On October 10, 2006 Mal Brough, Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, was a member of the panel at a forum on reconciliation held by youth organisation ReconciliACTion. While responding to a question from the audience, the minister briefly discussed a then forthcoming policy. Although these comments were not recorded or reported (the summary below is based on my own notes), they are worth recounting now.
The issue of remote communities and violence had been raised. On this subject Brough wanted to share a story of a letter which he had received. The minister described how the letter was written in longhand, and how the young woman who had written it had gone through and corrected her punctuation as best she could. The young woman had grown up in Papunya.
Brough recounted carefully what she had written: “I have known violence, I have known rape, I have known suicide. I left Papunya when I became pregnant because otherwise my child would not grow up.” As it turned out, this young woman now lived near Brough’s electoral office, and so his wife went to visit her.
The way that this young woman talked had clearly made an impression on Brough - and led him to ask whether there were any international students present, surmising that they would know what he was talking about. This young woman talked like someone from a war-torn country, “like a refugee”, he told the audience. She talked about all the good things in “our” society - of our freedom and our safety. Brough was shocked that someone could be talking “like a refugee”, yet be “escaping” not from another country but from the middle of Australia.
In fact, Brough said, the government would soon be announcing what he thought would be a very “exciting” new program, one that would be regarded as a leading initiative. This program would enable non-Indigenous Australians, people who have never been to an Indigenous community, to stay in a remote community for a short time, and to learn about Indigenous culture.
In return, they would be able to “give something back” to the community, using their trade or skills. For example, Brough explained, a plumber might do some plumbing work, or train some local people.
This new program, Brough told the audience, would also become like “a highway for escape” for people like this young woman from Papunya. It would help them to escape, he said, not to “fringe towns” like Alice Springs or Cairns or Tennant Creek, but to places where there are “people who care” about them.
That “exciting” program was launched on Sunday, November 26. Entitled Senior Volunteers for Indigenous Communities, it will “provide opportunities for senior Australians to use their significant expertise, skills and life experiences to provide practical assistance to remote Indigenous communities”, according to the Minister’s press release.
“Remote Indigenous communities have been isolated for too long from interaction with mainstream Australia. They are starved of information and they need access to skilled people”, the release said. As well as combating the lack of skills and services in remote communities, the program will encourage “long-term, lasting relationships” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and hence “it is about practical reconciliation”.
Brough repeated the “escape” theme in an interview on Channel Ten’s Meet the Press that Sunday:
If you’re in a remote community, then the way out can seem very daunting. The rest of Australia can seem something quite difficult to attain. If you’re having Australians from Sydney and Melbourne … going to a locality year after year … building up a relationship, then you’re also building up a group of people who have a connection with that community now in a city. Should a young person decide to go to school, university, then they have someone and a group of friends, … as a support mechanism.
It seem, then, that the Senior Volunteers for Indigenous Communities program is not intended to simply foster cross-cultural understanding, also to foster personal ties which will enable people who wish to leave remote communities to do so.