The emergency response to the plight of Aborigines

I am prepared to give John Howard the benefit of the doubt on his Northern Territory intervention. If, over time, it reduces alcohol and drugs and child abuse (whether as a direct result of the federal intervention or indirectly by stirring the States into more vigorous action) it will prove a good policy decision.

The big query I have is: what next? The aboriginal malaise is clearly not just a law and order issue. It needs to be followed by solid action to redress the underlying disadvantage faced by our indigenous people. This will almost certainly require much more federal money.

So I was shocked to read in The AGE that the Treasurer, Peter Costello, seemed to see it all in law and order terms. Asked why the Government had delivered billions in personal income tax cuts but spent only a fraction of that on indigenous people, he is reported to have said The spending per head of Aboriginal population has been far in excess of anything that is done in the white community—the problem is not money because were been spending a lot of money. Youve had a breakdown of law and order—and weve got to go back in and establish decent law and order in these communities (The AGE 29/6/07).

This comment has echoes of Pauline Hanson and is no less misleading.

Spending on aborigines is mostly for services automatically provided to the rest of the community. It is higher than average per capita because the need is greater. On health, housing, education, employment and income indicators, Aborigines lag well behind those of other Australians. Although I do not have the exact figures in front of me, it is clear that, after taking account of age differences, the overall disability rate for indigenous people is much greater than for non-indigenous people.

In health, for example, Aboriginal health is at least twice as bad as the rest of the population but the average expenditure on Aboriginal health is only 20% greater than that of the general population. It must be remembered that indigenous people die on average 17 to 20 years earlier than non-indigenous people, so they are less likely to receive the pension and the extremely generous tax concession on superannuation contributions.

It is very wrong to imply, as Peter Costello does, that aborigines are getting more than their fair share of government resources, especially if one takes a lifetime perspective.

The problems faced by Aborigines are partly self-inflicted (substance abuse and neglect) but they are also due to a history of alienation, discrimination, insufficiency of public resources and poor targeting of these resources. One recent study found that aborigines had 35% less chance of getting into professional, managerial and technical occupations than non-indigenous people and that 2/3 of this disadvantage can be attributed to nothing other than their aboriginality (Cambridge Handbook of Social Sciences, p. 442).

Mr. Costello, we are under-investing in aboriginal rehabilitation and you are flush with funds from the commodities price boom – so spare a few extra bob to redress the underlying aboriginal diadvantage.

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16 years ago

Spending per had on Indigenous Australians does exceed that for the non-Indigenous population but that is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The real issue is spending in terms of need, which remains below par. And of course there is the historical underspending on infrastructure/development which continues to show a massive deficit, hence the continuing chronic housing shortage.

16 years ago

But the per head spending from what I saw on an ABC piece (can’t remember which show) is not all that much more than the general population, and is easily accounted for in the cost to the remote communities because of their remoteness.

As to giving the benefit of doubt, it is very interesting it has come to light that the only communities targeted in the NT by the government are those with land permit systems, and that is the only criteria for intervention. Town camps where abuse is estimated to be more of a problem and other communities outlying population centres where there are also abuse problems, but there is no permit system in place, are not targeted at all.

As reported on ABC National this morning, one remote community (caught the name but could not spell it properly to type it) that has been a model of reform. Has mostly beaten the alcohol and drug problems and is on all accounts a functioning and prosperous community, was told late yesterday that the police, army and inspectors will be arriving early this morning.

A spokesperson for the community is obviously aggrieved and has asked the government to produce the criteria, priorities and detailed target list of communities for its intervention, and why those communities have been targeted. He got a reply back saying we are coming whether you like it or not and no you cannot have any of the information you requested.

It appears the only criteria is that the community has a land permit system in place and it is located in a territory (Joanna Gash on Southern NSW is making noises about applying the government’s intervention to the Wreck Bay Aboriginal community located in the ACT part of Jervis Bay), and yes it has a permit system.

An ongoing history of alcoholism, drug abuse, dysfunction and human abuse on any level is not a factor at the moment, though I gather that is what the intervention is there to find out. But why put those communities who are know to be functional and on the whole free of abuse into the same lumping of the ones that are obviously not, and why aren’t those camps and communities that don’t have permit systems also targeted?

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
16 years ago


The one-size fits all approach is what worries me the most about the Government’s intervention. I would have thought that they should already know which communities are functioning reasonably well and which communities are not (if they don’t know, why not?). Given that resources are likely to be thin on the ground, why not target the worst communities first?

The same with the proposed treatment of parents’ welfare benefits. As Noel Pearson says, what is the point of taking control of a significant proportion of the welfare payments of people who are already doing a reasonable job of looking after their children? Surely it is not too difficult to work out which children need this kind of intervention to ensure they get fed – assuming that all parents in the target communities are doing a bad job is insulting and racist and does nothing to reward and acknowledge those parents who are meeting their obligations. (That said, I am in favour of action to ensure that the money provided by the community for the benefit of children is used for the benefit of children – but only where there is evidence that it is not.)

