Many still languish in the prison camp

September 27 2002

Much has been done in 30 years to improve Aborigines' lot. But there is still a long way to go, writes Hal Wootten.

Thirty years ago, I had my first intensive contact with Aborigines, through working with them to establish in Redfern Australia's first Aboriginal Legal Service and visiting and staying with their families and communities in rural NSW.

My gut reaction spilled out in a submission to a Senate committee that ended with these words about an Aboriginal population that was then officially numbered as 140,000:

"If 140,000 of our countrymen were prisoners of war in a foreign country, we would not rest until they were released. Yet within this land a large part of 140,000 of our countrymen are prisoners of a historical injustice and its consequences - ignorance, malnutrition, poverty, discrimination, disease, lack of opportunity, destruction of their individual personality and their social fabric.

"Many live in conditions that would be considered appalling in a prisoner of war camp, and are subjected from birth to a brainwashing about their inferiority that no military power has yet attempted on its captives. To liberate these, our countrymen, we have only one enemy to overcome - ourselves - our apathy and indifference, our selfishness, our turning of the head."

In my uninstructed innocence, I thought the task was to tear down the walls and open the gates of that prison camp and give its inmates whatever help they needed to come out and recover from their injuries and disabilities and take part on genuinely equal terms, and in whatever way they preferred, in the world outside the camp.

It was to that end that I welcomed the Whitlam revolution that became a bipartisan census for the following 25 years, and was in turn supported by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody of which I was a member. A very great deal has been done and I have no patience with those who ignore this.

Nevertheless, what worries me now is that so many are still in that prison camp, still imprisoned by the things I noted 30 years ago.

Sometimes I wonder if what we have done, instead of tearing the walls down and helping the inmates out, has been to go into the prison camp, a camp full of people who have lost or never acquired the confidence and skills to deal with the very alien outside world, and say: "Well, we see you have been here quite a few years; many of you have been born here and know no other kind of life; you have grown attached to this place; you have developed a specific culture that has a lot more sharing and caring and loyalty and kinship support and spirituality than we have outside.

"We are enlightened postmodern people who wouldn't dream of questioning your capacities or imposing our culture and values on you. If you want to forsake your heritage, and deprive humanity of this unique experiment in cultural diversity, feel free to leave. But don't feel under any pressure to do so; you have a human right to stay here and be supported here.

"We will put you all on some form of social services; you can even administer the camp and manage services yourselves provided you set up and register accountable organisations to handle the subsidies we will provide; we will even fund an organisation to receive all the social security and redistribute it in a work-for-the-dole scheme, thereby increasing your self-esteem and solving the problem of camp services. There will be no discrimination against you: you can vote in our elections and have full access to alcohol and drugs."

Of course this is a caricature, intended - like all caricatures - to highlight points by exaggerations.

What are the conditions that enable individuals or families or communities to escape the imprisoning factors and make real choices among the opportunities the world offers? Perhaps that is something that academics might study, for there are many individuals and families that have done it, and there are communities that have had some degree of success.

Mining companies, which sometimes show a surprising degree of commitment to making things better for their indigenous neighbours, find that Aborigines queue up to get out, or at least to get their children out, into the world, where they are given adequate help and welcome.

It would be good to know about the experiments with partnerships in Cape York.

Hal Wootten, QC, was a commissioner with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This is an edited extract from a speech he gave in Canberra last night.

Reprinted from Sydney Morning Herald September 27 2002