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Finding the future: three approaches to the problems in Aboriginal communities

By Hal Wootten - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002

Nulloo Yumbah, A Place of Indigenous Learning and Research, is a Support, Research and Development Centre of Central Queensland University. The University has recently established The CQU-Nulloo Yumbah Annual lecture series. The lectures are intended to have a focus on reconciliation and will be given in alternate years by an indigenous and a non-indigenous speaker. The following is an extract from the inaugural lecture, given in Rockhampton on 1 May 2002 by Hal Wootten QC AC. An expanded and annotated version of the lecture will be published as a monograph by CQU.

In 1972 the Whitlam Government initiated what became a bipartisan consensus in Aboriginal policy. It was founded on a recognition that Aboriginal people were the most socioeconomically disadvantaged within Australia, as shown by statistics on health, life expectancy, education, housing, employment, income and imprisonment, and it accepted that this state of affairs was the end result of colonial dispossession and subsequent government policies. There was support for substantial expenditure to redress social and economic disadvantage. The old assimilation policy was replaced by self-determination, and respect for Aboriginal identity, cultural aspirations, heritage and land rights.

Despite the Howard Government’s rejection of parts of the consensus, substantial expenditure to remedy Aboriginal disadvantage has continued, and ATSIC and native title have not been repealed.


For roughly a quarter of a century there was little public questioning of the consensus, and a widespread acquiescence in the substantial expenditure involved. But this was based on an assumption that it would achieve its objectives, and the internationally embarrassing statistical gap between black and white Australia would substantially diminish within a reasonable time.

Overall the gap has not narrowed, few of the statistics have improved, and some have got worse. Most disturbing are accounts of Aboriginal communities with widespread alcohol and drug abuse; petrol, paint and glue sniffing; chronic welfare dependency; family breakdown; neglect of children; youth suicide; violence and physical and sexual abuse of women and children. While remote communities are most severely affected, most communities appear to suffer these problems in some degree.

I will discuss three responses to this situation – what I will call for want of better terms the Left, the Right and community reform.

The Left have an honourable record in fighting for rights and for government assistance, but faced by the crisis in the communities, they have mostly put their heads in the sands, and are all too ready to accuse anyone who tries to discuss the problems of ‘blaming the victim’. They concentrate on the ‘rights agenda’, and focus on constitutional amendments and treaties, which, whatever their ultimate value, send no useful message to the communities about today’s problems.

Aboriginal history is reduced to a simple story of colonial oppression, of which current problems are symptoms. But for the last 30 years policy has sought to improve the lot of Aboriginals and to increase the say they have over their lives. The efforts may often have been inadequate, stupid and ham-fisted, bureaucratic, or racist, but they have changed the questions that need to be asked.

It is no longer a question of why Aboriginals are shot but why they die early from life-style diseases or take their own lives; no longer why Aboriginal children are not allowed into proper schools, but why many children won’t go to them; no longer why Aboriginals are starving, but why so many choose fast foods and soft drinks that shorten their lives; no longer why they don’t have houses but why houses don’t last; no longer why they are denied the right to drink, but why so many drink to excess.


The Right say that the problems are caused by welfare and by self-determination; we should have stuck to assimilation or integration, and insisted that Aboriginals work. In essence they see a choice between the primitive culture that Aboriginals had and modern industrial society; the job is to move Aboriginals from one to the other as quickly as possible, with none of the self-determination nonsense that makes people think there is any alternative.

This approach is arrogant, and unworkable because it gives at best only a token recognition to the Aboriginal identity that is so precious and tenacious. It speaks about culture as if it were some fixed thing that can be put on or taken off like a uniform. Culture changes every day as society is shaped by the myriads of choices that its members make or refrain from making as they go about their lives.

When one society comes into contact with another, members of each get attracted to features of the other. Aboriginal societies were so long cut off from modernised societies that when contact finally came, they found many attractive novelties – flour, sugar, tea, beef, soft drink and alcohol, firearms, Toyotas, aeroplane, writing, new artistic forms, new sports, professional and other interesting careers, science, organised religions…. Some were easily adopted; some had too high a price; some, like alcohol, brought fundamental disruptions to their societies.

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About the Author

The Hon Hal Wootten AC QC was a Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1988-91.

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Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
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