This government seems to think that conditional income support can only be administered with a heavy hand – that behavioural change comes only with coercion. I think that the important thing about conditional income support is that it reinforces community norms. If people do not internalise those norms and react only to the threat of loss of income, behavioural change will not be lasting – it will fade as soon as the heavy hand of the bureaucracy leaves the scene. If we are really serious about improving the lives and futures of indigenous kids, we need to deliver these policies in a way that actually harnesses the willingness of adults to change their lives and builds their capacity.

16 years ago

Fred: Any ideas on how to make the remote communities viable?

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
16 years ago

Good question chrisl. I wish I could give you a sound, confident answer but sorry I need to do more thinking and research before I stick my neck out with specifics. I did make some broad comments in my 2006 discussion paper on Equality of Opportunity but only as part of a much wider review of employment, education, health and housing inequalities of access in Australia. So it was somewhat superficial. For all it’s worth, this is what I said:

“Our indigenous people present unique problems for policy-makers. This is particularly evident in employment. In principle, it is usually better to apply employment policies equally to all disadvantaged youth (along the lines discussed earlier). But there is a case for special treatment. The 50% of aborigines living in remote and regional areas have exceptional location disadvantages and a special connection with the land which reduces their geographical mobility. More generally, aborigines start well below the rest of the field in work attitudes and suffer from a long history of alienation and discrimination. So a case can be made for adopting at least for a time – affirmative action rules in the public sector and putting more pressure on private employers to offer apprenticeship opportunities . The policy response should also include special mobility incentives and employment and training subsidies.

The health impediments of Aborigines were highlighted in 4.6 and these clearly need specific attention. Likewise, the education standards of indigenous Australians are so far behind the rest of the field that it is not enough to rely on general need-based scholarships or education vouchers, given the special cultural problems. Greater moral pressure needs to put on parents to ensure children attend pre-school and primary education. At the same time, parents could be given financial incentives such as better quality schools and other amenities. Progress is being made on these fronts but the pace of change is alarmingly slow. ” End of quote

16 years ago

It seems to me Fred, that the aborigines are stuck between the stoneage and the space age. They have been taken from their hunter gatherer dreamtime to government funded communities and there they must stay. Already affected by western ways but not allowed to learn/change more lest they lose their culture.
But culture moves on….
I have just read a book about a family moving to Australia in the fifties and it is very obvious that our culture has changed remarkably. The census result every five years bears this out.
When you are in the middle of this rapid cultural change you barely notice it.
Nobody would seriously want to go back to the fifties way of life.
But the aborigines seem to have to have to stay in the time warp we have created for them.
Regards chrisl

16 years ago

Like Fred, I am willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt on their initiatives. The original announcement on welfare sequestration, for example, was that it was to be applied wholesale. That has since been rolled back to only affect those who are deemed to have breached certain responsibilities and obligations.

The taskforce that has been traveling through central Australia is akin to a fact finding mission – they are gathering intelligence for further policy clarifications and announcements. This is sound policy research, so long as it is checked against the copious amounts of research and recommendations that have gone before it.

Hopefully this research and the implementation of some of the initial plans for ‘law and order’ will bring to bear the fact, contrary to what you say chrisl, that Indigenous people are capable of change. There are numerous Indigenous people who have both town and community-based lives. Increasing numbers of Indigenous people live a ‘middle class’ existence in town. I don’t think there is an Aboriginal person who sees themselves as having been catapulted back to the stone age as a result of land rights, self-determination and isolation. Culture is sometimes used as an excuse for more self-interested activities – Aboriginal people never invented this strategy as the Western history of fervent nationalism demonstrates. Culture is not to blame in this case and, from the point of view of many, it’s all they have.

Having said this, there is no doubt in my mind that the very specific form of land rights, self-determination and isolation experienced here in central Australia has had many severe unintentional consequences. In broad strokes, the government of the day may have seen it as a moral victory to have granted these things to Indigenous people, but it also allowed them and successive governments to wipe their hands of providing support to Indigenous people in their bid for a better life. A better life and the maintenance of one’s culture are not mutually exclusive demands. However, jettisoning Indigenous people off onto their homelands has created the circumstances where that better life is placed in jeopardy and one of the very few things one has to cling on to in terms of a meaningful existence is culture. The form of self-determination granted Aboriginal people in the seventies and carried on to this day is one that denies the essential fact that Indigenous self-determination is contingent upon and mutually constitutive of the wider community’s self-determination.

As Fred pointed out, in our ever-increasing prosperity we have financially under-invested in Indigenous people. But moreover, we have under-invested in the moral economy that binds both of our fates together and that could underpin a new era of co-operation.