The Cruel Deception of Aboriginal Self-Determination

We conduct our wildest experiments on the least able. Aborigines who remain stuck in the middle of nowhere—whether a place, a culture, or a state of mind—have been subject to the vilest experiment in the nation’s history. Worse, not only do we subject the least able to this experiment, we tell them to persist with the worst of cultural practices, and then invite them to run a society with no economic base. What madness, what cruelty.

This essay appears in a recent Quadrant.
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It is clear that the grand experiment in Aboriginal self-determination is killing those Aborigines least able to fend for themselves. Self-determination is a bullish sentiment that demands money from government to be delivered to Aboriginal-controlled groups to do with as they please. Competence does not enter the equation, only identity. As a consequence, the choices that Aborigines have are diminished, stymied by their leaders.

Fortunately, most Aborigines who are doing well are not part of the self-determination experiment; they have escaped, although as latter-day “identifiers” they are surely playing a part in prolonging it. Every child born of one Aboriginal parent is classed as an Aborigine, no matter how tenuous the connection is. In time, we may all be Aboriginal. By lending their name to the industry, identifiers create the appearance of a significant voice. They are useful to the Aboriginal industry, which is hell-bent on building the political infrastructure of separateness. The truth is that apart from those few who have profited handsomely from it, most Aborigines who have succeeded have done so despite the political efforts of separateness.

The evidence that there are two classes of Aborigine is now abundant. There is a dominant group who live about as well as other Australians and make good use of all Australia has to offer, and there is a sub-group who are condemned to blighted lives. No greater illustration of this is revealed in a seminal study, published this year, which concluded that the 80 per cent of Aboriginal men who have never gone to jail are doing about as well as other Australian men. The other 20 per cent, those who have been in jail, are in big trouble.[1] The authors refer to this split as an “incarceration gap”, a play on the Australian government’s “Closing the Gap” policy, but the gap is apparent for one group only. Until the reasons are understood, or admitted, as to why 80 per cent succeed and 20 per cent fail, there will be no escape for the 20 per cent.[2]


The industry that ensures the Gap will not close

Each year the Prime Minister trots out the Closing the Gap report to Parliament. This piece of theatre is designed to do one thing and one thing only, keep the Aboriginal self-determination performers in the public eye. These performers are, variously, many of the seventeen members of Australian parliaments of Aboriginal descent, including the Commonwealth Minister and Shadow Minister, thousands employed by Aboriginal-controlled organisations including the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples,[3] and numerous cheer leaders in academia and the media. These are the voices of the Aboriginal industry. And still they want more: a formal “voice” to parliament, constitutional recognition, a treaty and “truth telling”.

Each of these voices is a means of extracting money from the public purse and placing it in the hands of Aboriginal-controlled organisations. The retreat into “culture” recommended by the industry hands power to a “traditional” leader who uses it for his or her purposes or family. Each of these organisations employs Aborigines who can speak, read and write English (at various levels of proficiency). Do these organisations and their employees best serve the interests of Aborigines who are in need; those who can barely speak, read and write English? To the Aboriginal industry some black lives don’t matter.

There are more than enough voices supporting Aboriginal self-determination. The trouble is, whether victim voices or carer voices, each of them feed the others’ habit.[4] For example, Warmun Aboriginal community in Western Australia had 400 visits from state government agencies in 2016.[5] This level of intervention is replicated throughout remote and regional Australia. Take an Aboriginal-controlled health-care service in southern coastal New South Wales. This health service has numerous outlets in town, which indicates either a large clientele or an overabundance of funds. The white CEO lectures anyone who cares to ask about her clientele on the evils of colonialism and white privilege. Non-Aboriginal doctors and nurses in the centre deliver medical services to Aboriginal women. What’s to apologise for? In central Victoria an Aboriginal CEO of a corporation that delivers nothing much at all is explicit in his goal: to grab every dollar that comes into his community on a proportional basis so that he can control and distribute it to “his people”. It is hard to grasp just how self-defeating are these exercises in self-determination.

Most times Aboriginal organisations meet they conspire to sell a lie: that Australia has failed its original inhabitants. The truth, if that is what Aboriginal leaders want, is that 70,000 Aborigines have graduated from TAFE and 50,000 Aborigines from university.[6] Australia has not failed them. However, there are Aborigines who have graduated from a different institution: jail.[7] Aboriginal incarceration rates have increased 41 per cent between 2006 and 2016.[8] As the Aboriginal industry has grown, so has the rate of incarceration.


Real escapees don’t go to jail

Imprisonment rates for Aborigines have been, and remain, ten to fourteen times higher than for all others, at least since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987 to 1991). The Royal Commission concluded that no death in custody resulted from foul play on the part of authorities and that the rate of death for Aborigines was similar to that of other prisoners. The big story is that so many Aborigines commit crimes, and crimes of violence at that.[9] It is no story at all that they are jailed for those crimes. Of the 43,000 prisoners in jail in 2019, almost 12,000 were Aborigines, almost 30 per cent of the Australian prisoner population. More pointedly, nine in ten Aboriginal prisoners were male. Indeed, the Aboriginal imprisonment rate for males was almost nine times the rate for females.[10] Three out of four Aboriginal prisoners had been imprisoned previously.[11] These men and women are on a treadmill. It is not so for the other 80 per cent of Aborigines. And yet, policy settings assume that the two groups are the same.

