COVER STORY: No quick fix for suffering Aboriginal communities
News Weekly, July 8, 2006
Is a law-and-order crackdown sufficient, on its own, to overcome the problems of remote Aboriginal communities?
State and Northern Territory Government ministers were right to walk away from the recent Canberra summit aimed at solving the problems of remote Aboriginal communities.
Hastily convened, poorly thought out and conceived as a knee-jerk reaction to a spate of media reports about abuse, violence and substance addiction in outback communities, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough appeared to be looking for a quick fix.
Similarly, Health Minister Tony Abbott's poorly-chosen words in calling for a policy of "new paternalism" were inflammatory and unhelpful.
The states want the Federal Government to think more about its proposals and reconvene.
The problems of Australia's indigenous communities are so deep and appalling that, while urgent and decisive action is desperately needed, the Howard Government needs the cooperation of Aboriginal people themselves.
To be fair to Mr Brough, some of his proposals are commendable and Mr Abbott is also correct in his call for administrators to be sent in to address the appalling living standards in some self-governed communities.
Local governments which mismanage their finances have administrators, so why can't Aboriginal communities — some of which are like small Third World countries — be treated in the same way? But after a decade in office, the Howard Government is at least finally concentrating its collective mind on the tragedy of Australia's indigenous population.
Mr Brough wants to have a law-enforcement presence in outback communities — with police who have the will and resources to clamp down on the perpetrators of violence and sexual abuse of women and children.
And he also wants to get rid of the concept of "customary law" which is used by some Aboriginal men to dodge responsibility for their crimes.
Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson agrees with a law-and-order crackdown, but also knows that much more is needed than simply jailing wrongdoers.
"You've actually got to work in partnership with sober people, with the good people," he said.
Indeed, if there were a quick solution, one would have been found long ago.
Mr Pearson also agrees with Mr Abbott on the need for intervention in some communities, but also rejects a "big government" solution.
"Ultimately, the security and safety of Aboriginal children in the future has got to be ultimately the responsibility of parents," he said.
"At the end of the day, our salvation lies with us."
For 30 years or so, Aboriginal communities have been subject to one of the worst experiments in social engineering imaginable.
Based on the idea of retaining their culture, and on Marxist concepts of communal living and ownership, Aborigines have been forced to live off the public teat and in squalor in what has been rightfully described as "cultural museums".
But even leading Aboriginal thinkers are now rejecting this approach.
In a recent article, Mr Pearson said Aborigines should be given everything they need to lift themselves into the modern world, but not at the expense of totally killing their own culture and ability to make decisions for themselves.
"We should be able to agree with conservative and Liberal people that Aboriginal Australians need modernity, geographic mobility, full command of English, education and economic integration," Mr Pearson said.
"Cultural relativism should be rejected in favour of embracing modernity when it comes to the fundamental economic and social organisation of societies.
"It is natural for peoples to advance from hunting and gathering to agriculture to industrialism. What peoples retain is a matter of cultural and spiritual choice."
But just as Europeans have cherished their own history and culture, so too do many Aboriginal people, and should be allowed to nurture them.
"We have a right to government support for a modern, literate, prosperous version of our culture," he said.
"This right to cultural continuity is exactly the same right the non-indigenous conservatives demand when they fight to prevent postmodern gobbledegook from pushing knowledge about old Western culture out of the curriculum."
Treasurer Peter Costello appears also to have captured the mood of the debate without offering gratuitous snappy solutions.
"We had assimilation, then we had self-government, then we had self-determination, then we had reconciliation. Now we're back to practical reconciliation," Mr Costello said.
"At the end of all of that, and at the end of about $3 billion, which is what we will spend every year on Aboriginal affairs, life expectancy is still terrible, infant mortality is terrible, education is terrible.
"We've now got incest in some of these communities, we've got crimes against the person. ...
"There's been a lot of goodwill and a lot of money, but no shining success stories."
Perhaps the time has come for government to take a serious look at the problem.