Biting the Hand That Feeds You

What I am about to write, I am sure, is going to cause some offense to the champions of identity politics, the proponents of “wokeness” and those that indigenous researcher Anthony Dillon calls the “blacktivists”. Well that is unfortunate but such confected offense should not stop the truth being told.

Again I will take up the issue of indigenous disadvantage which I have repeatedly admitted is the greatest blight on the Australian social landscape and a source of shame for any thinking Australian.

To understand our current dilemma in indigenous relations it is instructive to review a little of the history regarding indigenous people.

Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs was a very distinguished Australian. In 1949, Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley appointed Coombs to be Governor of the Commonwealth Bank.  When later that year Menzies led the conservatives to power, to the surprise of many, he kept Coombs on. In 1960, when the Reserve Bank was created to take on the central banking functions, Menzies appointed Coombs as its first Governor.

Coombs retired from the Public Service in 1968 but maintained an active interest in the Arts and more particularly in Aboriginal Affairs.

Coombs early life was in Western Australia where he had engaged with the Aboriginal community and became concerned for their welfare. This developed into a lifelong passion for him.

In 1968 he was appointed the Chairman of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs which was set up essentially to prosecute the changes which were brought about by the 1967 Referendum which extended greater recognition of Australia’s indigenous population. He subsequently became a close advisor to Gough Whitlam who was then leading the Labor party. It is said that he essentially wrote the Labor Party’s policy on Aboriginal Affairs which it took to the 1972 election which it won, ensconcing Whitlam as Prime Minister.

Coombs opened the 1968 Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In his speech he assured those present that the Council he chaired would “strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life.” This, obviously, was at odds with the views of the Liberal Country Party Government that was espousing assimilation. Coombs also championed the proposition that indigenous people should be able to be repatriated to their traditional tribal lands. He supported the establishment of remote aboriginal communities and had a romantic notion that they would thrive if allowed to take up more traditional lifestyles.

As a consequence of Coomb’s recommendations the Government of the day facilitated the establishment of remote Aboriginal communities, ostensibly to return indigenous people to their homelands where they were expected to hone a living from traditional foraging and hunting augmented by commerce associated with traditional art and culture and hopefully tourism. The Government provided generous economic support of such communities in anticipation that they would eventually become self-sufficient.

Nugget Coombs championed these remote communities as a vehicle for enabling Indigenous self-determination. (It is difficult not to infer in Coombs philosophy that he had in mind some modern equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage”.)

Self-determination might be defined as the right of a group of people to determine autonomously their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, most of these communities are not sustainable because they don’t provide reasonable economic opportunities. Consequently they contain large numbers of Indigenous people who are doomed to exist on welfare and therefore not to be autonomous but dependent.

What’s more, their social and cultural status has declined (as the appalling statistics regarding unemployment, the incidence of domestic violence, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, educational outcomes, rates of suicide and the burgeoning rates of foetal alcohol syndrome will attest). It seems therefore unlikely their circumstances can be improved without again some government intervention that will inevitably be viewed as paternalistic and no doubt denigrated as a continuation of white colonialism.

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.”

Coombs’s well-meaning intervention into indigenous affairs has resulted in the creation of remote indigenous communities that are dysfunctional and perpetuate indigenous disadvantage.

The idealistic fantasy was that these settlements would somehow become self-sufficient. And in this way Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the “noble savage” might be fulfilled. But unfortunately that never happened. The population of these remote communities were never self-sufficient and were always dependent on government support to sustain them. The “noble savages” became more interested in drugs and alcohol and all the malaises of a profligate Western society, particularly welfare, than they were in the hard work of living off the land.

But all was not lost. Despite all of this they still had their culture. Or did they?

When we look at how dysfunctional many of these remote communities have become, the aboriginal industry and their fellow travellers most often use the defence that these communities are at least preserving the much vaunted indigenous culture.

