Aboriginal affairs: a history of failure

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

ALP                Lib/Nat

(%)                    (%)

  1. Government has responsibility to grant land rights.   93.2   40.8
  2. Settle land claims before development.    78.2   24.2
  3. Aborigines should have special cultural protection.   76.7   43.7
  4. Approve of treaty recognising Aboriginal rights.   85.6   11.2
  5. Law should allow for Aboriginal customs.   60.0   21.4
  6. Constitution should recognise Aboriginal self-government.   29.0   4.6
  7. 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.

32 comments on “Aboriginal affairs: a history of failure

  1. Migs,
    One has to wonder about the will of business and indeed government.

    For example Rio Tinto boasts “Our indigenous workforce has increased to six per cent, a substantial increase from 0.5 per cent in 1996.”

    A record to be proud of? That after 15 years the best that Rio Tinto can manage is an increase of .5% to 6%.

  2. Recently I asked my Indigenous daughter in law to explain how her culture is different (for the cooking – take one live pig topic) and she said, We’re not.

  3. Min, your are correct, the mines should have hundreds of Aboriginal working for them. I am sure it would not cost them much time or money to train these people.

  4. Min, the truth is that most of the Aboriginals in our community are the same as us.

    I do not see any difference in my three lovely grandsons. Their mother is another matter, but that is not of her Aboriginality but because of Lupus. She has a small amount of Indian blood that has allowed this to occur.

    It is time that those on their own traditional land gained the same respect.

    Most of my grandsons mother’s family have for generations held responsible jobs.

    Many have served in the forces, one being named a hero and a building in Canberra named after him. (The wrong side of the blanket family but documented,)

    Her father was white, an engineer and own his own business. Her mother full blood, who worked in the PS for most of her life. Both are now dead.

    When I first met her, she attempted to deny her roots, which I think is sad. In her background she has much to be proud of.

  5. CU, my indigenous granddaughter is most definitely ‘the same as us’.

    Daughter in law’s grandmother was brought down to Cairns during WW2 when they evacuated all the women and children anticipating the impending invasion of the Japanese.

    My granddaughter is 1/4 full blood and the many cousins are a mix of TSI, Aboriginal and white and when the kids are playing, there is a mix of blonde to obvious Aboriginal yet they are all the same amount of ‘blood’.

    Grandmother who sadly now suffers from Alzheimer’s boasts that not one of her 9 children has ever been on the dole. In fact if a grandchild or great grandchild ever thinks about going onto the dole then they have to front up to Akah. Daktu (grandpa) is her 5th husband 🙂

  6. Miglo, Thanks for a really interesting post demonstrating how the aspirations of Aboriginal Australians are expressed through a political system designed, first and foremost, for the white majority, That was always true and still is today. This can be seen in the way that the rights of mega rich miners take precedence over the property rights and cultural heritage of impoverished Aboriginal people, particularly here in the West.

    If you want to see how Andrew Forrest is demonstrating his much proclaimed love for Aboriginal people watch the Four Corners program about Fortescue Metals and their dealings with the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation in the Pilbara..

    Andrew Forrest wants to mine their country but is driving a hard bargain with them over payment of royalties for mining rights and industrial development which will deface their country and destroy much of their cultural heritage which, of course, is written into the landscape. If they don’t accept his terms they lose their land anyway as the law allows for compulsory acquisition.

    Forrest doesn’t see royalties for Aboriginal people as a property right for which they should be paid a fair market price, but rather as an extension of welfare! It’s welfare, he says, which has destroyed the once proud Aboriginal people he knew as a child and grew up with. I seem to remember that in the good old days when Forrest was a boy Aboriginal stockmen worked for a pittance for graziers like his family. I think Kerry O’Brien does a brilliant job of showing us the patronising and patriarchal Forrest as he really is, a tight fisted racist hypocrite.

    For all his much publicised talk of generosity and employment opportunities he’s created at FMG and elsewhere it is the Federal Government which meets the cost and does the heavy lifting of recruitment and training before placement in the so far hundreds of the theoretical ‘thousands of jobs’ Forrest claims he personally has organised with all his mining and other business friends.