Pan-Aboriginal solutions are self-serving, and deadly. Any solution to the problems of the 20 per cent are likely to be found in the same conversation as is being had for poor intergenerationally welfare-dependent non-Aborigines, men especially, and not in the wild dreams of Aboriginal self-determination, recognition, voice and all the rest.

An astounding backdrop to the rates at which Aboriginal men are jailed is the fact that income inequality is more pronounced for Aborigines than for the rest of Australia. Aboriginal incomes are increasing faster than for the rest of the population. Aboriginal poverty in urban areas has dropped substantially and should reach parity in twenty years. However, the poverty rates for Aboriginal people in remote areas have increased, while incomes among the top 10 per cent of Aboriginal earners have increased significantly.[12]

Sources: Australian Institute of Criminology, Indigenous Imprisonment Rates per 100, 000 population aged 18 years and over 1988-1998, Table 1 Australia, States and Territories 1988-1998. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, 2011, Table 2 Age standardised imprisonment rate, Indigenous status by state and territory, 2001–2011. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia 2018.

In the foreground lies the fact that 50 per cent of Aborigines who have ever been in jail had not completed Year 10 at school, which was substantially lower than the Year 10 completion rate of Aborigines who have never been in jail (73 per cent, and 88 per cent for all Australian males). Aborigines who have never been in jail were employed at about the same rate as that of the general Australian male population, 56 per cent compared to 65 per cent, but only one-quarter of the ever-jailed group reported being employed. More than half of the ever-jailed group were not in the labour force (retired, voluntarily inactive, home duties, disabled, permanently unable to work). Another major gap was substance abuse. Almost 30 per cent of ever-jailed Aborigines reported problems compared to just 7 per cent of never-jailed Aborigines.

Aborigines are more likely to live in rural and remote areas of the country compared to other Australians. While the ever-jailed group were more dispersed across urban and remote regions, the never-jailed group were more concentrated in major urban areas. Incidentally, while there is a thirteen-point gap in educational achievement among Year 5 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in metropolitan Australia, there is a sixty-two-point gap in very remote areas.[13] Moreover, almost three-quarters of the ever-jailed group live in Aboriginal-only households compared to 50 per cent of the never-jailed group. This finding may reflect the fact that mixed couples are more likely to live in major urban areas and be economically better-off.

Higher proportions of the ever-jailed group reported high to very high levels of distress and a lifetime mental health diagnosis (35 per cent). The proportion of the never-jailed group with a mental illness (23 per cent) is in line with Australian male general population estimates (18 per cent). Further, 17 per cent of the ever-jailed group reported being removed from their natural family. Aborigines experience violence at twice the rate of all others. However, one in five of the ever-jailed group reported experiencing physical violence during the past twelve months compared to one in ten in the never-jailed group. The never-jailed rate is still markedly higher than the Australian general population rate.[14]

Aborigines are more likely to go to jail than other Australians because they commit more crime than other Australians.[15] They are also less well-equipped to cope with life. But, and this is the special part, the causes cannot be that they remain insufficiently recognised, heard, feted or subsidised. If that were so, the 80 per cent of Aborigines who succeed as well as anyone else would also fail. There is an Aboriginal underclass who live similarly blighted lives to the underclass that exists for all other Australians. The reasons why the Aboriginal underclass is larger than for the remainder of society are the extra barriers thrown in the path of Aborigines.

It is de rigueur to blame bad behaviour on poverty, and in the context of identity politics, on racial prejudice and cultural destruction. Eventually, there comes a time to admit that many escape poverty and many overcome racial prejudice and “loss of culture”. In these cases, individuals adapt to their circumstances, indeed thrive because of the opportunities in their new circumstances, if they are able to grasp them. Others do not grasp opportunities, and there are at least three reasons why. They may not have sufficient capacity to cope with life; aspects of their culture may be so toxic as to hold them back; and programs thrown at them to “help” may cause harm.

The blank slate

Some people cannot cope with life because they have difficulty behaving. Their decision-making may be “impaired”, or they have problems communicating, or have poor memory, be inattentive, or socially immature.[16] Individual capacity, not identity, may be part of the problem. If so, the implications for policy are profound. Ever so gingerly, the focus must shift to a new plane of inquiry, the capacity of individuals to adapt to their circumstances. All Aborigines cannot be treated as a blank slate,[17] as if they all have the same abilities, when it is clear that at least 20 per cent probably have little capacity to cope. It is true that Aborigines have had more to adapt to than others, although immigrants to Australia may also lay claim to this burden. Nevertheless, 80 per cent of Aboriginal men and women have adapted, and succeeded, despite the burdens they carry.

Assessing individual frailty is difficult. Sensitivities abound in the measurement of “cognitive impairment” among all people, especially Aborigines. Are the assessment tools employed to detect cognitive impairment “culturally inappropriate”, and have the assessors had “cross-cultural training”? Is cognitive impairment “perceived in a different way” culturally, is it “inseparable from past traumas inflicted upon Aboriginal people at large”?

