Moving on from “Closing the Gap”

It is a source of great frustration having an interest in indigenous affairs coming to realise how ineffective we are at making a difference. Recently the annual “Closing the Gap” report was published highlighting the usual disappointments in trying to reduce the disadvantage of indigenous Australians.

The only statistic we seem to have been meeting is retaining more indigenous children in school until year 12 or its equivalent. This throws no light on what the educational outcomes for those children might be. It is clear that it is unlikely to be high with many of them not even regularly attending school.

It would seem the metrics being pursued are at best misleading and most often not particularly helpful.

To show how the statistics can be distorted it is worth recording that between the census of 2011 and the census of 2016 the number of Australian identifying as Aboriginal increased by more than 18%. As Adam Creighton of The Australian newspaper reports this was double the rate of population growth over the same period. It is a fair bet that these “new” inclusions to the Aboriginal population are likely to come from mainstream Australia rather than the disadvantaged areas like remote communities. Consequently they will distort the various statistics in a favourable way. It stands to reason then that indigenous welfare may in fact be regressing even in those areas where we think we are doing better.

It is also interesting that more Australians are willing to identify as “Aboriginal”. From this you can only draw two conclusions. Obviously identifying as Aboriginal is no longer attracting any disapproval.  Or perhaps it is even likely that identifying as Aboriginal attracts benefits.

Indigenous researcher, Anthony Dillon has long maintained that instead of comparing some self-selected portion of the population that choose to take on the identity of “Aboriginal” with the population at large, we would probably learn more by comparing the welfare of indigenous people who have integrated into mainstream society with those who have not. He acknowledges his good fortune in being born into a family that was well-integrated into mainstream Australian culture. It seems to be the defining distinction between indigenous people who are prospering and those who are not.

In my essay After Bennelong (which can be accessed from the archives on my blog site), I explained how the Whitlam Government, under the influence of “Nugget” Coombes established the remote Aboriginal communities.

As I wrote in that essay:

In an Australian University working paper in 1979, Coombs proclaimed that the so-called homeland settlements would be “autonomous and self-sufficient economic units”. He proclaimed that “production, including hunting and gathering will be directed to home consumption and the reduction of dependence on imported goods”. Of course he was gravely mistaken and the remote indigenous settlements have continued to be a drain on the resources of the Federal Government, and what’s more they have become dysfunctional enclaves which have caused great suffering to indigenous peoples and created many barriers which have prevented them from partaking in the normal lives enjoyed by other Australians.

The separationist philosophy of Coombs was highlighted by his recommendation that the curriculum of the indigenous schools in the remote communities should be restricted to basic literacy and numeracy “to minimise assimilationist influences.”

So, as an act to prevent the assimilation of indigenous people into mainstream Australia, the establishment of the remote communities has been hugely successful. But as a policy to advance the welfare of indigenous people, it has been an appalling disaster.

But as Anthony Dillon has pointed out, the indigenous population that has integrated into Australian society is prospering. Many have university qualifications and have satisfying careers. They are good parents, ensuring their children are cared for and educated. They take a positive place in the community at large and are as law-abiding as anyone else.

On the other hand the separatist areas are plagued by unemployment, child neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, reduced longevity, much higher levels of incarceration and so on.

To begin with, most of the artificially created remote communities were reasonably orderly, benefitting from the influence of elders many of whom had been brought up in the missions. But as generations have passed the influence of elders have waned and there are few living in such communities who have experienced being a part of a properly functioning society. The younger generations have come to accept their experiences in such dysfunctional societies as “normal”.

Continuing to differentiate between the indigenous population and the community at large perpetuates the notion that Aboriginality is somehow a disadvantage. Yet we can see for most indigenous people, it is not. Contrasting the majority indigenous group who are successful in society with groups who are not, is more instructive in terms of determining causal factors of relative disadvantage in parts of our indigenous population.

It seems that remote communities compound our difficulties.

Firstly these communities are often dysfunctional resulting in poor outcomes for indigenous people. Indeed those that know the remote communities far better than I do suggest domestic violence, child abuse and sexual misconduct are vastly under-reported because of fear of reprisal from kinship groups who would prefer to sweep such things under the carpet. As a result, even though progress on closing the gap is poor, the real statistics are likely to be even worse than those reported.

Secondly their remoteness greatly exacerbates the cost of being able to provide services to help the disadvantaged in those communities. So where the greatest dysfunction exists, the costs of rectification are prohibitive.

