A Little More on Indigenous Disadvantage

It is difficult to get a handle on the progress of indigenous Australians.

We know that judging by the “Closing the Gap” targets indigenous progress has ostensibly stalled.

And indeed, if we look specifically at remote indigenous communities we might throw our hands up in despair and conclude that resolving issues of indigenous disadvantage is an intractable problem.

But if we look objectively beyond these dysfunctional communities we see many indicators of indigenous progress. In the broader community more and more indigenous people are completing secondary school, going on to university and graduating. Wherever you look there are increasing numbers of indigenous professionals working in a variety of fields. These people are taking their place in middle Australia where they are, in contrast to many in remote communities, good citizens, competent parents and law-abiding.

So, if we are objective about it, indigenous disadvantage is not ubiquitous among the indigenous population, it is confined essentially to a subset of the indigenous community that have not assimilated into mainstream Australian life.

Now, if you listen to the “Aboriginal industry” and those that indigenous researcher, Anthony Dillon call the “blacktivists”, the only solution to this seemingly intractable human problem is to spend more Government money!

Yet it is a measure of the goodwill of average Australians towards the indigenous population that we are already prepared to spend disproportionally more on indigenous welfare than we are on other Australians. We have been doing this for decades without discernible benefit (refer again to the Closing the Gap statistics).

As well as that many of these remote communities receive huge amounts of money to which many are entitled from native title and arising from mining royalties. Yet there is nothing to show for this, except rampant conspicuous consumption of four-wheel drive vehicles and drug and alcohol binges when the cheques are distributed.

Chris Mitchell in a recent piece in The Australian newspaper wrote:

Twenty five years after its introduction, Aboriginal native title is failing to deliver tangible benefits in many parts of Australia and at least two state Aboriginal affairs departments and federal minister Ken Wyatt are having a look at how to fix it.

There is concern that much of this largesse is distributed unfairly with certain clans and the males that dominate them distorting the fair distribution of royalties. In general, the royalty monies are paid into charitable trusts that administer the distribution of funds on behalf of the indigenous people who are the supposed beneficiaries. Along with the unfair distribution of royalties there have been many complaints about improper conduct of the board members who are charged with administering the funds.

Indigenous corporations have a sorry history when it comes to managing the finances of organisations charged with promoting indigenous welfare. You will recall that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission was disbanded by Liberal prime minister, John Howard, in 2005 after a series of corruption investigations into the organisation and its subsidiaries.

It is patently obvious that many of those who are charged with the governance of these organisations have no concept of the fiduciary obligations they have when appointed to their boards. Surely when these bodies are constituted it would not be too much to ask to ensure at least some members had appropriate credentials as directors. And if indigenous people complain that this is an attempt to thwart their autonomy, there are now many well credentialed indigenous people that could fill the bill.

I spent many years running workshops for smaller regional organisations on the proper functioning of boards and the responsibilities of directors. Such training should be compulsory for these indigenous trusts.

But if you look at the disproportionate amount we spend on indigenous welfare and note the little community benefit resulting from mining royalties where they are paid, it is obvious that merely increasing our expenditure on indigenous people is not going to solve the problem of indigenous disadvantage (where it exists).

The first barrier to real advancement of indigenous people is victimhood. How long are we going to allow indigenous people to excuse the dysfunction, where it occurs, on racism, colonisation, the stolen generation and other such Trojan horses of victimhood? There are many indigenous people succeeding in Australia. They are part of mainstream Australia, in meaningful employment, participating as committed citizens, being responsible parents and largely law-abiding,. They have got on with their lives and eschewed the excuses of victimhood and racial disadvantage. Or perhaps to put it differently, if more controversially, they have taken responsibility for their own lives – or as psychologists might put it, they have an internal locus of control.

The next important barrier is an unfortunate outcome of identity politics. My friend, the good Dr Phil, has always told me that nobody is special. Identity politics is built on the very opposite assumption to that truth. Those with a very fragile sense of self avidly seek to prove they are special in some way, to bolster their egos. To do this they hide behind their race, gender, nationality or whatever in a pathetic attempt to look better in the reflected glory of their particular chosen identity.

(Tellingly, much of which they take great pride in they have had nothing to do with. Nobody chooses their race, nationality or gender. It seems pretty foolish to me to take pride in something which Nature has bestowed randomly on you!)

As a result of this strategy (resorting to identity politics) we have many of this dysfunctional cohort of indigenous people trying to magnify their difference from “white” Australians by using their race. Anthony Dillon rightly points out our commonalities across races far outweighs any inherent differences. The tool that is predominantly used to lever these differences is commonly, culture.

Many of those who would use this tool resort to some notion of the “noble savage” portraying indigenous life before European settlement in Australia as somehow idyllic. The historical evidence would seem to suggest otherwise. As in any traditional hunter/gatherer society, whilst indeed there were times of plenty there were many other times when mere subsistence was difficult. Most clans were semi-nomadic and faced frequent violence both from within the clan and from confrontations with their neighbours. Not surprisingly from such environments male dominated hierarchies emerged which still persist in many indigenous communities.

Chief among those who would portray pre-European indigenous culture as idyllic is Bruce Pascoe, who maintains that not only did indigenous Australians practice democracy, they were also agriculturists and lived in stone houses in permanent settlements. No self-respecting historian would agree with that. But the ABC and left leaning commentators have promoted these ideas to support the notion that European settlement debased an idyllic society in support of the pervasive victimhood claimed by some indigenous people.