    Meanwhile Forrest protects his bottom line, keeping company costs low as he offers royalties to the Yindjibarndi people which are billions less than that of other mining giants like Rio Tinto.. He has the hide to stand up at negotiation talks with the community and protest that he loves them! Yeah, loves them so much he plans to screw them, their culture and their country.

  7. It seems to be proof that no one bothers to actually read anything I post on this issue.

    I’ve gently chided people in the past about use of terms such as “full blood”, “quarter blood” etc.

    These are offensive to indigenous Australians.

    It is about time people whose self image is sensitive, learned a little more cultural sensitivity.

  8. ToM, not to my crew. Did you read my – take one live pig topic? That was great fun written with the assistance of my TSI daughter in law…she is a half blood and will freely admit to same. Her dad Chris is white but he has taken it upon himself to learn the language.

    My crew are a mix of TSI, Solomon Islander and Aboriginal.

    I have a huge amount of respect for you on this issue.

  9. It’s a delicate issue. What is right and what wrong in how we address Indigenous Australians. Some mobs or nations find the word tribe offensive, whereas others don’t. In SA or the Camberra you wouldn’t dare say half caste or half blood etc. It might be OK elsewhere. To the local people here you are either Aboriginal or not. Some don’t like the word Aboriginal, while others don’t care.

    A big no-no, however, is to use a small ‘i’ when referring to Indigenous Australians.

  10. Migs, that would have to be almost 4 years ago. You advised me, Go by their prefered name.

    My crew prefer Indigenous because they’re a mix of TSI and Aboriginal…don’t dare call them Aboriginal, in deep poo with grannie.

    Believe me..it’s a big mob and sometime, somehow you’re going to get it wrong.

    The nearest that I can explain is that it’s akin to Scots/Irish..likewise in deep poo if you get it wrong.

  11. Min, IMHO you’ve done the right thing: you’ve addressed those people how they want to be addressed.

    Down here Aborigimal people don’t want to be referred as Imdigenous as that groups them with TS Islanders. They hate that. Their choice.

  12. Migs, well you told me so…you said, just ask.

    We could get into deep poo here, my TSI/Aboriginal crew versus your Aboriginal crew.

    About which time Akah Bel calls time out..time to bring out the salads.

  13. I believe these peple have titles that they used themselves. The problem is that the names vary state to state.

    Maybe it is time we ask them what we should be calling them.

    Aboriginal and Indigneous are really meaningless.

    They could be natives of any country on earth. It does not describe who they are or where they came from.

  14. Wow Miglo, you are an amazing writer.

    Just wanted to add to the comments. Around here if you have an Aboriginal ancestory, Aboriginal people consider you as Aboriginal. And Aboriginal people refer to each other as “black”. To them a person is either black or white, there is no in between.

  15. Pingback: A John Pilger article on the intervention, “Australia’s dirty secret” | ikners.com

  16. The above article went into spam, but the link is to an article about the intervention and Murdoch and includes:

    The Murdoch press has been the most lurid and vociferous in its promotion of the “intervention”, which a United Nations special rapporteur has condemned for its racial discrimination. Once again, Australian politicians are dispossessing the first inhabitants, demanding leasehold of land in return for health and education rights that whites take for granted and driving them into “economically viable hubs” where they will be effectively detained — a form of apartheid.

  17. the aust govts,past and present,have learned nothing about aboriginal culture.who does the ab/leadership group represent which clans elected or voted for them.the nlc in the nt,is suddenly a land dealer,totally forgetting the land rights act or ignoring it.aboriginal people are being dispossessed of their rights under many different white laws,and are being subjected to a slow form of genocide.i live it and see it every day.intervention means the takeover of what few rights we have left and grab land,ab/affairs is a joke and land rights is just meaningless paper.

  18. Colin, you comments are most gratefully received. I can guarantee that not only on this blog but on many others there are white people who are fully supportive of what our Aboriginal people are up against. Examples also include the discouragement of young Aboriginal people from learning their language. Language to me contains the subtle messages of culture and so it is imperative that young people learn this.

