Bridging the Gap – Opening the Mind

Life has many disappointments. There wouldn’t be a human alive that has not experienced a disappointment when fervently hoping for a better outcome. And this week we were bound for more disappointment as this year’s “closing the gap” statistics were released. But those of us who wished to see our indigenous compatriots prosper have had to endure another set of more bad news. Not to mention how indigenous people must feel when the statistics again reveal little progress on many fronts.

Perhaps I have a simple mind but I can’t help thinking that indigenous progress is only going to occur when we and they accept that our expectations of indigenous people should be no different to our expectations of everyone else.

For example in my last blog I mentioned the incident that occurred at QUT regarding students being ejected from the Oodgeroo Unit at QUT. The Oodgeroo Unit was supposedly a “safe space” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Surely the objective of the University should be to make its campuses a safe space for every student. It would seem to me immaterial whether they were indigenous, gay or lesbian, Buddhists or Muslims, or heaven forbid even left-handed!

How can we expect such people to accept their adult responsibilities when we continue to treat them like children?

I have been thinking about these issues for decades now and I can give you many examples how some in our indigenous communities are cosseted and infantilised. But just let me share with you one personal experience. Quite some time ago the consultancy in which I was then a partner won a contract to provide training for an indigenous group. There were a number of elements to the training but I was assigned the task of providing a unit on understanding human behaviour. I used a model developed by the good Dr Phil which proposed one of the elements impacting human behaviour was our biological history. I had begun my session and summarised the model. When we broke for lunch I indicated that when we resumed I would be talking about the theory of evolution and explain some of the work evolutionary psychologists were doing which helped us explain human behaviour. When we broke for lunch a staff member from the organisation whose members we were training and who had sat in on my presentation, approached me and said it would not be appropriate for me to continue as I had proposed, because her clients would be offended by likely references about their ancestors and evolutionary concepts. I assured her there was nothing offensive in my material. She wouldn’t accept this and said she would inform the centre’s manager of my intention and that I would have to deal with her. The centre manager duly appeared and said she was going to sit in on my session and if she disapproved would halt my presentation forthwith. After lunch I continued my presentation in my usual way and after half an hour the centre manager left without any intervention.

I had given this presentation or some version of it maybe fifty times before to a wide range of audiences. The only dissent I had ever had previously was from fundamentalist Christians who wanted to dispute the theory of evolution. Even they, who were free to remove themselves if they saw fit, chose to stay.

Now my audience were adult indigenous people. Surely they were able to judge for themselves whether the material was appropriate or not. I am sure if the issue hadn’t been raised by the centre management, it wouldn’t even have entered their heads. So here we had “thought police” sheltering these people from receiving information that is largely available to everyone and indeed taught in most high schools. And my experience suggests there are many, often well-meaning people, who want us to treat indigenous people and magnify (sometimes even create) sensitivities that make it more difficult for them to engage with the real world.

Perhaps I might now sound a trigger warning because I am sure what I say in the next few paragraphs is going to offend some people. I suspect if we were to spend more time ensuring indigenous people had better life skills than glorifying their culture they would probably be better off.

Let me share another little anecdote with you. A decade or more ago our firm had an arrangement with a young indigenous man who had an agreement with us to share various work opportunities. He was a lovely man, a father of a young family and an exemplary citizen. We were talking one morning over coffee and I asked him to help me understand our lack of progress in addressing indigenous disadvantage. His immediate response was to tell me that the problem was that non-indigenous Australians didn’t understand indigenous culture. Now I had undertaken some training regarding indigenous culture that one of the mining companies provided to their staff in their attempt to employ more indigenous people. I have also read extensively about such matters. So whilst admittedly no expert on indigenous culture I had what I thought was a reasonable familiarity with many of the basic elements. So I encouraged him to give me an example of something he believed non-indigenous people didn’t understand. He surprised me by saying, “To begin with,” he responded, “You don’t understand how much we love our children.”

