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.