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Tough times ahead

It couldn’t make it as an issue in the federal election campaign, but the Howard Government is now embarked on radical change in Aboriginal affairs. Though some of the early proposals, or their source, might seem calculated to raise suspicions, some of the germs of what is on offer could make more difference than 30 years of failing welfarism. The aim is to cease merely sustaining Aboriginal communities in what, for too many of them, is a slide towards oblivion and to begin rewarding policies that work, programs that actually make a difference and, particularly, to require individuals, families and communities to be more active in the matters which affect their fate.

The current proposals involve coercion and some differential, and, perhaps, discriminatory treatment of Aboriginal Australians. They involve less active Aboriginal participation in the planning, organisation and delivery of services than ever before. But for anyone in despair at what is happening in Aboriginal affairs, it may well do more for the alarming disadvantage that others—particularly children—suffer, and do more to make governments, as well as Aboriginal people themselves, responsible for making a difference. There’s a good argument that some of the hand-wringing about paternalism, discrimination and social engineering it involves has at its root a complete unwillingness to accept that Aborigines themselves are the primary actors in their own liberation—from poverty as much as anything else. One of the major reasons why things are going backward is that Aborigines have been too passive, not only about their own fates, but those of their children.

A decade or so ago, I wrote in these columns that the stolen generations we should focus on were the current crop of children. As things were, their fate looked far worse, in material, spiritual and psychic disadvantage, than most of the children snatched by the welfare authorities until a generation or so ago. A decade on, it is impossible to say that their prospects have improved. Indeed, we may be moving to a stage where, in many areas, there will be or already is intervention in Aboriginal families, primarily to protect children, at a greater rate than ever before. What will change is that it will be at the instance of the welfare state rather than the old native affairs bureaucracy.

This will not happen because the kids are black but because the children are neglected, and subject to physical and sexual abuse at rates unimaginable elsewhere. The parents of many children are so trapped in their own apathy, depression, victimhood, or drug addiction that they are virtually oblivious to the fact they are harming their children. This is not some subjective middle-class standard, ignorant of different cultural ways of looking after children. Nor is it from an assimilationist perspective.

The most obvious, if milder, neglect is that, in many remote communities, attending school seems to have become voluntary, with average daily attendances usually at less than 50 per cent of catchments, and, in some cases, as low as ten per cent. Occasional fitful campaigns shame communities into making more children attend school—the favourite carrot and stick approach being rules such as ‘no-school, no pool’. A high proportion of those who attend only casually are, of course, learning nothing, despite the best efforts of teachers. In some areas, such as in the Centre, the most alienated and neglected children are not merely wagging school, but destroying their senses by petrol sniffing. That is the obvious self-abuse. There are country towns in NSW and Queensland where the rate of use of heroin and amphetamine drugs is far higher than anywhere one might find in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne (where the highest abuse rates are among Aboriginal communities) and causing more problems and family breakdown than alcohol.

It may be argued that is unsurprising that children do not attend schools when the schools are so culturally alien and irrelevant to these children’s lives. Perhaps, though this ignores the efforts and the investments in adapting curriculums to needs. It might be said that many Aboriginal children are sick—particularly those made deaf by chronic ear disease—that they cannot give attention to lessons, and that such objective illness is particularly marked among truants. Yes, we should do something about it, but what have their parents been doing about it?

One might say that poor educational outcomes reflect the low investment the wider community has made in education, and the criminal lack of facilities in many remote communities. So far as this is true—and it must be said that the Northern Territory Government ought to be prosecuted for fraud for the differences between what it says it is doing and what actually occurs—it can hardly excuse the fact that, inadequate or not, what is available is all too often not consumed. The primary reason is that the parents and responsible others in these children’s lives, make little effort to encourage or force their children to attend. The parents, themselves hobbled by educational disadvantage, place too little value upon education. Some will assume a level of autonomy among ten year-olds, or seven year-olds that assumes that school attendance is a matter of personal choice. By whatever standard, we are perpetuating new generations of kids who, as young adults, will have no choices and opportunities available to them, even in their own communities. And whose frustration, will further compound the difficulties of such communities.

It’s a form of inverted racism to imagine that Aborigines are merely the passive victims of every one else’s incompetence, malevolence or neglect in these matters, or to imagine, as some sympathisers with Aboriginal aspirations do, that life in traditional communities involves ideal relationships, sharing, caring and strong families. Too many communities are seriously dysfunctional, on a downward spiral and failing to address the consequences as well as the causes. Of course, there are many people in such communities trying very hard to look after their families and who are willing partners in programs to make things better. Too often these people are themselves victims of a culture of apathy, passivity or active hostility to change. It is time they enjoyed more support.

At the level at which it will appeal to the Hansonite constituencies—ever an active part of John Howard’s imagination—new measures will involve tying social security payments to performance in looking after children and dependents, not least in making sure that they are attending school and receiving proper food and health care. The rationale will be blunt and uncompromising: we give out social security assistance, such as single mothers’ benefits, so that people can care for their families. You cannot say that you are doing so if your children do not attend school, or fail to receive needed medical attention. So you will be cut off. Other ways will be found, not least community-based reward and punishment schemes to pick up on your obligations, but as for you there’s no more ‘sit down’ money. Those who think this approach discriminatory may well find that government is increasingly willing to extend this attitude to the more obvious forms of welfare abuse in other parts of the Australian community. Don’t worry; it will be popular.

The planning is what the ideologists might call results-based programs. At Commonwealth, state and local government level, and in grants projects of the sort once funded by the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the accountability focus will move away from ‘prove you spent the money as you said you would’ to ‘prove you made a difference’. It’s going to be an unpleasant experience for many people—even those involved in well-established programs, such as legal aid—as many admit that they are achieving very little. Why should the new stolen generation have to suffer so that we can sustain useless schemes whose only effect is to add a little more money (perhaps 20 per cent of the grant) to that circulating in the community?

The crisis has been present for years, if overshadowed by the politics of symbolism, apologies, reconciliation or the shenanigans of some senior ATSIC personnel. It simply cannot go on. Not because the political will to help Aboriginal Australians will evaporate. Though that may happen. Not because the government lacks a desire to improve Aboriginal conditions and prospects; as I have remarked before, there are many more Liberals with genuine knowledge of, interest in and commitment to Aboriginal interests than can be found in the parliamentary Labor Party. After 30 years, the expenditure in real terms of approximately $70 billion on programs to redress Aboriginal disadvantage, and many more billions in welfare payments, there is still no plan to make things better. No plan. No belief that more programs, or more time, will effect any improvement. Indeed there exists a growing conviction that many Aboriginal Australians have been further trapped in the mire, further impoverished, and, perversely, made seem the most cash-rich, most materially disadvantaged people on earth.

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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