Articles index

Black policies have bred failure

Separatism hasn’t helped Aborigines; it’s time for change,
says Peter Howson

The Australian, 21 January 2002

Little noticed features of the third Howard Government are the new ministries covering, first, immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs, and second, citizenship and multicultural affairs. The accompanying announcement that the Government will enhance its efforts to promote the concept of citizenship as a unifying force in Australian society recognises the need for a major change of emphasis in tackling the serious problems within many Aboriginal communities.

Papers presented at last year’s Bennelong Society conference provide a basis through their identification of mistakes from policies of deliberately encouraging separate traditional Aboriginal communities over the past twenty-five years. As a one time Liberal-National Minister for Aboriginal Affairs I welcome the recent initiative of former Labor Minister, Gary Johns, in publishing many of these papers in "Waking Up To Dreamtime: The Illusion of Aboriginal Self-Determination" (Media Masters).

In a biting analysis, Johns’ own paper exposes the fallacies in the outdated support for a treaty and a form of separation (including even the effective application of separate customary laws), maintained in varying degrees by bodies such as Reconciliation Australia. His paper opens up the possibility of a more bipartisan approach, perhaps even persuading second thoughts amongst those in the intellectual elite with a fascination for primitive cultures.

Recently, Minister Tony Abbott rightly emphasised that the reconciliation some presently pursue has become a weapon to wield against the traditional conception of Australia. Future relationships with Aborigines need to be developed within one country and under one law rather than pursuing a separatist agenda, which is counter-productive to achieving genuine reconciliation.

The problems with the attempts to develop Aboriginal communities separately have been highlighted in a most moving and disturbing chapter written by Anglican vicar, Steve Etherington. Having spent 23 years living in Aboriginal communities he is well qualified to provide a lesson to all genuinely concerned with reconciliation.

The desperate situation he exposes in the remoter communities, despite the availability of services and the well-meaning and valiant attempts of many white helpers, reveals the failures of the past thirty years of well meant but misguided benevolence. The lesson? On its own, benevolence kills.

For example, he points out that tribal Aborigines no longer grow or find their own food, and are never required to become educated or build their own homes: they are in effect a kept people. Indeed, contrary to what was hoped, the communities are largely funded and run by white advisers who operate through Aboriginal committees but are the effective decision-makers. With this enforced, sudden and very premature move to supposed self-management, and the rampant alcoholism, Aboriginal leaders have largely disappeared in what Etherington disturbingly characterizes as the loss of a generation. In this environment traditional cultural practices are much diminished, indeed sometimes forgotten.

Present policies, he argues, are creating a disaster in remote Aboriginal Australia by establishing a group of people who are on permanent holiday at the community centres. Etherington emphasizes the need to lift the abysmally low standard of education, particularly the learning of English and other skills needed to handle the outside world, which most Aboriginal parents want but find difficult to obtain.

He also proposes to move beyond the sheltered forms of government-subsidized employment. Less than half of the 47,000 Aborigines living in sparsely settled areas are employed and a significant proportion of them are only employed because of the Community Development Employment Projects scheme.

Communal land rights seriously inhibit both private enterprise and employment and changes here could help, he believes, create investment and real employment. More realistically, perhaps, some of the $400 million pa expended under the CDEP might be diverted to create opportunities for productive employment in areas where real jobs exist.

Another contributor, university researcher Stephanie Jarrett, draws on her experience living in an Aboriginal community to call for unwavering rather than reluctant state intervention into domestic violence. Her experience makes for horrifying reading for those concerned with human rights.

The vitally important question of what to do to stop abuse against Aboriginal children, reflected in the very high rate of separations of children from parents, makes nonsense of the continued attention given the alleged forcible separations of children in the past. To date, the intellectual elites have provided few answers.

The new evidence contained in this important book confirms that the separatist policies pursued for the last 30 years have produced much misery amongst remote Aboriginal communities. While Philip Ruddock announced last week that improved services would be provided to impoverished communities, they must also be accompanied by measures to encourage greater integration.

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