Koori History Newspaper Archive

Aboriginal policies hampered by fear of change

Australian - - Monday, August 23, 1999
Author: Kenneth Maddock

Land rights and reconciliation, argues Kenneth Maddock, will not solve indigenous ills

DANGEROUS ideas are afoot, which threaten the small gains won by hard struggle over the past 20 or 30 years. Or so Galarrwuy Yunupingu, chairman of the Northern Land Council, would have readers of this newspaper believe (``Dark ages return to indigenous policies'', Opinion, August 20).

Like a reviewer who warns others against a book he has not read, Yunupingu feared a Quadrant seminar that had not been held at the time he wrote would resurrect the old assimilation policy.

Yunupingu would not want to be thought an illiberal thinker. On the contrary, he says he supports open debate and challenges to misguided orthodoxy. As an example of acceptable criticism he gives Noel Pearson 's condemnation of the welfare mentality. Pearson's words have struck a chord with many people, including those who remember his stirring denunciation of ``racist scum'', but they scarcely amount to fresh thinking.

In a way he is returning to the fundamentals of two generations ago, when the emphasis of government policy in the Northern Territory was on providing Aborigines on welfare settlements with a nutritious diet, seeing to their health, ensuring that children went to school, and making work of a sort available for all except pensioners and women with young children.

Much of what was then being done on the government settlements has since been dismantled or abandoned. It had always smacked of mother knows best. And it was plodding stuff, which could not compete with exciting ideas like land rights and self-determination, which raced to prominence during the heady 1970s.

Of course, there were gains from the new approach, but losses as well. Derek Hunter, principal of Kormilda College in Darwin, told the Quadrant seminar held in Sydney on Saturday, about the education received by children at community schools scattered throughout the Territory. Literacy standards have fallen abysmally. Class attendance is irregular and getting worse. Malnutrition is common. He did not beat about the bush when it came to a couple of methods that make people feel good. Bilingual education is a disaster. Staffing the community schools with indigenous teachers is of doubtful value when most are too poorly qualified to teach in urban schools.

But why does education matter? Well, it can equip people to break free of welfare dependence. If, as Pastor Paul Albrecht argued at the seminar, Aborigines must plug into the Australian economy at whatever level their aspirations require, they will be fatally handicapped by a schooling that systematically disables them.

Yunupingu is driven by fear that land rights as he knows them -- and as Malcolm Fraser and Ian Viner conceived them -- are at risk. But who controls land and who benefits from it are unlikely ever to fall off the agenda. More than 40 per cent of the Territory has become Aboriginal via the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act alone, and more will be added by the remaining claims under the Act and by claims under the 1993 Native Title Act.

As it happens the anti-land rights bogy was conspicuously absent at the seminar. Both speakers on land rights were in favour of them, while diametrically opposed on how rights should be realised. For Professor Richard Blandy, a consultant to the 1998 inquiry by John Reeves QC into the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, the need is to widen the range of people to whom benefits flow, and brings power down to a regional level. His criticism of the major land councils is hardly new. It was vigorously voiced as long ago as 1984 by the anthropologist Diane Smith, who saw the potential for perpetrating vested interests under the cover of traditional ownership.

But Pastor Albrecht thought that in trying to fix the system the Reeves proposals would only make things worse, by elaborating a set of arrangements which are unjust to traditional Aborigines.

Perhaps one of the troubles in public thinking about what used to be called ``the Aboriginal problem'' is the persistent quest for One Big Idea, the conviction that if only we set ourselves resolutely to the task we shall discover a cure for all ills.

Land rights had that appeal a while ago, but seem to have lost their lustre. The latest cab off the ideological rank is reconciliation (son of Treaty). Only a few years ago it was an ordinary word which, among other meanings, had that of resigning oneself to something disagreeable but unavoidable. Now it has magical potency. No one knows quite what it means, or why or how it would work, but there is pretty general agreement that we need it. In ages past there may have been the same near unanimity about the need for salvation.

Kenneth Maddock is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Macquarie University and author.