Indigenous so accustomed to punishment - it is no longer effective

Chris Sarra | The Australian | August 08, 2009

Statistics about the state of indigenous Australia continue to be shocking.

In many ways they are a report card on the Howard years. It is worth recalling that one of the first things the Howard government did on coming into office in 1996 was to cut Aboriginal funding by $470million over four years, including $8m from health programs.

Today there are signs of hope and potential. Fortunately, a consensus continues to grow among Australians that something different must be done. At this point we must be careful about the narratives emerging to explain the sorry state of affairs and guide us. There are two present narratives worth examining.

In one, the core problem is seemingly articulated as the refusal of Aboriginal Australia to abandon traditional culture and embrace modernisation. This is the "clash of civilisations" narrative in which Western influence is seen as progressive and good, and the enemy is culture and tradition.

The other leading yet connected narrative is that of the spread, and disempowering effects, of so-called passive welfare. The way forward in terms of this narrative is to let the market rule in Aboriginal affairs. Here the solutions lie in the provision of "real jobs" and the only real job is a job provided by the free market.

What is conveniently ignored here is that before the spread of passive welfare, many Aborigines were prominently engaged in modern economies of the time, particularly in the pastoral industry. Nicolas Rothwell underlined this point last September in an article in The Australian Literary Review.

As Rothwell noted, the equal wages decision of the mid-1960s saw Aboriginal stockmen -- "most of them skilled, proud men in the prime of their working lives" -- disengaged from local economies as an unintended consequence of a decision that was supposed to offer something positive, the same pay as for non-indigenous stockmen. Any narrative seeking to find hope in the "market rules" dogma is flawed by the dynamic that excluded Aborigines from being paid equal wages for equal work. If passive welfare is the true cause of social dysfunction in Aboriginal communities, then is the dynamic that prevented the payment of equal wages to Aborigines the true cause of passive welfare?

Sadly, the narrative that has passive welfare as the central problem with indigenous Australia, rather than poverty or disadvantage, produces a range of sophisticated punishments targeting the welfare system. On the ground Aboriginal Australia is crying out for partnerships with non-indigenous Australia, not more punishment. Punishment is sadly what indigenous Australia has come to expect from non-indigenous Australia.

We have also come to expect such manoeuvres to be authorised by other indigenous people rallied to validate and sometimes engineer processes to do things to Aborigines, not with them. Government policy towards indigenous Australia seems to alternate bewilderingly between often brutal and always authoritarian interventions or the most indifferent and obdurate neglect. Thus for years under the Howard government there did not appear to be any aspect of indigenous disadvantage that the government would not turn a blind eye to. Then, suddenly, as an election loomed, it discovered the problem of child abuse and sent in the army.

In this narrative, Aborigines have become so accustomed to dealing with punishment that it is no longer effective. Cut welfare payments, force us away from our communities, let us die in police cells, and we as a people will still survive.

What some may consider astounding here is that, despite all of this, we as a people remain offering a hand towards non-indigenous Australia, ready to capitalise on the work we have already started together in an honourable partnership. This must be the new narrative. Governments must commit to sustained partnerships anchored by a belief in the humanity and capacity of indigenous Australians, and designed to do things with Aborigines and not to them.

A new narrative can even entertain the most basic economic principle: supply and demand. In many realms it is proven that Aboriginal Australia can supply what Australia demands. There is something more that Aboriginal Australians can supply that cannot be offered by other Australians: a living connection to the oldest existing human society on the planet.

We will be a richer nation when we appreciate this. The danger is that many will succumb to unsophisticated notions of supply and demand and believe that Aborigines must lose their connection to country and go where the market determines. Aborigines must be afforded the capacity and freedom to engage in whatever economies in whatever part of the world they choose.

In the new narrative Aborigines are more inclined to see the Prime Minister as a friend rather than an enemy, and this flows directly from his apology to those of the Stolen Generations last year. On this gesture alone it will be accepted and understood that at times Kevin Rudd will make some mistakes on policy for indigenous Australians.

Against this background I urge the Prime Minister not to talk of being discouraged by the plight of indigenous Australia. That belongs to a narrative of "nothing can be done".

Instead, he should recognise this as a range of complex challenges to which we must attend in the spirit of "this is really tough, but together we can do it".

Chris Sarra is executive director of the Queensland-based Indigenous Education Leadership Institute.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Treaty Republic