As I write this essay, the annual Closing the Gap report is being presented to parliament by the Prime Minister. The report attempts to quantify progress on a number of health, education and welfare measures where indigenous Australians perform poorly compared to other Australians. As I understand it, improvements were made in only one of the seven measures used. So despite huge expenditure, we don’t seem able to address this shameful problem of indigenous disadvantage.
It is confusing to watch the progress of indigenous affairs and make sense of what our goals ought to be. And it is doubly difficult to know how to address the issues of indigenous disadvantage. In this essay I will try to throw some light on these issues and I warn that my musings are likely to be controversial. But let me state from the outset that my greatest desire is to mitigate the malaise of indigenous disadvantage. There is nothing that could bring greater shame to us as a nation than our inability to resolve these problems.
The relationship between indigenous people and other Australians has been fraught and difficult.
As I have described in previous essays the first European settlers in Australia encountered a sparsely populated land with historians suggesting some 300,000 indigenous inhabitants. Estimates vary, but it seems perhaps 300 tribes occupied Australia at the time of European settlement, varying in size from less than a hundred in the most arid regions to several thousand where conditions were more favourable. Their long separation resulted in many languages and different cultures.
And certainly in many cases the new settlers did perpetrate atrocities which resulted in great harm to the original inhabitants. Sometimes the indigenous people reciprocated in terrible ways as well. There is sufficient evidence available that we should all agree on this. Undeniably, in the long run the technology and the organisation of the European settlers created a huge advantage in favour of the newcomers. Where there was conflict there could be no doubt about who would prevail in the end. Yet there was nothing special happening here. It was a scenario largely duplicated in many other parts of the world afflicted by European colonisation. Often the damage inflicted by the new settlers by the introduction of new diseases to the indigenous population was more harmful than the physical conflict. But let there be no shirking from the fact that our original inhabitants suffered under the colonisation process.
But the world has moved on. Most Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous benefit from the advances that the European settlers brought to Australia. We mostly all are better off because of our democratic institutions, health services, education and the host of benefits a modern society provides.
We are a far different Australia from those early settlement days. The original European settlers were mainly from the United Kingdom and many were convicts. Since that time there have been wave upon wave of immigrants initially from Europe, but later from the latter half of last century, from Asia as well. The ethnology of Australia today is far different from that of the first European settlement.
Similarly indigenous Australians have changed as well. Inter-marriages and cohabitation between indigenous people and the non-indigenous population, have blurred the lines of indigenous genealogy.
In view of all this it seems rather a pointless question of who should be reconciled with whom.
But for many, obviously, the indignities suffered go beyond the original dispossession and colonial violence. They are perpetuated in the perceived racism of Australian society. But as much as the confected victims might want to think otherwise, Australia is not a racist country. We are not perfect and there are no doubt racist Australians, and certainly amongst those racist Australians there will no doubt be some racist indigenous people. But it is hard to make a case that in general Australia is a racist society. Mind you, I am sure many indigenous people have encountered racism, but all I question is this a particular Australian trait (which I think not)? Had they lived in South Africa, USA, Bolivia France or Germany they might not have experienced anything much different. This is not to say that I am against any further initiatives to reduce racism, all I ask is that activists recognise that Australia is less racist than most other societies they might choose to live in.
Conventionally, many Australians have viewed indigenous people as disadvantaged victims of colonialism and later racist attitudes held by the wider population. Many indigenous activists assume the same stance, and despite all the talk of reconciliation, it would appear that in their eyes no action taken by governments, or the broader community in general, could ever assuage their feeling of injustice. Whatever they might say, their actions would lead me to believe that, under their prescriptions, we could never be one nation. In their eyes we will always be two nations viz: one made up of the population at large and the other by the perpetually aggrieved self-declared warriors against indigenous injustice. They are unlikely to give up their righteous indignation which is a large part of how they identify themselves. Reconciliation is, in fact, a threat to their identity.
But let us not resile from the ongoing problem that results in undue numbers of indigenous people facing curtailed lives, ongoing health issues, drug and alcohol dependency, poor education attainments, high unemployment, horrific domestic violence issues and so on.
Confronted by such issues the Howard Government saw Closing the Gap as a practical approach to reconciliation. On his elevation to Prime Ministership, Kevin Rudd also embraced this approach. And it now seems permanently ensconced as a major plank in our attempts to ensure the lot of indigenous Australians is improved.
But underlying this noble attempt to right some perceived wrongs, there remain a number of difficulties.
To begin with I think we put too much store in the term “indigenous disadvantage”. Many indigenous people are not at all disadvantaged and lead successful lives well-integrated into mainstream Australian society. No doubt we should be trying to learn lessons from them that we might effectively apply to the so-called “indigenous disadvantaged”. We should not assume that being indigenous automatically sentences someone to disadvantage.
