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A heartland of instability

Dancing on our graves

By Marcia Langton

I do not want to go back to the past. I am looking forward to the 40th anniversary of the referendum hosted by Reconciliation Australia. Jackie Huggins has already told you something about the preparations for that event and the institutionalisation of that part of our history into our collective memories and school textbooks. I want to draw on the resonance of those times when Australia was so starkly divided, and point out to you that Australia is still starkly divided. It is divided in many ways. I could mention so many things, such as our treatment of asylum seekers. I refer to privileged Australia and the underclass. Aboriginal people do not make up the entirety of that underclass, but we certainly make up a big proportion of it.

Two former public servants who worked in the Northern Territory, Neil Westbury and Mike Dillon, are apparently writing a book, some of which was reported in The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. They refer to Aboriginal Australia as a failed state, by which they mean that the state has failed us. In remote Australia, as you will have heard ad nauseum from the newspapers, there are communities in crisis. There are horrendous problems of law and order, of alcohol and substance abuse, violence. They quite rightly point out that whereas Australia refers to the countries in its nearby region such as the Solomon Islands, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and so on as the arc of instability, right here in our continent there is a heartland of instability. There is a failed state within our midst. It is the failure of all within the Australian governments which we have to understand is at least partly responsible along with history for this terrible situation.

Here we are in the lap of luxury overlooking green lawns, beautifully tended lawns, beautiful houses in the distance. We are eating a beautiful lunch. Most of us are healthy and happy. Yet throughout most of Australia geographically speaking, scattered across the continent are communities mired in unimaginable poverty with very little chance or even hope that these situations might change. Many of us are anxious that there is change. You might get the impression from the present federal Australian government that there is almost no intellectual activity undertaken by Aboriginal people to address these matters. If you were to listen to several of the ministers addressing these issues, you would think that none of us had ever made a suggestion as to how these problems might be addressed, or that people like Linda Burnie, Jackie Huggins, Faith Bandler and myself had never seen at first hand any of these problems. Of course, the contrary is the case and I want to say this to you. This is one of the three messages I want you go to away with from here.

Just as Jessie Street and other women of her generation had a plan, so, too, there must be a plan to address this problem. Presently there is no plan. The absence of policy is what is so absolutely striking about the capacity of all Australian governments in their dealings with the problems in indigenous Australia - the utter absence of policy. It is as if we are a smorgasbord of mythical problems from which the morally vain can come and take a favoured or preferred case study in misery to use as their badge of honour to prove their status in civil society. I call it dancing on our graves. Every time I pick up an opinion column by a non Aboriginal person haranguing us about what we must do I feel sick to my stomach. It is now a fashion throughout Australia to be more morally righteous about the Aboriginal issue than the opinion columnist on the next page.

This game of moral vanity is a part of the problem of the absence of policy because governments are led this way and that by this columnist and that columnist, most of whom have never seen any of these conditions at first hand. I challenge Christopher Pearson for instance to name the Aboriginal community that he has been into. Ministerial officers have become travel agencies for the morally vain to travel through our communities and dine out on misery. I call it dancing on our graves because when they leave somebody else dies. They have so little respect. They cannot come away from these communities and say something about the people who hosted them, who gave them the time of day, who took the time to explain their problems to them, who took the time to drive them around the community. They have nothing to say about these decent folk. They speak about these imaginary Aborigines that they haven not met but which are now peopling the imagination of Australia.

We have the tragic story of Mr Louis Nowra who tells us he was in a hospital bed in Alice Springs. You probably read about this. He heard two Aboriginal men talking about, he alleges, their intention to rape a young Aboriginal girl. If you heard this conversation would you call the police? Would you try to do something about it? We don't find that reported in his book. I would call the police. If it in fact happened I would find out more and I would do something about it. Instead, Louis Nowra could very well contend for the ministry. He has all the qualifications: moral vanity, loose reporting, lack of evidence and lack of action.

Most of us who do know about these problems and have written about them, who have done our time on committees and so on, want an evidence based approach. We want models that work - not fads. We want a plan. We want a plan of action. We want some goals. We want some targets. Now it is very clear that in this failed state the key problems are, as Noel Pearson has pointed out, welfare dependency, an extraordinary low level of economic participation, and a lack of capacity to participate. I have been speaking to people who have worked in Africa and asked them questions about what they have found that works in Africa in terms of sustainable development. They pointed out to me that mostly what they have seen will not work here in indigenous Australia because of the very high levels of welfare dependency and lack of capacity. Now why is this the case?

