How long can we continue to turn a blind eye to Indigenous squalor?

Opinion Piece 

Date: 14 December 2019 

Publication: The Australian 

In January 1994, then Labor senator Graham Richardson, health minister in Paul Keating’s government, toured remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Conditions in those communities, he said, were “miserable”. He “saw things … that would barely be tolerated in a war-ravaged African nation”.

In August, with a party of fellow federal Labor parliamentarians, I did a big sweep through remote communities in WA and the Territory. From Port Hedland we dropped in at Marble Bar, Jigalong, Newman, Meekatharra, Wiluna, Leonora, Laverton, War­burton and Mutitjulu

More than 25 years after Richardson’s expedition, I can attest that conditions for Aboriginal people in those places are still miserable and intolerable.

Last month WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt visited remote communities in his jurisdiction and wrote in The Australian of their “institutionalised ghetto status”.

How many inquiries or reports will it take, how often can the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples declaim against this tragedy, before Australia confronts the crisis that cripples these communities, and sets about fixing things?

The people out there did not choose to live in those places. By and large, those communities were artificially designed by bureaucrats and Aboriginal people were shepherded there — sometimes for their protection (from Woomera rockets, for example), sometimes as a consequence of assimil­ationist policies. But, having plonked them there, governments have failed to maintain adequate basic services.

Forget the trumped-up national emergency John Howard and Mal Brough declared across the Northern Territory in June 2007 (although Aboriginal people will never forget).

The real emergency was staring them right in the face and they never dealt with it: the parlous plight of thousands of Aboriginal people forced to live in squalor and denied basic rights of citizenship.

It’s interesting to recall that back in 1994 when Richardson pledged to “clear up that mess” he said: “I hope perhaps out of the social justice package we’ve promised for Mabo, there will be scope to address some of these wrongs.”

The Keating government’s response to the High Court’s Mabo decision had three elements: the Native Title Act, the land fund — out of which grew the (now) Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation — and a social justice package.

Robert Tickner, Keating’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs minister, told the 12th session of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1994: “The social justice package presents Australia with what is likely to be the last chance this decade to put a policy framework in place to effectively address the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a necessary commitment to the reconciliation process leading to the centenary of Federation in 2001.”

Hollow words. The justice package was doomed: the Keating government did not press its pro­gress and passed to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission the job of consulting with First Nations about what it should embrace.

Keating’s successor, John Howard, rejected ATSIC’s visionary report in 1996 and went off on his own “practical reconciliation” frolic. ATSIC itself was dispatched by Howard a few years later, but it’s worth restating a few words from the ATSIC report on the social justice package because they continue to resonate: “Indigenous people have been too often betrayed over the last two centuries by fine words that have soon withered in the grim drought of inaction and indifference.”

Indigenous people living in remote communities are still betrayed. The truth of this nationally is seen in the government’s “duck, dive” approach to entrenching a voice in the Constitution.

On the first day of parliament sittings next year, the Prime Minister will present the annual Closing the Gap report, an index of the disadvantage experienced by First Nations people. It will be another recitation of government failures to improve their lives — lives that in remote communities end many years shorter than elsewhere.

Not only do they die younger, their existence also is miserable. It’s not just a matter of poor service delivery, it’s that their lives are not their own. Governments, unwilling to trust First Nations people to take charge of their own lives, continue to intrude and manage.

Remote communities, especially those in the desert region straddling the Territory,WA and South Australia, have the foundations of their customary law, kinship relationships and knowledge of country pretty much underpinning their continuing survival. It is the world of art, sport and ceremonial obligations that makes their world partly tolerable.

But, as long as we view these places through the prism of reform­ing public sector outlays, we will continue to contribute to their demise. They must have a real say in their destiny, and governments have a duty to reorder ideological and biased views about their futures.

In the Territory, the federal government wants to foist its cashless debit card on 23,000 people deemed to be “beneficiaries”, who are already subject to income management (a hangover from the intervention). There is no choice being offered here and the policy will impact severely on First Nations people living remotely.

As the Central Land Council has pointed out, the transfer to the CDC will require people to have an email address, access to mobile phone coverage and a smartphone, the skills to navigate online card activation, and access to the internet. But access to the National Broadband Network is limited in remote communities, home computers are rare, and most internet access through mobile phones is intermittent and unreliable. CDC holders will need to receive an activation number by post, but the post in remote communities is slow or non-existent.

The federal government’s plan to introduce the CDC is yet another example of top-down policy, and recipients in remote communities have not been consulted.

So much for the government’s mantra it wants to do things with First Nations people, not to them.

How will this card help build the capacity of people in these remote communities? How will it help them manage their lives?

We need new frameworks that enable people in remote communities to determine their destiny, and for governments to treat them as sovereign peoples.

These remote communities must be helped to lift themselves out of “institutionalised ghetto status”. Relief is beyond the capacity of states and territories. The federal government has the remit to avert disaster — after all, what was the 1967 referendum all about?

It will require a Marshall Plan to correct the decades of neglect.

However, until we grasp that sort of commitment and empower remote Aboriginal communities, the lives of their residents will be further accursed.

Patrick Dodson is the Labor senator for Western Australia.

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