Now for the humiliation of Aborigines

Source: The Age December 2 2004

John Howard is planning a return to discrimination and paternalism, writes Kim Carr.

Consider this scenario: you live in a remote desert community, in a house owned by the Commonwealth. Fifteen people share the house, including six school-aged children. Water pipes to the house are broken and the toilet is blocked. The closest working tap is 100 metres away.

There are not enough beds and so family members sleep four to a bed, or on the floor. You have no washing machine; your clothes are washed in a bucket.

Electricity supply is by means of a generator, which sometimes breaks down. When this happens, any fresh food in the refrigerator is spoiled. In any case, fresh produce has to be air-freighted in, for sale at the community store, and is prohibitively expensive for those on low incomes and benefits.

The family tends to eat bread and canned food, as these are affordable and will keep without refrigeration. Some of the adults, especially the older ones, don't enjoy good health. The lack of fruit and vegetables in their diet contributes to chronic illness.

You want the house's plumbing fixed and the broken windows replaced. You ask your landlord, the Commonwealth, to fulfil its responsibilities for household repair and maintenance. But the Commonwealth refuses to help. It won't help because your community has signed up to one of the new "Shared Responsibility Agreements" (SRAs) saying that, unless the kids go to school 80 per cent of the time and are bathed every day, there will be no maintenance for the house.

It's Catch-22.

Something like this will soon be the reality for many thousands of indigenous Australians. According to advice contained in leaked cabinet documents, government services and welfare benefits will be dependent on "behavioural change" on the part of indigenous clients. The "incentives" will reportedly include "carrots and sticks". "Carrots" might include a pool of bikes that children can ride after school, or a film screening (with Commonwealth-supplied DVD players) for children who have good school attendance.

Of course, the sticks as well as the carrots will be justified by the Commonwealth as freely entered into, mutually agreed arrangements.

But the question is this: how is it possible for the Government to coerce indigenous citizens into Shared Responsibility Agreements in return for the provision of basic services and welfare benefits that are their rightful due? How can it do this while not also placing similar conditions on service provision to other Australians?

These proposals smack of blatant discrimination and paternalism at their very worst.

Only 30 per cent of indigenous Australians live to 65 years, compared with 87 per cent of non-indigenous Australians. Sixty per cent - twice as many - people in Bangladesh can expect to live to that age. Bangladesh, of course, is one of the world's poorest countries.

The world's highest rate of the eye disease trachoma occurs among Australia's indigenous people - and this is the only developed country where blinding trachoma remains. Other countries where trachoma is prevalent include Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam.

Deaths from cardiovascular disease among indigenous people are about five times the rate of those for all Australians. Indigenous people are far more likely to die from accidents, violence or suicide. They have high rates of diabetes and obesity. Aboriginal babies have a significantly lower average birthweight than Australian babies generally.

Infrastructure in many indigenous communities is poor, due to distance, climate and maintenance problems. Employment and training opportunities are often non-existent, and many isolated communities can provide no secondary schooling. Despite the Government's rhetoric about entrepreneurial individualism, there is no genuine talk about economic independence for indigenous people.

And yet the Howard Government apparently blames indigenous people themselves for the ill health, poverty and lack of education that prevail in their communities. They are to blame, and so they must undergo "behavioural change" to remedy their situation and overcome their disadvantage.

Support should be given to all genuine, locally forged partnerships between government and indigenous communities and groups that aim to improve lives and opportunities. In fact, without community support, genuine social change won't happen. We can't have a top-down approach. There are many proud examples of achievement by indigenous Australians working together with government and non-government organisations. We should all want to see indigenous Australians participating in an economy that genuinely includes them.

But that is not what the new Shared Responsibility Agreements are all about. These new-style agreements will be imposed upon people who are not in a position to withstand bureaucratic coercion. They are not about respect, reciprocity or mutual action.

Australia is the only colonising country not to have apologised to the indigenous people who were dispossessed. Many indigenous people still suffer directly as a result of that dispossession. Now our Government, on top of its refusal to say sorry, wants to humiliate its indigenous citizens by denying them services unless they conform to behavioural standards that many, because of their disadvantage, cannot possibly meet.

John Howard believes in the freedom of the individual in a free market: yet in this area of public policy he would prefer, apparently, to adopt an authoritarian, coercive stance that denies the freedom of indigenous people to determine their own lives.

From what we have seen so far of this new approach to indigenous welfare, it runs the risk of shaming Australia in the eyes of the world.

Senator Kim Carr is Labor's spokesman on indigenous affairs and reconciliation.