These sensitivities have been recognised and were taken into account in a recent study of adult “Koori” male and female prisoners who were remanded or sentenced in Victorian prisons.[18] Over 80 per cent of the cohort were imprisoned for a violent offence and 16 per cent for a sexual offence (of a violent or non-violent nature). Approximately 70 per cent of the sample had an IQ below the community average IQ of 100. Twenty-two per cent were found to have impaired cognitive functioning, and almost 90 per cent had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Mood disorders and substance-abuse diagnoses were the most commonly reported. Comorbidity (cognitive impairment and mental disorder) was high, with almost nine out of ten cognitively-impaired participants presenting with a lifetime mental disorder. The most common co-occurring mental disorders were mood disorders, substance abuse and anxiety. Those in the cognitively-impaired group were more than three times more likely to have a prior violent offence compared to those in the non-cognitively-impaired group. About 40 per cent of all prisoners have a higher incidence of mental health problems than is reported in the general population.[19] In this respect, Aborigines are not exceptional.

Predictably, the researchers concluded that “cognitively impaired Indigenous offenders require improved access to a multitude of services in custody and in the community to meet their complex needs and these services should feature cultural supports throughout”.[20] Apart from the fact that the conclusion assumes the people receiving support were somehow “connected to culture” (or wanted to be, or needed to be) in the first place, in order for those supports to make sense to assist them, the continual refrain of “culturally appropriate” support alone will ensure that the cost of looking after this group will continue to grow.

And yet, the number in need is modest. To reinforce just how small is the remnant group, and how grossly overblown is the industry built on their backs, a study of the most vulnerable children and their families in New South Wales has shown that of the 1000 individuals who required the greatest amount of money to administer to their needs, 78 per cent were Aboriginal.[21] The total estimated future cost of this group to the age of forty is $2.3 billion, an average cost of $2.3 million per person.[22] Left unstated is that each would be unlikely to make any contribution to society through employment and taxation. Aboriginal expenditure amounts to $33 billion per year,[23] which suggests that a very large number of Aborigines are in receipt of programs and benefits that reward identity, not need. For those bold enough to suggest that more expenditure will reduce the 20 per cent and add to the successful 80 per cent, they need only compare the crime and jail and recidivism rates across several decades to conclude that there has been a losing battle waged for the 20 per cent, precisely because so much is expected of those so fragile.


Culture—family formation in crisis

To label Aboriginal clans First Nations is a cruel hoax: many are barely families. Disastrous levels of family breakdown are evident in Aboriginal society.

Stable family formation is a fundamental institution in successful lives. Its breakdown is both cause and consequence of strife.[24] In 2018, ex-nuptiality (that is, the unmarried state) among mothers in total births in Australia was 35 per cent. Paternity was not acknowledged in 4 per cent of ex-nuptial total births. By contrast, ex-nuptiality in births to Aboriginal mothers (including tribal marriage) was 87 per cent.[25] Paternity was not acknowledged in 22 per cent of ex-nuptial births to Aboriginal mothers. In the Northern Territory ex-nuptial births were 96 per cent, paternity not acknowledged was 50 per cent. In New South Wales ex-nuptial births were 83 per cent and paternity not acknowledged was 19 per cent.[26]

At the outset, Aboriginal culture was ill-suited to modern family formation, the absence of which, in non-traditional settings, is the source of considerable strife.[27] However, once the traditional constraints on coupling were removed, women broke from control by elders. The story of the Bishop of Darwin, Francis Xavier Gsell’s dramatic account of Martina, is instructive:

Gsell founded a mission on Bathurst Island, north of Darwin, in 1911 … Martina was one of the young girls about the mission. A “hairy anonymous man” comes to fetch her, his promised wife according to tribal custom. Martina refuses to go but Gsell accepts that tribal law is final and nothing can be done; “trying to stifle her sobs, she goes with that man to begin a life which, I know, has less joy than that of the lowest beasts of the forest”.

Five days later she is back, speared in the leg but determined to stay at the mission. In the evening an angry mob of tribesmen arrive and demand her back. Not forgetting to call on God’s help, Gsell welcomes them with flour and tobacco and suggests a good sleep before talking in the morning. Overnight he lays out calico, tobacco, a mirror, pots of meat and tins of treacle. When the tribesmen have woken up and had a good look, he names the price: Martina is to stay. After an interminable council, they agree.

Martina is brought up by the nuns and contracts a free Christian marriage with a mission youth. Over the following decades, Gsell “bought” in similar fashion a hundred and fifty promised girls, all of them, according to tribal law, his wives. He became known as the “bishop with 150 wives”.[28]

Missionaries protected Aboriginal women from violence. They were a stopgap, they did much good and some bad, but the direction was certain: to protect Aborigines on their journey to integration. There was an enormous gulf between Aborigines and Europeans. It was impossible that Aborigines could survive with their world intact. Half-caste children were especially vulnerable, often rejected by their parents and left to fend for themselves. Girls saw an opportunity to escape a life that “has less joy than that of the lowest beasts of the forest”.