I was rather gobsmacked by this reply. I can’t imagine a more universal trait than love of children. We are all genetically disposed to do so. But what’s more, despite the fact that this particular man was to my understanding a loving parent, there are many indigenous parents who neglect their parental responsibilities. Whether it is from lack of role models, excessive indulgence or perhaps a laissez faire approach to parenting, it can’t be denied that indigenous children are grossly over-represented in the statistics for juvenile crime, absences from school and general neglect. It does not seem to me that they are particularly loved. It seems to me that they are often abandoned to their own devices.

I was appalled this week to hear a news item that an eleven year old boy had been implicated in the knifing murder of a man during a running affray at 3:00pm in Perth. It is a terrible thing that an eleven year old should even be on the streets at night at that hour let alone be a participant in such a heinous crime.

When I first heard the item my first reaction (sorry to offend again) was to hope the perpetrator was not an aboriginal child. I didn’t want it to be anybody’s child since it signalled such gross dysfunction. But I hoped that the incident was not going to showcase again indigenous dysfunction. Of course I was duly disappointed when the paper reported it was some sort of a skirmish between antagonistic indigenous groups. These indigenous parents so loved their child that they allowed him to be a participant in a violent affray in the middle of the night. I am glad my parents didn’t love me that much!

Now I will have to add my usual caveats to these criticisms. Many indigenous parents are nurturing their children and ensuring they are educated, employable and law abiding. But a substantial number are not.

My concern is that many indigenous people who are failing by conventional measures in our society, resort to issues of ethnicity, culture and victimhood to explain their disadvantage. And because they lead such dysfunctional lives they exaggerate the importance of culture because it is one of the few things from which they can conjure up some positive feelings of self.

And often their notions of culture impede their progress. Another group I was associated with spent some considerable effort in trying to improve the employment prospects of young indigenous people. In Western Australia we learnt that many young indigenous people were discouraged from pursuing employment opportunities due to the prevalence of a cultural influence they called “humbugging”. Young indigenous people went off to work in the mines on a fly-in fly-out basis. When they returned on their rostered days off they were hectored by extended family and friends to share their hard earned wages with all and sundry. As a result many had concluded that it was not worth their while to work hard only to have to distribute their earnings amongst many who had the capacity to do likewise but opted out to remain on welfare. One young man confided that when he went to visit relatives he would make sure he had no more than ten dollars in his wallet because he knew by the end of the visit whatever he had with him would be given over.

A similar situation arises with accommodation. Often when a family is evicted for whatever reason they manage to ensconce themselves with relatives resulting in overcrowding which leads to other dysfunctional outcomes.

One young woman I met, was the dux of an indigenous school. She told us her final year at school was the first time in her life that her family had lived in a house, having previously lived in a tent, but of course she qualified this seeming improvement by the fact she lived in that house with thirty of her family and relatives. I asked her were they proud of her achievements and she said that they were but that brought other difficulties. When she scored another academic triumph she said that her family’s first reaction was to invite her down to the local pub to celebrate.

In traditional societies the egalitarian principle lauded by the Aboriginal community made sense. In a hunter-gatherer society such sharing evened out the uneven outcomes of the hunt and the foraging. When a hunter slew a large kangaroo that met more than the immediate needs of his family it was good to share the surplus with the tribe. If one group of women foragers uncovered more yams than met their immediate needs it was sensible to share. They did this on the rightful assumption that there would be times when they could not meet their family’s needs and support from other tribe members would be welcome. But this approach seems to be counterproductive in today’s society when the few metaphorical hunters and gatherers are penalised by having to distribute their largesse with no prospect of getting similar support.

So let me now try and propose an alternative way of addressing our indigenous disadvantage. Let us encourage our indigenous compatriots to put aside their ethnicity for the time being and look at some larger issues.

Our ethnicity is an accidental thing. I didn’t choose mine and my indigenous friends didn’t choose theirs. My ancestors on my father’s side were apparently lowland Scots with a propensity to sneak over the border and steal stock from the English. It is not how I choose to identify myself. I suspect that even if I could prove lineage from Napoleon, Julius Caesar, or St Augustine I would think no differently.