Now add to this that with the passage of time much indigenous lore, which relies on word of mouth transmission, has been lost. Consequently, the “cultural gatekeepers” who are often these dominant indigenous men, have interpreted culture and sometimes even fabricated culture to suit their own ends.

The inequitable distribution of mining royalties mentioned above, is a case where cultural influences – the dominance of various families and their autocratic male leaders – have led to suboptimal outcomes.

Similarly, under such influences, indigenous remote communities face appalling levels of domestic violence. The paternalistic dominance of males in these communities provides “cultural support” for these criminal acts. It requires considerable courage for women to stand up in indigenous communities to question these practices. My hat goes off to Jacinta Price who continues to challenge these misogynistic practices at great risk to herself. (The left holds up Julia Gillard as a feminist warrior because she used the privilege of parliament to unfairly brand Tony Abbott as misogynist. The real opprobrium and physical danger to which Jacinta continually exposes herself to improve the lot of indigenous women, makes Gillard’s confected offense look trite by comparison.)

But if you were to refer to my most recent blog essay, it is a folly to identify ourselves with such inconsequential things as race, nationality, gender, and so on. These are mere accidents of our personal history over which we had no control. How can we feel pride about such serendipitous outcomes? Martin Luther King was right to long for a future where we didn’t judge people by the colour of their skins but by the content of their character!

It is interesting to me that we have just had an election in the Northern Territory. From what I can gather the main theme of those campaigning has been the response to the coronavirus pandemic. But in this jurisdiction are many of those whose lives are devastated by indigenous dysfunction. It is easier to turn a blind eye to their problems and concentrate on the issues of concern to the white public servants in Darwin than confront the issues of indigenous people in remote communities.

There is no easy solution to the problem of indigenous disadvantage. But the answer is not committing more funding to dubious government programmes. To my mind we would go a long way to improving the welfare of those worst affected if we could wean them off the debilitating notion of victimhood and stop their defence of dysfunctional behaviour based on dubious notions of traditional culture. One thing is for certain we do our indigenous fellow Australians a great disservice when we allow notions of identity politics and political correctness blind us from properly assessing the nature of indigenous dysfunction.


3 Replies to “A Little More on Indigenous Disadvantage”

  1. The question of Aboriginal Dysfunction is clearly & well put by Ted, as it has been previously by Anthony Dillon, Bess, Dave & Jacinta Price & others. The situation is quite clear.

    It is not the duty of the government to do more nor for any well meaning person. The answer lies in the hands of the people who are disadvantaged to start changing their ways.

    Shocking as it may seem to many, I think the only way is to pull the plug, so to speak, on this very abnormal social situation. Start by stopping putting Aboriginal Australians into a separate class & count them as merely ordinary Australians. After all, there are plenty of Australians who in no way can claim to be Aboriginal Australians who live in similar circumstances for the same reasons. The only exceptions are those who are entitled to mining royalties & land rights who are being conned by their own relatives.

    I’ll be very happy if one day there is no longer the term Aboriginal Australians in use & we’re all Australians.

    I think that this situation would be moved forward most quickly to a satisfactory solution if we could get a critical mass of politicians, journalists & other relevant professionals looking into the situation by seeing it for themselves. Great care would need to be taken so that they are not conned by parties interested in this abnormal situation continuing.

    It is a tragedy that commonsense doesn’t prevail. Unfortunately by this time in most situations the real people who knew the language, in the broadest sense, the cultural knowledge & laws of their people have died. It’s a scandal that there isn’t enough questioning into having unrelated strangers coming into a community claiming to teach the native language, for example. The people who are teaching Aboriginal studies in tertiary institutions seem questionable to me. Nice work if you can get it. Of what practical use the qualifications are to students who finish these courses I can’t help but wonder. Is it possible that the graduates can really benefit Aboriginal Australians?

  2. Very well written article and one which I agree with the sentiments discussed. I remember when the term “sit down money” used to be frequently used and Aboriginal leaders who commented on this thought the white fella was stupid for paying it.
    The issue is that welfare becomes expected over time and is never enough. Opposed to that is no welfare which forces one to accept responsibility for oneself and indirectly one’s family and community. Survival instinct kicks in.
    I do not believe any Govt will ever pull the plug on sit down money, but surely they can enforce due diligence and duty of care rules to make sure the income is not misused. There should not be days of family groups arguing about who has the right to the funds. The Directors and Trustees in Administration of these funds should control that. That is their legal responsibility.
    Secondly, when mining rights or land rights are sold, one has to ask, who owned those rights before the sale? Aboriginals will tell you the land belonged to “us”. To their tribe.Mining companies do not negotiate with one person. They have to negotiate with everyone. It is a community decision. That alone tells me that it is wrong to allow one or two people to favour their families or themselves with the dispersal of funds from the sale.
    Lastly, in any endeavour, when people are incompetent, someone else has to step up and either assist or take over. Everyone accepts this principle, except when it comes to Aboriginal affairs. That’s not good enough!

  3. Ted. For someone who has been so passionate so so long to lift the living standard of Australian Aboriginals (among other disadvantaged groups) I’m sure your comments and conclusions in this article must have been challenging for you to write about.

    As always, you clear, concise and well though through arguments are a welcome read in today’s twitter and fake news world.

    I agree entirely with the conclusions and comments in your final paragraph.

    Thanks as always.

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