OPINION: by Michael T. O'CallaghanNews Weekly
The demise of Aboriginal self-determination
, May 12, 2012
Self-determination for Australian Aborigines has been a disaster for the lives of these people.
Integration, as was promoted by missionaries from the early 1940s until the early ’70s, was more successful. There may have been room for improvement, but at least they were making progress and the majority of Aborigines were content.
The children, both girls and boys, were properly cared for and received good education and health care, while most of their parents were out hunting, otherwise the children were left in the care of the older generation.
I have personally spoken to those who were cared for by the Pallottine Catholic missionaries, and all talk about their happy memories, although they regretted how seldom they saw their parents during their early childhood. There was no bitterness when they raised this point. In fact, today most of their grandchildren are less cared for and educated than were their elders, mainly because of parental neglect, in spite of efforts by the various support agencies operating in remote communities.
Since the introduction of self-determination, “a culture of land rights and welfare payments has locked Aborigines out of a good life”, as former federal Labor minister Gary Johns has written in his recent book, Aboriginal Self-Determination, The Whiteman’s Dream.
No longer do Aborigines have the motivation to work, as most of their families receive Centrelink payments as well as royalties from the mines because their ancestors occupied land where mines now operate.
Many of the younger generation, from teenagers to those in their late 30s, because of boredom turn to alcohol and illegal drugs, engage in domestic violence, gambling and vandalism, and in some cases are driven to suicide.
In the six months that I have been working in Aboriginal communities, there have been three attempted suicides. When one young mother took her life, her partner died of stab wounds resulting from a “pay-back” killing by the girl’s relatives, leaving two young children without their parents, a tragedy for two separate communities.
In the three communities where I am currently involved, located in the Kimberley region in the north of Western Australia, school-age children are given breakfast and lunch by the Catholic schools. Without that, the children lack a proper nutritional diet.
School attendance is around 70-75 per cent — and it is not always the same children. Usually, only about 10 per cent of children continue on to years 10-12, at boarding schools, and then tertiary studies, either in Darwin or Perth. Around 50 per cent of them drop out of their courses and return to their communities to receive welfare payments.
It is noteworthy that these children generally have high intellects, in spite of a contrary view held by many “experts”. I have observed this on many occasions. Most have mobile phones, including young primary age children. They can use the Internet and transfer funds from their bank accounts. They are capable of organising sporting events, setting up their own music bands and arranging funerals for deceased relatives.
Support groups such as the Catholic Church of the Broome diocese, medical centres, Boys’ Town, the Department of Child Welfare and the police do a commendable job under very difficult circumstances.
Three weeks into the 2011 Christmas school holidays, four teachers’ homes and the school canteen were broken into and vandalised by a group of children between the ages of nine and 13. They also broke into the general store on five occasions stealing food and other items.
On the fifth occasion these children assisted local youths to break into the store and steal expensive goods. The whole community and the police knew those responsible. The youths involved were charged; but the children, who are repeat offenders, cannot be charged because of federal law relating to minors. Instead, they were returned to their parents to be dealt with.
There are now three generations — adults, grandchildren and great grandchildren — who do not conform either to their indigenous Aboriginal law or to Whiteman’s law; they simply choose whatever suits them. It is a choice they have made, much to the disappointment of their elders, who in most instances do not receive the respect they deserve from their descendants.
Some of the early settlers in the mid-1800s may have treated the Aborigines badly. However, now with self-determination, Australia’s present generation has given Aborigines the means of destroying themselves.
There are solutions, but the bureaucrats and do-gooders are going about implementing the solution the wrong way. Sensible policies and strategies however can be devised to reduce damaging effects of “Whiteman’s Dream”.
The situation is sad, but it is a choice most of the Aborigines in remote regions have made with the help of bureaucrats and do-gooders.
As Gary Johns has written: “Land has become a burden, welfare has become disabling, bad behaviour is mistaken for culture. There is a way out. Aborigines must abide by the same rules as every other Australian — seek out opportunities, study hard, and free themselves from a culture of bad behaviour.
“This is in contrast to the white man’s dream of Aboriginal self-determination. This grand experiment has failed. Aborigines, especially those in remote Australia, need an exit strategy from the dream…. Self-determination is through individual dignity.”
From my experiences working in the remote areas of Western Australia, I would have to agree with him.