You have heard perhaps or you have read another opinion columnist. I believe he has some qualifications. I am not quite sure what they are, but apparently belonging to the Menzies Research Institute is one of them. Gary Johns was invited by a previous federal Minister for Education to a meeting about Aboriginal education led by community members, Aboriginal leaders. He has come away from that meeting and his principal recommendation in a public report that he wrote was that Aboriginal children be removed from their families. That meeting in the Northern Territory that he went to was typical of those meetings where leaders from communities join together in an effort to convince governments that it is necessary to build schools in Aboriginal communities. The key problem, as I think even our beloved Warren Snowdon from the Northern Territory has apparently recently discovered after living there for 30 years, is that there are no high schools for Aboriginal children to attend except in the mining towns and the highway towns. There are no schools. The little schools that exist in the remote communities are basically a one or two room affair. The Aboriginal teachers' aides are part-time. A teacher might travel around a group of communities once every two weeks dropping off workbooks and pencils. This is the kind of education that these children are receiving. And the answer from the genius Gary Johns is to remove Aboriginal children from their families.

Well, pray tell me, where are you going to put these 300,000 children? You see it is all part of the imaginary Aboriginal world. There's just a few of us. You can just adopt our Aboriginal children and the problem is solved. There are half a million indigenous people now - half a million. Sixty per cent are under the age of 25. Most of them are not receiving the kinds of services that you take for granted. Most of them are under-educated, under-employed and have little chance in life. And on present trends that half a million population, existing as it does with such a young population, a majority young population, means that we are looking at a population explosion that will go on and on until underprivileged Australia consists of say two million underprivileged indigenous people.

The frontiers are even more starkly drawn in the 21st century between the privileged urban dwellers who have houses, superannuation, schools to go to, hospitals to attend, and the people on the other side of the Great Dividing Range who, as I say, are not all indigenous people - many are white. Yet here is the extraordinary irony. In the middle of all this misery is the biggest mining boom in world history taking place in remote Australia. I have recently been in the Pilbara where every small airport is bristling with Toyotas with the usual mining gear to warn of explosions, to stay in contact. Every airline is packed with mining company staff. Every hire car is booked out. There is insufficient accommodation for the workforce of the mining industry. Now companies book out every motel and rentable accommodation on a long term basis in order not to be without accommodation when they bring their construction crews and so on in. The Western Australian government, or what is left of it after the recent ministerial sackings, is floating on a royalty pool of $30 billion as a result of this mining boom, and the federal government obviously reaps a great reward from this mining boom. The mining and petroleum and gas boom will go on and on and on. There are at least five liquid natural gas plants proposed for the Kimberley and many more mines in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales. And here is the thing. All of that tax - the royalties going to the Western Australian government make the people in Perth rich. They are so rich they are buying huge motorboats. They have so many motorboats now they have no waterways to put them in. They are all parked up in their driveways. It looks like that old TV show about the hillbillies in Hollywood.

Little of that money is going back into the Pilbara or back into the Kimberley. It is a classic case of underdevelopment and colonisation. It is like Africa in the 19th century. All the wealth is extracted out, the people left destitute and the people who have extracted it grow rich in Manchester, Liverpool, London and so on. As it happened in the 19th century, today's London, Manchester, Liverpool is Perth. I went to Roeburn. HomesWest, which is the state housing authority, has some houses in Roeburn which Aboriginal people by and large live in. They are made of asbestos. They are falling apart. The plumbing does not work and they charge a poll tax, a Thatcherite poll tax to all of the residents but particularly the Aboriginal residents. It is primarily an Aboriginal town now. They do not maintain any of the houses. They charge each individual living in a house rent at a higher than market level. The wealth that even HomesWest, the public housing authority, is drawing out of the area in exchange for deteriorating asbestos walls is just one example of the underdevelopment of the Aboriginal world.

It is true that some of the companies such as Rio Tinto Iron Ore, the Argyle Diamond Mine and Woodside are attempting to increase the level of Aboriginal employment. Some of them do have very good training programmes. But it is also true that they are talent thieves. They are taking the best and brightest out of our communities to work in the industry and they legitimately, I guess, have the argument that they are not the government. It is not their job to fix these problems. They pay their royalties to the government. That wealth flows through to you. It flows through to people here in Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as Perth. That wealth is built on the extraction of all that the future generations of Aboriginal people can rely on if they have any chance of wealth creation.

It is also true - I have been involved in some of these negotiations - that Aboriginal people are negotiating, in less than half of the cases, agreements with mining companies that at least observe human rights and appear to be adequate. As Kieran has so rightly put it, about a quarter of them are basket cases and a quarter of them barely reach the levels of modern agreement making that are expected. Through those agreements Aboriginal people have a long term future in their relationships with the mining companies. It is quite a complicated story but a very hopeful story. Yet none of this really works unless there is a change of attitude, the kind of culture shift that occurred when Aboriginal people were finally accepted bit by bit by the state governments and granted the franchise and had the ward system removed. That is the kind of culture shift we need again. We need to engage with remote and rural Australia and ensure that everybody in those areas is participating in the economy and obtaining the benefits from that economy. It is such an extraordinary event but only reported in our newspapers in terms of share prices and mergers. Few Australians have actually seen the places that I am talking about.

