The Aboriginal “crisis” and the Commonwealth’s response

In this blog I have generally refrained from commenting on political issues de jour. I try to confine myself to posting on matters where my own opinion can be backed up with some specific information or expertise to which I can lay claim.

In the case of the Aboriginal “crisis,” I am acutely aware that, like many Australians, I have very little first-hand knowledge. The gulf between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal in Australian society is very deep and wide. To me it is self-evident that the dispossession of the Aboriginal people of Australia is, to borrow a religious metaphor which I don’t actually believe in when deployed literally, White Australia’s “original sin.” That John Howard, who presumably does believe in this metaphor on the literal plane, cannot accept this, is one of my many beefs with him. Leaving aside the question of how a long-term endemic social problem can suddenly be discovered as a “crisis,” the Aboriginal crisis could just as easily be described, from the Aboriginal perspective, as the “Whitefeller crisis.”

So I have watched with dismay as Mr Howard has garnered approval for the government’s latest initiatives in relation to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. My own view is that the approval which Howard has won is very much akin to the public approval for “law and order” campaigns. Part of the reason for such approval is that everybody thinks that the target of such campaign is a “them” or “other” without really contemplating the systemic harm that such campaigns do to the legal system as it operates for everybody. In the case of law and order, the them is those “crims;” in this case it is aborigines. That is why in the end I am also sorry to say that the approval is ultimately grounded in a kind of racism, because aborigines are so readily the “them” in this equation.

There are many, many aspects of the Commonwealth’s announced response with which one can take issue. To take just one example, where does the proposed prohibition on pornography come from? If you read the report to the NT government which has been seized on as the latest casus belli, it is clear that community elders denounced pornography as a novel and evil thing which was corrupting their society. You will also see that much of what these elders meant by “pornography” may well just have been the sexualised fare of modern mass-media entertainment. The commission found that general claims about the criminogenic effect of pornography are unsupported by research. It identified the real problem as access to pornography (as well as exposure to adult sexual conduct) which arises, to a large extent, from crowded housing conditions as well as insufficient controls. (Incidentally, the known cases of child pornography overwhelmingly involved non-indigenous people.)

All governmental intervention in society is inherently authoritarian, but how this proceeds is a matter of degree. It is also axiomatic that authority does not simply operate except in the crudest and most ineffective way by coercion, but also requires the consent and participation of those over whom it is exercised. The readiness in the Australian electorate to approve the government’s present approach to the problem is, as I have already suggested above, a not altogether surprising reflection of a deep-seated attitude to aborigines in Australian society.  Even those of us who try our best to transcend this approach are susceptible to this, albeit with reservations.

As I have also already said, I don’t claim to have much first-hand knowledge about these issues: what I have first-hand knowledge of is the very fact that I and most Australians lack such knowledge. Someone who does have first-hand knowledge is Jack Waterford, sometime editor of the Canberra Times, who about thirty years ago worked for two years with Fred Hollows on the campaign against trachoma. This is some of what he has to say in his article about the government’s present approach published the week before last in Eureka Street

I was so bowled away by the disaster of Aboriginal health that I obtained a two-year leave of absence from the Canberra Times and went to work with an Aboriginal medical service in Central Australia, helping to set up new services. Then I went to work directly for Fred as an organiser, dogsbody and report writer. My wife, Susan, whom I met on the program, organised surgery programs in the wake of the main teams’ progress, and mass treatment programs.

Trachoma is still around, but neither with the intensity and severity of old: in 1976 virtually every Aboriginal child in three quarters of geographical Australia had the infectious, conjunctivitis, stage of the disease, and about one in four old people (people aged 60 or more) were blind from trachoma, corneal eye disease or cataract. There is still too much Aboriginal blindness, but the likelihood of old-aged blindness among the middle-aged remote Aborigines of today (who were kids or young adults then) will be but a fraction of what it once was.

