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The Objectives of the Bennelong Society

By Peter Howson

A slightly edited version of the article was published in The Age on 7 June 2001

The major shift in the debate over the policy that should be adopted towards relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is reflected in the creation of the Bennelong Society, chaired by former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Senator John Herron and including two Aborigines amongst its board members. The Society has been named after Sydney Aborigine Bennelong who developed friendly relations with Governor Philip almost from the start of Australian settlement in 1788.

The Society has been created following the workshop I arranged last December at which several speakers used their long experience working in Aboriginal communities to highlight the main problems. The papers presented by three clerics were particularly important in this regard.

The web site of the society (www.bennelong.com.au) now contains the papers from the workshop and will include further analyses of problems in the current relationship as these are developed. The society will give particular emphasis to changes needed in government policies.

Of course, the hardest part is to identify what might be achievable politically. The problems identified by speakers clearly demonstrated the failure of the 25 year experiment with the policy of deliberately encouraging separate traditional Aboriginal communities based on communal land rights.

The speakers indicated that the practical result of the policy has been the creation of an environment offering very limited prospects of employment. They are in a sense trapped in cultural prisons, no longer relying on the hunter-gathering pursuits of their ancestors but not having acquired the new skills required to prosper in the changed environment. They are thus now essentially dependent on the dead-end of social welfare benefits.

Particularly worrying is the effective breakdown of law and order within many Aboriginal communities, which are often veritable powder kegs of tension, fuelled by alcohol in particular. The acts of violence being inflicted on women and children in particular are horrific. As the recently published Child Protection report for 1999-00 shows, nearly 4,000 indigenous children had to be removed from their parents to protect them from abuse. This (understated) rate of removal was nearly six times higher than for non-indigenous children.

Unsurprisingly, Aborigines are increasingly leaving the remote communities for more urban centres, where around 75 per cent now reside. However, the neglect of education, and the accompanying low literacy levels, threaten to create a longer term problem even outside these communities.

To succeed in reducing this serious situation requires a bipartisan effort. The movement away from the more isolated communities, and the situations within them, indicates that the proponents of a treaty and reliance on customary law are out of touch with reality. Strong leadership will be required to overcome the separatist policy, not by imposing solutions but by encouraging movement into the wider community.

Robert Manne argues (Long May the Flag Fly, 4 June) that, if the traditional communities are destroyed, one distinctive expression of human life will simply become extinct. But he fails to acknowledge that behaviour within these communities is not only destroying traditional cultures: it also has devastating effects on the human beings that should not be allowed to continue.

The first serious step should be for the Commonwealth and State Ministers of Aboriginal Affairs to meet to try to agree what to do. The leaders of Federal and State Governments must meet soon after and agree a program of action.

Such a program might include the following.

  • A statement agreed by all Government leaders, for circulation to all Aboriginal communities, that accepts the traditional links with land but outlines the problems for Aboriginals themselves in sustaining communities based almost entirely on land and social welfare. Agreement also on the need to share the cost of the additional funding required to deal with the problem.
  • Provision of an incentive to those presently living in traditional communities to move to urban areas, including regional towns and cities. Possible incentives might range from cash grants to (additional) subsidies for housing.
  • The establishment of substantial policing units in Aboriginal communities and the (eventual) inclusion in those units of Aborigines trained for that purpose.
  • The establishment of alcohol free zones that would include residential areas and would allow the barring of entry to those under the influence.
  • Attempts to reduce truancy rates of up to 60 per cent by the provision of additional teaching and administrative staff and the enforcement of Australian law requiring children to attend school. A requirement that English be the main language taught, the only way to ensure that they can find employment.
  • The establishment in the communities of safe havens to which those fearful of damage or even their lives could flee temporarily.


Some of such possibilities will seem radical, even extreme. However, as Arnhemland expert Richard Trudgeon points out, the alternative to inaction is "these warriors will just lie down and die".

Peter Howson, who was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972, is Vice- President of the Bennelong Society. .