Last week The Australian newspaper reported claims that a high proportion of Aboriginal children in some Cape York communities are not receiving the assistance they need to address intellectual impairment. Also reported on an ABC website was the call for extra police officers to go to the remote community of Ali Curung to bring an ongoing conflict between two clan groups under control. On Anzac Day, a 16 year old Aboriginal boy took his own life in Broome. While these stories do not represent all of Aboriginal Australia, they do spotlight the serious problems which far too many Aboriginal people face today. If these are not dealt with now, they will blight the next generation.
While Aboriginal leaders, organisations, and committees are focusing on treaties and constitutional recognition, I provide five ideas here that I believe will result in a positive quantum change for Aboriginal people. We do not need to wait for the next apology, acknowledgement, royal commission, or government report to discuss and implement these ideas. The time is now.
The first idea is that while much attention has been given to closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, there is another more important gap that needs discussing: the gap between those Aboriginal people who are doing well and those who are living in conditions that most of us would not let a dog live in. It is increasingly difficult and futile to frame Aboriginal people as all being equally disadvantaged. Let’s not continue throwing taxpayers’ money at a group on the basis that just because they identify as Aboriginal, they must be disadvantaged. Let’s focus on helping those Aboriginal people who are most in need of the same sorts of opportunities their more advantaged cousins take for granted.
The second idea is to focus on employment. It’s no secret: close the employment gap and most of the other gaps will close. In The Australian, Helen Morton has stated that “Unemployment is associated with poorer physical and mental health. The bright eyes of children’s early hopes and dreams quickly fade without opportunities.” Those Aboriginal people who are not doing well, very often live in locations where employment opportunities are limited. When these opportunities are absent, self-respect is very often lacking. And a lack of self-respect erodes mental health, which leads to a lack of respect for others, violence, and crime.
Sadly, a generation of Aboriginal children in some parts of Australia watch their parents collect pensions, play cards, and fight. They do not see adults working as being normal. And if the children can’t see the adults working, then they may well reason that it is not worth going to school. The most recent Closing the Gap report states it clearly: “Along with building skills and financial independence, being employed contributes to overall wellbeing … it also has a positive flow-on effect for family members and the community more broadly.” The report further states: “Only 35.1 per cent of all Indigenous people of workforce age (15-64 years) in very remote areas were employed compared with 57.5 percent of those living in the major cities.”
The third idea is that while it is important to consider the role of government, it is also important to remember that the people have a critical role to play. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made this clear more than 25 years ago: “There is no other way. Only the Aboriginal people can, in the final analysis, assure their own future.” This does not mean doing it alone, but people must be actively involved in doing what they can to improve their lives. Fortunately, many Aboriginal people are assuring their own future, but a sizeable minority are not. Government can help provide opportunities to help this minority assure their own future, but the people must reach and grab those opportunities.
The fourth idea is that the commonalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people far outweigh any differences. The belief that Aboriginal people are a different species with a culture that requires special catering to has kept an Aboriginal industry thriving and allowed academics to build successful careers for themselves, while people on the ground languish. Where cultural differences exist they should be respected, as they are for other cultural groups such as more recent immigrants and refugees, but such differences should not be used as excuses for not participating in the mainstream. Many successful Aboriginal people have already proven that they can participate without compromising their cultural identity and obligations. They have made us a better Australia, so let’s follow their lead.
Finally, Aboriginal affairs is every Australian’s business. There is currently a doctrine that Aboriginal affairs is solely the responsibility of Aboriginal people and only they should be allowed to voice opinions – or at least those with the same opinions as the gatekeepers. This has been marketed as ‘self-determination.’ Actually it is separatism, and it is not working. It is poison. For far too long the Aboriginal industry has attempted to keep its doors closed while it conducted its ‘secret Aboriginal business’ funded by the tax payer. We are all in this together so let’s start working together.
It will be great when horror stories of Aboriginal people suffering are a thing of the past when more Aboriginal kids are in school, when more adults are working, and thriving communities are the norm. Aboriginal people are Australians and we should expect nothing less for them. For as long as Aboriginal Australians are diminished, all Australians are diminished.