Apologies are not enough

Increased integration of isolated Aboriginal communities could hold the key to reconciliation, writes Peter Howson

Australian Financial Review, 5 June 2002.

The 10th anniversary of Mabo has produced some recognition that land is not the answer to Aboriginal progress. Since 1976, Aborigines have held a large proportion of land in the Northern Territory, but its Government recently joined with the Commonwealth in providing permanent doctors in 21 territory health zones to deal with the particularly poor health of Aborigines in remoter communities.

Yet a recent major ABS report on discrete remote communities shows that 85 per cent of the residents of such communities are within 10 kilometres of either a hospital or a community health centre. This suggests that the causes of the health problems may not be lack of services.

A major one is undoubtedly the combination of few employment opportunities (government funded projects aside) and the heavy welfare dependence of Aborigines in these communities. [Omitted from published article: After spending 25 years living in them, the Reverend Steve Etherington wrote recently that "tribal aborigines are a kept people….. The vast majority are never required to learn anything or do anything. Erosion of the capacity for initiative and self-help are virtually complete"].

Limited prospects of economic advancement and comparative social isolation has led to widespread resort to alcoholism, conflict and violence. The idea that more land or apologies would overcome these horrendous problems is naïve in the extreme.

Prime Minister John Howard complained recently that Aboriginal communities are in a disgraceful state and compared the experience of many indigenous people with the nation’s success in absorbing migrants. While noting that many Aborigines are fully integrated, he also observed that many are not and part of the problem is their physical separation from the rest of society.

True, governments do face great difficulties in providing adequate services to discrete remote communities. The ABS report reveals an extraordinarily large number of communities (over 1200) in which 108,000 people reside - an average of only 90 per community. There are much higher costs of providing services on such a small scale.

[Omitted from published article: Unsurprisingly, these remote communities are heavily concentrated in the Northern Territory (632) and Western Australia (283), but Queensland (142) and South Australia (96) also have a significant number]. About 700 are over an hour’s travel away from the nearest town, with almost 140 requiring over five hours travel. Allowing for non-indigenous residents, it therefore seems that around 20 per cent of our 430,000 Aborigines continue to live largely apart from the rest of society.

But the report also shows they have public facilities not dissimilar in extent to those elsewhere. Thus, while their permanent dwellings average over 6.4 residents - considerably higher than the 2.6 for the rest of society - that does not appear to suggest serious over-crowding overall. Almost all larger communities have organized water, sewerage, electricity supplies [and even rubbish collections] and although public phones are not universally available, only very few of the larger communities do not receive radio or TV broadcasts. Primary schools are less than 10 kilometres away for 87 per cent of residents of these communities [and a high proportion have sporting facilities].

Part of Mr Howard’s perceived problem derives from the report’s conclusions that more than 30 per cent of dwellings managed by indigenous housing organisations are in need of major repair each year; that annual maintenance expenditure per dwelling is high; that over a third of communities experience water restrictions each year mostly due to equipment breakdowns; and that nearly half of the larger communities experience annual overflows or leakages from sewerage systems.

In short, in circumstances where few privately owned dwellings exist and residents subsist largely on welfare, the publicly provided facilities are not well maintained by residents. [Indeed, maintenance of dwellings and public facilities is heavily dependent on the use of non-indigenous labour and managers]. The Prime Minister’s remarks left unanswered the important questions of the on-going viability of communities where this separation occurs and of possible alternative policies.

The irony is that the generosity of the taxpayer may be making the situation worse. The more that facilities and welfare are provided to these communities, the less inclined the residents will be to make the integrationist moves that provide the basis for an improved life style and for securing real employment.

Ideally, support for these communities should be reduced in the interests of the residents themselves: the provision of more doctors means more treatment but does not attack the underlying causes of the poor health. A more practical alternative may be to encourage the movement of residents into

Australian society through the provision of substantial housing, employment and education subsidies for those prepared to move. Either way, the road to reconciliation is most likely to be found through measures that encourage what is now a desperate need for increased integration.

Peter Howson was minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971-72