Australia: Indigenous 'solutions' just disempower us further


In Aboriginal affairs policy, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Today, our families shop for basic essentials on a card that is a remnant of a dog tag from a long-forgotten era. The BasicsCard – which quarantines half of an Aboriginal person's welfare entitlement to ensure it is spent on food and clothing - is the Federal Government's 'solution' for Aboriginal poverty and dysfunction.

To disempower us further. To underscore our difference from other Territorians. To rub our nose in it. And to put us in our place.

It didn't work then. It doesn't work now.

But the BasicsCard is just one of the policies from the political bag of tricks used to control Aboriginal people, and bring them to heel.

The Northern Territory intervention included a suite of policies - alcohol bans on Aboriginal town camps, the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land, the destruction of Aboriginal controlled employment programs – which have disempowered Aboriginal people and reduced us to beggars in our own lands.

Now the Territory Government is introducing 'Public Housing Safety Officers' - bureaucrats with essentially the powers of police - to target Aboriginal people.

It's not enough that Aboriginal people are harassed on our streets – now they want to reach into our homes as well.

There are problems in Aboriginal households, just as there are problems in non-Aboriginal households. But they will not be solved by further demonising Aboriginal people and removing their basic rights to determine who comes into their home, and the circumstances under which they come.

It's hard to believe that in 2012, we see paternalism at its worst. But that is the reality. That is OUR reality.

Australians might have built a great nation, but in the process we have not changed the way we deal with Aboriginal people. The 'new way' of doing government business with Aboriginal communities is the same as the old way.

They claim an open mind, but they speak with a forked tongue. Transparency and accountability is seldom seen nor found.

They tell us 'Whole of government is our way'. But what they really mean is 'It's our way or the highway'. And they seek to shore up this approach with more laws and more legislation.

Aboriginal people don't need more laws and legislation. Aboriginal people need employment, housing, education, and genuine engagement from government.

Aboriginal people, above all else, need to be empowered to solve our own problems, because non-Aboriginal people keep coming up with the same 'solutions', and they keep making it worse.

Australians don't like their nation painted as a war-torn country, or a place ravaged by hunger or disease. But that is what Central Australia – my country - has become.

People from some of the most disadvantaged nations on earth choose to jump on a rusty old boat and risk their lives over dangerous seas.

They come with nothing more than the shirt on their back to seek asylum in a country they believe offers them the best shot at a way of life everyone deserves – a life where basic human rights and dignity are respected.

These are the very same rights denied to my people.

We are the ones living in a war-torn country, ravaged by hunger and disease. We are the ones whose basic human rights and dignity are not respected.

If asylum seekers knew the truth of how some in this country live, they might not be so keen to come.

And here is the truth: The Northern Territory intervention caused widespread starvation among Aboriginal people when it was rolled out, courtesy of the introduction of the BasicsCard.

It caused anaemia rates to spike in children. It diverted resources away from government policies and programs which are supposed to lift Aboriginal people from the mire of disease and poverty.

Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have the highest recorded rates of rheumatic heart disease anywhere on earth. This is a disease unseen in developed nations. It is caused by overcrowding.

Yet the government response to this crisis is to give bureaucrats the power to enter our homes, use 'reasonable force', and harass and intimidate.

Our rights are traded for political self-interest every day, although you wouldn't know it if you listened only to the rhetoric emanating from government.

Politicians and bureaucrats love to open speeches with: "I would like to pay respect to the traditional owners of the land in which we are meeting here today, both past and present."

But these are just words, and they are tokenistic words at that. They do not reflect the real actions of government. The 'present' they refer to is no different to the past.

Paying respect is about more than an opening line in a speech. It's about listening to those affected by government policy, and it's about acting on what is said. It's about genuine consultation.

Instead, we get told, 'Toe the line, you'll be fine mate.' But it's the line that is the problem, and it keeps moving to suit the political interests of the day.

