I once heard a comment that went something like this: The aspirations of Aboriginal Australians are expressed through a political system designed, first and foremost, for the white majority. In my many years in Indigenous affairs and as
a student of Indigenous history it was a theme that dominated my public and academic life.
Australian history has left a legacy of Aboriginal inequality and disadvantage. In our self-congratulatory celebration of egalitarianism and the fair go, we conveniently overlooked that fact that our treatment of Aborigines amounted to a contradiction of the very values we claimed to espouse. The inability to regard Aborigines as equals has never really left the white consciousness.
There are a number of measures that can be used to establish the degree of inegalitarian treatment accorded to Aborigines: legal equality; political equality; economic equality; equality of opportunity; and equal satisfaction of basic needs. I could broach social injustice, government ineptness, and beaurocratic mis-management in emphasising these inequalities.
There are many disadvantages suffered by Aborigines that need remedying, but what needs to be dealt with, and in what order? Is it inadequate housing? Is it the parlous state of Aboriginal health which still results in unacceptably high infant mortality rates as well as a diminished life expectancy? Is it the rapid loss of Aboriginal culture? Or the high rate of Aboriginal unemployment? Undoubtedly the problem is complex, but where do governments start to seek remedies? What are the political solutions?
History illustrates government inability above all else to deliver any remedies, due mainly to the makings of the Australian polity. Federalism stands out, and in particular the complex space that Aboriginal affairs occupies within our political system. In a federation like Australia it can be very difficult to achieve uniformity of power. Why cannot governments that perceive the existence of a regional or national problem, for example Aboriginal health, work constructively to eradicate the problem? Who is to be blamed, Commonwealth or State?
Aboriginal affairs involves many areas of governmental responsibility, including education, health, sanitation, land use and relations with police forces, which are all State government responsibilities. When Commonwealth and State governments disagree in such matters, whose view should prevail? A great deal of essential service delivery falls within the responsibility of State governments, but these governments often fall short of delivering full and satisfactory programs.
However the argument goes much further than being based on pure politics. In a polity like Australia, where the development of the land by both farmer and miner has for so long been described as basic to Australia’s prosperity, it is difficult for governments to ignore claims from such powerful interests. The mining interest has fought particularly strongly against land rights and native title. The propaganda battle is rarely won by the central government. It is easier for a State Premier to claim that the Native Title Act threatens peoples’ backyards than it is for the Commonwealth to explain the complexities of the legislation.
This is but one of the many shortcomings if I focus on program failure or distortion, for it is in these results that many hopes and expectations are deflected, destroyed or frustrated. An analysis of service delivery reveals that the problem is multi-faceted, not only having to do with the nature of modern bureaucracies, but also with the activities of politicians, the attitudes of white Australians, and the perceptions o Aborigines themselves.
In this arena of political and public perceptions, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) used to come under some heavy fire; from politicians, the media, and the wider community. Perhaps there was resentment because ATSIC had given Aboriginal people a voice in the political system.
The argument on this was compelling. Many Australians watched distrustfully as, under Whitlam’s grandiosity in 1972, large amounts of money were directed to Aboriginal affairs. As a result there was a great deal of importance placed on the need for ATSIC, in particular, to be accountable for its operations, reflecting no doubt the uncertainties of whites concerning the standards of operations of black institutions. Following accusations of the misuse of money, audits were made of
various bodies, again nominally ATSIC, and government funds for many Aboriginal services were reduced, and eventually, ATSIC was wiped from the political and social landscape. Yet claims about ATSIC’s waste of public money usually ignored the difficulties that that body had in delivering any worthwhile services to the Indigenous community. ATSIC had an unbelievable array of demands on its finite budget and was simply not in a position to meet every demand.
At the time I was passionate in my condemnation of the Howard Government. Howard’s commitment to the reduction of government spending in Aboriginal affairs administration has often been cited. Also political parties have come to be so
divided on Aboriginal issues – why the likes of the Howard Government was less sympathetic to Aboriginal issues, or too cautious in the invocation of Commonwealth power for the benefit of Aborigines than were the previous Labor
Governments of Hawke and Keating. It is forcefully argued that Howard was indeed influenced by the claims of the more powerful interest groups.
Political parties’ views are extremely important in helping explain the place of Aboriginal people in the Australian political system. A series of questions that were asked of a sample of members of parliament – while Howard was prime minister – revealed the existence of varying party views that form an important framework to the development of Aboriginal policy. Some of the differences between Labor and Coalition MPs were imposing. It is worth having a look at some of these answers as they clearly identify who did and did not support Aboriginal causes. Consider them as a backdrop to discussions on issues such as Mabo, Wik, Native Title, the Stolen Generation or the more contemporary Northern Territory intervention.
Members of parliament – support for Aborigines
- Government has responsibility to grant land rights. 93.2 40.8
- Settle land claims before development. 78.2 24.2
- Aborigines should have special cultural protection. 76.7 43.7
- Approve of treaty recognising Aboriginal rights. 85.6 11.2
- Law should allow for Aboriginal customs. 60.0 21.4
- Constitution should recognise Aboriginal self-government. 29.0 4.6
- Aborigines should not be assimilated. 80.3 42.2
I could attack the media with as much veracity as I do the political interests. Press coverage should help ensure that the area of public policy is kept well and truly on the political agenda, for without it would be very difficult for Aboriginal interests to achieve anything of importance. Perhaps the best example in recent years has been the manner in which the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody disappeared from sight once the report became public. Such a lack of sustained coverage makes it easier for governments to ignore many matters of short-term
notoriety. The desire for a story often overrides considerations of accuracy or fairness. Who could argue with this? Drunkenness, rioting and poor living conditions are given more attention than the stories that could show Aborigines playing a positive role in the general community.
In recent years, the desire of Aboriginal people to lead lives with as much freedom from government constraint as possible has grown to the point where it is now a major element in the way in which they see their future relationship with the Australian nation. Aboriginal people were sovereign before 1788, and many demand the right to be sovereign again. This desire for autonomy is just one of the perspectives of how Aboriginal people would like to be perceived by governments.
That would be a good place to start.