The child abuse, violence, and alcoholism of many Aboriginal communities have been typified once more by reactions to the alleged rape of a two-year-old in Tennant Creek, drawing a distressingly familiar litany of time-worn rationalisations and excuses. Yet again we hear of the crushing and supposedly ineluctable legacy and consequences of “invasion and colonisation”, always accompanied by the demand for yet more “investment” in remedies that, no matter how much money is spent, never produce results or cures. It is the all-too-familiar game of blame, excuses and posturing, and it is being reprised as lives are squandered and entire generations of human potential cast aside.
It will make me no friends among those so ready to go before the cameras and cast smoke screens of rhetoric around the ongoing disgrace of dysfunctional communities, but I nevertheless offer here a four-part strategy for addressing the multitude of problems faced by too many Indigenous Australians. What I offer, I believe, is a good template for government policies and responses and community initiatives.
The first step is to openly discuss the actual problems, rather than place at centre stage the purported reasons for them. Could we quit the talk about poisoned flour and diseased blankets, which politically correct news sources find so convenient to promulgate when steering the narrative away from the here-and-now, which should be at the fore of public consciousness? The reign of political correctness has made any and all discussion of problems and/or dispositions more prevalent in one racial group forbiddingly problematic. Fearing accusations of racism, many non-Aborigines who might otherwise provide valuable insights remain mute. This is a tragedy; as well know, silence kills — and it is killing Aborigines more than most.
The second step is myth-busting. Again, political correctness has gagged most media from questioning the fairy tales fed to us by some university faculties, more than a few Indigenous spokespeople and far too many government agencies, all of whom are far too inclined to invoke nostrums about the “special and unique ways” Aboriginal people are said to think and live. These patronising blatherings, as you might conclude if recently arrived from Mars, portray Aborigines as sometjhing akin to quaint species of bipedal fauna, all shortcomings best viewed and skated over, much as David Attenborough does the violence and bestial ways of the animals he extols in his nature documentaries.
As George Orwell put it, genuine progress demands the continuous destruction of myths. That definitely applies to Aboriginal affairs. In my experience as an academic and commentator on Aboriginal affairs, I don’t see any myths being questioned, let alone refuted. Instead, I am forced to witness pernicious falsehoods being presented as gospel truths. These myths are killing Aboriginal people. Successive Closing the Gap reports have shown that the gulf isn’t closing. Aboriginal people continue falling prey to suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism, all those ills compounded by geography, distance and the concomitant absence of opportunity and environment to learn and work.
Perhaps the most pervasive myth, one very few are brave enough to challenge, is that Aborigines, and only Aborigines, are the go-to experts and authorities on Aboriginal affairs. This myth has allowed too many Aboriginal leaders, academics, and politicians to build empires while the people whose interests they purport to represent languish in conditions unworthy of dogs. This myth has seen Aboriginal children left in unsafe living environments when they should have been removed, all too often resulting in abuse and death. Their cries are drowned by the claim of ‘stolen generation.’
Another widely promoted myth is that racism is rampant, depicted as the chief culprit holding back Aboriginal people. The mouthing of vague statements like “Australia is racist” and “institutional racism” are standard operating procedure simply because they are so vague. The accuser presents as a hero, at least in their own circles and among members of the obligingly unquestioning press, for calling out racism, yet few if any culpable individuals are ever named –chence no action can be taken against any alleged racist. All that happens is that agencies get on board and print glossy brochures proclaiming ‘Racism stops with me!’, mostly with taxpayer funding
After identifying the problems and dispelling the myths, the third step is to implement solutions. People like Andrew Forrest have spoken repeatedly of the need to ensure Indigenous people are active participants in the nation’s economy. Essentially this means adults being employed or being able to engage in enterprise and children going to school. In The Australian, Helen Morton put it succinctly, writing that “unemployment is associated with poorer physical and mental health. The bright eyes of children’s early hopes and dreams quickly fade without opportunities.” When employment opportunities are absent, self-respect goes missing. And a lack of self-respect erodes mental health, which leads to a lack of respect for others, which in turn results in disharmony, violence, and crime.
To promote economic development requires the active involvement of people and all levels of involvement in Aboriginal affairs. Governments must foster opportunities and provide support to ensure communities prosper. And where required after careful research and consultation, government must also provide a sensible and sensitive exit strategy for people living in those locations where a viable local economy is not possible. If they want to get and strive to do better for themselves and their families the means to do so must be made available. This might mean withdrawing incentives from communities (more accurately “camps”) that effectively serve only to keep repeated generations locked in cycles of disadvantage. When children don’t see the parents work, they are stripped of goals and aspirations, and so more human lives and potential are lost as the tragedy repeats itself over and over.
The final part of the strategy I prescribe is to maintain focus. Sadly, instead of discussing and identifying real problems and tackling them head on, more attention is given to distractions such as a treaties, sovereignty, and Australia Day protests. None of these do a damn thing to help Aboriginal people. We know the problems and we know the solutions. That means there can be no more excuses. Aborigines are Australians, after all, and should not expect anything less than what most of us take for granted.
For as long as Aboriginal Australians are diminished, all Australians are diminished. Therefore, Aboriginal affairs is everyone’s business.
nthony Dillon identifies as a part-Aboriginal Australian who is proud of both his Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestries. Originally from Queensland, he now lives in Sydney and is a researcher at the Australian Catholic University. For more, visit www.anthonydillon.com.au