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So who's the problem?

By Colin Tatz - posted Friday, 15 November 2013

Not one of our political parties has a distinctive answer to what society calls "the Aboriginal problem". Is the problem really a result of genetic and cultural cussedness within our 550,000 remote, rural, peri-urban and urban Aboriginal and Islander communities? Or is the dilemma the legacy of colonisation and decolonisation that remains so pervasive - an inability or an unwillingness to step outside the boxes that have constricted our thinking for over a century?

The catchcries come and go, from Balgo to Cargelligo. The record shows a long list of failed "-ations": pacification, segregation, protection-segregation, assimilation, integration, self-determination, self-management, mutual obligation and reciprocity agreements, reconciliation, practical reconciliation, intervention, emergency intervention, closing the gap. In office, each government "discovers" a new broom, each one as old as its predecessor. Wording changes, but what remains is an existential reality.

For the majority, the realities are poor or no housing, overcrowding where there is shelter, or in slum conditions; a lack of potable water, excreta and garbage disposal, lack of constant electricity, and poor sanitation generally; poor roads and access to mainstream services; bad nutrition; near-hopeless economies; lack of adequate education and vocational training; considerable ill-health, low life expectation, higher than normal infant mortality, excessive prevalence of communicable diseases, a higher rate, by far, of "urban diseases" like diabetes, heart and renal diseases, a much higher prevalence of deaths from non-natural causes; alcohol and drug consequences; and suicide rates that in some domains go off the world's charts. Added to that, there is a near world-record incarceration rate of both adults and juveniles.


I have been "watching" Aboriginal affairs for over fifty years now. Was it always thus? No. What has to be explained is why many of these social indicators - particularly in the realms of physical and mental health, housing shortages, environmental conditions, nutrition, increasing criminal statistics, physical harm to others and to selves - have worsened over the recent decades.

Certainly many things have improved since the 1960s: the restrictive legislation that made Aborigines and Islanders a separate legal class of person have been abolished. They were meant to protect Aborigines from "imposition, injustice and fraud" but those statutes denied basic rights to vote, drink, leave reserves, intermarry, have sex across the colour line, join trade unions, and be paid social service benefits directly. Freedom has meant the chance to act on stage and screen, to direct movies and dance groups, exhilarate the fans in sports stadiums, write novels, excite gallery viewers the world over, and build visible and active albeit smallish groups of lawyers and doctors. It has meant not quite a legion but a notable number of pupils sponsored to good private schools in urban centres. It has meant a reasonable number of vocational training projects in various industries. It has resulted in Aboriginal parliamentary representatives and even cabinet ministers. And freedom has indeed brought about a share of land rights and some say in its usages and its riches.

Governments are hell-bent on closing "gaps", mainly in the domain of vital statistics. Reductions in high infant mortality rates, morbidity rates, and in life expectation make "us" look, and feel, better. Statistical portraits don't make for the quality of life. Many more Aboriginal children now make it to age 1 but how many don't get beyond 5? How many children present with renal disease before 10? How many males are "burned out" before 50, despite the statistical increase in longevity? How many kids suicide before 15, an age below which we don't keep statistics? And so on.

One cannot quibble with the Aboriginalisation of many of today's programs - except to say that giving Aborigines a say isn't always the answer: Aborigines qua Aborigines have no greater inherent insight into diabetes, obesity, bad nutrition, mental illness than anyone else. Nor do they have any great solutions to the propensity of the young to harm others or themselves.

So who's the problem? Or what's the problem? For a start, racism still flourishes at every level, despite positive programs, proclamations about level playing fields, and anti-discrimination laws. Police behaviour towards Aborigines and Islanders hardly changes, with constant reports about what we berate as "unacceptable" conduct. Councils and shires still fail to deliver to remote communities what they deliver to white communities.

Whites still insist they know what is best for all communities, irrespective of their great diversity. Universal policies, universal programs are applied irrespective of their inapplicability to many communities. Aborigines in the north and the south, those in remote or rural communities, those who see themselves as Koori, Murri, Nyungar, Yolgnu, those who identify as South Sea Islanders, Torres Strait islanders are now "officially" no more: they are lumped together as "Indigenous" and the more homogenous the greater the need for "universality". The region-by-region, community-by-community, clan-by-clan individualised gap approach is slow, painful, often expensive, yet almost no governmental agency, federal or state, is prepared to undertake those hard yards.


While tertiary education has improved, there are still no mandatory segments on Aboriginal history, culture and social conditions in all nursing, medical, paramedical, dental, architectural, law, teacher education, social worker curricula.

Tony Abbott has indicated he wants Aboriginal Affairs in his Prime Minister's Department, a sign of his seriousness. Harold Holt did that long before him, and it made not one iota of difference. Labor and now Liberals talk about another "new deal", placing Aborigines as first peoples in the constitution. Canada did that more than 30 years ago, but there is a difference: Canadian "First Nations" have had subsequent special legislation that has delivered positive outcomes, whereas we talk only of a mention in a non-enforceable preamble to the constitution.

The new government can only do better than the last Labor government on Aboriginal–Islander matters. It has the chance to abandon the disastrous Mal Brough 'emergency intervention', but probably won't. It has the chance to introduce two new "-ation" words into the Aboriginal lexicon - compensation and reparation - but won't. It has the chance to learn from New Zealand practices on Maori and Islanders, and won't. It has the chance to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates by funding more legal aid offices: but, instead, cuts funding to those bodies. It has the chance to reorganise government departments and to re-allocate functions that ensure the primacy of Aboriginal care and attention. It won't. Can Abbott translate his feelings of care to actual care? No, he can't.

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About the Author

Colin Tatz is a visiting fellow at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University. He is the author of Aboriginal Suicide is Different.

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