So in order to progress this very fraught process where we would seek to have indigenous people prosper, my advice would be (and it is probably impertinent to say so) let’s put issues of ethnicity aside. Let us veer away from the things that separate us and look at what are the things we have in common.

Let us just assume that we could collectively recognise the primacy of our commonality as human beings. What would we wish to see if this was our prime motivation?

Well certainly we would wish to see our children protected – all our children. We would expect parents to show some responsibility by keeping their children off the streets at night. Although many children are apparently on the streets at night, there are few from responsible families.

If we put aside issues of ethnicity and look at the responsibility of parenting, surely it is not asking too much to expect parents to seek to ensure their children attend school. Although we all know of exceptions, a sound education correlates pretty strongly with success in adult life, whatever your race. Many of the indigenous role models that spring to mind were well-educated and campaign strongly on the issue of indigenous education. Better educational outcomes will surely help remove some indigenous disadvantage.

Or take the issue of health. Every Australian is entitled to expect to live a reasonable lifespan if they take reasonable steps to ensure they live healthy lifestyles and don’t take undue risks. Although for the indigenous population the overall statistics are poor many indigenous people can demonstrate the effectiveness of this strategy and are consequently blessed with normal longevity. That the indigenous prospects of longevity are considerably less than the population is a whole is appalling. But let us be clear it is not because they are indigenous but because they overindulge in drugs and alcohol, don’t follow basic nutritional requirements, subject each other to inappropriate violence and often choose to live in places where basic hygiene and medical services aren’t available.

Let us now examine the issue of incarceration. Disproportionate numbers of indigenous people languish in our jails. Even allowing for some bias in our judicial system and our police, you can’t help escaping the conclusion that most of them are there because they broke the law! I am sure there are many things that we can do to reduce indigenous lawlessness (improving their rates of employment, for example) but in the end they need to pay some heed to the law of the land. No doubt many self-righteous indigenous champions will protest that they shouldn’t be subject to “whiteman’s law” and bring up a litany of injustices that they have faced under it, many of which are undoubtedly true. But that’s not going to change things. In the end if you are an Australian citizen you must be subject to the law just like everyone else. It is probably churlish of me to say so, but those who complain about “whiteman’s law” seem to show no reluctance in availing themselves of “whiteman’s welfare”!

Neuroscience has demonstrated that most of us (with some exceptions like psychopaths and autistics) have been endowed with mirror neurones that enable us to understand how others feel and as a result feel empathy. As John Dunne perceptively wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…..


I have written in the past that a measure of our maturity as human beings can be measured by how big the continent is that we feel we are a piece of. Well for all my life I have acknowledged that indigenous people are part of my continent and since my early school days I have tried in what small way I can to try and improve their lot. And I continue to believe that the plight of our indigenous people is a great blight on Australia, and it pains me to witness it.

We now have decades and decades of government attempts to advance our indigenous compatriots. We spend huge amounts of money on the problem but it refuses to go away.

Sure many of our indigenous fellows have suffered from an unfortunate history. Let’s acknowledge their ancestors were dispossessed. Let us concede that until recent times racism has been rife. It is true that in colonial days there were massacres and gross injustices committed. But for how long are they going to use this as an excuse to promote their notion of victimhood and demand someone else solve their problems.

Their situation is not unique. Many other indigenous people were “conquered” by Europeans and others. Indeed in their own prehistory various aboriginal peoples conquered and displaced others in Australia as well.

In another hundred years are we inevitably destined to still have an underperforming, disadvantaged indigenous component of Australian society still gnashing their teeth about the injustice of the white invasion and wallowing in a culture of victimhood? Let’s hope not.

Well what’s the solution?

Firstly indigenous people need to acknowledge that their ethnicity does not of itself preclude them from leading successful lives. This is proven by the plethora of indigenous folk who now could be gauged as living or having lived meaningful, successful lives. They should be continually promoted as role models.

Secondly, it would be really helpful if indigenous people could stop obsessing about their ethnicity.