And secondly, I believe we have over-glorified Aboriginal culture.
In the seventies and eighties well-meaning psychologists told us that it was helpful for us to nurture the self-esteem of our children and this would lead them to become more robust adults and more competent to deal with the world. Consequently we sought out ways to point out to our children how special and important they were. In the end this didn’t help them become more resilient but just more narcissistic.
Some variant of this erroneous psychological intervention seems to have impacted on our treatment of our original inhabitants. We have been inclined to say, “No matter your physical conditions, feel proud that you have inherited a unique culture that sets you apart from others.”
This ethos has encouraged the notion that your culture, despite the fact you never chose it, provides you with some sort of special status.
Now I am not about to disparage Australian indigenous cultures (and I say that deliberately because just as there is no single indigenous race there are also many indigenous cultures) because they have proved effective in ensuring the survival of the many disparate tribes over thousands of years in an often hostile environment. In that respect they have been successful cultures.
But the world has moved on for these people. What perhaps were useful customs and mores historically for indigenous Australians, now are often impediments in dealing with the colonised society of the twenty first century.
Peter Sutton in his fine book The Politics of Suffering argues that the traditional culture of a nomadic people has hindered their ability to live in close settlement, and even to accept democratic principles. He argues also that the laissez-faire parenting of indigenous children is a major inhibiting factor in their lower levels of attainment.
Certainly, as we have seen from the courageous stand of Jacinta and Bess Price, and others of a similar view, Aboriginal culture with its predominant focus on male supremacy has resulted in appalling domestic violence resulting in undue harm being perpetrated on women and children in traditional societies.
It seems to me that when resolving these issues it would probably be helpful initially to put the race issue aside. It is not that I am not concerned about the welfare of our indigenous fellows, because I am. The disproportionate number of indigenous people in a state of economic and social disadvantage is a blight on our society. But when we talk of indigenous disadvantage we imply that this is the lot of all indigenous people which, as I pointed out above, is decidedly not the case. The linking of race with disadvantage merely serves to reinforce the victim mentality and even worse, causes us to resort to gesture politics.
If someone suffers disadvantage in our society, whatever their race, we should be concerned.
Unfortunately for many of the indigenous disadvantaged, they complain about their circumstances but do little to help themselves, just waiting passively for the government to solve their problems. But as Noel Pearson and other indigenous leaders have pointed out, whilst the government should ensure that all Australians should have reasonable opportunities to prosper, it is also incumbent on those suffering disadvantage to be proactive in helping themselves.
If we look at the appalling results catalogued in the Closing the Gap report, we must concede that our interventions with respect to indigenous people are just not working. Every year at this time, as a result of such statistics, we have the Aboriginal Industry arguing that our Government is failing indigenous people because they are underfunding the various programs and interventions. It is estimated that some $30bn is spent each year trying to assist the 3% of our population that is indigenous. Unfortunately the effectiveness of the various programs financed by this huge expenditure is never monitored. Consequently we continue to support many programs that make little or no difference to indigenous lives but at a huge cost to taxpayers.
I was pleased to hear that the Prime Minister has appointed Melbourne University pro-vice chancellor and foundation chair in indigenous health, Ian Anderson, to examine all the indigenous programs to tell us what is working and what is not. Malcolm Turnbull also announced that the government would fund an indigenous productivity commissioner to assess the effectiveness of government spending in this area. These are useful measures to ensure government funding is well-targeted and effective. He also announced that the government would fund more research into combatting indigenous disadvantage.
But of course the elephant in the room is the remote indigenous communities. Here we have indigenous people living in the most appalling conditions. They live in communities that are devoid of employment opportunities and with only the most basic health services. These are the communities where men dominate, drug and alcohol abuse is rife and where women and children are abused, all of which is hidden behind the shield of preserving traditional culture.
Since writing the body of this essay, Jeremy Sammut, senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies (who I have quoted in previous essays) had a piece published in The Australian (16/2) commenting on the Closing the Gap report. In it he concluded:
…if we want indigenous people to continue to live remotely in order to live close to culture, maybe we need to accept that the consequence will be gaps in social outcomes.
Adopting this realistic approach will not solve the intractable problem of indigenous disadvantage. But it may help to bring clarity to discussion of indigenous policy and what can and can’t be done to close the gap.
Sammut, to his credit is being brutally honest here. If indigenous people choose to live in these remote communities they are choosing to place dubious notions of traditional culture ahead of other concerns for health and welfare. It is probably true, as he suggests, that they can’t have both. But it presages a bleak future where some indigenous Australians, against all the evidence regarding health and welfare, will choose to maintain these sordid lifestyles merely to continue some confected idea of perpetuating a distorted concept of indigenous culture. If we allow people the opportunity to make this choice, then we must concede that Closing the Gap is a futile exercise.