As frequent Troppo readers will know, I’ve been banging on about Aboriginal affairs issues for a very long time. I’m pleased that my obsession has at least momentarily been picked up by the mainstream media in the wake of NT prosecutor Dr Nanette Rogers’ recent decisive (and courageous, given what often happens to public servants who embarass the government that pays their salary) public intervention exposing the appalling state of indigenous affairs in remote and regional Australia. Whether indigenous affairs’ 15 seconds in the media spotlight will actually result in any substantive change remains to be seen.
Paul Toohey’s article in this week’s Bulletin certainly says some of the things I’ve been thinking. Toohey encapsulates most of the reasons why so many Labor supporters are deeply disappointed by Clare Martin’s expedient neo-conservative leadership.
However, the most extreme op-ed ponderings have in some ways been the most interesting. Michael Duffy, for example, was in no doubt about a final solution in Saturday’s SMH:
The ill effects of welfare have become grudgingly accepted even by romantics since Noel Pearson gave his famous “welfare poison” speech some years ago. But few people have faced up to the implication of this insight, which is that if you take away the welfare, most of the communities have no future, and therefore should be shut down. Aboriginal people should be paid to move to the cities and assimilate. There is no other solution.
History Uber-Warrior Keith Windschuttle reached an identical conclusion in yesterday’s Oz:
The remote Aborigines are thus loaded with twin economic burdens: they inhabit regions that have no jobs or business opportunities and the state gives them an income with no effort on their part. The only solution is to stop funding and thus close down all those settlements where unemployment is chronic and where there are no economic prospects, which is most of them.
To date their opinions have simply been ignored, rather like an indulged senile old uncle who farts loudly at the dinner table. But mightn’t we actually learn something by exploring the solution they propose? What would actually happen if we depopulated inland Australia (or ethnically cleansed it, to use a more emotionally charged expression) by cutting off funding to non-viable Aboriginal communities? And are there any workable alternatives?
For a start, I don’t think there’s any doubt at all that many if not most Aboriginal communities will never have a viable economic base. That is, there will never be more than a relative handful of local jobs that aren’t directly sustained by government funding. Moreover, at least the way that funding is delivered at present, the inevitable outcome is chronic welfare dependency, which then leads to boredom, idleness and despair and inexorably onwards to massive alcohol and substance abuse. And, as night follows day, that means horrendous levels of family and community violence and sexual abuse of women and children.
Stronger policing and tougher sentencing might keep a lid on it, but don’t address the underlying causes. Moreover, indigenous Territorians are already imprisoned at a very high rate, and the NT already has more police per capita population than any other state or territory.
Does that mean there is no alternative but to “close down” all these communities, as both Duffy and Windschuttle assert? What would then happen? For a start, most non-indigenous towns in inland Australia would instantly become economically unviable too, because their major raison d’etre is as service centres for surrounding Aboriginal communities. Thus, the non-Aboriginal populations of regional Australia (including National Party-voting pastoralists) would be none too pleased with any government that introduced such a policy, nor would it appear to be in Australia’s national interest to further exacerbate the phenomenon of an island nation where everyone crams into increasingly overcrowded coastal cities while leaving the inland virtually uninhabited.
The ethnic-cleansing option would also be political suicide in the cities. At present, very few Australians ever deal with Aboriginal people on a day-to-day basis. Most have never even seen a “traditional” “full blood” Aborigine except on TV. Windschuttle seems to imagine that simply shifting them all to town would be a piece of cake, that indigenous Australians with no experience whatever of urban living and almost universal levels of functional illiteracy (not to mention very poor command of spoken English) could somehow simply “enjoy suburban lives indistinguishable from other Australians”. Hopefully that could be achieved in the long run. I don’t disagree with a long-term objective of “normalisation” (apparently the current euphemism for assimilation), but it can’t be achieved either rapidly or by compulsion. The result of such a policy in the short to medium term would be that families transplanted from remote communities would simply bring their existing grossly dysfunctional lifestyles with them, and begin inflicting that behaviour on suburban voters.
You don’t need to be a political genius to predict the electoral result for any party that presided over such a policy. Hence Clare Martin’s instant rejection of suggestions for wholesale evacuation to Darwin of “refugees” from Port Keats/Wadeye. For cynical/pragmatic politicians (i.e. just about all of them), a stance of “out of sight out of mind” and wringing one’s hands in impotent mock despair when blackfella issues occasionally catch the fleeting attention of the mainstream media circus is a winning electoral combination.
Fortunately, Duffy and Windschuttle are simply wrong in assuming that the only viable policy alternatives are either to perpetuate the current grossly dysfunctional system or implement wholesale ethnic cleansing. But, just as stark reality challenges the kneejerk assumptions of the RWDBs, developing viable real world policies will involve challenging entrenched but unexamined long-held values of the ‘latte’ left.
The key to reducing passive welfare dependence (and hence alcoholism and appalling violence) lies in rigorously implemented genuine mutual obligation policies involving both carrots and sticks and measurable performance targets. Kids who go to school should get decent health care while they’re there, and decent meals as well at public expense. Conversely, parents who don’t send their kids to school regularly should have their welfare benefits removed. Schools should have indigenous attendance officers (members of the local community) whose job is to hunt kids out of bed (or wherever) and get them to school.
CDEP should become a real community work program, not just window-dressing for chronic idleness. With a “captive” local workforce required to actually work at least (say) 6 hours per day or lose the dole, communities would be clean and tidy, and could grow much of their own food as they did back in the “bad” old mission days. Moreover, with the addition of compulsory training in trade skills (again under threat of welfare withdrawal in default of attendance), local communities could build their own houses much more cheaply than at present. The huge backlog in housing provision, where in communities like Port Keats they have 20 people per household, could be overcome without a dramatic increase in existing government funding.
Of course, many on the left will already be foaming at the mouth, or at least dismissing me as just another racist right winger. But what alternatves can they offer? Manifestly it isn’t just a matter of spending more government money. Unless Aboriginal people have skills, jobs and pride, the cycle of welfare dependency, violence and horrendous abuse will remain unbroken irrespective of how much money is spent.