Being indigenous does not make you more special than being Irish or Jewish. As I said before, ethnicity is just an accident of birth. It brings no special privileges or no special disadvantages other than the ones we manufacture ourselves. The growing number of competent, successful indigenous folk demonstrates that aboriginality is not necessarily an insurmountable hurdle.

Thirdly, if you can for a moment put aside these indigenous concerns, and look at the underlying concerns of disadvantage, whilst it might be difficult, they are all within the capacity of the indigenous population themselves to resolve.

As a concerned human being and citizen of Australia there automatically come duties and responsibilities.

Whatever your ethnicity we should expect this of everybody:

  • Nurture and care for your children. This includes ensuring they attend school, get adequate sleep and nutrition and are not subject to violence.
  • Take care of ourselves by avoiding excessive use of drugs and alcohol and leading generally healthy lifestyles.
  • Be law abiding.
  • Contribute to society where you can by gainful employment and community involvement.

Now this is not a prescription for indigenous people, it is what we would expect of every citizen. And it would seem to me that if people, provided that they are reasonably informed, choose to do otherwise then they should accept responsibility for the outcomes.

I am not saying that indigenous people shouldn’t celebrate their ethnicity and their culture. In recognition of my Scotch ancestry I pay due regard to Hogmanay and it is fun – but it is not too serious and I wouldn’t want you to all drop everything and pay too much attention to my New Year’s Eve celebrations. And it certainly doesn’t define me.

I don’t think we will ever “close the gap” until our indigenous population accept these premises. The solution seems to me to be able to put issues of ethnicity on the backburner and highlight the issues of our human responsibilities and our citizenship.

11 Replies to “Bridging the Gap – Opening the Mind”

  1. A sensible piece on a topic that is tricky, though it should not be tricky. What has made it tricky is political correctness where people are too afraid to speak truth for fear of being called a racist.

  2. Ted – brilliant!!
    You make so much common sense!!
    Pity our leaders did not show as much ….
    and this could also apply to all new Australians – show an ability and motivation to assimilate and get involved in the culture ways and laws of the country.
    Be grateful for an opportunity to escape persecution and oppression!!
    This is a great country and let’s all work together to keep it this way, because we have the potential to be even better, regardless of whether we came here first, or last.
    Like the old saying, united we stand, divided we fall.
    Let’s ALL be proud Australians together from the one race – human beings. No other label really matters.

  3. Eloquent, insightful and so sensible.

    It needs perhaps to be remembered that many of the things which some indigenous call ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ and the sharing of money and possessions is one of those things, is not Aboriginal in any sense, but tribal and found throughout primitive cultures around the world. I say that after having lived for many years in India and four African countries as well.

    What is often called traditional is quite simply backward, less developed, less evolved, less enlightened, less sophisticated and something which everyone’s ancestors did somewhere at sometime, albeit in the case of most, thousands of years ago.

    The current version of ‘indigenous’ created by vested agendas is pure racism and utterly destructive for those indigenous who are still struggling, and detrimental to the rest and to Australia as a nation.

    No-one can ever move beyond dysfunction until they learn to take responsibility for themselves and that applies to everyone, anytime, for any reason.

    While well-intentioned, the ‘pinning like moths to the metaphorical board of life’ Australians with indigenous ancestry, no matter how minimal, is a delusional fantasy of do-gooders, sourced in a subtle and hidden form of racism which believes Aboriginal ancestry, despite the evidence to the contrary, creates less capable and functional human beings.

    1. Thanks Roslyn. I think there is a real debate necessary about what constitutes indigenous culture. When Australia was settled there were many indigenous people no doubt with a wide range of cultures. I think in order to make indigenous culture seem more attractive I believe there has been a tendency to “cherry pick” and unfortunately even to fabricate.

  4. You are not alone in your views here Ted but you are to my knowledge unique in being a non-indigenous Australian and speaking publicly about solutions that apportion some of the responsibility back on the supposed victims. The only other similar commentary I have read comes from an Aboriginal Australian and he took a pretty severe verbal beating from both indigenous and non-indigenous commentators. It was a few years back and I can not remember who it was but it did strike me as a very constructive but also courageous stance to take.