As now, the root of trachoma, and almost all the other illness we saw, was living conditions. Poor and over-crowded housing, if it could be called housing at all, inadequate water supplies, an inability to separate garbage and sewerage from the living environment, and poor diet. Inadequate or non-existent medical services made virtually every Aboriginal the host of what Dr Peter Moodie called “a wardful of diseases in each body”. Treatment helped, but exposure did not create resistance, and those ‘cured’ were quickly sick again.

There were times when, in describing what we saw, we used phrases such as ‘national disaster’ and compared the national mobilisation to help the 1974 Darwin cyclone victims with the resources going into Aboriginal affairs. We made use of the army too, and had high praise for its style of operation. But the army’s help, and what was needed, had very little in common with the impatient ‘boots on the ground’ approach and coercive methods which seem to be favoured by Mal Brough, the former soldier turned instant expert on Aboriginal affairs. Indeed it was as much the failure of Brough-style authoritarianism as the lack of investment which had created the mess with which we were dealing.

What made us different? We consulted, liaised, talked, reported back, and, so far as we could, we delivered too. Even in 1976 we found Aborigines weary of “yet another survey” and “yet another lot coming through, making promises, never to be seen again”.

The program employed Aboriginal liaison officers who went into communities, long before the teams arrived, to explain what we were doing and why, and to negotiate assistance. Local liaison officers were appointed to help organise the actual visits. We did not wait for people to come to clinics, but went out and looked for them in the camps. In one community, which had been the subject of regular visits by an eye doctor, (of his own initiative, free, but based on people presented by a clinic sister) the doctor told us that, because of his regular visits, there were no blind people here. We saw 30, from the camps, in one afternoon.

Some of the meetings we initiated metamorphisised into standing groups, not least the Pitjantjatjarra Council, which was first convened, from Pitjantjatjarra groups in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, in response to our request to discuss what people could do about our findings.

We worked hard, in short, to make the people partners in our program, and to give individuals, families and groups a strong sense of ownership. Most of the time, of course, we were heavily self-critical, thinking that we could have, or should have, done it better, but that we were doing it better than it had been done before we were always pretty confident.

I wish I could be as confident about the task forces starting out – first with cops, then with army officers, then some doctors not yet consulted or organised, with alienated state infrastructure and no sense of engagement with the service providers on the ground, let alone the objects of the attention. Complete with abuse by the minister of the people whose cooperation he needs, and the general implication that anyone who stands in his way, or doubts his good intentions, is an apologist for child molesters.

I have quoted at length because I find that relatively few people ever actually click on a link in this blog. The balance of the article, however, deserves to be read.

5 Responses to “The Aboriginal “crisis” and the Commonwealth’s response”

  1. ninglun Says:

    I’m not insulted, Marcel. Funnily enough I do have first-hand knowledge of Jack Waterford, having been close to the Waterford family for some time — between 1977 and the mid 1990s in fact, so they and I have often talked about Indigenous issues. There is part of me, too, that finds some force in the argument that unintentionally some of the Left approach has amounted to “benign racism”. I contemplate the history of Redfern, for example, and can’t help being ambivalent. All along I am very conscious of conversations I have had with Aboriginal people over the past twenty years.

    The whole thing is still very perplexing.

    Waterford’s article is a good one. (I also love Eureka Street and wish it was still in print as well as online, though The Monthly is a fair substitute.) I will link mine today to this.

    Outclicks are still worthwhile…

  2. ninglun Says:

    Recheck your link to Jack Waterford: it sends people back to you at the moment…


  3. Mitchell Says:

    With so much blogging, I don’t see how you have time for the law!

  4. Daniel Says:

    Ah, Marcel, with trepidation I am here on your blog (even though I have misgivings about the legal profession).

    Yours is an interesting blog, very focused (that is not meant as a criticism). I’ll call again and, as a gesture of goodwill, I’ll put your link on my blog in the next few days (if you’d prefer I didn’t please let me know)!

    P.S. Hope your father’s health improves.

  5. marcellous Says:

    Thank you, Daniel. He is on the mend and went home the next day after I last saw him. In fact it was he who, when I visited him on the second day, mentioned Jack Waterford’s contribution which I have quoted here, though it was not until a few days later that I searched it out on the net.

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