NEW figures on life expectancy from the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlight the practical, as against symbolic, problems facing Aborigines.
The ABS estimates the life expectancy for Aboriginal men born between 1996 and 2001 at 59.4 years, and for Aboriginal women at 64.8 years. For the general population the numbers are 77.8 years and 82.8 years respectively – despite decades of welfarism and symbolic victories aplenty, Aborigines continue to die 20 years earlier than other Australians. And the statistics on infant mortality are more depressing. In Western Australia, where a mutual obligation contract stressing care and hygiene of children in the remote Mulan community has aroused controversy, an Aboriginal baby is three times as likely to die as a white baby.
In recent years no category of Aboriginal mortality has been more prominently canvassed by white activists than deaths in custody. The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates an average of 6.3 Aborigines died in prison annually between 1980 and 1998. But a pocket calculator applied to mortality rates in an earlier publication by the ABS can begin to reveal what is really killing Aborigines. In 1998-2000, nearly 2500 Aborigines died who would have lived if the rate of cardiovascular disease was the same for blacks as for other Australians. A further 1200 or so Aborigines who died in those two years would still be alive if rates of death from external causes were the same as for non-Aborigines. Included in external causes are the extraordinarily high rates of death by murder among Aborigines. This is part of the pattern of lives scarred by violence that ALP vice-president Warren Mundine referred to this week when he described Aboriginal men flogging their wives with sticks.
None of this suggests we should turn a blind eye while young Aboriginal men die in prison. None of it suggests we should condone the kind of systemic racism of which the West Australian public housing authority was accused yesterday by the state's Equal Opportunity Commission. And none of it suggests there is anything wrong in Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon's plan to apologise to the stolen generation. But while sorry days, bridge walks and a focus on white racism have done no demonstrable harm, they have done no demonstrable good. The sea change that is sweeping across this debate, symbolised by the new compact between Noel Pearson and Pat Dodson that was first reported in The Weekend Australian, is the result of the recognition that policies based on welfarism and rights have not helped Aborigines and it is time to give new policies based on mutual obligation and responsibilities a try. While there are those who have labelled approaches such as the Mulan contract "racist", indigenous policy should not be based on name-calling or moral posturing. It should be based on a rational assessment of what is really killing Aborigines – and a determination to do something about it.