And in contemporary times?

You see the young girls walking around Alice [Springs] all slicked up. They are clean, cleanly dressed, hair tied tightly back. They walk with confidence—cheekily you could say—and talk loudly to attract attention. They generally look to be around 12 to 14. This is their life. It appears that the only thing they have going for them is sexual attractiveness. These are the ones preyed upon by the paedophiles, black, white and whatever colour and they are easily bought.

Genuine affection is rare. Adults do not kiss traditionally. Hand holding is also a no no. Husband and wife are called “truck and trailer” because they walk separately with man in front and wife behind, with the dogs, attached to him at a distance like a trailer.

A man shows he cares for his wife by becoming angrily jealous now and then. Unless he, at least, threatens, if not inflicts jealous violence on his wife he does not really care. The upshot of all this threatened violence and infidelity is the constant lying, or hiding of the truth, that goes on, the constant gossip and threat of public exposure that keeps everybody in a state of stress and tension. Normal life in the communities and town camps.[29]

If Aborigines and their academic spokespersons want to sprout culture, they have to tell the whole story. Family formation is blighted by Aboriginal culture, along with other frailties suffered by too many other men. One of the building blocks of the good life, family formation, is a significant impediment to Closing the Gap.


CDEP—fake jobs on the road to ruin

There have been many wrong turns in Aboriginal policy in the last fifty years under the regime of self-determination. Setting to one side land rights, the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program is perhaps the worst. CDEP commenced as a pilot scheme at Bamyili (a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory) in 1977 and at its peak in 2002-03 delivered services to 35,000 participants through 260 providers in hundreds of communities throughout Australia. The CDEP was phased out in 2014-15, but “job seekers” in remote areas are now supported through the Community Development Program.[30]

The impetus for CDEP arose with a decision by the Commonwealth Arbitration and Conciliation Commission in 1965 to include Aboriginal workers in the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951. The decision created widespread unemployment among Aborigines in remote areas of northern Australia. The solution was to grant Aboriginal people access to unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, when access was granted the absence of realistic work prospects created a disincentive to work. The observation from communities at the time was that their people should not be paid “sit down” money. The period 1965 to 1977 was thus a wholly under-appreciated period of transition in Aboriginal life. The first tentative steps to integration, in so far as the Northern Territory employment market was concerned, resulted in wholesale unemployment.

The “solution” to unemployment, which took at least twelve years to implement, was the creation of “useful employment”. Worse, rather than being paid to individual beneficiaries, money was paid to community councils to “fund work”. The CDEP program was thus developed as an alternative to the payment of unemployment benefits to Aboriginal Australians in communities where there was little prospect of unsubsidised employment or economic development. The assumption, closely related to land rights, was that Aboriginal people would not move from their land in order to search for work.[31] And so, the horrible pretence was born that Aborigines could live in the modern world on modern income support and remain somehow Aboriginal. CDEP stopped Aboriginal integration into the wider job market. Dispiritingly, there are echoes of this foolhardiness still today.[32] The 80 per cent, those who have escaped this pretence, have thrived and graduated to a better life. The remainder are more likely beaten, in jail, or dead.


Suicide—the final escape

Some people do not get to graduate from university, TAFE, or even jail. They end their life prematurely, such is their despair. In the period 2008 to 2012, the suicide rate for Aborigines was almost twice the rate for other Australians. For fifteen-to-nineteen-year-olds, the rate was five times as high as the rate for other Australians.[33] Debate as to how to address this tragedy provides another insight into the thinking of Aboriginal industry advocates. Gerry Georgatos, a self-proclaimed social justice warrior, head of the federal government’s “Indigenous critical response team”, believes poverty and lack of education are to blame.[34] The problem with the Georgatos view is that it is not clear that the poor and uneducated elsewhere in Australia suffer suicide rates greater than others.[35] By contrast, Aboriginal psychologist Tracy Westerman has identified feelings of hopelessness as the strongest predictor of suicide. According to Westerman, policies that restrict human choices contribute to established risk factors for suicide, which are hopelessness and helplessness.[36] The strongest part of Westerman’s observation is that hopelessness as a cause holds for suicide in general. What causes hopelessness?

One explanation is that Aboriginal communities are in such disarray that too many people regard what is happening to them as normal. A recent reflection on “sorry business” illustrates the point:

Traditional ceremony is about meaningful drama, body paint designs are complex and beautiful, there are new songs and dances to be learned. In sorry business there is no beauty, no complex designs, no songs, no dances, nothing new to learn. Socially enforced, ritual mourning occurs and, traditionally, is expressed with quite severe self-harm including deep gashes inflicted with butcher’s knives, women’s heads bashed and scarred with sharp rocks and sticks. And, there is the determination to identify the killer, because in traditional understanding all premature adult death is “caused” by a human agent, and to seek revenge. With the dramatic increase of (avoidable) premature death, however, sorry business now takes up about a third of the time of many remote community adults. For many children and adolescents, it is the only ceremony they ever attend, and they are doing that for about a third of their time.[37]

Westerman observes that Canadian suicide rates compare to Aboriginal Australian rates, in that 90 per cent of suicides occur in 10 per cent of communities. New South Wales has relatively low rates of Aboriginal suicide, about fifteen per 100,000, which is comparable to the mainstream population. While this seems to be a mystery to some researchers, the answer may be straightforward. New South Wales communities are mainstream. The more mainstream, the more people fit in. The less “Aboriginal culture”, the less likely to be dragged down by a maladapted and nihilistic culture.