Urban Australians turn their attention elsewhere. Their own country is not a part of their imagination and they will admit that. We have had the grey nomads, the more adventurous of the retiring population who travel around Australia in their caravans. In typical fashion, you may have heard that they are going to be recruited as volunteers in our communities. I guess it is expected that Aboriginal communities establish caravan parks and set up little shops selling gas bottles. I suppose that is a form of economic participation. It is not what we had in mind. So, yes, there is tourism, and of course the Aboriginal contribution to tourism is growing. Indeed a delegation has been to Paris to secure long term contracts from Europe for visitors to indigenous Australia. The Aboriginal art industry is enormously popular around the world and it is a very important industry for Aboriginal people, and probably the most consistent source of income for Aboriginal people in Australia. Their increasing employment in the mining industry is tremendously important. Whilst these industries are tremendously important, we need to have a plan.

Going to the newspapers and announcing that the grey nomads can now go to Aboriginal communities is not exactly what I had in mind. I think that we have to be much more serious and I am asking each of you, if you have any influence, and I am sure most of you do, to tell this government and the people contending to be in the next government, to get with the program and listen to the Aboriginal people who have explained in many, many published papers, many government reports, the evidence based policies that are required to deal with this situation. Grandstanding from a ministerial office for ideological purposes has become now a very boring show. There are so many important things to say, and this may sound like political griping and may sound rather petty. But think about it from the point of view of Aboriginal people who are watching the news on television, reading the newspapers, listening to their friends.

We no longer have any say in how government does its business except through maybe two or three committees, if we are listened to at all. I understand that the National Indigenous Conference members resigned en masse last year. The Minister apologised for not listening and asked them to stay on the Council. This has become rather tragic, where a person who knows very little about our circumstances, very little about the actual evidence - the reported evidence in the journals - can have so much say over half a million people's lives. It is a matter of great importance. This is a tremendously important issue. I read an article, or I actually looked at the graphs of an article, yesterday shown to me by Professor Ian Anderson, the Professor of Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. It was a report from Central Australia by one of the medical researchers who has shown that the Urapuntja community, or Utopia, which is a big centralised area of tiny Aboriginal communities called outstations, has a level mortality rate - it is not increasing, and only just above the average Australian mortality rate, and much, much lower than the Northern Territory Aboriginal rate. Similar findings have been made for cardiovascular disease and for diabetes. This decentralised, remote Aboriginal collection of communities called Urapuntja is doing very well on the indicators for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The decentralisation in small communities is one of the contributing factors to their good health. We can actually say that there is an Aboriginal community with good health. Their access to bush tucker is another reason. The low levels of stress that they have living in their small traditional communities is another factor, and I am sure that there are others.

I wanted to explain that to you because it compares so starkly with the opinions of so many of the people in power who want to close our communities down as cultural museums, take their titles away from them and do goodness knows what with them. Do you know what they are going to do with all of these people they are proposing to remove from these communities? You see they have not even thought about what they are going to do with half a million people and the 300,000 young people. What are they going to do? Oh, there is some idea they will shut down all of the communities and move them all into Alice Springs.

Yes. Now they are trying to remove all the titles from the town council at Alice Springs. You see, there we go again. There is that stark racial divide. Why does a minister in the 21st century - a minister of government, think that it is possible to remove property from Aboriginal people? Our Constitution protects property, but still there is this idea that Aboriginal people are not subject to the Constitution and our property rights are not equal or protected by the Constitution.

We still have this divide. It is played out in so many ways. We are the entertainment for the nation. It is a form of pornography. I want all of you to think about that. We need a culture change. I hope that Louis Nowra hears what I have said today. I do not want to spend the money on a phone call to personally tell him.

I will leave you with those messages. No more showing off on the run. No more using us as the fodder for moral vanity. Listen to us and use the evidence based policies that we have been recommending for so long. If we all get behind it, I think we might be able to have more change in the long tradition that Jessie Street and her friends have already left. Thank you.


Marcia Langton AM is one of Australia's leading authorities on contemporary social issues in Aboriginal affairs. She was appointed Inaugural Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2000, having formerly held the Ranger Chair of Aboriginal Studies at the Northern Territory University from 1995 to 2000, and is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. This is a transcription of her address address to the annual lunch of the Jessie Street Trust held in Parliament House, Sydney, on 20 April 2007.


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