Aboriginal health: Gillard tries to shift the blame

Central Land Council director David Ross said the government's 'closing the gap' plan was a top-down approach, whereas, 'We need investment in Aboriginal programs which work from the bottom up.'

Jay Fletcher Eureka Street February 20, 2011

Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered the federal government's third "closing the gap" report on February 9. The report is an annual review of national efforts to address the mortality gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

In an outrageous denial of the government's failure, Gillard called for Aboriginal people to accept the blame for critical crises in health, education, employment and housing and chronic community breakdown.

In the same week, Aboriginal elders, human rights organisations and prominent Australian individuals joined a fresh round of calls condemning the federal government's intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, now midway through its third year.

Two statements were made at a public meeting in Melbourne on February 8. Elders from several NT communities released an open letter "to the people of Australia".

It said there had never been proper consultation, and income quarantining and compulsory acquisition of leases over Aboriginal land in 64 communities had destroyed the wellbeing and cultural integrity of people in their communities.

"Through harsh changes we have had removed from us all control over our communities and our lives," it said.

A statement, signed by 31 prominent Australians - including Malcolm Fraser, Larissa Behrendt, Julian Burnside QC, Phil Lynch and Patrick Dodson, accompanied it.

The "statement on Aboriginal rights by leading Australians", said: "Aboriginal people in the NT must have choice and must not be forced to abandon lands and heritage in order to obtain services that are automatically provided to other Australian citizens.

"Bring the NT intervention to an end, including the termination of involuntary income management."

The statement said: "It is our belief that inequality cannot be addressed by the removal of control from affected peoples over their lives and land."

Gillard barely mentioned the intervention and offered little that government policy was helping to close the gap. She said Aboriginal people need to take "personal responsibility" and make "changes in behaviour" to close the 17-year gap in life expectancy.

She cited high-profile Aboriginal commentator Noel Pearson's anti-welfare mantra - the conservative belief that abject poverty and social dysfunction are crises of Aboriginal people's own making - as her inspiration.

Pearson supports the practice enforced on Indigenous people in the NT of restricting welfare income by putting half of each welfare payment on a Basics Card, to be used only on necessities. He also calls for it to be expanded to other communities across Australia.

When former PM Kevin Rudd launched the "closing the gap initiative" in 2007, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were dying about 17 years earlier than other Australians.

The NT has the lowest life expectancy for Aboriginal people - 61.5 years for men (77 years for other Australian men) and 69.2 years for women (82 for others).

The mortality rate of Aboriginal infants is three times higher than Australia's average.

Treatable diseases are chronic in many remote communities. The Fred Hollows Foundation said up to 60% of children suffer from trachoma, an infectious eye disease that causes blindness if left untreated.

The World Health Organisation says Aboriginal people are a "special high risk group" for chronic suppurative otitis media, a middle ear infection that causes permanent hearing loss and which affects up to 40% of children living in remote communities.

Nationwide, Aboriginal people suffer higher rates of nutrition related chronic disease - the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says Aboriginal people aged 25-54 are "between 23 to 37 times more likely to die from type 2 diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians in the same age group".

In the NT, overcrowded housing and little education or employment measures compound the appalling state of physical, psychological and social health.

NSW Aboriginal Land Council chairperson Bev Manton rebuked Gillard's patronising speech. ABC Online reported on February 10 that Manton said: "Aboriginal people have endured hardship on a scale most Australians could only dream of."

South Australian Aboriginal leader Lowitja O'Donoghue said Gillard's view that Aboriginal people need to simply "change their behaviour" ignored the fact that the government refused to fund Aboriginal-controlled programs, reported the Australian on February 11.

"When we want to step up to take action, we find white people are all the senior managers," she said.

Central Land Council director David Ross said the government's "closing the gap" plan was a top-down approach. Ross: "We need investment in Aboriginal programs which work from the bottom up."

Manton echoed this view: "It does not reflect the barriers that have been placed on generations upon generations of Indigenous people and undermines the willpower of thousands of Aboriginal Australians who battle against these barriers.

"Aboriginal people will take jobs when there are jobs to take. Prime Minister Gillard might like to explain to the nation how her party destroyed the economies of many communities when they pulled apart CDEP."

Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs also issued a damning criticism of government policy, saying Aboriginal people had been "disengaged" from development processes, and caused "increasing despair and family breakdown".

The NT intervention is draconian and paternalistic, and Aboriginal people feel deceived and betrayed by its retention and expansion by the Labor government, said social justice commissioner Mick Gooda on the release of his first assessment on February 11.

"Top-down imposition of measures will never be sustainable," he said.
Gooda turned Gillard's speech back onto the government and said politicians and bureaucrats needed to "change the way they do business".

Manton said if Gillard really wants to close the gap "she must put away her patronizing tone, and visit one of our communities".

"She must sit, and she must listen. And she must understand that if she truly wants the blame game to end, she has to ensure government does its part as well."

There was no mention in Gillard's speech of large-scale investment in Aboriginal community-controlled health services, or providing the training for Aboriginal people to carry out the delivery of culturally appropriate health care across all communities.