But the apologists for indigenous separation argue that such separation is necessary to preserve “traditional culture”. But many of the indigenous people themselves who are brave enough to challenge the conventional wisdom argue that what is predominantly being preserved  are some dubious patriarchal practices that allow men to inflict violence and abuse on women and children.

Aboriginal activists rely on culture and its preservation to justify many of the dysfunctions of the separatist communities. But sadly, the traditional cultural mores have largely gone or been considerably dissipated. The issues of kinship and totemic symbolism have little significance anymore because the traditional clans and tribal groups have extensively intermingled. Indeed, a good deal of what passes as cultural traditions today, have been conveniently manufactured in recent times.

Consequently it is appalling to see child sexual abuse and domestic violence being justified on the basis of the so-called sanctity of indigenous culture.

As researcher Jeremy Sammut has recently written;

Culture can never be an excuse for abuse.

His sentiments have been reinforced by Aboriginal leader Warren Mundine. Mundine said:

…..fears of repeating the Stolen Generations must not stop indigenous children from being taken from their families if they are at risk of being abused.

Sammut has been a strong proponent of removing “at risk” indigenous children from their communities even if it means placing them in non-indigenous families. In his insightful book, The Madness of Australian Child Protection, he shows how the reaction to the so-called “stolen generation” makes those working with indigenous child welfare unreasonably reluctant to remove indigenous children from their kinship groups, even when it is apparent that continued abuse will occur. As I have written elsewhere, removing children from these dysfunctional environments is not “stealing” them, it is “rescuing” them.

Anthony Dillon points out that regarding the children in these dysfunctional communities:

It’s time to stop thinking of them as Aboriginal children and think of them as Australian children.

As he rightly surmises no Australian children in like circumstances would be left unprotected.

Now despite what the victim brigade would have us believe, there is considerable goodwill towards the indigenous population from Australians generally, and a real desire to improve their lot. Taxpayers at large have generally accepted huge amounts of money being thrown at the indigenous disadvantage problem.

There are however, two issues, more than anything else which will temper the goodwill of taxpayers. They are:

  1. Evidence that monies supposedly designed to improve the lot of indigenous people are misallocated or misspent.
  2. Evidence that indigenous people are not taking appropriate responsibility for advancing their own welfare.

Recent press reports tell us how GST contributions to the Northern Territory that were inflated to deal with indigenous issues have been used to shore up political outcomes in Darwin with little benefit to remote indigenous people. This misdirected use of taxpayer’s funds is sure to discourage taxpayers from championing indigenous causes. And we frequently hear of disadvantaged communities where dozens of uncoordinated government programs are being implemented with huge waste resulting in high cost and low effectiveness.

It is an essential part of the response to indigenous disadvantage to encourage indigenous people to ensure their children attend school. Why does this seem to be so difficult in these communities?  Elsewhere, parents accept they have a responsibility to ensure their children attend school. The same could be said of other such parental functions of ensuring children are properly fed and kept safe. When the average Australian sees such basic parental responsibilities abrogated and an expectation that the State must step in instead, the indigenous cause is drastically damaged.

But again, as Anthony Dillon might point out, these social aberrations are generally not displayed by integrated Aboriginals, but seem a normal state of affairs for the separationist minorities in remote communities.

These communities are in a way deathtraps. Once a child is born into one there are very few ways out. They are soon encultured into the dysfunctional ways of the community, and knowing no other way soon believe that these aberrant behaviours are absolutely normal.

So what might we learn from all this.

Somewhat controversially I would recommend that the “closing the gap” initiative be abandoned. Now I don’t say this lightly. My concern about indigenous welfare is as strong as ever. But as I pointed out above, and as has been eloquently argued by Anthony Dillon, the problem has been poorly defined. Aboriginality of itself does not condemn people to lives of disadvantage. We have ample evidence of Aboriginal people prospering in Australian society. Instead of comparing Aboriginal Australians with the non-Aboriginal population, we need to examine the differences between those Aboriginal people who are prospering and those who are not.

By and large those who are not prospering are ensconced in the separationist islands of the remote communities. It is time to admit that Nugget Coombs got it wrong.

Traditionally Australian Aborigines were nomadic peoples. They had no permanent settlements but established temporary camps from which they foraged and hunted. When the food supplies in a particular area were largely exhausted they moved on. They were attuned to seasonal opportunities which dictated that game, fish and their preferred vegetable foods were abundant in certain times in certain places. This intimate knowledge of the land guided their movements from one camp site to another. Coombs’ noble but misguided ambition to restore indigenous people to their traditional ways could never be fulfilled by placing them in permanent settlements.

