Few Aboriginal communities can govern themselves

June 21, 2006
Source: The Age

Self-determination has failed indigenous Australians, writes Tony Abbott.

MODERN Australians are understandably embarrassed about our forebears' failings towards Aboriginal people. British settlement of Australia meant that Aboriginal culture was bound to change. It meant tragedy for hundreds of thousands of people and their descendants. In the long run, however, modernity — with its benefits as well as its excesses — has been as inescapable for Aborigines as for the rest of us.

Australians' sense of guilt about the past and naive idealisation of communal life may now be the biggest single obstacle to the betterment of Aboriginal people. Having rejected the paternalism of the past, we now insist on forms of self-management for Aboriginal people that would be totally unworkable even in places where people are much more used to them. Because it was wrong for our forebears to treat Aboriginal people like wayward children, it isn't necessarily right for us to expect Aboriginal people to thrive through endless management committee meetings.

As historian John Hirst put it in 2004: "The last oppressor of the Aborigines is the belief that they are a co-operative people naturally suited to self-government in small communities." Hirst says it is wrong to expect small, remote communities to organise their own water supply, sanitation, home maintenance, road construction and retail services and laments that self-determination has required Aboriginal people to master skills that are a "cross between a hippie and an accountant".

A former teacher on the Tiwi Islands, Veronica Cleary, has described how "the schools in Nguiu were constantly asking the community council to make children go to school, the community council was constantly organising community meetings to tell the parents to send their children to school and the parents were constantly demanding that someone else should collect their children each morning, provide breakfast and lunch and provide school uniforms. The frequent community meetings often ended in chaos as the leaders who had been so keen for them to be arranged could not be found to speak."

A form of paternalism — based on competence rather than race — is really unavoidable if these places are to be well run.

The Pitjantjatjara Lands of northern South Australia are home to 2500 people spread across eight significant settlements in an area half the size of France. Almost none of the Aboriginal people has a job other than in various work-for-the-dole schemes. The median age of death is 49. Petrol sniffing and binge drinking are rampant. There is one police station. Attendance at school and at work projects is desultory but attendance records for each settlement are not published, presumably because this might reinforce stereotypes about Aboriginal people.

The lands are part of the Council of Australian Governments' "whole of government" initiative, which is designed to overcome the confusion and paralysis associated with different federal and state government departments (as well as local councils and land councils) all trying to solve similar problems in different ways. So far, this initiative has led to a nutritionist joining the local Nganampa Health Service and community stores doing more to stock healthy food.

Normally, dysfunctional local government would mean sacking the particular council concerned and imposing an administrator to sort out the mess. Something like this was attempted in the lands with the (short-lived) appointment in early 2004 of former senator Bob Collins. Vesting authority in an administrator makes sense but only when combined with the power to make decisions and make them stick. Someone has to be in charge. These days, such authority as exists rests with local "big men" often in conflict with each other and white managers usually dependent on unstable alliances in the local council.

Indigenous townships can rarely produce the kind of leadership necessary for modern service delivery needs. Noel Pearson once called for outsiders such as Marcia Langton to take charge of Aboriginal education in Cape York, Tiga Bayles to take charge of communication, and Peter Yu economic development.

This sounds like his way of saying that only so much can be expected of local people. Pearson's clarion call for Aboriginal people to take responsibility for their own lives should be matched by government officials taking more responsibility for standard governmental functions in Aboriginal townships.

Tony Abbott is the federal Minister for Health. This is an edited extract of a speech he will give today to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare conference in Canberra.