Since the 1967 referendum, in which over 90% of the Australian people endorsed the notion of bringing aboriginal people into full citizenship, with its implicit rights and responsibilities, the administration of aboriginal affairs has been a disaster. Indeed, to many, the fact that we still talk about ‘aboriginal affairs’ is, itself, a denial of the referendum result, which, in the minds of most citizens, was about eliminating those sorts of distinctions. Successive governments have stumbled in confusion from one policy to another, without any evidence that there is any real overall strategy aimed at ensuring that aboriginal people are given the opportunity to enjoy the benefits and obligations of citizenship, which are available to, and expected from, the Australian community generally.
One of the problems is that the law fails to unambiguously define who is an aboriginal. If a person with one aboriginal grandmother and no other aboriginal ancestry wishes to claim cultural affinity with the aboriginal people, then she or he is perfectly able to do so. But it is quite wrong that such a person should be able to claim special benefits that are made available to persons of aboriginal race. This, however, is what happens routinely. Most of the ‘aboriginal’ faces that are paraded on television would be of people who have either one quarter, or less, of aboriginal blood. Now, we have no argument with those persons if they prefer to identify with their aboriginal ancestry and culture rather than that of their majority European forbears, but it is quite presumptuous for them to claim to speak for ‘the aboriginal people’ and to dip their hands into the till that contains funds earmarked for redressing the disadvantage of those who are truly aboriginal.
Many Australians living in cities, particularly on the East Coast, believe that most aboriginals live in remote areas, on tribal lands far from what we would understand to be civilisation. But that is not true. Of the 352,790 people described as ‘indigenous’, only one third live in remote communities, such as may be found in the northern part of South Australia, two hours or more journey by plane from the nearest rural centre. Another one third live in small rural towns or larger regional centres. The other third, however, live in the capital cities, predominantly Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra, with the Sydney Statistical Division having the largest number of any city, 34,438, and Canberra having the largest percentage of a city population who describe themselves as indigenous. It is this last third that drives aboriginal policy.
The creation of ATSIC is a classic Canberra job. It has created a class of administrators and negotiators, most of minority aboriginal blood, far removed from the concerns of the real aboriginal people and remote from their day to day experiences and problems. The processes followed are about as far from the traditional aboriginal way of sitting down in small groups to chew over issues, as it is possible to get. Instead, ATSIC operates in a typical Russian style democratic centralist approach, with top down policy determinations and special deals amongst the in group. It encourages and fosters cronyism and dependence, thus fueling the bureaucracy and justifying its growth. ATSIC has encouraged dependence rather than participation, because some of its key players want to stride the national and international stages for longer-term political reasons. While this is their right, as individuals, it should not be financed by governments and government organisations, out of funds provided to meet the needs of the truly unfortunate.
While the fact that governments have encouraged the wrong structures is only a part of the problem, it impacts across the board. Most government expenditures on aboriginal welfare fail to reach the people actually in need. According to aboriginal businesswoman and leader, Sharon Firebrace, only 20 cents in every dollar spent reaches aboriginal communities in services and necessities. Commonwealth and State Governments spend billions of dollars each year on aboriginal welfare and special programmes. A great deal of this is allocated to the comfort and administrative costs of both ‘aboriginal’ and white bureaucrats. A large amount is spent on both bona fide and bogus consultants, and on inflated legal costs. Some of it disappears, presumably wasted or stolen in one way or another. Paul Coe, for example, Chairman of the Aboriginal Legal Service in NSW, was awarded $1.2 million in legal fees by that Service, in just three years, according to an audit report. This was at a time when the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission was documenting an appalling neglect of aboriginals in custody by both the NSW and Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services. Unfortunately, these sorts of rorts have been commonplace in the management of aboriginal welfare programmes.
Another negative impact on aboriginal policy deriving from the structure of government advisory bodies is that the public debate is concentrated on urban and symbolic issues, rather than on the issues that concern most aboriginal people, such as health, housing, water, training, and developing an economic base in traditional homelands. The urban dwelling minority blood ‘aboriginals’ trumpet from the rooftops about reconciliation, apologies, rights and the need to weep harder and feel more ashamed. In the meantime, real aboriginal men die before they are grandfathers, aboriginal mothers and babies die at twice the rate as Australians generally, young aboriginals indulge in brain damaging petrol sniffing and many communities are kept in a permanent state of debility because of infected or unreliable water supplies. In an environment where young aboriginal children will never have the opportunity of a real job paying real wages, and will be forced to live for ever under the patronage of their urban dwelling bureaucratic mixed race cousins, is it likely that the most pressing issue for aboriginal people is reconciliation with John and Janette Howard, whatever that means? We think not. Sloganeering with pejorative terms such as ‘stolen generation’, ‘secret women’s business’, ‘land rights’, ‘mandatory sentencing’, ‘deaths in custody’ and ‘reconciliation’, only serve to up the ante in the demand for more money, little of which reaches those truly in need, as we have seen.
The mess that is aboriginal affairs today has its origins in the philosophical struggle that took place in the seventies, between the responsible Federal Minister, Paul Hasluck, and the Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, Dr. H.C. “Nugget” Coombs. Put simply, that argument was assimilation, which Hasluck supported, versus separate development, promoted by Coombs. In the event, Coombs won and Australia’s aboriginal policy has been run of racist lines ever since. So much so, that voices are now being raised in support of ‘aboriginal sovereignty’, that is, the notion of an aboriginal state within the Australian state. This is the sort of thing that made the former South African Government universally odious when it promoted separate homelands for the blacks, yet here, it appears to be acceptable.
The only way ahead is for the Coombs policy to be discarded and assimilation reinstated as the guiding principle behind policy towards the aboriginal people. Dulcie Wilson, the courageous Ngarrindjeri woman who blew the whistle on the Hindmarsh Island fraud, had this to say in her story, “Telling The Truth”, published in the Institute of Public Affairs Review in 1996;
‘I personally believe that the greatest injustice to aborigines in this country was the labelling of them as different. By making aborigines a separate people, this label creates the problems and divisions that we face today. Paternalism and patronizing attitudes should be a thing of the past.’