Here we are faced with at least two dilemmas

To begin with there is a paucity of records about indigenous culture. And because indigenous people came from many disparate tribes often with their own distinct language and cultural traditions there are limited common characteristics. Notions about culture have been passed down by word of mouth and have consequently varied as the years have progressed.

Adding to this confusion many of those who are promoted as preservers of the culture are the dominant males who are influential in such communities. They have often acted to preserve or enhance their influence and control.

To further complicate the issue, those who populated the settlements were far from homogenous as far as their tribal lineage and language was concerned.

In general terms, the separatism encouraged by the foundation of the remote communities hasn’t served their residents well. And the cultural norms that seem to be most commonly replicated are inimical to women and families.

Now it seems to me that the Australian population at large are generally sympathetic to the cause of indigenous people and wish to see their lot improved. Of course many indigenous people who have assimilated well into the general Australian population are indeed doing well. But the people in the remote communities, far from being self-reliant as Coombs had intended, are perhaps the most dependent of all Australians.

As we saw earlier, none of these communities is self-sufficient and most rely heavily on welfare and government services to sustain them in any way at all as civilised communities.

In order to present any indications of normalcy in these communities, outsiders must front up and endure the horrific conditions in these places to provide at least some of the basic services of education, health and welfare and policing.

Oft times when there is violence in these communities, intervention is often discouraged on the basis of maintaining some perverted notion of indigenous culture. This is particularly true for domestic violence and child abuse. The underlying motive seems to be to reinforce male domination. Moreover many of these crimes go unreported because of fears of retribution by the perpetrator or his family.

I was motivated to write this essay because of recent press reports. In the indigenous community in Queensland of Lockhart River a young indigenous man stabbed a female teacher and inflicted serious injuries. The man had approached the young woman in her home and requested a glass of water in order that he could take some medication. The teacher obliged and in response to her charitable act was viciously attacked.

Now what a travesty this is. A young woman who has gone out of her way to try to provide an education for indigenous children in this remote community and as a consequence, willingly enduring the discomfort and inconveniences that living in such a community entails for the sake of those children, is savagely assaulted by a member of that community.

This is not the first such account we have heard. There have been many stories of those brave enough, and concerned enough, to live in such communities trying to provide essential services being assaulted and sometimes even killed. They have predominantly been health workers, teachers and occasionally police officers.

I wonder at the motivation of the Lockhart River attack.

Was it a matter of envy that the victim enjoyed a better lifestyle than the assailant? Somebody who had gone to the trouble to gain an education and subsequently meaningful employment is surely entitled to a better lifestyle than someone who has probably only sporadically attended school and exists off welfare.

Or maybe the assault was about asserting the dominance the attacker felt was his due as a male in an indigenous community?

As I related earlier, these remote indigenous communities are far from autonomous as Nugget Coombs fantasised they might be. They are hugely dependent on the support of governments and those caring and benevolent souls who are prepared to live in these dysfunctional communities to provide essential services.

As I said at the outset, Australians, by and large, are sympathetic to the indigenous cause. Indigenous people in remote communities shouldn’t be surprised if that sympathy is eroded when the very people on whom they are dependent for basic services are attacked and violated for their efforts.

7 Replies to “Biting the Hand That Feeds You”

  1. The remote communities in the NT were established well before 1968. When the Commonwealth took over control of the NT in 1911 there were missions at Hermannsburg (Ntaria – 1877), Roper River (Ngukurr 1908) and Bathurst Island (Wurrumiyanga – 1911). Several more were set up in the 1920’s. The missions became autonomous communities in the 1970’s.

    Most of the large reserves were gazetted in the 1930’s and several more communities were established in Central Australia during the Second World War and soon after (Yuendumu for example in 1946). Their purpose was to keep people away from the towns where they became beggars and got hooked on grog, opium, gambling and demoralised by prostitution. After the war there was also a need to get the families of those who had worked for the army away from town and back to where they could be offered government services (health, education, training) and maintain their independence. More were set up (Docker River, Papunya, Amoonguna) in the early sixties.

