Government of all persuasions lament the socio-economic indicators which show Aborigines to be disadvantaged compared with the rest of the population. They often do so without once stopping to ask why or questioning the policies which they blindly follow.
“Isn’t it terrible,” Rudd bemoans while avidly funding outstations, those small, remote communities where families sometimes choose to live in preference to being part of a larger, wider community. Taxpayers, who all too often exclude Aborigines, are told that they must fund outstations so that those who seek to live a “traditional” lifestyle may do so if they wish. Housing is built where possible, utilities are provided and the government sits back well pleased that they have funded what Aboriginal people need. But have they?
The fact is that outstations are sometimes unoccupied for much of the year and are used as a “get-away” retreat, by people who spend much of their time in larger Aboriginal communities living in an additional taxpayer funded house. Nice to have a town house and one in the country for occasional use. If for no other reason than scarcity of housing for Aboriginal families, the use of public monies to fund housing at two locations for the same family should be questioned.
When visiting relatives or even the same language group, it was - and is - often regarded as traditional that visitors will be accommodated and goods will be shared. Such arrangements were practical, important and necessary in traditional society, particularly a mobile one. But times have changed. The Aboriginal population is sedentary, lives in contemporary housing with limited space and limited resources.
This traditional reciprocity has been retained by some but is often abused by prolonged visits of relatives or friends. The results are overcrowded housing, demand for food which leaves a core family undernourished, violence, damage to property often accompanied by excessive use of alcohol and other drugs. These adversely affect social values, evidenced by physical assault, poor living conditions, breakdown of amenities, lack of cleanliness and deteriorating health.
There is ample evidence of overcrowded damaged housing, damaged families and damaged communities arising from abuse of this traditional value. It produces a dreadful and destructive environment where people often live in squalor and hardship. This is particularly evident in town camps in the Northern Territory and elsewhere. Combined with other factors mentioned already, these conditions contribute to Aboriginal disadvantage and despair.
In 1982 Charles Perkins identified two areas needing particular attention. First was the need to provide adequare housing and second, to promote economic development. A survey of outstanding housing needs throughout Australia was undertaken which identified the need to expend $1.2 billion over 12 years on maintenance and additional houses. The latter included the need for larger (six to eight bedroom) houses in those areas where traditional obligation was strongest. No action was taken, no funds were provided.
The consequences of living on an outstation bring its own inherent problems apart from housing. These include lack of access to schools, limited if any health services, inability to obtain skills training and absence of employment opportunities - all disadvantages we bemoan yet cheerfully fund. Several years ago, I discussed these problems with outstation residents in the NT and was politely told that the only education their children needed was an Aboriginal education in traditional beliefs and respect for them, how to live off the land and keep away from alcohol with all its problems.
Noble sentiments one may think, until kids grow up and belatedly discover that in the wider world ability to speak English is essential, literacy is a must and trade skills get you a job which pays more than the minimum wage. With these discoveries comes the realisation that the world is full of denied opportunities. And we wonder why Aboriginal youth takes to petrol sniffing, alcohol, or worse?
We all have a responsibility to ensure that the aspirations of Aboriginal youth are more than a fleeting dream which ends in glue sniffing or a tin of petrol held beneath the nose - anything to ease shattered hopes and boredom.
These problems are not limited to living on outstations. They extend to larger Aboriginal communities which despite their size can be and often are just as isolated, just as backward looking and just as closed as the remotest outstation. So, what do we do to improve the situation; to help Aboriginal communities get a better education, employment and experience of the wider world?
We build schools and provide teachers where kids can learn the three R’s, if they (or more importantly their parents) have any interest in doing so. Teachers familiar with the local language often have limited or no training in teaching and those with such training have no language other than English. As if that were not problem enough, we then adopt a policy of funding the preservation of local languages and promote their use knowing that this limits the ability of kids to benefit from secondary and tertiary education, or to get a good job.