EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
New direction in Aboriginal policy
, January 8, 2005
Fierce criticism of a deal between an Aboriginal community and the Federal Government, initiated by the Aboriginal people to improve the poor health of Aboriginal children, can only be described as politically motivated nonsense.
The critics included former ATSIC chief, Mick Clarke; chairman of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, Mick Dodson; NSW Democrat Senator Aden Ridgeway; and Labor's Aboriginal Affairs spokesman, Kim Carr.
Their claim that the deal was "patronising and insulting", or reached "with a gun at their head", ignores the fact that the proposal originated with the Mulan people themselves.
The Mulan Aboriginal community, which lives in the remote north-west of Western Australia, proposed that the Federal Government fund the installation of a petrol-bowser, in exchange for which the local community would ensure that children wash and shower regularly, and that rubbish would be removed from around houses.
The town of Mulan suffers very high rates of the preventable eye disease, trachoma, which, if left untreated, results in blindness.
The contagious bacterial disease is spread when children in contact with an infected person, get the bacteria on their hands, then rub their eyes. Repeated infection leads to permanent damage to the eyes.New proposal
The community decided to put the proposal to the Federal Government, after the local Catholic school initiated a hand- and face-washing program 18 months ago.
Since then, rates of infection among these children, previously around 50 per cent, had fallen to 16 per cent, according to The Australian
The community then sought an agreement with Canberra that, in exchange for a community-based program to improve children's health, a new petrol-bowser would be installed, saving a 90 km round trip to buy fuel.
The community administrator, Mark Sewell, told ABC radio's PM
program that the community itself came up with the idea of the agreement, and approached the Government.
He said, "We wanted to improve kids' health and wanted to get fuel sales here as well. And, but we just felt that, you know, perhaps to show Government that we really mean business, we sort of put it down as an agreement where we'd work on the kids' health if the Government could help us with the fuel-bowsers."
The comments of the critics suggest that they would prefer Aboriginal people to continue to suffer from the disease than that they enter into the agreement which the Aboriginal people themselves had initiated
Is this not an example of the arrogant paternalism of which they accused the Federal Government?
Few social issues have been more difficult for governments to solve than the well-being of the 450,000 Australians of Aboriginal descent.
Despite billions of dollars being spent by state and federal governments over many years, Aboriginal Australians continue to suffer significantly poorer health, have higher infant mortality, and lower educational and employment rates than other Australians.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has pointed out that Aboriginal life-expectancy is about 20 years shorter than that of other Australians. The reasons for this are complex, but what is most surprising is that the main causes of shorter life-expectancy are heart disease, brought about by eating the wrong types of food and being overweight, and respiratory disease, owing to smoking.
To address these issues requires a change of attitude, of the type encouraged by the agreement which the Mulan people have reached with the Commonwealth Government.
What is really at stake is that Canberra has decided to embark on similar programs with other Aboriginal communities, as part of its attempt to move Aboriginal communities off welfare dependency, by offering them incentives to undertake self-help programs.
This will substantially reduce the power of the bureaucracy around the recently-abolished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission which had become the channel through which Federal support for Aboriginal people was funnelled.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, said that the Mulan project - which was supported by the WA Labor Government - is an "example of how we want to work in all the communities, sitting down with them, talking about what they want, talking about what they can do in exchange, working with the State governments, working out a partnership agreement about where we can go from here."
A very encouraging development was that support for the plan came from the head of the Federal Government's National Indigenous Council, set up to advise the Government in the wake of the abolition of ATSIC.
After many years of discouraging news, the Federal Government's new direction in Aboriginal health and welfare has had an encouraging start. It deserves the strongest support.
- Peter Westmore is president of the National Civic Council.