Georgatos’s explanation is typical of so many spokespersons. They lack insight into the lives of those they are meant to help, or are likely too afraid to buck the predominant mores—the game of cultural solidarity. Human frailty, ignorance, culture and land rights stand in the way of positive adjustments to circumstances. Poverty alleviation, when it is no more than transfers of unearned money, education when attendance is intermittent and without reinforcement from parents and family, and cultural solidarity, or learned ignorance, are the designs of a class of policy-makers who do more harm than good. Above all, Aborigines in the 20 per cent, often of low capability, are expected to act responsibly, locked onto “country”, and out of the economy.


What is the best chance of healthy adjustment?

It is time to ask basic questions. What and who must change to save those in dire straits? And, most important, how do they change? Does the Aboriginal industry keep covering up for people who are, in effect, self-harming, or should self-harmers be shown a way to escape programs driven by an identity agenda? In 2017 the State Coroner conducted an inquest into the suicide by hanging of thirteen children and young persons in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. Each death had similar circumstances, life events, developmental experiences and behaviours that appear to have contributed to making them vulnerable to suicide. The proximate cause was a sense of hopelessness. And yet, too often the real causes are covered up by referring to wider political motives.

Did these children suicide because of invasion and conquest? Hardly. There is clear evidence that in the eighteenth century “Aboriginal people and colonists made lives both alongside and entangled with each other” where Aboriginal people were “agents, rather than merely victims”.[38] Was it because in the nineteenth century missionaries attempted to convert Aborigines to Christianity? As the Gsell case shows, many Aborigines grabbed the opportunity to escape their own demons. Was it because in the twentieth century 9 per cent of Australia failed to support the constitutional referendum to have Aborigines counted in the census and have the Commonwealth begin to transfer unseemly amounts of money to a small group of Aborigines? That’s right: Australians overwhelmingly supported Aboriginal equality. Is it because in the twenty-first century “elders” are not acknowledged every day by public servants living and working in Melbourne and Sydney and around Australia? That would be a harsh judgment, but not far-fetched. Playing the industry game enables policies that keep the gap open.

The string of recommendations from the inquest into the Kimberley suicides sums up many of the tensions and contradictions in Aboriginal policy. It drips with the language of self-determination—empowerment, consultation, ownership—as have most, if not all, previous inquiries in the field, including Bringing Them Home, the inquiry into the “stolen generations”.[39] The trouble for such inquiries, and their recommendations, is that the edifice of self-determination has been bypassed by up to 80 per cent of Aborigines and is a burden to the other 20 per cent. In the forty-two recommendations of the West Australian coroner there is no mention of mothers, no mention of fathers, no mention of “ex-nuptiality”, no mention of “father unknown”, despite the fact that we know that 92 per cent of births to Aboriginal mothers in Western Australia in 2018 were ex-nuptial (including traditional marriages), and paternity was not acknowledged in 21 per cent of births.[40] The ideas of responsibility and family life simply do not rate a mention.

There is mention of the prevalence and harm of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder and universal screening for mothers,[41] and that all secondary students should be subject to FASD education,[42] and the appointment of local “Family Advocates”.[43] Each worthy, but only in the very latter recommendations is there a glimmer of recognition of the actual abilities of people who find themselves in these awful circumstances:

Whilst the stated aim of giving people the incentives to bring themselves out of poverty (through better health services, education and employment prospects) is very sound, some consideration needs to be given to those people who are presently beyond being able to take advantage of those incentives.[44]

This observation by the coroner is perhaps the first time in decades, if ever, that such a statement has appeared into an inquiry about Aboriginal affairs. Governments need to give more than “some” consideration to those who are “beyond being able” to take advantage of incentives. Worse, the incentives run the wrong way. Governments pay people to sit on land, to not explore the world outside, to not meet a wider group, to not learn new ways, in short to make it more difficult to navigate their way in the wider world. And there is only one concrete recommendation that may just help to break the cycle of insularity (dressed as culture), “that consideration be given to residential facilities being built for school-aged students in the Kimberley Region”.[45] At least there is some recognition that the battle to save Aboriginal children in remote and regional Australia requires strong measures to break old ways, poor behaviour and irresponsibility. While the West Australian government supports the idea of residential options for Kimberley students,[46] there are no doubt strong forces of resistance.

