Reports of child abuse and alcohol-fuelled violence in Aboriginal communities have finally caught our attention and triggered federal intervention in the Northern Territory. Yet such recent events are but symptoms of disadvantage and cultural division with deep historical roots.
Since the work of Fred Hollows we have known that poor living conditions and lack of health care contribute to the ill health and diminished life expectancy among Aboriginal Australians. Thirty years on, governments and community-controlled organisations still struggle to close the gap in health and social outcomes. It is time to ask why.
The simple answer is that Aboriginal health problems, whether physical, mental or spiritual, are rooted in cultural dislocation, social unrest and disadvantage. A major driver is a lack of trust and cross-cultural understanding. Politically aware Aborigines have not trusted governments to solve their problems, as few public servants have had the cross-cultural and professional knowledge to find solutions that might work.
Governments have not trusted Aboriginal organisations with enough resources, and cite the misuse of public funds through ignorance, negligence or fraud. In the welfare economy, some Aboriginal Australians have been exploited by unscrupulous whites; most have been exposed to the worst features of Western society - gambling, alcohol and violent or pornographic videos - but without the leavening influences of education and employment.
Many Indigenous Australians are now caught between two worlds, and lack the knowledge and skills to succeed in either.
In the Hasluck era in the 1950s, the response to the existential dilemma of Aboriginal Australians was policies of paternalism and assimilation. Alcohol was proscribed, with employment limited to the cattle industry for males and domestic service for females. Mission-based education provided basic skills for some traditional people. Children of mixed parentage were still being separated from siblings and sent to institutions, ostensibly for protection, even though it is now known that institutional child abuse was rife.
Some children were adopted by non-Aboriginal families; the lucky ones enjoyed a good education and became Aboriginal leaders of their generation. However, the trauma of family separation, abuse and cultural ambiguity cut down many of the stolen generation. Those with less resilience, adrift between two worlds, suffered in the same way as war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder: many took refuge in alcohol and died at an early age.
The Whitlam government oversaw many necessary changes in Aboriginal policy. Unfortunately, there were unintended consequences: equal pay requirements undermined workforce participation in the cattle industry, while welfare reduced incentives to find alternative work. Nugget Coombs and other idealists thought these policy changes would assist traditional Aboriginal people to preserve their culture. Yet the new welfare economy reduced hunting and gathering, and provided access to many appurtenances of Western life, but without providing education, understanding and resources for their prudent management and maintenance.
With these pressures on traditional lifestyle, the elders lost much of their authority, school attendance became discretionary and adolescents were increasingly involved in petrol sniffing and unsanctioned sexual activity. Alcohol-fuelled disease, conflict, and abuse of women and children produced devastating consequences.
For years, Aboriginal education fell in the gap between the views of the romantics - "We cannot teach Western knowledge and values which might destroy Aboriginal culture" - and those of the redneck Right: "We don't care if Aboriginal kids don't go to school, it saves us money."
In fact, Aboriginal children and adults needed better education to help them deal with risks and benefits flowing from a Western culture. Many children have grown up without traditional supports, and also without the basic knowledge and values that many non-Aboriginal children will have learned from their parents even before attending school.
Despite past policy failures, there is still great goodwill, through the reconciliation movement, towards Aboriginal Australians. In planning for the future, it is important to learn from the past. For example, many Aboriginal children growing up in multicultural communities such as Darwin have succeeded in education, forming lifelong friendships across the cultural divide to become productive members of the community, albeit at some cost to their traditional heritage.