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Indigenous life is improving, Redfern just reminds us solutions take time

By Amanda Vanstone - posted Monday, 23 February 2004

The Redfern riot was a brutal reminder of the problems we face in indigenous policy in Australia.

For decades, governments at all levels and of all persuasions have, in good faith, been devising policies meant to benefit indigenous Australians. Whatever else we might choose to say about this, we cannot ignore the simple fact that indigenous Australians have not got value for the money that has been spent.

The Redfern riot makes most of us angry and frustrated - angry at the lawlessness; frustrated that years of spending and good intentions haven't avoided this. It's ironic that a riot that makes most of us angry and frustrated was itself fed, in part at least, by frustration and anger.


It seems that almost every day there are negative stories about indigenous issues. These stories, and many more we all hear of, paint a bleak picture of indigenous affairs in Australia. These problems grab our attention. We want them fixed and fixed quickly. We must focus on them - but the trick is to focus on the real problems, not just the symptoms.

The problems facing indigenous Australia are many and varied. And they are very long term. They did not happen overnight and they will not be solved quickly. There is no magic wand.

I don't say that to thwart the hopes of indigenous Australians who want improvements and want them soon. Nor do I say it as an excuse for turning a blind eye to current events.

Lawlessness and violence are unacceptable. Perpetrators should be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.

ATSIC has been under almost constant attack for not doing its bit. Reform of ATSIC is needed urgently. The status quo is not an option. The questions surrounding ATSIC's leadership also need to be resolved. The ATSIC Act lays down the procedure to be followed when the minister forms the view that someone should be removed from office. Due process needs to be followed.

Under the present circumstances relating to ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark, it is not a matter for the minister alone. A suspension notice must first be given, then a statement of reasons must be placed before each House of Parliament within seven sitting days. In the case of Mr Clark that was done promptly. Now, each House of Parliament has 15 sitting days within which to express a view.


The Federal Government is committed to turning around the long-term disadvantage faced by indigenous Australians. We are having some real success. If you want to give someone a future, give them an education. Under this Government the proportion of indigenous kids staying to year 12 has jumped from 29 to 38 per cent, and there has been a 32 per cent jump in students doing bachelor or higher degree courses. There are other good stories in other portfolio areas. Despite this success, there is a long way to go.

In all of this, spare a thought for all the hard-working, decent, law-abiding indigenous Australians who are wondering when the light is going to shine on the good things that are going on all around Australia. Spare a thought for the indigenous kids who never read anything positive about indigenous Australians outside the sports pages. Spare a thought for women in remote communities caring for their children without easy access to fresh, clean water, sanitation and decent housing.

When events such as the Redfern riot occur, we see the bricks and petrol bombs being thrown. What gets hidden is the work of those local residents and others who were and are still on the front line trying to calm things and move forward without blaming others.

The immediacy of current events can trick us into losing sight of the broader picture and the longer term. We shouldn't fall for it. Indigenous Australians have suffered long-term disadvantage.

How cheap and uncaring are we if we go for the political quick fix?

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This article was previously published by The Age on 20 February, 2004.

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About the Author

Senator Amanda Vanstone is Federal Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. She is a senator for South Australia.

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Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
Redfern/Waterloo Partnership Project
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