There is not a word to suggest that mothers must be provided protection from Aboriginal men, or that some Aboriginal men are incapable of supporting their partners, or that they are even known. This absence of responsibility is in stark contrast to how domestic violence is discussed in the rest of Australia. Tragically, the one passing reference to individual capacity is quickly snuffed out by a retreat to the self-determination script, with a recommendation that the West Australian government “develop a state-wide Aboriginal cultural policy that recognises the importance of cultural continuity and cultural security to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people in this State”.[47]

Unless young people are placed in boarding schools, and young mothers are placed in hostels, there will be no possible chance for the inhabitants of remote Aboriginal Australia to live more than the short brutish lives to which the urban elite have condemned them. The West Australian coroner did not recommend hostels for young mothers, but perhaps she should. Without significant intervention at the earliest time there is no hope for most children in many remote and some regional Aboriginal communities. There are now so many damaged children, even strong measures will save only a few. But better to save a few and stop more falling into the identity and separation traps than perpetuate the myth of Closing the Gap. For most of those who claim Aboriginal heritage there is no gap. For the remainder there is not only a gap, under the present policy settings, the gap can never close.

Lyn Wesley is an Australian researcher and writer.


[1] Shepherd M et al., 2020. Closing the (incarceration) gap: assessing the socio-economic and clinical indicators of indigenous males by lifetime incarceration status, BMC Public Health 20: 710.

[2] Another estimate suggests almost 15 per cent of Aboriginal men report ever being in gaol and 3 per cent are currently in gaol. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2019. Corrective Services, Australia, December quarter 2018.

[3] There are 50 peak councils in Australia representing thousands of Aboriginal organisations. See Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations https://coalitionofpeaks.org.au/our-members/. There are more than 3,000 Aboriginal corporations registered with the Office of the Indigenous Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.

[4] See Tadhgh Purtill, 2020. The Dystopia in the Desert: the silent culture of Australia’s remotest Aboriginal communities. Australian Scholarly Publishing.

[5] Western Australia Coroner, 2019. Inquest into the Deaths of Thirteen Children and Young Persons in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia, 2019, paragraph 156.

[6] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Census: Education. “Strong improvements in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education outcomes” Media Release 23 October 2017 no. 143/2017.

[7] Shepherd et al., 2020. 20:710, 2. “Almost 15% of the male Indigenous population report ever being incarcerated and 3% are currently incarcerated.’

[8] Australian Law Reform Commission, 2018. Pathways to Justice: Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. ALRC 133. Executive Summary 09.01.2018.

[9] The most common offence/charge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners was Acts intended to cause injury (34 per cent). Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020. Prisoners in Australia, 2019. https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4517.0~2019~Main%20Features~Aboriginal%20and%20Torres%20Strait%20Islander%20prisoner%20characteristics%20~13

[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020. Corrective Services, Australia, March Quarter 2020.

[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, 2019.

[12] Markham F and Biddle N. 2016. Income, poverty and inequality, CAEPR Census Paper 2. Canberra, ACT: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University.

[13] Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2016, 13.13.

[14] Shepherd M et al., 2020. Closing the (incarceration) gap: assessing the socio-economic and clinical indicators of indigenous males by lifetime incarceration status, BMC Public Health 20:710

[15] The age standardised crime rate expressed as a ratio of Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal is between 5 and 8 for NSW, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020. Recorded Crime—Offenders, Australia, 2018–19. Table 23 Offender rate, Crude and age standardised by Indigenous status by selected states and territories–2008–09 to 2018–19.                                                                                               

[16] Stephane M et al, 2017. Aboriginal prisoners with cognitive impairment: is this the highest risk group? Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice no. 536, Australian Institute of Criminology, page 2.

[17] See Steven Pinker, 2016. The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature. Penguin, page 5.

[18] Stephane M Shepherd et al, 2017, page 4.

[19] The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019. The Health of Australia’s Prisoners 2018, page iv.

[20] Stephane M Shepherd et al, 2017, page 9.

[21] NSW Government, 2018. Forecasting Future Outcomes. Stronger Communities Investment Unit — 2018 Insights Report, page 181.

[22] NSW Government, 2018. page 173.

[23] Productivity Commission, 2017. PC News, December.

 “In 2015-16, total direct government expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians was estimated to be $33.4 billion, a real increase from $27.0 billion in 2008-09. The estimated direct expenditure per person was $44 886 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, around twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians ($22 356); a similar ratio to previous years.’

[24] See Isabel Sawhill, 2014. Generation Unbound: drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

[25] Births to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers considered to be tribally married to the father of the child are classified as nuptial. https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/3301.0Explanatory%20Notes12018?OpenDocument

[26] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018. Births, Australia, 2018.

[27] See Paula Mance and Peng Yu, 2010, Context, Relationship Transitions and Conflict: Explaining Outcomes for Australian Youth from Non-Intact Families. Journal of Population Research 27(2), pages 75-105.

[28] As quoted in Franklin, J., 2016. Catholic missions to Aboriginal Australia: an evaluation of their overall effect. Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 37-1, page 49.

[29] With permission, private correspondence with Dave Price, long-time resident of Alice Springs and elsewhere in the Northern Territory, 11 February 2019.

[30] Australian Government, Closing the Gap Report, 2020. https://ctgreport.niaa.gov.au/employment

[31] Department of Finance and Deregulation, Office of Evaluation and Audit (Indigenous Programs), 2009. Evaluation of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) Program, page 13.

[32] Noel Pearson, “A Fairer Plan is Honest Work for All.” The Weekend Australian 4 July 2020.

[33] Based on age-standardised rates. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2015. The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 2015, page 80.