As well, these arrangements have vastly degraded the notion of traditional culture. Historically most tribes had intricate social arrangements and unique cultures. These were maintained by the story-telling of the Dream Time (which differed from tribe to tribe), the elaborate totem arrangements and kinship practices.

In the remote settlements people from many different tribes were thrown together. As a result the traditional cultures have become blurred. This has been exacerbated, as we saw earlier, by the declining influence of Aboriginal elders who often tried to perpetuate traditional cultural norms.

Tragically we have seen government officials equivocating about removing children from these dysfunctional communities on the basis of preferring to allow them to be immersed in their traditional culture. It is doubtful in the extreme that what is being promoted as traditional culture is anything like the tribal cultures that pre-existed white settlement.

In fact it seems to me that what is being proposed as traditional culture is often merely a subterfuge to promote male supremacy, resulting in inordinate domestic violence and child abuse.

If we are brutally honest, the real question is not one of Aboriginal disadvantage. For those indigenous people who choose to integrate into mainstream Australian culture there seems little disadvantage. The real question is can we afford to allow the failed separatist notions promoted by Nugget Coombs to continue? They clearly haven’t worked and have created islands of disadvantage and dysfunction.

It is not surprising that organisations seeking to promote Indigenous welfare and education like the AIEF and the Cape York Institute advocate removing children from such communities and having them educated in southern boarding schools. In more “normal” cultural environments children learn and prosper. Most who remain embedded in the remote communities do not.

I don’t have the wisdom to know how to address these issues. But I do know if we are to make any progress at all we need to face up to the difficult questions that most people involved in indigenous affairs seem to be avoiding answering. Here is a sample of such questions.

Should we continue to support people living in the remote communities? Many of us have had to relocate to gain access to employment or provide opportunities for our children. Can we allow people to continue to live in areas where there is no real economy and therefore can only be sustained by large injections of taxpayers’ money. This is far from the noble self-sufficiency envisaged by Nugget Coombs.

If a person chooses to live in such a place what are the realistic expectations they should have about the provision of support services? As we have seen the remote locations of such places makes the provision of services inordinately expensive. The promoters of indigenous victimhood will no doubt argue that such people don’t have realistic other choices. I can’t believe it is beyond our wit to manufacture other acceptable choices for them.

How important is the preservation of traditional culture? Is it so important as to outweigh the considerations of welfare particularly for women and children? And it seems much of what is now portrayed as traditional culture has been manufactured to support the cultural mores that some of the powerful figures (largely men) would seek to defend.

Do people living in remote communities automatically abrogate their parental responsibilities? Do they no longer have the responsibilities of parents everywhere else in our society to ensure their children go to school, are adequately fed and clothed and are safe and secure?

In Australia today, being indigenous conveys little disadvantage if you are prepared to take your place in regular Australian society. But if you choose to participate in the Coombs’ experiment of separatism then you will confront extreme disadvantage. We desperately need to face up to this unfortunate dichotomy and actively devise ways to encourage indigenous people to be a constructive part of the Australian community at large and accept their responsibilities as parents and citizens. Above all we need to help them realise the power of their own agency and move away from passive acceptance of victimhood and racial disadvantage.

The answers aren’t immediately apparent to me, but it seems unlikely we will ever make progress on this vexed issue unless we are prepared to answer these questions, however confronting they may seem to some.

One Reply to “Moving on from “Closing the Gap””

  1. Agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments Ted. The real failure of both Aboriginal and other Australians is that we have had no expectations of them to own responsibility. In my book “Becoming” you will see the importance of implicit and explicit expectations to attaining maturity. That we have had no, or low expectations of remote Aborigines, has meant that we have both failed to mature. Your essay challenges all of us to deal with the truth, “grow up” and overcome the high social and economic costs that have escalated.
    My suggestion (for the last couple of decades) has been to put a sunset clause on every specific funding program for Aborigines, demonstrating an expectation that they are capable of looking after coming generations, as they are reputed to have done for 60,000 years. To do so they would have to set aside blame (a function of immaturity) and own responsibility for their own. Otherwise they run the risk of willing people losing patience with their (and bureaucratic) intransigence.
    When the reward for attending school for a set number of days is to smash the teacher in the face with a pie, something is truly wrong with the remote system

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