The elders' statement read: "We demand the return of our rights, our freedom to live our traditional lives, support to develop our economic enterprises to develop jobs and to work towards a better future for all our peoples."

This is what will help close the gap.

We must 're-empower' Indigenous Australia

Walter & Geoffrey Shaw & William Tilmouth at Tangtenyere Council
Photo: Sam Mooy (GLW)
The statement below was released by Tangentyere Council on February 11 in response to Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Closing the Gap 2011 address.

Green Left Weekly February 20, 2011

The intervention in the Northern Territory has created a number of alarming issues. To a large extent the Aboriginal population in the Central Australian Region has become disengaged from any development process with growing signs of increasing despair and family breakdowns.

Walter Shaw, the CEO of Tangentyere Council said: "The intervention was another attempt by the Canberra political and administrative process to ‘fix the Aboriginal problem’ with a new mantra of ‘normalisation’.”

Despite calls by many to engage with Aboriginal leadership, a new era of heavy-handed "tough love” was imposed. The outcome is one of the most significant disasters in the history of interaction between Aboriginal Australia and government since colonisation. There is now an endemic array of issues emerging as a consequence of this new process of "normalising” Indigenous Australia.

The intervention, coupled with Closing the Gap, has attracted a large amount of government funds, a full contingency of Canberra and Territory bureaucratic coffers — an investment never seen before in Australian history.

But it is certainly no different to past assimilation policies created by previous successive governments, as Aboriginal leaders bear witness to taxpayers’ money thrown into dead areas with no recourse to accountability.

As the raft of social injustices continues, strong considerations need to be made that "when an injustice becomes law resistance becomes duty”.

"I congratulate Malcolm Fraser for meeting with Aboriginal people from central Australia and listening to the issues we face. He is to be commended for opening up the debate,” Mr. Shaw added.

The toxic nature of aspects of the Intervention and the ever increasing band of new government officials brought in to "normalise” the Territory’s Aboriginal population has created the following emerging and disturbing patterns;

Large numbers of remote community people are leaving their communities and relocating to regional towns like Alice Springs and Tenant Creek. Some have even relocated interstate where the freedom of choice for Aboriginal services is still available.

Growing numbers of Aboriginal transients are moving to towns from more remote communities, adding to growing overcrowding or living in "rough camping circumstances”. The "rough campers” in Alice Springs are now being threatened with fines for illegal camping. It’s a cycle of cat and mouse between the enforcers and the transients.

Additional fines only lead to new levels of economic hardship and greater numbers of Aboriginal people entering the criminal justice system.

Large numbers of families in the town camps are at the point of despair, many are engaged in substance abuse with alcohol consumption soaring. Members of resident families that did not drink before the Intervention are now drinking.

Increasing crime statistics are making Alice Springs a very dangerous place, particularly at night.

Many of our Elders feel disempowered by the Intervention and cite the lack of consultation as one of the most disheartening aspects of the current approach.

Our young are not engaging at reasonable levels with the educational system, with appalling attendance rates.
Our young are still at risk and those in the industry of child protection would agree that the situation has deteriorated since the Intervention.

Many Aboriginal people feel distressed by the forced land grab by the federal government at both the remote community level and in the town camps.

New local government arrangements for remote communities coupled with a loss of control over traditional lands, has added to the disempowerment of our leadership structures.

Confusion about programs, including the CDEP scheme, seems commonplace.

Despite income management, those who choose to consume alcohol are still doing so and in increasing amounts.
And while new infrastructure is being provided no real attention to the physical and mental health of the family units is being made so that Aboriginal families can participate in the mainstream community and its services.

Criticism of the Intervention is often met with open hostility by the federal administration which blindly says things are improving.

While the Territory economy is strong, there is a rapidly expanding line of new government officials as well as large numbers of contractors, consultants and new advisers who are gaining financially from the monies which are aimed at improving the lives of the Territory’s Aboriginal population.

Shaw said: "All of this is heralded by the Federal politicians and some Territory politicians as success. It’s a real pity that the money and measures are not achieving real results for the Territory’s Aboriginal population. For many Aboriginal people this huge effort has come at too high a cost.

"It is now time for people to step forward and recognise that we have a more serious situation on our hands than we did before the Intervention and the only way forward is with serious engagement with our people and a process of re-empowering our leaders.”

Shaw concluded: "It is easy to be critical and I have heard the opinions of a lot of critics but as a young Aboriginal leader I feel it is important to advocate on behalf of those who have just given up and to support those who stand ready to make a real difference to the lives of our people in a constructive and joint approach.

"It is distressing to hear leaders like the Prime Minister and other critics say that Aboriginal people must take responsibility. It’s hard to do so when your ability to control your own destiny has been taken away and put into the hands of Interventionists who control your income, your land, the services you receive and in broader terms, the purse strings which could be used to provide a future for our people.

"We don’t dream up these policies like ‘normalisation’, government does, and imposes new arrangements and we are then told to show leadership. I look forward to the day when Government can move beyond its rhetoric and politically motivated distortions so that cohesion between Aboriginal people and Government can hopefully be restored. ”