  19. Min, it’s a pity the Murdoch press can’t go into spam !

    The outrage and despair of most Aboriginal people is not heard. For using her institutional voice and exposing the government’s black supporters, Larissa Behrendt has been subjected to a vicious campaign of innuendo in the Murdoch press, including the implication that she is not a “real” Aborigine. Using the language of its soulmate the London Sun, the Australian derides the “abstract debate” of “land rights, apologies, treaties” as a “moralizing mumbo-jumbo spreading like a virus”. The aim is to silence those who dare tell Australia’s dirty secret.

  20. in 1958 i was taken to a foreign state by people i didnt know,for my benefit.others like me had the crap belted out of us for using heathen language.we were not taught about life outside the home walls,right from wrong,emotions,nothing.many of us were in varying stages of what is now called ptsd.mothers,fathers,grandparents gone,where were we supposed to learn from.in 1967,joined army to serve in nam.racism commonplace treatment of native viets worse than ours.nothing learned.here in 2011 it all starts again.when law becomes injustice revolution becomes duty.

  21. Colin, you story is one of the Stolen Generations. The only teachers were ones that belted you and not the mothers, the aunties nor the grandfathers. Whence love.

    My story is that I am the grandmother of a ‘white’ Aboriginal – she is 1/4 full blood and in spite of my son being olive skinned and brown eyed my granddaughter would be considered ‘white’ just by appearance. However, the culture holds true and is one of inclusiveness where I am given the respect (even though I’m white), the same as other family members.

    I think of something a wise person once said to me (Shahido of Osho): If only I knew then what I now know.

  22. you are right min,i am a great grandad now.when i left the army i hid behind a bottle for a while.didnt find any answers.didnt know to act and react to people.fists usually spoke for me.i am very fair skinned but have a melanin deficiancy.one day i was talking to some people and a woman said there were 3 coloured blokes coming,are they black i asked,no,so they must be white with a bit of black,the look of shock and horror answered that one.i was stolen generations and that era has a lot to answer for.when i joined army i was not a citizen of this country and that feeling is being rekindled again by those in power.

  23. Colin, the fact that you were not even a citizen of this country when you joined the Army speaks about how little we know about even recent Aboriginal history.

    And the fact of why some children were stolen and why others were left behind with their families – the sole criteria being the color of the child’s skin. More white meant more white blood according to the authorities of the day.

    it’s been one heck of a life for you – stolen and then a Vietnam Vet.

  24. Min, what is more shaming is that the Australian community was so ignorant to what was occurring in our country for generations.

    Most had an opinion on the character of the Aboriginal community. None it appears knew how they were living or how they were treated.

    In spite of our ignorance, we all knew what was good for them.

    How could this be so?

  25. CU,

    Worse to me is the inference that they “liked” it that way. There is still this attitude – that Aboriginal communities are not bothered about not having a reliable and regular garbage collection. That they are not bothered about run down and decrepit housing.

    My grandmother Lucas in Tungamah NE Victoria described to me one time when I was about 10yrs old how she used to hide women and children in her barn from the authorities. I suspect that what she was talking about was the Stolen Generations. She was the local midwife, an English lady who trained at Guys Hospital, London.

  26. it seems there is an aboriginal problem.it began just over 200 yrs ago.today there is a boat people problem.aparently theyre going to take over businesses,bring differing languages and customs and generally run amok.boat people again.the aboriginal people didnt know what was good for them for 100,000yrs,wasnt it good of the churches,murdering land thieves,developers,lying politicians to show us the right way.imagine if we had an immigration process in the 1700s.i have difficulty communicating with people who talk down to me like they own us.,like we are slaves.

  27. Colin, too true..it seems that for many people everyone is ‘a problem’ except themselves. As a person with disabilities, then clearly I too am ‘a problem’.

    It has taken a very long time, far too long for white invaders to recognise and start to respect our own Aboriginal people who are the longest surviving continuous culture on the face of this planet.

  28. Pingback: Aboriginal Protection Acts: An overview of Aboriginal Australians « Jeinrev

  29. Pingback: Aboriginal Land Rights Acts: An overview of Federal and State Laws in Australia « Jeinrev

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