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Resetting our relationship with Aboriginal people

By Michelle Fahy - posted Monday, 29 August 2011

Two weeks ago Indigenous affairs again flashed into the headlines, this time courtesy of a strategic review of Indigenous expenditure released under FOI.

Media reports focused on the revelation that Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous-specific programs is around $3.5 billion a year; an investment said to have "yielded dismally poor returns to date."

Also widely reported was the notion that remote Indigenous communities are not economically viable. The review said priority for infrastructure support and service provision should be given to "larger and more economically sustainable communities."


In an interview, Professor Jon Altman (Australian National University) stated:

The media has picked up very quickly on the notion of the viability of remote Indigenous communities, and I think that issue is an absolute furphy because we don't ask the same questions about non-Indigenous Australian communities. There's no acknowledgement … of the national interest served by Indigenous people living in remote areas… the resource management benefits, and the role they play in developing cultural industries like the visual arts … that have spin-off benefits for tourism.

Maintaining their right to live on ancestral homelands is crucially important for Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory, as Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM explains:

…once we are moved from our place of origin, we will not only lose our identity, we will die a traumatised tragic end. The fact is our body paint cannot be put on by just anyone or just anywhere or on anybody's country. We can only do that on our land. We cannot have identity if we are put into these…'growth towns'…The country is our lifeblood; that land that might just be filled with spinifex has a depth that the majority of Australian brothers and sisters don't understand ... We need to stop the destruction of the oldest living culture in Australia.

Supporting evidence comes from the Menzies School of Health Research which identified better health and environmental outcomes for people living in their ancestral homelands.

The expansion of … programs in remote Indigenous communities has the potential to deliver a healthier environment, sustainable economic development opportunities and … significant economic savings in health care expenditure.

Yet the government has ceased funding new and replacement housing on NT homelands.

Current policy prioritises 'growth towns' even though previous governments have tried this approach and found "the policy of concentrating Aboriginal Peoples in large settlements was a failure."

The call for government to create genuine partnerships with Indigenous communities has long been made and was reiterated by Mick Dodson recently:

…the answer is to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because we know what the problems [are], we ought to be able to be in charge of the answers. That has never really happened in this country. What we've done consistently is a top-down approach where policy is developed through party politics. They get into government, they implement those policies from the top down and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are rarely involved in that process.

In the divisive environment of the Intervention, true partnership seems further away than ever. Why is this so hard?

Given the amount of debate on Indigenous issues, the absence of the voices of the people concerned is telling. So the launch this week of a new book by the group 'concerned Australians' is cause for celebration.

Walk With Us is the sequel to the remarkable This Is What We Said, which was published in February 2010 and gave voice to the suffering of many Aboriginal people under the Intervention.

Walk With Us explores recent happenings. It covers government changes to legislation, the visit of two Elders to the UN, and the recent Australian visit of Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner. Most importantly, we read of the ongoing impact of the Intervention on the lives of Aboriginal people in their own words.

'The Intervention has brought the history of welfare reform back today. We don't want that. It hurts. Today a lot of our people are committing suicide; today a lot of our people can't cope with the Intervention.' George Gaymarani Pascoe, Milingimbi

'We are the Australians. Don't let…the First People of this country be rejected!...We have lived in this country as a foreigner! We invite you brothers and sisters, walk with us, then fight a system that victimises people.' Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM, Galiwin'ku

Each slim volume can be read in half an hour, but their impact is substantial. The Intervention is a complex and disturbing subject, and the voices linger.

Dr Chris Sarra (Stronger Smarter Institute) offers hope beyond the seemingly hopeless divide:

When we acknowledge the humanity of Aboriginal people we acknowledge the challenges and complexity we face together… we acknowledge a sense of human capacity to rise above such challenges, [and] a sense of worthiness to be afforded an opportunity to rise.

Here's one way the government can acknowledge the humanity of Aboriginal peoples and "reset the relationship… based on genuine consultation, engagement and partnership" (Navi Pillay).

The Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and other Elders from the Northern Territory have called for a Prescribed-Communities Representative Forum to be established to work with the government in all future planning.

What a good idea.

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About the Author

Michelle Fahy is a Canberra-based writer and editor. She also acts in a voluntary capacity as a committee member of the Cluster Munition Coalition (Australia) which represents the views of around 25 Australian NGOs on issues related to the successful implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

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