Abandoning ATSIC
not enough to bring
about needed change

Canberra Times, 23rd June 2004

Former Aboriginal Affairs minister Peter Howson says welfare is destructive

Following the Government's decision to wind up ATSIC and to not have any separate elected body for Aborigines, suspended ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark persuaded his second (female) cousin to point the bone at Prime Minister Howard. Such attempted destructive magic proved yet another ATSIC leadership failure as, according to relative Len Clarke, bone pointing by females can simply "turn the spirits right back on you"!

The spirits are undoubtedly right behind the Howard Government's path-breaking reversal of the Hawke Cabinet's cave-in to the socialist fantasies of its left wing. That faction's ambition for a sovereign Aboriginal state reflected the Rousseauvian fantasy of the innocent and noble savage who needs to be isolated for his own protection from the corrupting influences of Christianity and capitalism. Following caucus agreement by a narrow margin, ATSIC came into existence in 1989 with a political agenda of self-determination envisaging the negotiation of a treaty with the Australian Government, and with a body elected from a racially based electoral roll and large annual funding.

Opposition Leader Mark Latham promotes himself as having a modern image. Yet his proposed replacement of ATSIC with a different but elected body indicates Labor remains well behind the ball game. Most Aborigines have long recognized the ineffectiveness of ATSIC and, with relatively few bothering to vote in elections, have showed little enthusiasm for separate political representation. Would a new elected body attract even Aboriginal support when it would again promote the separatist doctrine and again fail to address the underlying problem? Or will the very favourable reaction in

New Zealand to the National Party's new policy of abandoning special treatment for Maori be replicated in Australia?

The underlying problem was identified in Territories Minister Paul Hasluck's thesis that the only possible future for the Aboriginal people in remote communities was for them to merge into and become full members of the European community. Hasluck has been largely proven right, with three-quarters of the over 400,000 Aborigines rejecting separatism and joining mainstream Australia in cities and provincial towns.

Moreover, around 70 percent of indigenous adults are married to non-indigenous spouses, up from 46 per cent in 1986, and the majority of Aborigines are now of mixed descent. Over 70 per cent profess Christianity and only about 12 per cent speak an indigenous language at home. And the vast majority of Aborigines want to live with or near the rest of the Australian population: in 2001 over 70 per cent were living in major cities or in or close to rural towns, compared with 46 per cent in 1971.

However, 100,000 or so Aborigines continue living in over 1200 remote communities in the most appalling conditions of lawlessness, violence, suicide, and substance abuse. The Reverend Steve Etherington, who has lived in a traditional Aboriginal community for 23 years, wrote two years ago that "tribal Aborigines in Australia are a 'kept' people: they are no longer required to grow or find their own food, are never required to become educated, never required to build their own homes or buy their own vehicles the vast majority are never required to learn anything or to do anything. Erosion of the capacity for initiative and self-help are virtually complete."

Former Queensland health worker, Doug Gladman, concluded that the high rate of head injury amongst Aboriginal communities in Cape York reflected the "loss of the role of the male in these remoter communities".

That fundamental problem is that there is little for anyone to do in these communities. Aboriginal culture is much admired in some quarters but, in such communities, it no longer provides a reason for living and a purpose to life. As in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, the reality there is that "the life of man, [is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short".

The contrast between those Aborigines who have escaped into civilisation, and those who have not, is starkly evident from census and other data. Those who have integrated have substantially improved their living standards, education and employment and health levels.

Yet the Government says that, with ATSIC out of the way, the "mainstreaming" of the delivery of the already extensive services it provides will overcome the problem. This fails to point the bone at the root source, viz the remote communities themselves, which are only kept going through welfare and other assistance.

Short of closing down these communities, the children there must be got into schools outside them where they can learn the basics of contemporary life and obtain employment skills. Aboriginal Hostels must be expanded to provide appropriate accommodation for these children. The provision of infrastructure and other assistance to the 900 communities with average populations of only fifteen should cease.

The Government, through Minister Vanstone and her Task Force, must now adopt these and other measures to encourage remote community residents and their children to become part of the wider Australian community.

Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and is Vice-President of the Bennelong Society. This is an edited version of his article in the June issue of Quadrant.