “job ready”. (He is critical of the TAFE system maintaining it is often driven to provide training “for training’s sake” without regard to how it might contribute to employment prospects.)

It is not hard to believe that the “hard-nosed” policies of the pragmatic Pearson and Forrest offer better outcomes for Indigenous people than departmental advisers and proponents of the “Aboriginal industry” might propose.

Another bright spot on the horizon for Aboriginal youth is the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. The Foundation offers scholarships to bright young Indigenous students to Australia’s top schools. It provides both tuition and accommodation. Obviously this is not a solution for all Indigenous students but it does ensure that substantial numbers are offered opportunities to have the best education available. Nevertheless it does offer the opportunity for significant numbers of young Indigenous people to succeed and prosper. Importantly they will be role models for others in their communities. Unfortunately in the more dysfunctional communities there are few of those.

There is no easy solution to Indigenous disadvantage. Pearson and Forrest emphasise the importance of:

  • Getting Indigenous kids into school;
  • Ensuring they complete a reasonable education;
  • Providing them with opportunities for gainful employment; and consequently
  • Weaning them off welfare dependence.

In order to facilitate these outcomes we need to provide them with safe and nurturing communities where their basic health needs are provided for and they are not subjected to physical and sexual abuse. This will often mean taking strong action to deal with alcohol and substance abuse.

I am encouraged by the fact that the Prime Minister seems to listen to Pearson and Forrest. He is keenly aware of the issues having spent a week each year working in remote Indigenous communities. Personally I believe it is inevitable that some of these communities must close because they offer no economic enterprises for Indigenous employment. Warren Mundine who is the Prime Minister’s chief adviser on Indigenous Affairs thinks otherwise. And it would certainly be presumptuous of me to believe I am better informed than he is. Nevertheless, it would be a tragedy if we waste the lives of another generation of Indigenous people, dooming them to social dysfunction and meaningless existence with little opportunity to participate in the mainstream economy. The current circumstances seem to me to be more conducive to indigenous advancement than has been the case in recent decades. There are signs that a more pragmatic and practical approach is growing in influence. It is time we took the issue out of the hands of the Aboriginal Industry and the many well-meaning but idealistic fellow travelers. I pray I am not mistaken!

6 Replies to “Our Muddled Approach to Indigenous Advancement”

  1. There is another aspect of this issue that you did not mention Ted that I would be interested to hear your views on. In recent years quite by accident I have become aware of a considerable gap between the rich and poor within the Aboriginal community. The elders or tribal leaders from what I can gather negotiate and are paid compensation or royalties for traditional land use however there seems to be some issues with the distribution of this money. From what I have observed there is a small minority of aboriginal people who have become quite wealthy while others in their community receive all but nothing. These individuals are effectively the community Government although they have no accountability from what I can understand.

    1. Greg I have heard instances of the problem you allude to. Of course there is also some history of Indigenous leaders advancing their own interests when appointed to various Boards and committees. It is exacerbated I feel by the lack of knowledge of good governance processes. Governments need not only to hold them to account but to ensure they are well-informed of the governance requirements of such positions when appointed.

      The other issue which has impacted on the possibility of good outcomes for remote indigenous people is the fact that often, well-educated, economically well-off people who claim some indigenous heritage often dominate the media debates on indigenous welfare.

  2. Ted

    As always your clear way of thinking and communicating difficult issues in a way that is clear and meaningful is appreciated.

    I certainly do not profess to know the specific solution although the broad lessons of history indicate that education and enabling opportunities for trade make a massive difference to the standard of living for people.

    How that happens in a practical sense I guess is the challenge because as you say, business as usual is not really an option.

  3. Great article Ted on Indigenous Disadvantage.
    I’m particularly disgusted about the tens of millions that have been spent by Federal Governments on indigenous health, housing and education planning programs without the delivery of a single stick of infrastructure. Australia needs to correct these major problems facing our first Australians and the funding required here must take priority over funding to be made available to refugees.

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