    My conclusion is that there is a minority group of high profile people holding the moral high ground, condemning anyone who suggests that a portion of blame lies with the indigenous people themselves. This no doubt wins them moral points and greater profile as being a crusader for the down trodden but it does nothing for the well being of indigenous people. I believe the vast majority of Australians will agree with your conclusions Ted. Just not sure too many will say so publically.

  5. I don’t think I’d disagree in essence with anything that you have written here Ted although I would express some of your arguments differently. Your problem is that you are logical and rational. The debate around these issues is conducted in emotive, ideological and irrational terms. If we could all be just a little more rational for a while the problems would be solved. My indigenous daughter wrote a piece on why she is proud to be Australian and celebrates Australia Day. She was obscenely vilified in racist and misogynist terms by two young co-ordinators of the SEED group, the indigenous arm of Australian Youth Climate Coalition. This organisation has access to our schools and our kids. She still hasn’t received an apology though we have formally complained to that organisation. If they did not identify as indigenous they would have immediately lost their jobs. In the past she, and we her parents, have received a death threat on the internet by an Aboriginal activist from Brisbane. We are definitely not afraid of these people but the fight to be rational is a hard one. First we should get rid of 18C of the racial discrimination act. It does nothing to protect Aboriginal people from racism. It protects the violent, the corrupt and the irrational and very strongly encourages racism because it inhibits those who are honest, genuinely concerned and rational from logically debating the issues. Your own concern about causing offence in your essay is an example of how it inhibits free expression.

    1. Thank you Dave. I read recently of the vilification of your daughter which just shows the ignorance of those defending the politically direct and encouraging the activists. As for 18C I heartily concur with you!

  6. Not just to cherry-pick but deny. Records from the late 18th century onwards reveal growing knowledge of Aboriginal tribes on this continent and the understanding that between the roughly 300-500,000 estimated, there were hundreds of different tribes with hundreds of different languages who were not only incapable of communicating with each other but were at constant war, just no doubt as Europeans would have been many thousands of years earlier.

    Aborigines have never been one unified group and despite having shared racial origins were as diverse as Celts and Assyrians for instance. And they are not unified now for a half-Aboriginal, although there are not many of them, living in a remote community, has nothing in common with someone who had a great-great-great Aboriginal grandparent and who has come from generations living middle-class, educated lives.

    Neither in fact does a struggling indigenous in the suburbs of any Australian city have anything in common with a struggling indigenous in a remote community. In fact, the struggling indigenous in the suburbs has more in common with a struggling non-indigenous in the suburbs, although the latter has access to less benefits and support based on racial discrimination.

    To my mind, the denial involved in the reality of Aboriginal life when the English arrived, is part of the reason why dysfunction exists for some today. If issues, cultural, social, traditional are not addressed, worse, denied, they can never be resolved or healed.

    In the late 18th century, many, perhaps most, or to varying degrees all, Aboriginal tribes practised infanticide, cannibalism, including of wives, children, the aged and sick as well as enemies, and high levels of violence toward women, treated often, worse than domesticated dogs.

    How can such an environment not cultivate psychological and emotional dysfunction? How can such inherited dysfunction and trauma be resolved if it is denied?

    How much of the tendency to neglect children, abuse partners, and fail to connect in healthy ways as families, and as communities is sourced in such inheritance? We can never know unless we ask.

    No-one would question raising the issue of such terrible trauma and dysfunction generations in the past for a non-indigenous and yet we deny those with indigenous ancestry the same ‘right’ and consideration all in the name of political correctness.

  7. Dave, your daughter is an admirable woman, no doubt because of her admirable parents and an example to those who value courage, integrity, honesty and common sense. She, and others like her are the future for indigenous Australians. In fact, they are the only hope.

  8. I deliberately delayed responding to Ted’s excellent article as I wanted to be crystal-clear on my thoughts first.

    Anthony, Lynda, Roslyn, Greg and Dave – thank you you have said everything I would have said. I totally agree and cannot add to the comments already expressed.

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