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The future for Australia’s Aboriginal people

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 12 October 2017


My trip to the Kimberley has rekindled my interest in looking at what might be the case in 2067 with respect to our Aboriginal people. I'm using the 'A' word rather than 'indigenous', for two reasons. The first is that in the Kimberley and later in Perth it became clear to me that we in the East use 'indigenous' because it embraces both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, and somehow it has become the politically correct term. There are only a few thousand Torres Strait Islanders on the islands themselves, the great majority of the rest living in North Queensland, and seemingly happy to be called Aboriginal as well. The second is that Aboriginal people, at least in the remoter parts of W.A., want to be called 'Aborigines/als' or 'blacks'. 'Indigenous',it was put to me. is 'pissant Canberra talk'.

How many Aboriginal people are there? About 700,000. How many live in urban settings? About three quarters of them. Of the others, 9 per cent live in remote areas, and 15 per cent in very remote areas. In Western Australia, 24 per cent live in regional areas and 41 per cent live in remote areas. It is, on the whole, about the latter group, across Australia (but mostly in W.A., the Northern Territory and Queensland) where we find considerable media and political attention. You can find details of the distribution of the Aboriginal people here.

While we hear much talk about 'crisis', it has to be asserted, again and again, that there have been huge improvements in the lives and conditions of Aboriginal people in the last fifty years, and there is no reason to suppose that this trend will come to a stop. Yes, everyone concerned with the issues of Aboriginal health, proportions in custody, domestic violence, education, and so on wants faster progress than we are seeing. But social and cultural changes occur slowly even after revolutions (which are political rather than social). What are the prospects for the future?

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What follows are my own thoughts about what might happen to those Aboriginal people in the 'remote' areas. A visit to the Kimberley will emphasise to the visitor just what is meant by 'remote'. My ideas have been germinating over the last half-century, and I have written about these issues before, as here, though that issue was written five years ago.

Let me say at once that I do not accept that the future of Australia's Aboriginal people is something for them alone to work out. We are all citizens of our country, and its problems are our problems. We don't accept, for example, that the problems in health are only for doctors, or that the shape and size of the military are only for high-ranking officers to sort out. We all have a stake in our country's future, and in this area my views are as valid as anyone else's, especially when they involve law-making and thus politics. Nonetheless, I put them forward modestly. I do not think I must have all the right answers, and am interested in the arguments of other people. This is work in progress, not a definitive statement.

First, in the long run, the outcome will be that Aboriginal Australians are simply Australians. All being well, all those councils and committees and government programs that have the 'Aboriginal' adjective in front of them will have gone. Aboriginal people are entitled to health services, education and social welfare because they are Australians, not because they are Aboriginals. Virtually all of them will have other ancestries apart from their Aboriginal heritage, and they will vary in how they respond to these heritages (as the rest of us do). They will work in all the fields that are available (as is the case now, though in smaller proportion now than will be the case in future). That makes me an 'assimilationist', but I point out at once that the Australia of today is not at all the Australia of 1950, or even 1967. The Australia of 2067 will be different again. In the progress of assimilation there is always an exchange of attitudes and behaviours.

Second, and it follows a little from the first, I see no great point in 'treaties' or special 'preambles' to the Constitution. So much energy has been wasted on what the Constitution means that I see possible harm arising through later generations of lawyers and judges wrestling with what 'we' might have meant in the early 21st century. There is no Preamble to our Constitution other than these rather formal words:

WHEREAS the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established:

And whereas it is expedient to provide for the admission into the Commonwealth of other Australasian Colonies and possessions of the Queen:

I would leave it that way. If something must be done, and I can't think what must be done, then Parliament can pass a law. Former W.A. Supreme Justice Nicolas Hasluck has a good piece in the current Quadrant on aspects of this question.

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Third, I do not agree with Keith Windschuttle that there is any real plan for a separate Aboriginal State, or any likelihood of there ever being one. I would certainly oppose such a plan if it ever had any substance. Native title is not 'freehold' in our sense. Aboriginal people in their country see themselves as 'custodians' rather than as 'owners', but certainly as custodians they see themselves as having rights and duties. I felt the same way about my university when I was a vice-chancellor: I was there to look after it, understand it, respect it and improve it - and pass it on to the next custodian. I would imagine that there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who would share that view of their roles in other organisations, too.

Fourth, Aboriginal cultures are to be respected where they deserve respect through understanding. I do not respect some aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture, like the marriage of young girls to old men, or some forms of payback, any more than I respect female genital mutilation in some Islamic cultures. What I have in mind are the 'dreaming' stories, which have their parallels in the first Book of Genesis. Much rock art tells of these origin tales. They have their own beauty and resonance. If we were to understand that moving Aboriginal people off what they see as their land is akin to excommunication, and that to place them in someone else's land is akin to asking Protestants to worship in a Catholic church - to use examples from Australia's history - then we might mend some of our ways, and improve theirs.

Fifth, successful Aboriginals in 2067 will be bi-cultural, able to use all the assets of Western material culture, but alert to their own ancestries, especially the Aboriginal one. They will be proud of that ancestral mixture. My guess is that in large parts of wider Australian society it will be chic to be able to point to an Aboriginal ancestor.

Sixth, and I repeat that I am referring mostly to those in remote communities, there must be satisfying work. It is not easy to see where that will come from, though tourism is a growth industry, and I saw and talked with Aboriginal young men and women working alongside white Australians and overseas youth on working visas. I bought a piece of art in one gallery, where the boss was a most competent young Aboriginal woman, adept at all the technology of modern commerce and communication. I have emphasised remote communities, but all the above makes sense in the cities as well, though it is likely that 'country' will be less important there, if only because those concerned are no longer living in their ancestral domains.

I finish with a vivid memory. In another Aboriginal art gallery, beautifully done, we were invited to watch a video that explained how this mob came to be where they were. It was most moving, and some of my remarks above are a distillation of that video. In it the mob performed one of the traditional dances, which they maintain as an annual event. I have seen others, so the sound and vision were if not familiar than recognisably Aboriginal. A fine crowd was watching, among them other Aboriginal men and women using their smart phones and tablets to make a record of the evening. That is the future.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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