Non-Aboriginal Territorians get legislation that moves with the times. Aboriginal Territorians get legislation inherited from failed past governments.

In 2007, we got the Northern Territory intervention. In 2012, we get the 'Northern Territory intervention-lite'. 'Stronger Futures' is a Gillard government policy that comes from the thinking of mission days, and it will be harming my people for the next 10 years, and beyond.

In 2009, we got the shires reforms, the wholesale destruction of Aboriginal-controlled councils, and their amalgamation into white bureaucracies.

Over the past few decades, remote Aboriginal communities had worked hard to build their towns, and grow their assets.

Our possessions were stripped from us, our jobs were axed. Our services were centralised in large bureaucracies staffed by people who believe assimilation is the only way forward for Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal policy may be paved with good intentions, but it's these same intentions that have led to some of the worst atrocities inflicted on Aboriginal peoples.

In the Northern Territory today, our jails are full of my people. In fact, we jail black males at a rate more than five times greater than South Africa did at the end of the apartheid era.

Overcrowding in Aboriginal homes is the worst in the nation. The official average number of Aboriginal people per dwelling in the territory is 9.4, but we all know it is much greater than that in many homes.

The official unemployment rate in remote communities is over 90 per cent, but we all know it is much greater than that in many communities.

Is it any wonder remote community Aboriginal peoples are evacuating their traditional lands to live in a world of hardship in towns like Alice Springs?

But having been displaced and socially excluded, remote Aboriginal people are blamed for their civil disobedience.

What would you do if everything you built, everything you owned, everything you aspired to was taken away from you? You would do what many Aboriginal people do.

It's true that there are rivers of grog in the Northern Territory, but Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Territorians both swim in them. The reasons why, of course, are very different.

Many non-Aboriginal Territorians use grog to celebrate. But many Aboriginal Territorians use grog to self-medicate.

They do this because no-one else is treating their disease. They are left to fend for themselves. But it is not only the disease of alcoholism they are treating.

Aboriginal people use grog to escape the daily reality of their lives – the grinding poverty, the social isolation, the complete disempowerment.

They drink to numb the pain of knowing that they are viewed by their non-Aboriginal countrymen as an impediment to the laid back Territory lifestyle.

This is never recognised in the social commentary around Aboriginal dysfunction. Instead, it is viewed through the prism of the law and order debate.

This must stop.

Our politicians can legislate all they want. They can bring in new laws that create 'Public Housing Safety Officers', with powers to use force against homeowners, to enter premises without permission, to harass and intimidate.

But until they start facing the reality of how Aboriginal people have lived and suffered, then we will keep revisiting the mistakes of our past.

The social problems on display in Alice Springs today are a direct result of the sins of governments' past. They are the result of bureaucracies not listening to Aboriginal people, believing that assimilation is the cheapest and fastest way to advance.

But Aboriginal people will not assimilate. Surely 200 years of resistance should have taught Australians that. And we will fight it for another 200 years if we're forced to.

A major rethink is desperately needed on the bad policy being forced on Aboriginal people by our governments.

It starts with genuine consultation. Investment from government is welcome, but we will not trade our identities and our culture for government funding. It is not for sale.

At the same time, we stand ready to consult with government, in good faith. In fact, we've been ready for decades. But this is not reciprocated. There remains little political goodwill from government for a real conversation.

It seems to me our only recourse from bad policy – and deaf governments - is to hope that others may listen, and intervene.

We must appeal to the goodwill of the many fair-minded Australians. The same Australians who voted 'yes' in the 1967 referendum, who walked hand-in-hand with Aboriginal people in 2000, and who embraced the national apology.

These are the people we must look to to halt the toxic process of 'government negotiation'. These are the people we must look to for constitutional change, and for a human rights-based approach to Aboriginal affairs.

If you're not one of these people, then you're part of the problem.

Walter Shaw is the chief executive officer of Tangentyere Council, based in Alice Springs. Tangentyere provides basic services to the region's 16 Aboriginal town camps.