    Coomb’s contribution was the homeland/outstation movement. Once the Land Rights Act was passed a lot of families of the old people wanted to set up their own, small communities on the land the old ones were actually born on.That idea fully confirmed with the Aboriginal world view, values and beliefs. Just like bilingual education the theory is irrefutable but putting it into practice was unworkable. Tens of millions were spent on now deserted and decaying little communities.

    Some are still inhabited, those related to Hermannsburg for example, because they are close to a large, hub community that can keep up services to them. They seem to work better in Arnhem Land where there is plenty of water and game but even there they tend to be abandoned during the Wet, virtually half the year, because the roads are impassable. It is important to make the distinction between the large remote communities and the more recently established and much smaller outstations (that’s what we call them). For example the populations of the outstations still inhabited are, in fact, homogenous. They are usually made up of the members of one extended family with their spouses who may be from elsewhere and from other language groups, but they don’t have primary rights to that place.

    Even where they work the residents are in trouble when the local Big Man (revered elder) is a rapist of children and a basher of women, as too many are. It can be a long way to a police station and he’s bound to be regarded as a sorcerer as well, who can track you down and kill you even if you manage to get out of the place.

    Outsiders don’t usually have to endure ‘horrific conditions’, yes some discomforts and inconveniences, sometimes. They tend to live very separate lives in comfortable accomodation and facilities in the larger communities. They are often, however, the victims of break-ins and theft, and, recently, violence. The sort of thing that happened recently at Lockhart River was unheard of when I lived in remote communities. Aboriginal women were regularly assaulted like this, particularly the young and still are.

    Traditional society is deeply misogynist and the refusal to acknowledge that fact has caused the avoidable deaths of untold numbers of women. The fault for that can be laid on the heads of the romanticists like Coombs and the legions of bloody minded activists who have followed in his steps. As Peter Sutton has pointed out the missionaries suppressed that violence. Self determination has led to its resurgence.

    I don’t believe it is possible to find a rational motivation of the Lockhart River attack. It is the product of a sick, irrational mind. However, this sort of thing is considered normal and hardly worth commenting on when the victim is also indigenous.


  2. @ Dave,

    It is interesting reading your post. As an avid reader of historical sources, I find it somewhat depressing that so much of the worst of Aboriginal cultures, i.e. abuse of females, power of the old men, misogyny and superstitious belief in spells and witchery, continue in these communities.

    But, there are similar outcomes in other primitive communities which have failed to integrate and assimilate into the modern world so it is not particular to Aboriginal cultures.

    It does however make the case for assimilation as the only healthy outcome for such societies, if indeed one can call them societies.

  3. A few years ago I was briefly in Lockhart River community for one weekend, and was pleased to see the happy healthy smiling young kids running about, obviously well cared for. Several new homes were under construction in the community, one large home on a neat street on the slope looking out over the Coral Sea, and more in the rain forest back from the township. Slightly to the north by a pretty good road at the village of Portland Roads we had possibly the best seafood lunch of our lives at the Out of the Blue Cafe, where to get a table you need to book well ahead.

    It is devastatingly sad to her of this nutter slashing the face of a dedicated young school teacher (I understand she has been teaching in the Cape for several years) but I hope this is an isolated incident for that particular community, which otherwise seems to be in pretty good shape.

    Otherwise I agree with your views about dysfunctional communities and the dangerous fantasies upon which some or many exist, and I do not pretend to understand any easy way forward apart from the basic need for universal education – exactly what this young woman was providing.

    1. It is indeed sad, Charlie. In the press the local mayor blamed the additional welfare payments people were receiving under the job seeker scheme for resulting in a large increase in alcohol consumption.But it seems to me that this is a merely a symptom of dysfunctionality, not an excuse for it.

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