[34] Gerry Georgatos claims to have been “vital” in launching the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project. The project was commissioned by the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion and funded by Prime Minister and Cabinet.

[35] Gender, mental health, and indigeneity seem to be the most prominent factors. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2018. Causes of Death, Australia, 2018.

[36] Tracy Westerman, https://indigenousx.com.au/what-are-the-causes-of-indigenous-suicides/

[37] With permission, private correspondence with Dave Price a long-term resident of Alice Springs and elsewhere in the Northern Territory, 18 January 2019.

[38] Annemarie McLaren, “Negotiating Entanglement: Reading Aboriginal-​Colonial Exchanges in Early New South Wales, 1788—1835”. Australian National University PhD Thesis, page 1.

[39] Australian Government, 1997, Bringing Them Home, Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

[40] ABS.Stat, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander births and confinements, summary, by state. http://stat.data.abs.gov.au/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=CONFINEMENTS_NUPTIALITY

[41] Western Australia Coroner, 2019, page 267.

[42] Western Australia Coroner, 2019, page 275.

[43] Western Australia Coroner, 2019, page 294.

[44] Western Australia Coroner, 2019, page 373.

[45] Western Australia Coroner, 2019, page 369.

[46] Western Australia Government, 2019. Statement of Intent on Aboriginal Youth Suicide. Department of Premier and Cabinet, page 31.

[47] Western Australia Coroner, 2019, page 372.

15 thoughts on “The Cruel Deception of Aboriginal Self-Determination

  • Peter Sandery says:

    A sobering insight into the issue. I would love to hear Ms Wesly’s assessment of the Native Title Issue which she just mentions in passing.

  • Lyn Wesley says:

    Native Title is a disincentive to integration, but not fatal. Holders should not wait for a distribution from a trust fund. If one has been established and lucky enough to have a mining company buy access to land and place monies in such a fund, native title holders should get away and create a better life, and draw on the fund as is their right.

  • Occidental says:

    The Aboriginal issue in this country, is a study of guilt, posturing, passing empathy, and the futility of social engineering. The average Australian is well aware that he has a way of life, and a quality of life that has come about without a great deal of effort, in other words he or she is fortunate. Most recognise that the native tribes of mainland Australia (though not the “muddies”) have suffered during the period of white immigration. That is why there is little political will for tough love toward Aborigines. Most Australians feel somewhat guilty, not so different from when you are in an air-conditioned car in some south east asian or an african country and a beggar taps on the window. You most surely didn’t get any benefit from his or her impoverishment but you still feel guilty, well at least I do. Believe me that guilt is a powerful force. Unfortunately that background attitude meets up with another one, posturing which is often possessed by those who when even amongst their peers feel they are well off (and thereby more guilty than the rest of us). Many of my professional colleagues would declaim as if God all mighty was standing behind them that more needed to be done to improve the lot of Aborigines. Intersecting with these forces are almost silly notions of maintaining a separate cultural identity, when the example of our own culture (the most successful culture in the history of mankind) shows the benefits of creative destruction, change, and assimilation, as opposed to some sort of archeological stasis, which academics seem to pine for. Finally you have the passing empathy of the australian polity, where money, be it sit down money, cdep funding, Abstudy allowance or what have you is thrown at them, with the fervent hope that no one mentions the problem for another few years, during which time the problem gets worse, not better. The irony will be that the lives of most “true” aborigines as opposed to convenient identifiers was at its best during the years of the stolen generations and the stolen wages.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    An excellent article.
    I had first-hand experience of one (extended) Aboriginal family in one town I have lived in. A woman, her children and her mother comprised the household. The whole family was neat and tidy, as was their (rented government) house. The kids went regularly to school. They all appeared to be doing well.
    Then the man in her life showed up and camped, along with a collection of his male associates. There was grog, fights, windows smashed, fibro walls kicked in; in no time the place was a wreck. The last pathetic scene was of all the family’s possessions loaded onto the back of a high-sided government truck, with rubbish, furnishings, kids’ toys and the rest. I asked the driver: “where are you taking all this?” Came the reply: “To the tip of course. Where else?”
    I got to know another Aborigine quite well. He was a member of a team we hired to do some work on our property, and he was a highly skilled plant operator. They all stayed with us in our house, and over dinner one night I asked about his relatives. He replied: “All I want is for them to leave me alone. I’ve got my job and my family, my house in town, and I’m doing well. But they keep coming round, and won’t stay away.”
    I had news of him some months afterwards. He had left his family and was on the road somewhere. Nobody knew where.
    An instructive comparison IMHO is between the Aboriginal and the Chinese communities in Australia. There was a large immigration of Chinese into the goldfields in the 1850s. They kept largely to themselves and were very law-abiding, no matter who made the law. Crime brought shame to the criminal’s family, and family was highly important. But though most Chinese immigrants arrived with only the clothes on their backs, virtually all of them did well, and some extremely well. Behind them they had a very old culture that made them very street-wise. Although at first illiteracy was high among them, they had a wealth of Confucian and other proverbs apt for every situation to guide them.
    Dream-time mythology and corroboree songs cannot and do not provide that. They serve a different social function.

