Helen Hughes: Policies entrench poverty


MORE than 200,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have become integrated into mainstream Australian life, but during the past six months the media have exposed the extreme deprivation of another 200,000 living on welfare in remote communities, fringe settlements and urban ghettos.

Following Noel Pearson's courageous calls to end welfare dependence, increasing numbers of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in remote Australia are now demanding equal economic opportunities.

Shocking Third World conditions clearly do not stem from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ethnicity, but are the result of the set of separatist federal, state and territory policies. These separatist policies have condemned many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to living in isolated, uneconomic communities that deny them private land ownership and other private property rights, notably in housing, that destroy their health and that fail to provide decent education.

The ensuing welfare dependence destroys families and communities - as it does elsewhere in Australia and throughout the world. But other Australians on welfare are not isolated in apartheid-like settlements. The absence of policing and law in remote communities permits high levels of child abuse and domestic violence. Alcoholism and other substance abuse are rampant.

Small elites of "big men" monopolise the layers of separate governance created for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. They have strong vested interests against reform. The politicians who have created the remote living museums are supported by academics, state, territory and federal public servants who run the system and the non-indigenous administrators, teachers, accountants, lawyers and other consultants. They all make their living out of these conditions. Sorcery and payback thrive. The ultimate results are murders and suicides.

The commonwealth Government has taken a first step towards reforming the separate governance structures by dismantling the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It has introduced shared responsibility agreements to mitigate communal welfare. But individual pensions cannot be reformed until girls stop being married off while they are still children and, together with boys, get a decent education so that they can get jobs. Children are almost half of the population of the remote settlements and their proportion is growing.

The West Australian, Queensland and Northern Territory education departments have demonstrably failed a generation of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who have poorer English literacy and numeracy than their parents. The emphasis on the vernacular with postmodern failure to teach phonetics and arithmetic has resulted in gobbledygook; children are so bored they drop out of school. Remote communities need independent schools with mainstream curriculums and good teachers if the educational disasters of the past 30 years are to be corrected.

At the secondary level all youngsters should be in integrated schools and the brightest should be in first-class boarding schools. The dumbing down of post-secondary education in remote areas could then cease so that they can get skilled and professional jobs.

Communal land ownership has failed. Large flows of royalties and other land rents have been stolen and wasted, leaving even well-located communities in the vicinities of tourist resorts and mines in dire poverty. Productive land development has been negligible. Whereas most Australian families have benefited from rising land values, native title legislation has denied such gains to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Some land could continue to be held in common in national park-like estates, but long-term lease provisions for pastoral, mining and other commercial development are needed to speed up present byzantine negotiating conditions. Urban tradable 99-year lease blocks are essential for decent private housing, and freehold tenures would enable Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to use the land and gain from increases in its value.

There can be no social or economic progress without ending the disgraceful gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and mainstream health. But ill-health and short lifespans in remote communities are the outcomes of lifestyles that result from the separatist policies that lead to welfare dependence and its deadly consequences. It is essential that access to clinical services be improved, but that alone is insufficient. As in all other aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deprivation, only abandoning the whole package of separatist policies will ensure equal opportunities and mainstream living standards.

Helen Hughes is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. This article is based on The Economics of Indigenous Deprivation and Proposals for Reform, released today.