Gary Johns: The land rights initiative has failed
Abundance is a killer.

7th February 2006

WITHIN a generation the Aboriginal lands will begin to empty, the camps at the fringe of regional centres in northern Australia will begin to swell. The young will leave their homelands to find a job, women will leave to find protection from violence, elders will leave to find medical attention, children will leave to attend school. Many will leave to find there is nothing much for them. What then, policy-makers? How will you manage out-migration?

Slowly the penny drops, the land rights revolution has failed. Should the leaders be charged with human rights violations? As effective as guns, germs and steel, the very forces meant to save them - abundance - are wiping out the last of the Aborigines in remote Australia. Abundance has caused death by kidney and heart disease, through car accidents, through the rape and murder of women and children.

Too many Aborigines in remote areas have grasped only the insubstantial elements of modern life: cars, grog, processed food, television, drugs. These things in inexperienced hands are deadly. The policy response of denying Aborigines access to these things is temporary at best and will work only in locked communities, the very places they must leave if they are to survive.

It is a very different policy environment from the boast of rising numbers, the birth of Aboriginal nations, and collective self-determination. Reality has a way of intervening in boasts and gestures. Reconciliation walks over Sydney Harbour Bridge did not help Aborigines. Aborigines from remote areas need to walk over their own bridge. They need to follow in the path of thousands of their fellows, to walk the bridge of knowledge.

The key to the future of Aborigines from remote communities is knowledge of the modern world. Knowing what produces abundance, knowing how to reproduce it, knowing how to cope with it. Clinging to a pre-modern culture may be a symbol of resistance, but it does not help to attain knowledge. A culture based on primitive means of reproduction cannot survive in the modern world. Take two examples of Aboriginal culture - land and sharing.

Eminent anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner wrote in 1958: "I have seen a man, revisiting his homeland after an absence, fall on the ground, dig his fingers into the soil, and say 'oh my country'. But he had been away voluntarily, and he was soon to go away again voluntarily. Country is a high interest with a high value; rich sentiments cluster around it; but there are other interests; all are relative, and any can be displaced."

The Aboriginal interest in land has been displaced, displaced by royalties. Royalties, untaxed, have been spent on cars and grog. The abundance has displaced the cultural meaning attached to land. Which Aboriginal leader is about to swap? It sounds like those dope-heads in Mullumbimby who professed the alternative lifestyle but bludged off the dole and traded in illegal drugs, or were reduced to the status of trinket sellers.

The other fundamental element of Aboriginal custom to be displaced is sharing by demand or mutual reciprocity. In the presence of abundance, sharing by demand has become unrestrained bullying. Aborigines will have to adopt what Tim Rowse calls impersonal means of association. In other language, contract, the instrument that provides trust between those who are not blood related.

Bullying by the young and the strong of the old and weak is not a pretty sight. In remote communities where culture is maladapted to abundance it is, nevertheless, the reality. A note to policy-makers - forcing parents to send children to school by cutting off family payments may cause some nasty bullying of elders when the money runs out.

Soon a new slate of policies will confront Aboriginal people in remote Australia. The payments that keep them suspended between two realities will change. The changed incentives will accentuate the out-migration. The way to manage the change is to let it happen. Governments will not have to choose which communities will stay and which will remain. Let people make up their own minds, based on their own contacts. That is how migration works.

It may be time to bring back the economic geographer. Not the Gough Whitlam style, divining which cities shall thrive and which shall not. No amount of grant money to Albury-Wodonga could make the place thrive beyond its own capacities (and these are considerable). Planning can, however, prepare places for influx as people move to where opportunity knocks. Alice Springs, Port Augusta, Cairns, Port Hedland, Lightning Ridge and many more must prepare as people leave their homelands.

Gary Johns, a former federal Labor minister, is president of the Bennelong Society, which will hold its 2006 conference on this theme. He is preparing a paper on Aboriginal education for the Menzies Research Centre.

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