Back in March, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott referred to remote communities’ preference to remain ‘on country’ as ‘a lifestyle of choice’ it prompted a storm of protest from Aboriginal spokespersons and other interested parties. Abbott’s mentor on all things Indigenous, Noel Pearson, used ‘deranged’ to describe the debate. Abbott’s chairman of the Indigenous Advisory Committee, Warren Mundine, boldly suggested the PM was ‘out of touch’. Aboriginal activist and University of Canberra Chancellor Dr Tom Calma was ‘disappointed’, with many others on radio and TV expressing shock at what Pearson called a ‘very disappointing and hopeless’ statement.
A particularly poignant response to Abbott’s lifestyle choices was that of Warren Mundine, who wrote in the Australian using his clan name, Nyunggai. He regarded as ‘inaccurate and unfair’ the PM’s words, in his view invoking the terrifying memory of forced removal from ancestral lands. Mundine stated three ‘home truths’: first, native title required continuous connection with land; second, Indigenous land is the only land where private home ownership is not legal; third, the West Australian government isn’t withdrawing services from remote non-Indigenous towns, such as Camballin, 100 kms from Derby, as reported by the Guardian.
Mundine claims that government and the individual living remotely each has the responsibility to accept and acknowledge the special needs of remote families; there must be a recognition that small communities cannot expect the full suite of the services available in urban areas. He further believes that the substance of Abbott’s message boils down to the simple truth that remote living requires extra effort because of the inconvenience. However, Mundine is convinced that ‘Indigenous people will not hear this message if the language terrifies and insults them.’
Finally, Mundine emphasises that we all have a responsibility to work and arrange for our children’s education. On the practical side, he proposes district primary schools within an hour’s drive and a senior school with weekly boarding facilities within a two or three hour drive of communities.
One of the most incisive commentators was Nicolas Rothwell, who reports on Northern Australia for the Australian. Arguably the most knowledgeable reporter on Aboriginal lifestyles, history, art and tradition, Rothwell makes a persuasive case for maintaining outstations and life ‘on country’, but the serious analyst is left wondering whether he looks far enough ahead. Rothwell accuses the PM of ‘homing in on the economics of outstations’, and downplaying in the process the central role of country in the life of these bush people, of their spiritual connection to their land and its benefits as a refuge from the violence of the towns.
Rothwell’s empathy for the status quo is both reasoned and evidence-based, but it may be too selective and short-sighted to offer the best opportunities and increased well-being for coming generations. In his interpretation of Pearson’s rather over-the-top reaction to Abbott, Rothwell states that Pearson ‘put him to the sword’. Many observers were surprised by Pearson’s tough talk and wondered whether there was a broader message in his verbal attack. The personal politics of the Abbott/Pearson alliance may have come to an end as a vehicle for one leader with no ideas and another with many ideas on Indigenous futures. In Rothwell’s words, ‘Pearson had clung grimly to Abbott in the hope that the Commonwealth would bring in the [Twiggy] Forrest welfare package (based on the Cape York blueprint)…’. Whether Pearson now regards Abbott as a man on the way out, is not clear. Either way, Pearson may have irreparably damaged Abbott’s image as ‘Prime Minister for Aborigines’, whether the PM spends one week each year on country or not.
While the ‘lifestyles choice’ incident is just the tip of the Indigenous socio-economic iceberg, it illustrates several long-held, but conflicting, views on the future of living on country. The pros and cons of outstation-type collectives (by whatever name) have been well enunciated by several writers, notably Peter Sutton in his ‘Politics of Suffering’ (2009). An anthropologist who spent 30 years at Aurukun, including years constructing outstations, Sutton has a unique insight into the benefits and pitfalls of small and isolated communities. In the end he uses Peggy Brock’s 1993 phrase ‘outback ghetto’ to exemplify how a good idea has downgraded to the living hell that saw PM John Howard order interventions in 73 communities. This was a far cry from the Cape York situation in the Seventies, when John von Sturmer helped the West Coast clans to reconnect with their country (“our land is our mother”) and give them back their identity of origin. As a settlement policy it was seen by some, following Nugget Coombes’ federal direction, as the saving of the First People, while others described it as a dangerous and divisive return to tribalism. Those critics included Aboriginal counsellors.