  • Forbes says:

    If 56% of the law abiding indigenous males are employed and only65% of the balance, then IMHO that cohort is batting above their weight.
    More soon as I haven’t read all of this very fine article.
    Well done Lyn

  • Forbes says:

    Very powerful conclusions

  • DG says:

    The human sadness is inescapable. That so many stand by and consign so many children, families…people to lives of such dislocation is the shame of Australia, served up as much shame is, by the urban left and their fantasy world, with complicit governments of all stripes.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Lyn, a very powerful article. Thank you very much

    Ian McDougall, I once met an Aboriginal guide in the Purnululu
    National Park. He was from Hall’s Creek. Chatting to
    him one morning over breakfast I asked him if he was
    going home on his days off. His response: ‘When I’ve
    got money in my pocket I don’t go near that place.’
    His view of kinship obligations was decidedly nontraditional.

  • Anthony says:

    Hi Lyn, great article. Please get in contact with me, I’d love to chat. anthonywodillon@yahoo.com.au

  • rosross says:

    Truths which need to be spoken and spoken again and again until they are heard.

    What is truly bizarre is that Australia spends millions trying to help people in the Third World join the modern world and spends millions trying to help Australians with Aboriginal ancestry stay out of it. Yes, it is well-intentioned but it is destructive because the only future anyone can have, whether immigrant or Aboriginal is to assimilate into the broader Australian community and culture. To join the modern world. The British knew that in 1788 and over the centuries it has been forgotten.

    Sure, keep your cuisine if you have one, your ancient clothing traditions if you have them, your art, stories, myths, if you have them, but join, assimilate, integrate into the modern world and the community of Australia for the sake of your children if nothing else.

    No-one today lives a culture even remotely like those lived by the many different peoples called Aboriginal by the British. No-one. We no longer have brutal and deforming initiation traditions, infanticide, cannibalism, death for breaking skin traditions but too many of the primitive traditions found in Aboriginal cultures remain, particularly the appalling treatment of females and the resort to violence, in those communities which are least assimilated into the modern world.

    Preserving them in any form is a crime against humans and humanity.

  • rosross says:

    I would add however, that to refer to the treatment of Aborigines as a vile experiment is unfair. The focus has always been well-intentioned, if delusional and destructive. And no, that does not make it right or wise but neither was it a vile experiment. It was what people believed in the times, was the best approach to a problem.

    The British considered anyone half European and half Aboriginal to be European unless they opted to live a primitive tribal life, where they were subject to different regulations and entitled to more benefits. But the British also made the mistake of continuing to provide support to people who were a quarter, eighth, sixteenth Aboriginal in ancestry. However, they did this to prevent such individuals, particularly females, from being sucked back into the tribal culture.

    The British also sought to prevent European/Aboriginal mixing in a bid to preserve Aboriginal peoples. Well-intentioned but destructive. In the 20th century someone came up with the idea of remote communities, returning people to ‘country,’ in a bid to solve the squalid horrors of camps on the edge of towns. They meant well and we spent between $300,000 and $500,000 setting up these communities with modern facilities to support the stone-age belief systems, and all that happened was the squalid horrors were removed out of sight. Again, that was not the intention. Those behind the movement sincerely hoped, even if they did not believe, that a return to what was called country, might help straighten out some very twisted people, communities and cultures. It did not.

    But it is also wrong to label it as an experiment. With hindsight it might be called that, but, in the times it was not seen as an experiment but an answer to a problem. It is important not to retrofit modern attitudes and values to any of the past, whether 50 years ago or centuries ago.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    One of the earliest lessons learnt in Roman Catholic and perhaps all other Christian religious education is that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. Notwithstanding their public posturing, I personally do not believe that Australian politicians of any stripe, or public servants State or Commonwealth, have ever sincerely had anybody’s interests but their own in crafting and administering Aboriginal policy. The only organisations that ever did anything concrete to help Aboriginal people adapt to the realities of the modern world were the missions, and it took the Whitlam government no time at all to destroy them with malicious intent. What remains is entirely down to the stupidity of successive governments pandering to radical leftist mischief-making.
    Assimilated, sophisticated urban people of Aboriginal descent can have their ersatz smoking ceremonies and risible Welcome to Country nonsense, but as a general rule they are no closer to, or familiar with, the realities of the very culturally and linguistically diverse remote rural Aboriginal communities than a European migrant just off the plane.
    It’s the idea that Aboriginality is universally to be treated as a qualification for uniform special treatment that is at the heart of the problem. That someone like Bruce Pascoe, and numerous other con artists over the years, can expect and receive respect if not adulation from the political left, while deflecting scarce resources from solving the real problems, the effect is malicious no matter what the intent.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Re my last comment, this from Quillette is just in.


  • lhackett01 says:

    The Aborigine as the hapless victim of “White” society is concocted nonsense. The Aborigine will stop being newsworthy when the Government enacts policies that stop perpetuating the welfare mentality of the Aborigine and stop the divisive movement towards dividing the Aborigine from the rest of society by considering him as a special species with special rights. Read my paper on the subject at https://www.scribd.com/document/458064355/.

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