Why the merits of outstation-type living is so contested is because the physical parameters of this lifestyle overshadow the personal parameters, i.e. generalisations on the disadvantages of remoteness are used to airbrush the significant personal differences between the stayers and the movers. This author has dealt with this matter and has taken up the issues raised by Pearson’s insistence that all people have a right to chose the life that they value. This right, surely, needs to be limited to those lifestyles which do not depend on support from others, notably taxpayers.
In the same way, outstation-type living cannot be assessed generally as good or bad, supportable or not, without all the details of its self-sufficiency – the vegetable gardens, the income streams from honest labour, the maintenance of education and health, the reliable supply of clean water and electricity, the enforcement of civil norms and the ecologically sustainable harvest of natural products.
The offense taken at Abbott’s “lifestyle choice” concept is multifaceted: it overlooks disability, it assumes capacity to move to skilled employment, it devalues spiritual connections, it insults the ancestors, it assumes dysfunction, it disregards problems of new locations, it neglects helpless old folks, and it represents a final stage of cultural genocide.
Of course the whole Abbott fracas originated from the announcement by Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett that he was closing 150 remote communities as an economic necessity: the cost per capita of servicing small groups, widely scattered across the Kimberley and elsewhere, could not be carried by the State after the withdrawal of federal support. Abbott had cut the funding of dedicated Aboriginal programs by $530 million over the next five years, but found $40 million for truancy officers. Few believe that Western Australia, as Australia’s richest mining state, is so cash-strapped that it cannot find the money to fund basic services to remote communities. This doesn’t mean that their continued funding ad infinitum is defensible or socially desirable. It would have been more politically savvy if Barnett had enumerated the benefits of moving to service centres as his motivation. However, to do this Barnett would have had to demonstrate how he would fund new living areas where the economies of scale could provide the basic services required.
At the heart of the present polemic in regard to ‘living on country’, is the fundamental question of separate development – separate peoples, separate organisations, separate medical facilities, separate schools and federal support for Indigenous language development, art and cultural centres. So this latest outstation saga is perhaps no more than a lightning rod for deeper emotions. As Rothwell reminded us, it was Abbott (or Credlin) who crafted his persona as ‘a committed supporter of Indigenous rights and traditions’. It seems we have a two-faced image here and the voters can hardly be blamed if they are less than clear, on if or how, the PM supports his northern voters.
At its roots, this lifestyle conflict has a series of sequential questions of which, the reason why Abbott used this phrase is easily the least important. Essentially, the fundamental questions relate to: why some people choose to stay in the bush; why they believe it is appropriate to cling to ancient land links; why they turn down opportunities to improve health and skills; why they reject the concept of individual responsibility to earn their keep; why they respect their ancestors but not their grandchildren’s modernisation; why some allow community norms to deteriorate into dysfunction; and why they reject the universally-accepted need to move to where the jobs are. Below this layer of socio-economic questions is the foundation of psycho-historic questions, which probe the origins and justification of anti-modernisation and the ignoring of universal humanitarian norms. At the basic level, the blame game operates as a crude racial dichotomy, which ignores the differential influences of inheritance and experience – the old nature/nurture debate.
Perhaps this essay is best concluded by considering Rothwell’s more benevolent scenario of nuanced values, in which he makes a bold attempt to convince readers of the potential merits of outstation-type existence. Perhaps unwittingly, he draws on the same sentiments as encompassed by the author’s analysis of the personalities and motivations, not of the stayers but of the movers, being clearly aware of the differential needs of the old and the young. Rothwell explains that, while the strong cultural and identity reasons for remaining on their homelands remain, there is no reason why schooling and economic opportunity cannot reach the homelands of the desert or the north. “Remoteness is no longer an absolute bar,” he says, going on in a bid to convince his readers that, with School Of The Air, regional boarding school, tele-medicine and all the advantages of broadband technology, the needs of both young and old can be met. This hybrid model — remote from the urban world, yet still of it — may work. Or, rather, itmay work until remotely raised members of younger generations decide that for their families’ sake, the pull-factors of the homelands are outweighed by the benefits of modern lifestyles in urban settings. In weighing such decisions and acting accordingly, Aboriginal in remote settings mirror the decisions and dilemmas that have long confronted members of outback pastoralists’ families.
The moral of the story is that the capacity to make a lifestyle choice depends on health, skills, finance and a work ethic. Without these, the viability of remote living must be seen as a myth, with the harsh process of self-selection continuing to diminish the homelands’ gene-pools.
Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow