Getting positives from the negative

Every picture tells a story …

As a former Northern Territory public servant who spent over 20 years dealing with policy development and program management in a range of fields relating to Indigenous people, I wont dwell on my anger at the way the Brough/Howard plan was announced or my occasional fury at some of the ill informed commentary. Rather, I will look at what experience might tell us about the chances of success of the plan.

Success in this area requires more than dramatic statements. If the Brough/Howard plan had been put up by officers working for me I would have sent them away to come back with:

  • a process that offered some chance of a positive result;
  • clearly articulated outcomes that relate to the issue at hand; and
  • an approach that set out the strategies and actions that would deliver the outcomes sought;

in the context of the cross-cultural environments in which it must operate.

The Environment

Shared trust and understanding are not notable characteristics of the environment in which governmentsFederal, Territory and localare interacting with Aboriginal people in remote communities. There, the experience is often marked by the development of expectations of government action that either never happens or takes so long that the original undertaking is long forgotten. Some in governments find it hard to appreciate that what works in other parts of society doesn’t achieve the same traction in remote Aboriginal communities, or from one community to another.

The lack of a shared understanding is often at the heart of this lack of shared trust. Many politicians and bureaucrats seem to be unaware that the assessments and judgements they make are based on their own cultural mores. This lack of awareness is, perhaps, one thing that they do share with the Aboriginal people they seek to influence. Both ‘sides’ appreciate that the other mob are different; neither necessarily appreciates the extent to which their own culture dictates their decisions.

Lack of shared knowledge of the systems in place creates another barrier. A politician tells an Aboriginal family ‘I will get you houses if you clean up your houses/get a job/send your kids to school.’ The Aboriginal family knows their house is as clean as it needs to be, the kids go to school a couple of days a week and there are no jobs available. So the houses promised will comesoon. The politician flies off and the program managers move in and make the decisions they are required to on the basis of need. The houses don’t come.

The Process

Contrary to some views being put, there have been successes in this environment, albeit too few. A careful process, though, is critical. Muck that up and your chances of successful outcomes are drastically diminished or destroyed.

No sensible person would deny that the situation of children in remote Indigenous communities is serious or that action is overdue. Whether the issue is sexual abuse, a more general maltreatment or a widespread failure to give every kid a chance of a reasonable quality of life, there is a need that is not being effectively addressed. I understand the Federal Government’s desire to intervene – although I am cynical about the timing. Unfortunately their process has been very poor to date.

The Brough/Howard plan, we are told, relies on moving in, taking over, stabilising the communities and then moving to ‘normalise’. We are yet to find out what ‘normalise’ means in detail. Stabilising seems to mean establishing a dictatorship of some nature in each major community, backed by the police.

In my experience, dictatorship and the direct action that it allows can work, at least for a while. Time and again in the NTG I saw the benefit that could be delivered in management and development of a community by strong and direct action, through the installation or support of a ‘dictator’. At times these dictators were CEOs of councils and at other times they were dominant elected people, sometimes traditional owners, from the community. To all appearances things would tick over nicely with services being delivered, infrastructure being managed and people having an apparently reasonable quality of lifeuntil the dictator left, died or lost interest. The collapse that often follows is not inevitable but, for the people living there, it can be extremely destructive. People often vote with their feet. A township of 500 can drop to 150 in a very short time.

It is possible to intervene with direct and possibly harsh action, and move on to something more sustainable but it is critical that you know precisely what you are doing and that you follow a clearly thought out plan. This must have some key elements. You must, for instance, ensure that the people know what is going on, preferably directly from someone in authority. It is both disrespectful and disastrous to achieving the desired outcomes not to engage very early with the people, the human beings, that you are about to shame. And you need to be very clear that it is highly likely that you are shaming people by intervening and that it will hurt them. You therefore run a major risk of rallying support for the thugs, spivs and crookswho are the reason for your interventionif the people don’t know and understand what you are doing. Your targets may be scum but they are part of the groupand you are not.

Communication is at the heart of your engagement with any group of people, and particularly where you are trying to get them to change. Effective communication is not easy if the language and world view of those intervening is very different from that of the people who are the target. In most of the roles I have carried over the last 20 years I have had to communicate with Aboriginal people. I don’t speak an Aboriginal language and certainly not all of the languages spoken in the Territory. There is no doubt that meetings where skilled interpreters are operating are dramatically different from those where we try to use English to get the message across. The establishment of an Aboriginal Interpreter Service in the Northern Territory was extremely difficult and done over strong objections, but it is now available.

Your message must be credible and honest. Your message cannot change or move. If you don’t know what you are doing then admit it up front. Then you have the chance to work with the people to identify the real problem and find solutions. If you know what you are doing, and why, then be honest, but also be aware that any insensitivity can seriously affect your outcomes. Dont shame people unless there is a real value in it and unless you know and can live with the consequences.

I could go on but perhaps it is clear that, if you want to achieve a positive outcome, then you don’t make a shock announcement in Canberraor Darwin for that matterwithout prior advice to the people concerned. You don’t make announcements without having the message clear and the details of the long term plan mapped out. You make sure that all the elements of your plan make sense and can be explained in terms that people understand. And you ensure that, at the earliest opportunity, the people are able to take ownership of the issue and its solutions.

The Product

The process is now moving into the hands of the bureaucrats, many of whom have the knowledge, understanding and experience to bring the process around and move to a more positive approach. But then you run into the problems with the ‘product’. What outcomes are actually being sought?

Minister Brough talks passionately of small children being saved from predators tonight. We can all appreciate the sentiment behind the Brough statement but it is clear that he is not able to achieve safety for children being abused ‘tonight’. The statement is obviously made for impact and to demonstrate urgency. How though will it play in remote communities? Is it a promise? It surely must be expected that this is why the police and troops are coming. Will they indiscriminately grab people and lock them up or take kids away? What exactly will the police do that they haven’t been doing all along?

Dealing with specific instances of sexual abuse of children is a specialised task. It requires an understanding of children, the nature of abuse, family relationships and wider interactions within a community along with knowledge of the law and of the ways that a child who has been abused can be helped to deal with the issues they face in the future. Unfortunately I suppose that an announcement that squads of social workers would be formed to move into remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory would not have had the impact of troops and police who, with as much good will as they undoubtedly have, are unlikely to have the skills.

A ban on alcohol. Again it sounds good. That’s about it. Prohibition is a strategy that has not delivered in the past. Tight regulation of alcohol supply can reduce consumption by opportunistic drinkers but those dedicated to the cause will continue to drink until the desire is reduced or removed. And if they can’t get grog, then we know they will simply move on to another product. Prohibiting everything is a never-ending task and incredibly wasteful of time, resourcesand lives. But an attack on the desire of drinkers to get and stay drunk requires careful, multi-faceted programs rather than something nice and simple like a ban.

The Territory Living With Alcohol Program was working once. It reduced consumption over time, gave power and capacity to communities and didn’t simply shift the problem to other substances or other places. Action by the Federal Government to assist with the legal impediments and allow this proven program to operate again would not be dramatic, but it could provide success.

Linking welfare payments to school attendance and care of kids. An excellent idea if it can be done in a way that doesn’t discriminate against Aboriginal people and if it is very carefully introduced so it affects only those who are irresponsible. Treat responsible people, or even people who believe they are being responsible, as irresponsible and you run the risk of greater anger, greater shame and less success. Just imagine how you would feel if you had spent years doing the right thing against the odds only to find that you are being lumped in with those who you have battled for years.

The ‘takeover’ of communities. Yet again, to those without background, it sounds good. It might even be a good idea, but we are not sure yet what it means. It could be a wholesale sacking of all councils and the appointment of administrators or managers. This would be possible under the Northern Territory Local Government Act. There is even a reform process underway already that is heading down a similar path, aimed at providing effective administration and governance for all communities.

But this may not be what the Federal Government has in mind. It is starting to sound as if they really mean they will put a person, or people, in place to ensure that ‘their’ programs are run effectively. If this is it, then it could be very useful for councils in removing the underfunded responsibility they currently carry for delivering a range of programs. Some councils have been calling for the move for many years.

Five year leases of communities. There is a possible connection with looking after children if this leads to better housing and infrastructure. It is difficult though to escape the conclusion that this is actually something that the Feds simply see as a good thing to do. And, in my view, it could be a good thing to do if the leases were taken by an institution which operated as a planning body for the community, if the majority membership of the body holding the lease were traditional owners for the land concerned and providing that proper financial compensation was paid.

The removal of the permit system. Sorry but I can’t find even a vague connection to the abuse or maltreatment of children.

How Can It Be Made to Work

The reaction of the Territory Government to the announcement of the Brough/Howard plan shocked many who expected a strong reaction to an apparent takeover of Territory responsibilities and powers. My first reaction was that the Chief Minister had refused to be part of a wedge on the issue. But then you need also to consider the situation facing the Territory.

A physical infrastructure deficit that existed at self government in 1978 and was not addressed during the days when the money was available. When I had responsibility for the Indigenous Housing program in the mid- to late 90s the deficit was $800million on the basis of 6 people per house. It is now $1.5 billion, and growing. In 2001, with the first change of government in the Territory’s history, there was just one high school in a remote community. There are more now but really, shouldn’t any community or group of communities with the population have a high school?

My advice to a Territory Government in the face of the shock announcement would have been to go with it, offer support and try to get some positives out of the level of interest and expectation the Federal Government has created. After all, we have finally got the Federal Governments attention.

The Brough/Howard plan can possibly be made to work. If they want outcomes rather than publicity, then the priorities now should be:

  • Engage effectively with the people. Start by treating them with respect and dignity and establish structures to work with them to achieve solutions.
  • Pursue the abusers. The expectation has been created and, even if all else fails, this one must be met. So it is vital that child protection workers skilled in dealing in Indigenous communities are quickly in place. Reduce the emphasis on police and troops but keep coppers in place to support the work of the child protection teams.
  • Ramp up the education effort. Make school attendance compulsory by supporting all families effectively and exacting a penalty from those who, initially, require more encouragement. Put resources into the support of the education system to ensure that every child has a place in a school;
  • Refine the leasing arrangements. Make the body taking the leases a structure with a majority of traditional owners of the land involved. Remove the force of the ‘land grab’ allegation.
  • Drop the attack on the permit system. The need for its removal has not been established and is not linked to sexual abuse of children in any real way.
  • Get real money on the table for housing and a program to, once and for all, deal with the backlog.

For me, the most heartening and positive aspect of this whole affair is that the lid may have been lifted. It may no longer be possible for a Federal Government to duck the issues of dysfunction on remote Aboriginal communities. An incoming Rudd government or a continuing Howard government will notcannotbe allowed to ignore the issues.

*David Coles left government 2 years ago as Executive Director Local Government and Regional Development with the Northern Territory government and over his time in public service managed the Indigenous Housing program and led the DCM Aboriginal Development Branch as well as being a senior Ministerial Officer to the CLP Minister for Health and Community Services at one stage. David was also appointed in May 2006 by current NT Chief Minister Clare Martin as co-ordinator of government responses for the Wadeye community in the wake of the major riots there, which in considerable part (along with Dr Nanette Rogers’ revelations on ABC Lateline) stimulated the current national focus on matters indigenous in the Northern Territory.

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16 years ago

This is a very important post. I hope it gets wide distribution. Efficient government action will be essential to make this intervention work sensibly. But your post gives little hope that, on present trends, anything good will happen, especially given today’s report by the Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman’s on the many inexcusable mistakes made by the Commonwealth Immigration Department with respect to people who had a lawful right to be in Australia, the Social Justice Commissioner’s report on the failure of Commonwealth government administration of Indigenous affairs in the post-ATSIC era, and the Gray report on the failure of the Commonwealth and states’ joint action at Wadeye.

16 years ago

This is greatly appreciated, and another credit for this particular forum.

For the life of me, however, I cannot understand why there is not the focus on traditional aboriginal culture as a means to achieve “the desired outcomes”.

It is this singular potent ingredient that is missing in the mix.

The loss of traditional Aboriginal culture is one of the key factors creating these heartbreaks in the first place, along with loss of land and surely the loss of sustenance from it.

“Loss of land” is, of itself, not something we westernised Australians fully understand in relation to the spiritual – and with that, the physical – hollowness draining the life out of Aboriginal people. We approach our landscape much as a visitor: we see a river over there and we go over to it, we see the beach and we go to it. The Aboriginal walks not through a landscape upon which it is a visitor, but walks through their own being. The river or beach is not “over there”. While ever we view “land” as something to be dealt with in western terms, we are hurting and killing the spirit of the Aboriginal people.

How the two, our westernised understanding of land, and the Aboriginal spiritually living of it, can survive together in equal prosperity is at the heart of this problem and one of the greatest challenges facing Australia. It is also, should we be brave enough to take in and “feel” as revelation the Aboriginal relationship with land (even a little bit of this goes a long way), ground for mindblowing opportunity for the solving of westernised problems.

But where are the “cultural” troops? Where are the people in this intervention who wish to sit with the Aboriginal community and say, in the quiet least, that they believe in the traditional culture and wish to see it thrive? Where is that message? Is it being sent?

To assume a western person cannot help inspire traditional aboriginal culture is not to understand enough of the power of that culture. As I understand it, it holds no bounds. It is not racist. It is bigger than all of us, as viewed by Aboriginals, and given respect, demonstrable respect, it sparks and bucks and comes to life in a moment. A focus on wishing and willing this traditional culture to live is what is missing.

I view this whole intervention as a circle enclosing on a dot in the centre. Closer and closer, more restrictive it becomes. Yes, many peoples’ bodies will get better. Yes, communities will be stripped of much of the crime. For all this good, these are wins in western eyes.

Instead, the intervention I believe should focus on what is within that dot in the centre, focus on the historical positives of it, cherish its value, and grow it outwards.

This mainstreaming of Aboriginality represents the incremental loss of one of the greatest gifts to the current and historical world. I’ve argued elsewhere that it also could spell the loss of powerful keys to a sustainable human future as well. But to lose something so precious through our inability to see and feel what is there is a tragedy reflected in the very suffering of our Aboriginals, daily.

Listen for it. Hear the words “traditonal Aboriginal cutlture” in every news item or radio broadcast. Look for it in print. Where is it?

By its absence, we are condemning Aboriginals in everything further we do, one way or another, sooner or later. By its absence, we are proving our blindness and deafness to not only the core solution, but to an historical treasure of inestimable value.

By focusing on the value of traditional Aboriginal culture, and including it at the heart of whatever we do, we give them a reason to dance and dream.

16 years ago

This is a great post. It’s heartening to see some potential positives that could come out of this situation. What little faith I had in the federal government to act in the best interests of indigenous people has been torn to shreds by this latest move; however, I still retain a belief in the good intentions of the broader public service, and in particular those people who are running programs on the ground. If we can move away from political point-scoring by Ministers largely interested the upcoming election, this could be a catalyst for actual positive change in the way the government, and by extension mainstream Australia, views (and funds) indigenous communities.

16 years ago

I hope that Kevin Rudd and Jenny Macklin will read this post before the legislation is presented to Parliament.

al loomis
16 years ago

i suspect the structure of australian society precludes a good outcome. since every policy is only as good as the pollie promoting it, long term planning is impossible. worse, a pollies power is his best tool for getting more power, so devolution and local autonomy are both anathema, and the most promising path.
of course, if progress requires any kind of ‘mea culpa’, unlikely, huh!

but the brown people shouldn’t feel too bad, the same mixture of medieval political structure and baboon troop sociology is running the pale people’s oz into the rubbish bin, at an ever accelerating rate.

16 years ago

Great post. I, too, hope that it’s widely distributed. First thing I’ve seen that takes the politics out of the equation, which can only be good.

Just Me
Just Me
16 years ago

Outstanding post, Mr Coles, insightful and humane.

Thank you.

16 years ago

If prohibition does not work, does that mean that the prohibition of sniffable petrol has also not been effective? Should the money being used to subsidise the distribution of non sniffable petrol be used elsewhere instead?

Jane M
Jane M
16 years ago

I have spent 22 years previously living in the Northern Territory and think David Cole’s post should be mandatory reading for anyone who has an interest in improving the lives of our fellow indigenous Australians. I would hope informed comment such as this reaches John Howard personally and that he actually takes it onboard. (sigh… methinks I am a foolish optimist.)

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago


Interesting post. Let me see if I get the guts of your recommendations right:

1. More resources to be sent to remote communities, especially education and housing in the hope that these Aborigines can get jobs connected to that education, i.e. in the cities.

2. Maintain the permit system, which would keep out any media or other agencies that could form a balance aganit officialdom.

3. In your attempt to get them to give up their way of life and educate themselves for modern jobs in the city, you want engage on the basis of mutual respect.

4. Notwithstanding the respect and permit issue, nevertheless set up such a command-and-control administration that you’re able to pursue the abusers and to monitor the school-attendance of everyone, as well as monitor the parents who are to be disciplined if their kids dont comply.

Now call me a baboon sociologist and string me up in a traditional ceremony approved of by Robert, but methinks your recommendations are internally inconsistent. The whole point of education is to turn people into ‘average Australians’, capable of getting jobs in the modern economy, i.e. in the city. That does not sit well with repect for any prior culture. And you cannot simultaneously have a form of self-determination and yet enforce compliance with everything of importance.

I dont think there’s an easy solution, but just reflect on what may happen if we do what you say: we send a whole lot more white people carrying lots of money and authority to remote areas where young girls and women have little money and are easily swayed by drugs. Meanwhile, the media and any prying family members are kept out by the permit system. Hmmmm. I do not doubt your good intentions, David, but the road to hell is paved with them.

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago

“The whole point of education is to turn people into average Australians, capable of getting jobs in the modern economy, i.e. in the city.”

That’s a rather technocratic and narrow view of the point (or purpose) of education and I doubt that it would sit well with most Australian parents. Job competence is only one of the things they expect education to give their kids.

But even taking that view of education, the modern economy still requires a rural population. You can’t grow wheat in cities (though you might manage enough for a loaf or two in a suburban backyard), nor do council workers find conveniently accessible deposits of economically important minerals when they dig up the roads.

Still there’s nothing noticeably internally inconsistent in your comment Paul.

David Coles
David Coles
16 years ago


Your key point seems to be that if Aboriginal people receive an education then they will lose their culture. This will indeed be news to the many Aboriginal people with a high level of education already. I am also intrigued by your comment about ‘prior’ culture. Not sure what would be ‘prior’ about the cultural values of Aboriginal people today.

Education is on the list for resources for a few reasons. First, the nation has agreed that every citizen has the right to an education under Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. As far as I am concerned that is an obligation that we are failing to deliver. Secondly, it seems to be reasonably well established that the education level of a mother is a prime determinant in the health level of a child. Thirdly, uneducated individuals are a serious cost to the society as a whole and taxpayers in particular.

Whether people get jobs in the city or not is a matter for them. I see no reason, though, to deny Aboriginal kids that option simply because they are born in remote communities.

I didn’t use the term ‘self determination’ in my post primarily because the term has, in my view, become so loaded with baggage as to be useless as a means of describing much at all. Obviously, Aboriginal people, along with the rest of us are subject to the law of the land. Parts of that law deal with sexual abuse of children and others deal with school attendance. Both should be enforced.

As for the media and prying family members being prevented entry to ALRA land by the permit system, family members, by definition, have a right of entry and the media has as much right to go into a home on an Aboriginal community on ALRA land as they have to come into mine.


Leaded petrol rots sniffer’s brains, unleaded is marginally better but it still causes major damage. I would not argue against the roll out of Opal but time and again I have seen substances prohibited or regulated only for substance abusers to turn to something else. Certainly, restrict supply if you can but sooner or later you need to turn to the reason for the abuse and start to deal with that.

Unfortunately, as everyone should appreciate, there is no simple, one size fits all solution.

Tony of South Yarra
Tony of South Yarra
16 years ago

Excellent post Mr Cole. You have obvious credentials to speak on this subject, so I have read your observations with great interest.

My interest is as an outsider, but one who is passionate about such matters. It is on this basis that I feel it appropriate to pose the following questions:

Could it be that the incidents of sexual abuse in these remote aboriginal communities are in part caused by their very remoteness?

Anecdotally, in this community it is felt there may be a higher proportion of intra-familial abuse. Families coming to attention often reside in isolated areas or move between [place omitted] and other rural communities. This isolation may be sought by the offender in the family and also prevents access by nonoffending family members to services which might intervene.

Could it be that by making them less isolated, the lot of these communities will improve? Could it be that revealing them to more of the outside world by removing the permit system could achieve this end without having to relocate them?

harry clarke
16 years ago

I am weary of hearing civil servants who failed to deal with NT problems pour scorn on the proposed plan. Its almost as if – they didn’t listen to me so how can it work? Who cares if you were an executive there for 20 years and who cares if you act with ‘anger’ and ‘fury’ to the plan. You were one of the many self-styled experts who comprehensively failed to improve things. Of course you blame it all on Canberra.

Remarks you make in this post are the babble we have heard for years. Talk about ‘shared trust and understanding’ and ‘cross-cultural environments’ is guff that won’t limit an extreme situation. Every line of this post is full of cliched response.

Alcohol is an element in child abuse and a serious health concern. Banning it won’t eliminate its consumption but it will make it more expensive – increases in costs should reduce consumption and put a barrier between consumers and those living on settlements. By analogy increased interdictions of heroin in 2001 substantially reduced heroin deaths and heroin usage. It wasn’t perfect but it helped.

Linking welfare payments to attending school and to expenditure on essentials is one way of getting disadvantaged kids to school and for limiting the amount of money that can be spent on grog. Its an excellent idea – who cares if it is ‘discriminatory’. Where is the problem most intense?

At the end of your trenchant criticisms you do a neat reverse and admit the plan can be made to work. Why not start there? Stop acting like an upstaged prima donna – give this new plan a go – you’ve had your chance.

16 years ago


“. .increases in costs should reduce consumption and put a barrier between consumers and those living on settlements. ”

Put a barrier between? How does this work? Not sure what you mean. ( At least I hope I’m not sure what you mean). Increases in costs should reduce consumption, if we’re merely talking market forces but I seriously doubt that it would reduce consumption with the average alcohol addicted person. It would certainly up petty crime, anger, violence.

Round and round we go.

I’ve always thought that us whiteys should wholus bolus move to Tasmania, leave the mainland to the ‘natives’ and perhaps a few bulldozers to help them flatten Sydney etcetera. It was once such a beautiful place.

What’s the worst that could happen? We kill each other in Tasmania I suppose.

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago

On the permit system and the media – the common laws of trespass extend exactly the same protections to any property owner or renter. If A Current Affair turned up on your front doorstep tomorrow, demanding entrance to your house so that they could satisfy themselves that you weren’t a child molester, what would you say?

(A) Sure come on in.

(B) P*ss off before I call the police.

Unless you answered (A), perhaps you might like to explain why Northern Territory aboriginals should put up with media intrusions you wouldn’t tolerate yourself.

The same goes for prying relatives, neighbours, and police arriving to search your house without a warrant. Although in the last case, you’d be wise to make your refusal of entry a courteous one.

Ken Parish
16 years ago


There is a certain unintentional irony in your comment, given your recent professed advocacy of focusing on the merits of policies rather than the motives of those propounding them. Judging by your comment above, it seems that you only apply that standard to politicians, and even then only ones ideologically aligned with you. You clearly don’t apply it to public servants whose job is to loyally implement the policies dictated by politicians, within the funding and other constraints they (and political reality) dictate.

You have almost entirely failed to engage with the substance of David’s arguments, instead contenting yourself with engaging in ad hominem sledging. Your comment is ill-mannered in the extreme and does you no credit. Indeed the only substantive argument you address is fundamentally misconceived even in purely economic terms. The analogy you make with heroin prohibition is simply inapposite given the current factual circumstances. If you further restrict the availability of an illegal substance like heroin you will certainly affect the price (and therefore consumption levels) in a substantial way. However, under the Howard/Brough “plan” the sale, consumption and possession of alcohol will not be prohibited in the NT. Those behaviours are already prohibited in 90% of indigenous communities. They will not be further restricted (at least not to a significant extent) by the Howard/Brough “plan”. Alcohol will remain as available as ever from almost all current retail outlets, in Darwin, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine etc etc as well as all roadside inns and at the Yulara resort within a few kilometres of the much-cited Mutijulu community. Neither its ptice nor availability will change

At least for the few months duration of the presence of additional police from interstate, it will probably be a bit more difficult for the aboriginal drinkers to smuggle the grog they purchase in town back to the outskirts of “dry” communities where they can usually get pissed with little fear of harassment. But these people are alcoholics. A short term local blitz “out bush” will simply result in their staying in town and drinking until the heat is off, or as David suggests switching to other substances to abuse – like cannabis or petrol.

The cynicism about Howard’s motives and probability of success is not confined to public servants who can be dismissed (however ignorantly) as “upstaged prima donnas”. According to today’s Galaxy poll, the majority of Australians are rightly dismissive of the Howard/Brough “plan”.

Personally, I have never been a bureaucrat responsible for implementing indigenous policy, but I have lived in the NT for some 24 years and carefully observed the efffects of several waves of indigenous policy. “Laura norder” approaches to alcohol abuse, without much more, simply do not work. “Monstering and stomping” aboriginal alcoholics (an equally nonsensical previous “policy” associated with former NT Chief Minister and close Howard adviser Shane Stone) merely results in “long grassers” (the NT term for itinerant alcoholics) shifting their drinking camps from the places being blitzed for the duration of the whitefella stunt. They know it won’t last long, then they return to their usual patterns, drinking in the meantime in other places away from police attention. The trick here will be to attempt to ensure that neither a Howard nor a Rudd government can get away with returning to the standard “out of sight out of mind” status quo. Permanent increases in policing and in alcohol rehab and other programs, and in housing, health and other programs, are an unavoidable part of any viable solution (which isnt to deny that effective policing is part of it too). In that respect (the genuineness of any political commitment to finding and funding long term solutions) I’m afraid I’m much less optimistic than David Coles. Howard and Brough are already positioning themselves to dump the whole problem back in the lap of the NT government after extracting maximum electoral advantage. Ooh, but that’s focusing on motive almost as much as Harry Clarke has done above (except in respect of those with whom he agrees).

Sir Henry
Sir Henry
16 years ago

Harry, alcohol is indeed an element in the degradation and I would even say destruction of the Aboriginal people. In 1969 I saw, how men at Pine Creek Hotel bought “gins” from their husbands for a flagon of sweet wine. The buyers were the workers from nearby mines at Batchelor (Rum Jungle) and Frances Creek and the independent gold prospectors. For any political party to suddenly discover that there is a problem is disingenuous in the extreme.

To deal with this problem it would be necessary to reorganise the whole off-licence alcohol retail system in the outback and change the culture: responsible service of alcohol regulations, as per NSW and Victoria, would be a start.

In the NT, out of the towns, every general store is a liquor outlet and they do a roaring trade. Such businesses are very profitable. Such businessmen are very well connected politically. And, it should be said, the federal government does very well out of the sales by way of excise, etc.

The situation is analogous to the poker machines in clubs and pubs in Sydney. As soon as there is a move afoot to limit or regulate the pokies here there is a huge hue and cry and the political machine associated with such interests creak into gear.

It is not cyncicism with regard to federal government’s motives in the prosecution of its national emergency. It’s becoming rapidly obvious that the government’s approach is not really serious. Or it is very very stupid. Like the Three Stooges go to Alice.

I agree that anything is worth a try but the way the government has gone into this indicates to me that IF IT IS NOT a mere electorate stunt then its planning has been done on the back of a dry cleaning docket.

If you, yourself, ARE CONCERNED ABOUT THE PLIGHT OF THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE, Harry, as a reality check, please read this transcript of an interview by Laurie Oakes on Channel Nine’s Sunday last Sunday with the minister of health and my local member, whose performance verges on the pathetic:


LAURIE OAKES: Mr Abbott, welcome to SUNDAY.

TONY ABBOTT: Pleasure to be here, Laurie.

LAURIE OAKES: Now, firstly, you’re wearing your hat as manager of government business in Parliament, when will Parliament be recalled to deal with the legislation needed for the big initiative to combat child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory?

TONY ABBOTT: As soon as possible, Laurie, and I hope by the end of the month. But that will depend upon how the draftsmen go with getting the legislation ready.

LAURIE OAKES: Is it very complex?

TONY ABBOTT: I believe it is because the circumstances under which welfare payments will be quarantined, and particularly, and what in particular will be quarantined and when, these are pretty significant issues.

LAURIE OAKES: Okay, when will health checks begin for indigenous children in the Northern Territory?

TONY ABBOTT: My understanding, Laurie, is that there will be police teams fanning out to some of the priority communities this week and that next week we should have health teams going into those priority communities.

LAURIE OAKES: Have you got enough volunteer doctors; has the AMA come up with the numbers you need?

TONY ABBOTT: We’ve had, so far, well over 200 health professionals volunteer to go out there. Now, it’s one thing to volunteer to go out there for a fortnight, it’s another thing to put your hand up to go on a long-term basis to a remote indigenous settlement and we do need more doctors and nurses to go to these places for the long-term and that in the end is the big challenge, and, I guess, that’s we’ll be hoping to engage what I still think is the commitment to the idealism and the sense of vocation of the medical and nursing professions.

LAURIE OAKES: How many people children will be examined under this scheme and how long will it take?

TONY ABBOTT: We are hoping that within the next few months all 22,000 indigenous children in the Territory will receive comprehensive health checks.

LAURIE OAKES: And what, if any, follow up health services will be there in the longer term to deal with what’s discovered?

TONY ABBOTT: Yes. These health checks basically involve a comprehensive history of the child, as best we can, a comprehensive history of the family circumstances in which the child is growing up, heart, lung, eyesight, hearing, teeth, some modest tests for blood sugars and so on.

Now, there’ll be follow up, depending upon what those histories reveal, what those tests reveal. Some of the follow up will be in community and some of it will probably require attention either from visiting teams, or perhaps in some cases, attention in major hospitals in Darwin and Alice Springs, but it all depends upon what these checks reveal.

LAURIE OAKES: How will checks, of the kind you’ve described, uncover cases of sexual abuse of children?

TONY ABBOTT: These are not forensic checks. They are health checks, Laurie. They are not specifically designed to uncover that kind of thing. It may well be …

LAURIE OAKES: Well, the Prime Minister said that part of the role of the health checks would be to treat health problems and any affects of abuse, well if you’re not uncovering abuse how do you deal with the effects?

TONY ABBOTT: That’s correct, Laurie, but there is a difference between a health check and a forensic examination. Now, if in the course of a health check something is uncovered which suggests that there might be the need for a forensic examination, well, that will be done in accordance with the ordinary processes. Health professionals are required to report any evidence they have, any reasonable evidence they have, of child abuse, but there are separate processes to deal with those kinds of issues.

LAURIE OAKES: Well, there’s been some confusion about whether these health checks for indigenous children will be compulsory, can you clarify that?

TONY ABBOTT: Laurie, I think they will turn out to be universal …

LAURIE OAKES: That’s not the same thing.

TONY ABBOTT: Because I’m confident … because I’m confident, that parents want the best for their kids and I’m confident that indigenous parents will want their communities to be safe communities for their kids to grow up in. I don’t think that, at this point in time, this question of whether it’s compulsory or not, is really necessary. The checks are going to be there. They’re going to be available for everyone and I’m confident that parents will send their kids to be checked.

LAURIE OAKES: You’re sliding around on this. On 28 June you said they would not be compulsion.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, no, I said that they won’t be compulsory in the sense that a random breath test is compulsion, that’s what I said then.

LAURIE OAKES: In other words, they won’t be compulsory.


LAURIE OAKES: They’re compulsory or they’re not.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, there are different levels, if you like. I mean childhood immunisation is compulsory in the sense that there is a modest payment for parents who have their kids immunised and there are some benefits which are conditional on childhood immunisation or an exemption certificate. So there are different levels of compulsion if you like already existing in our system.

LAURIE OAKES: So, what level of compulsion will exist for these health tests Mr Abbott?

TONY ABBOTT: Well I’m hoping that no level of compulsion will be necessary because I think that the well-meaning parents of the Territory will be happy to see their kids tested and certainly, Laurie, a different tenor and tone in these townships is going to radically transform the whole atmosphere in which everything takes place. A township, with a police presence, where people can report things, where people feel safe, where people know that if they go about their business they’re not going to be terrorised, persecute or abused is going to be a very different township to the sort that typically exists at the moment.

LAURIE OAKES: Well, when he first announced these measures, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, in his initial press statement said, and that was the 21 June, he said these tests would include compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children, to identify and treat health problems, and any effects of abuse. He said they were compulsory.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, the thing is, we want everyone to have them Laurie. We want everyone to have them.

LAURIE OAKES: You’re skating around this, Mr Abbott.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, look I’m allowed to do a bit …

LAURIE OAKES: The Prime Minister …

TONY ABBOTT: I’m allowed to do a bit of skating occasionally, Laurie …

LAURIE OAKES: Well the Prime Minister didn’t skate, he told the Sydney Institute, in a prepared speech, four days after Mr Brough and he announced the measures, he told the Sydney Institute they would include compulsory health checks on all indigenous children in Aboriginal communities. Is the PM telling porkies or doesn’t he understand?

TONY ABBOTT: No, no, Laurie, look, the thing is this, this policy, this very important policy, this once in a generation chance, to make a real difference and to restore civil society in these places is inevitably something of a work in progress. We want everyone to have these checks. We will do our best to make sure everyone does have these checks. We will stamp out child abuse as far as is humanly possible in the Territory, but these checks will not be forensic examinations. They will be standard health checks, under standard health check conditions.

LAURIE OAKES: Isn’t the truth Mr Abbott, that in the week between the announcement of these these compulsory health checks and you announcing they would be voluntary after all, in that week what happened was the AMA expressed concern to you that compulsory health checks, without parental permission, would constitute assault?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, Laurie, look I have lots of conversations with all sorts of people, as do my officials.

LAURIE OAKES: Is what I’ve said true?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, Laurie, look, as I said, I don’t comment on the kind of exchanges which I have or my officials have with the people that we discuss things with.

LAURIE OAKES: Well all right, leave your discussions out. Would such compulsory health checks on Aboriginal children without parental permission constitute assault?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t claim to give legal opinions even on your program, Laurie. My interest is in trying to ensure that the health of the indigenous people of the Northern Territory improves, that’s my interest …

LAURIE OAKES: But, you can see, can’t you, that, this gives people who claim this is half baked, not properly thought out when it was announced that, provides evidence for that case?

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, but Laurie, this is a very big and dramatic intervention.

LAURIE OAKES: So, why not get it right and think it through?

TONY ABBOTT: Because, Laurie, inevitably, as you are going about these things, different things will come up. You will discover things that you had not previously been alerted to and …

LAURIE OAKES: The fact that it’s impossible because it would constitute assault, is that what you’ve discovered?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, Laurie, look, I mean, please, you know, we are trying to do the right thing here. We are trying to make a difference and sure, we’re not going to get it all absolutely right all the time. The important thing is not to let the fact that we don’t know everything now, we will never know everything, stop us doing the right thing here. I mean, we cannot sit back and let this awful situation continue and the fact that some things are not absolutely known at the beginning ought not stop us from doing what needs to be done.

LAURIE OAKES: Well, you say you were trying to do the right thing. The Prime Minister said at his initial press conference when asked about the cost of this he said, it would be some tens of millions, it is not huge. Now, if you’re really going to do the right thing and change the situation it is a ludicrous comment, isn’t it?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, we will pay what is needed to make a meaningful, lasting difference …

LAURIE OAKES: Will it just be tens of millions?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I can’t put a figure on it, Laurie. We will pay what we have to pay and the beauty of this government’s economic stewardship is that we will be able to afford it in a way that I suspect no alternative could.

LAURIE OAKES: Don’t you concede, though, it must cost billions. I mean there’s a $1.4 billion housing backlog already. How much is it going to put in the 70 GPs that are needed on a permanent basis, you’re not talking about tens of millions, are you, if you’re half serious?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, Laurie, it will cost a lot of money. We can’t put a price on it now and the fact that we can’t put on …

LAURIE OAKES: So the Prime Minister is talking through his hat, that hadn’t been thought through either?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, well, it depends exactly what you are including as part of this emergency intervention. If you’re talking about police teams in the short-term, if you’re talking about visiting medical teams in the short time, I think that’s right it will be in the order of tens of millions but if you’re talking about the kind of long-term infrastructure commitment, the long-term personnel commitment that’s necessary, sure that will be a lot more expensive but we will pay the bills as they fall due.

LAURIE OAKES: Are you talking about that, are you talking about the long-term commitment, do you commit the government to that?

TONY ABBOTT: Plainly, Laurie, over time, we are going to need a bigger health commitment to these townships than is currently the case. But, as time goes by, all sorts of things will evolve. I mean, one of the key objectives of this change is to try to ensure that people living in these remote places have the sorts of real choices that they haven’t had for a generation. Many of them might choose, in the fullness of time, having got a decent education, having developed a good work culture, they might choose to live for part, or most of, the year somewhere else, Darwin, Alice Springs, Adelaide, so look, all sorts of evolutions will take place and policy inevitably is a work in progress.

LAURIE OAKES: The reason a lot of people are cynical about the government’s motives, as you know, is the fact that the child sex abuse situation in the Northern Territory has been known for a long while. There have been dozens of reports. Why didn’t the government act earlier?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, this government has been acting since 1996. You might remember that Senator Herron, our first indigenous minister, was the first elected official to talk about this as a problem and he actually sent the army in on infrastructure projects in remote communities. Amanda Vanstone and Philip Ruddock pioneered shared responsibility agreements; Mal Brough has been talking about this since he became minister. The change is that we have this report, Our Children Are Sacred Report …

LAURIE OAKES: There have been other reports saying the same thing?

TONY ABBOTT: Indeed, Laurie, and all of them have dealt with the situation generally or with states. The difference is that this report dealt with the Territory and the Commonwealth Government has power over the Territory that it does not have over the states and if we were to have tried this before, we would inevitably have got bogged down in the same kind of difficulties with the states which we see in other areas where the Commonwealth has to work with the states, but when you’re dealing with the Territory, there’s no doubt about who the real boss is and it’s the Commonwealth.

LAURIE OAKES: The cynicism is pretty deep. One commentator yesterday wrote, you can see why the Coalition head headquarters has selected the Territory as this year failed state requiring intervention. The government gets another khaki election without having to leave home?

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, Laurie, cynicism, is, is I think, not the right reaction to all of this. As Sue Gordon has said, earlier this morning, as Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine have been saying this week, it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. Sure, something might have been done in the past for all sorts of reasons now is the opportunity, let’s take, let’s make the most of it.

LAURIE OAKES: I should point out that that commentator I quoted is not …

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, I know who it was, it was Michael Duffey.

LAURIE OAKES: It was Michael Duffey who was the Conservative.

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, I read his piece.

LAURIE OAKES: The ABC’s right wing answer to Phillip Adams, and your biographer.

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah and look, he’s a good guy Michael, but that ?

LAURIE OAKES: But if he’s cynical, doesn’t it indicate that the government’s carrying a lot baggage here which ?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, I’m not sure that the conclusion of his column was quite as acidic as the opening, but surely Laurie, the point is to do the right thing. As Noel Pearson, Warren Mundine and Sue Gordon have said, let’s do the right thing and anyone who lets his or her dislike of the Howard Government cause him or her to try to white ant this initiative not doing the Aboriginal people of this country any favours.

LAURIE OAKES: Mr Abbott, we thank you.

TONY ABBOTT: Thanks, Laurie.

Ken Parish
16 years ago

I’m sorry I missed the Sunday program. That’s one of the most effective and screamingly funny political interviews I’ve ever read.

harry clarke
16 years ago

Link, The barrier is simply the distance between the location that people get drunk and the location where women and kids get bashed up. Increasing it reduces the probability of bashings.

Ken, Banning alcohol increases user costs if not price of purchase. My comparison with heroin restrictions is simply to show that supply restrictions can work. Even with people supposedly addicted/dependent on a drug. Some substitutions to other drugs did occur but damage fell massively.

Most of David’s comments are cliches prefaced by a reference to expertise and experience. You try the same trick – I’ve lived there 24 years and I’ve observed….. That proves zilch.

David starts of attacking the plan then at the end says, ho-hum, if you follow my ideas it might just work:

-engage ‘effectively’ with the people.
-pursue the abusers
-ramp up the ‘education effort’.
-get ‘real money’ on the table.

What and tell people with pressure in their bowels to go to the bathroom? Good grief! Twenty years in aboriginal affairs and you get this!

Criticising this flim-flam nonsense is fair comment.

You say restrictions won’t have effects on consumption availability and then contradict yourself by talking about smuggling booze. Smuggling implies reduced availability. Obviously reducing availability will increase user costs and (however imperfectly) reduce demand.

Jack, Control of supply outlets in urban centres has been shown to reduce problem alcohol consumption in urban centres – again user costs are increased – so you are probably right that strengthening licencing laws and reducing outlets will help.

There may well be legal problems in checking out kids for STDs, the health checks will cost a lot. I didn’t find the interview ‘screamingly funny’. Abbott was not well-briefed and may well have been poorly-prepared. He is an excellent minister who won’t repeat the mistake.

16 years ago


Thanks for your interesting thoughts. Many people who’ve worked in the area feel pretty much the same way.

For the Govt to make such a splash about this latest in a long line of reports, and then announce actions that seem to ignore the majority of those reports recommedantions is staggering. My question is, is it arrogance, ignorance or incompetence?

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago

… what if all sorts of horrible things were happening in your community, but you couldnt invite the media to drive through because the local mayor didnt want to be embarrassed?

Or what if the factory, mine or farm where you worked had serious health and safety problems but you couldn’t invite the media in for a squiz because the CEO of the company had sent around a directive that the media weren’t allowed on company premises?

Lots of individuals and organisations have the right, in law, to control access to their premises, Jacques. What’s so unusual about the constitution of Land Councils that they should be singled out for having this right withdrawn?

As for your analogy – how long do you think that mayor would hold office?

Oh, and what if you couldn’t get into the city centre where you normally work because your State Premier had put on a massive security clampdown for an international political summit?

The case for cancelling the permit system hasn’t been made – opening up the communities to media scrutiny is not sufficient reason. It’s convenient though, if you want to put on a bit of spectacle for political purposes.

Sir Henry
Sir Henry
16 years ago

Harry, I didn’t find the interview screamingly funny either, bearing in mind that Tony Abbott is the minister for health responsible allegedly in some way for Aboriginal health via his portfolio; and you are right, he should have been better briefed and that he wasn’t was his own fault. I mean he is the bloody minister. What does he collect the extra money for? I mean, say, what if you couldn’t explain Says Law of Markets?

I agree with you Harry, Aboriginal state of health is no laughing matter.

As to my reaction to the interview, while I am not at my most attentive on a Sunday morning, I admit I was riveted by the interview. It started amiably enough, with Tony swapping jollities with Laurie.

It reminded me of that Brian De Palma film The Untouchables where Robert deNiro playing Al Capone, has a roundtable with an assemblage of capos, which starts up chatty and jolly, and then unwraps a baseball bat, which he weighs in his hand for a while during the introductory banter.

I watched the interview with the strange fascination of watching human flesh flying off and hitting the walls and the ceiling, and ending with the victim thanking the perpetrator for the pleasure of attending.

16 years ago

But Link, I don’t want to live in Tasmania.

16 years ago

That interview was a pearler with some jolly laugh out loud moments and definitely something of the eager worm on a hook looking around hopefully before the big chomp – by us the gleeful fish swimming around until we were neatly hooked onto the media line. Sadly we missed it because we were in Litchfield enjoying the National Park, but I am very happy with the transcript.

As well as enjoying the countryside around Darwin, I’m also enjoying the way this whole story about General Brough and Field Marshall Howard is coming along – and you never know – with so many minds on it – something good might happen.

One thing annoys me though (in addition to Ken)is the authenticity of everything that happens ‘on the ground’ What exactly is it that the people have begun to do so assiduously ‘on the ground’? If I do what I do ‘on the ground’ will I be better at doing it?

16 years ago

Care to name which one? There is no single traditional culture. There are distinct cultures, languages and groups, some of which have been hostile to one another for generations (such as Wadeye).

I’ll have a shot at naming which “one”, Jacques, in two ways. Firstly, the answer is : every one.

If by your question you are saying there is no value in a national attempt to invigorate the traditional Aboriginal culture, so be it. But if you suggest there are difficulties in the idea – of course there are, though I’d suggest it’s obviously made all but impossible by difficulties within non-Aboriginal cultures in the country more than our Aboriginal folk. My question to you would be: how many traditional Aboriginal cultures are beset with warring?

Secondly, I’d leave it to the vast history of the Aboriginal people to speak in answer. We know some have put that longevity to be at its upper level at 120,000 years. Most commonly from my reading, it’s at 60,000 years. At its lowest, 40,000 years. Given genuine non-indigenous support for vitalising traditional Aboriginal culture, and left to the traditional people themselves as to how to go about it, that would suggest they’d make a fair fist of it. Our job would be to give them a fair crack at it, as the major barriers to regrowth reside with us.

Rather, one of the gifts of the varied traditional ways is that it is built on land regions. Each region has its story. This is something western thinking can relate to: we look at the natural amenity of a region, daily, and seek to cherish and protect it, in our own way and to our own ends. We do this on large scales and small. Dreaming, but if there’s hope for our aboriginal culture to be invigorated by non-indigenous through the support from the latter as it grows in understanding this could be one of the places to start.

To learn the Aboriginal regard for the varied regions would be enlightening for us (my wish would be for this to be taught in schools, while inspired by visiting custodial elders and artists). While the stories may seem incredible to us, the insight into the inherent uniqueness these provide help us to find great depth in the value and qualities of a particular region. We would see the nation or region in which we live with far greater understanding than as merely one which facilities our fallible western program, and can build into our system adjustments learned from that greater understanding. At the very least, our lives are enriched.

The benefits to non-indigenous are enormous, but that is another story.

That the traditional Aboriginal culture is so varied is part of what makes it so awesome. I don’t know what irreparable damage has been done. And, as I say, it’s dreaming to think it might happen. In places like the thread here, there are central tenements to Aboriginal culture which I believe allow us to speak in general terms, at least to the extent to acknowledge that such a focus is missing from the current intervention. And when David above talks of understanding Aboriginality, and how to better deal with Aboriginal people and make more effective our involvement with them, we can ask ourselves: for whose cultural ends?

The real questions for this discussion are: Are we, through this and our previous interventions, really, with all good intentions, effectively just slowly dragging a magnificent history and culture into western ways? Where is the “Aboriginal” component in this intervention? Is the best we can do in this intervention simply to acknowledge Aboriginality through horror and heartache? And costs?

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago

David and Robert
“Your key point seems to be that if Aboriginal people receive an education then they will lose their culture. ”
yes that is the key point indeed, and you are quite right that it is part of the law to inflict education on everyone. And I note you dont seriously debate this point at all but merely remind us all of the fact that it is policy to educate everyone. However, learning to give Powerpoint presentations on medieval European history does not exactly prepare you for a life in the bush, now does it? Rather, education gets you prepared for life in the modern economy (i.e. in the city). Sure there are some farmers and holiday operators in the countryside, but they too work in a very similar way to the city dwellers. Like it or loathe it, education destroys the indigenous culture and prepares the learners for a different way of life. Education is about assimilation and that is, David, what you’ve spent your life advocating despite your apparent wish to believe something else.

“The real questions for this discussion are: Are we, through this and our previous interventions, really, with all good intentions, effectively just slowly dragging a magnificent history and culture into western ways?”

also, clearly yes (although we may quibble about the ‘magnificent’. If you complain about life expectancy now, why not look at what it was likely to be before European settlement, i.e. at least 30 years lower still than it is now). The effect of the ‘get them educated’ agenda shared by all sides of politics is to destroy the existing culture (since culture is ultimately predicated on how to make a living) and prepare people for normalcy within the mainstream economy.
Now the real question for those who say they dont want this is whether they are prepared to take the consequences of not wanting assimillation, i.e. territorial and legal independence for Aborigines so that they can choose themselves whether and how to be educated for the lifestyle of their choosing.

16 years ago

One thing annoys me though (in addition to Ken)is the authenticity of everything that happens on the ground What exactly is it that the people have begun to do so assiduously on the ground? If I do what I do on the ground will I be better at doing it? – Jen

Not so much authenticity as practicality. The opposite to “on the ground” being ‘with your head in the clouds’ with the resault that someone might say things like ‘there will compulsory health checks for every child’ when such a thing was never possible from either a practical or ethical standpoint.

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago

I encourage all those who mistakenly believe education is not about assimilation to glance their eyes over the compulsory school curriculum of the Northern Territories, loosely introduced at:
The most interesting thing in terms of our discussion here is the list of subjects some schools actually teach. Amongst the list of subjects you will (not) find:

– (the Aboriginal language of your choosing) English
– (canoe making) Science
– (ceremonies and sacred sites) World religions
– (traditional healing) The 4 food groups and Western medicine
– (which plants are edible?) Maths
– (spear throwing) Cricket
– (dream time stories) Computer skills
– (spirits and land) Traffic laws

Now look into the mirror and tell yourself again that having kids from the age of 5 to 16 spend most of their mental energy on this curriculum will not alienate them from traditional Aboriginese culture and wont prepare them for a modern lifestyle in the modern economy. See if you can pronounce such fibs to yourself without smirking.

16 years ago

Cultures change and inform each other Paul. Education is also about access to the dominant culture. And people canchoose what they want to learn they are doing it as we write about them – all over the NT and Australia.

David Coles
David Coles
16 years ago


There would be people in the education system who would have apoplexy if they heard me trying to defend the system.

The point for me is that education has the capacity to reduce frustration for people and to increase their range of options. If the curriculum and its delivery don’t achieve those purposes then it needs change. Frustration and a lack of options is at the heart of many of the social problems in the wider society. It should surely come as little surprise to hear that it has the same result for Aboriginal people in remote communities.

One of the most terrible questions that was ever put to me was delivered by an old man, a long term leader, on behalf of a large group of leaders on a major remote community. He asked ‘Are we allowed to leave here?’ I, of course, said yes. You are citizens of the country. You have the right to leave here and to live and visit anywhere in the country.

And in the ensuing discussion a number of points were put including:

– when we go to town, we are told ‘ go back to your community you bloody drunks’
– when we send our kids to boarding school in town, they are taught things about Aboriginal life and culture – not about how to work away from here;
– when we try to get jobs there is always a whitefella with more education, experience and skills;
– when we send our kids to school to learn English and how to get along in the world, the teacher leaves after a couple of years speaking our language fluently, but the kids still can’t speak English.

It was then put to me that they had seen something that was treated like an Aboriginal community on TV. A concentration camp.

What is so wrong about Aboriginal kids wanting to work in town? I agree, of course, that cities and towns are pretty terrible places but it seems that a lot of people like them.

As for education destroying culture. An amazing proposition. Culture changes. That is its nature. The culture of Aboriginal people changes and will continue to change as ever more pressures and influences are taken in and dealt with. Whether some of the things we see as part of ‘Aboriginal Culture’ remain is a matter for Aboriginal people – no one else.

16 years ago


Unlike you, though, I didnt get the impression that the key point of the post was that Aboriginal people will lose their culture if they receive an education. This might well happen if the education is designed for this purpose, and this has often happened through the ignorance of well-meaning people about what is best for Aboriginal people. To me, this was a key point of David’s post: the problems caused by initiatives planned and implemented without the involvement, let alone the agreement, of the very people targetted by the initiatives.

On a broader level, since when has education anywhere been about turning people into average Australians, and since when has the modern economy been restricted to jobs in the city? I sense from your comments that you belong to the school which believes that society exists to serve the economy, not vice versa. Whether or not this is so, your comments ignore the lucrative economic activity occurring outside cities, as the many people making a living from the mining industry know.

A lot of people also make a living from jobs in Aboriginal communities, and the fact is that not enough of them are local people. This is where education for jobs is relevant. Equally relevant is education for the rest of the people for whom there will never be enough employee jobs in remote communities. There is scope, however, for other meaningful occupation in the self-employed category or the development of local enterprises, and success in this also requires education to exploit the opportunities and deal with the necessary connections to the rest of the world.

Your (not) list included with the subjects above reads a little like your wishlist, rather than the reality in communities. Many parents (not all) repeatedly make it clear that school is not for traditional Aboriginal learning, but for whitefella learning. And in many communities work has been done on marrying the two traditions.

Education canand doeshelp people to operate in more than one world. But it does not mean you must leave that place and go to a city to get that education, be it secondary or tertiary. Equally, successful education outcomes for people in remote areas does not mean they have to go to a city to make use of that education. It should mean they have real options about where they live and what they do. Have a look at what Batchelor Institute does.

And this should be happening without forcing people to lose their culture. It is possible to design education which reinforces the student’s culture as well as enabling them to find out about things outside that culture. After all, schooling (which is what a lot of the debate is about) has always been designed to transmit the social culture from one generation to the next and it does this in the mainstream. The problem in the Aboriginal context is that too often the schooling system was designed to transmit one social culture to the next generation of a different culture. This is due to factors such as ignorance, missionary zeal, racism or combinations thereof take your pick. But its not integral to the concept or reality of providing education in remote communities, or to the outcomes.

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago

” And people can choose what they want to learn. They are doing it as we write about them – all over the NT and Australia.”
not legally, they cant. And you are right, cultures do change and to some extent our school curricula reflect what ‘we currently’ want Ozzie kids to become. That curriculum shows we’re not interested in educating anyone to be good hunter gatherers, but rather we’re ‘enabling’ everyone to work with a computer in an air-conditioned office or tractor-cabin. And using the formative years of peoples lives to give them ‘access to the dominant culture’ rather crowds out any alternative, doesnt it? I’m with Robert in his assertion: anyone who tacitly supports compulsory mainstream education for Aborigines in stead of true legal independence is an assimilator in practise even if not in name.

16 years ago

Whether some of the things we see as part of Aboriginal Culture remain is a matter for Aboriginal people – no one else.

David, I believe this statement is given with strong respect for the Aboriginal people. I also believe we are past that point.

Just as preface, may I say it is not my intention and I don’t think evident above that my points made preclude the value of Aboriginal people learning western culture, and certainly not to preclude them from our education system, nor that our education system is destroying their culture. I’m saying it would be bloody beautiful to have both, and education in each. After all, the “western” “Australian” culture is something hard to define. (Which I feel can helped be resolved by inclusion of each).

In regards to your statement, there’s a separatism in that which is not intended I imagine, yet it serves in part to cut off non-indigenous people from ownership of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and gift. These things are not racially defined. They are born of this land, and we can as non-indigenous take ownership of them – provided we are prepared to walk down that respectful path and be guided by the custodians of it. Like all knowledge, it is something to be earned. (Yet it is not limited to knowledge). This is initiation: nothing more than what you want to achieve for Aboriginals.

Why, in goodness’ name, would we wish to have any person denied such gifts? From my personal experience, the Aboriginals don’t wish for this denial on us.

And why cannot one culture actively be a part of giving life to another?

The Aboriginal culture is sacred, but it is not separate. There are treasures in abundance in looking into the positives of each – your post title talks of this very thing! – and my points placed here are to provide the idea that regardless of how good our intentions are to understand this intervention (among other things) the natural thrust of our thinking is to serve our culture, ie one culture. This is not to criticise that is our natural response, but to understand that. And in understanding it, we find we are, sooner or later, one way or another, draining the guts out of an ancient treasure house.

If that doesn’t suit, then I would propose, simply, that inclusion of demonstrable care for the root cause of Aboriginal distress – our culture’s impact on theirs – in this intervention would go a long way to assisting their suffering. Should you have eyes to see beyond that, all worlds are possible.

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago

“What is so wrong about Aboriginal kids wanting to work in town?”

an assimilator would answer this question with: ‘nothing at all’. I’m happy to see you admit that that is what education is designed for. But dont pretend that people can spend most of their mental tmie learning how to operate in the modern economy in the language of the majority, living in dwellings whose design originates in Eurasia, and yet remain a traditional Aboriginal. Education involves the disappearance of the prior culture, plain and simple.

you seem to confuse yourself. First you want to argue that education is not assimilation, then you conclude with:
“The problem in the Aboriginal context is that too often the schooling system was designed to transmit one social culture to the next generation of a different culture.”
one look at the school curriculum tells you this is still its function. Or do you wish to change the compulsory school curriculum in the NT? Or are you disagreeing with the Marxist assertion that social culture (superstructure) is innately tied to material way of life (understructure)?

16 years ago

Jacques! Culture is so marmalade!(use the light stress on ‘so’)
mmmm marmalade- on morning toast.

Although when trouble brewed at Kormilda I never really understood what was language group business, what was dorm business, school classroom overhang or teenage struggling.

Sign me up Paul. Hunting and Gathering 101 – I’ll be genius – I go to Woolies every day!

16 years ago

Before I start cleaning the house…..


Your anecdote about the old man’s point of view is a telling one.
The worst face of the community cage is familiar desperation fuelled by boredom inside and ‘who knows what’ outside.

And the best side would have you never leave. Everyone knows everyone else and has a place, time is given right respect, the country is grand and there is lots of talking and stories and jokes ….. and going places all together is a big happy event…. -from the point of view of a visitor.

Thanks for writing.

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago

Will a didactic comment noting that the word marmalade derives from the Spanish (or Portuguese) Marmelo, meaning quince, that originally it was a quince preserve, and that between then and now it underwent several changes of formulation (including in the middle ages the inclusion of mustard) do instead?

Culture may not be marmalade but, in its historical development, marmalade is a hell of a lot like culture.

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago


I dont know the school you went to but sense you’re agreeing with me. My own school was in a culturally mixed town where the school tried to mould us into a common identity. Indeed, “common values” are an explicit part of national curricula. Further back in time, whatever language my peasant ancestors spoke got replaced with the language of the local bible at school. Schools assimilate and are meant to assimilate.
Are you willing to state the logical consequence of your statement “Hunting, gathering, fishing and fire farming are much harder ways to survive than dole money. If anything is destroying aboriginal cultures, its welfare and the outstations.” ?

Of course changes in culture are nothing new, and the changes in our values is reflected in our school curricula. What are you trying to say with this though: a) it doesnt matter what direction cultures are pushed into and we shouldnt worry about it? or b) we’ll redefine whatever Aboriginal culture survives the school process as the bit we were hoping to preserve?

Robert, you confuse me no end, mate. One moment you wish to preserve and cherish a culture, then you with full respect note all cultures change and think that’s ok. It wasnt clear to me whether you actually thought education was an assimillator or not.

16 years ago

Paul, the confusion may have come from the fact the cultures change point was made by others. In relation to education: it certainly assimilates, I would have thought by definition, given a particular curriculum, and it can also serve to release.

Doctor Patient
Doctor Patient
16 years ago

All we need to do now is get Noel Peason on board. Damn him, running about the country giving his opinion without thinking first. Anyone would think he has first hand knowledge of the problems. Who does he think he is, an aborigine?

16 years ago

I want to clarify the points about assimilation and education. I had a relatively typical Aussie upbringing, attended a school with a very diverse range of cultures and people but none of my particular background or cultural understanding. For me, receiving a mainstream Australian education was backed up by a home life that had a mix of both Anglo-Aussie and non-Anglo culture. I was further encouraged by my parents (one caucasian, one not so much) to learn more about the non-Aussie part of my heritage, and I have also lived in that culture.

I now have a solid grasp of my own cultural identity that includes a thorough understanding of and respect for mainstream Aussie culture, a thorough understanding of and respect for my “other” culture, and, most importantly for me, an understanding of how the two can interrelate.

I’ve got two points here.

First, there is a difference between common values and assimilation. Having a mainstream education gave me the tools to engage with the mainstream culture on my terms. It didn’t eliminate, it enriched. Just because I was educated in English doesn’t mean it’s the only language I speak. Just because I did maths in high school doesn’t mean I’m an accountant in an office now. But it does mean that I know when the bank is trying to shaft me.

And second, the ‘preservation’ of culture does not mean capturing it and holding it still. That’s stagnation.

David Coles
David Coles
16 years ago

I have no difficulty with the proposition that, to the extent that education is developed and delivered by the dominant culture without regard to the needs of those who live within other cultures, it is highly likely to play an assimilationist role. I should say though that I have always been assured by those with the expertise to know, that every effort is made in the Territory to ensure that Aboriginal cultural values are reflected in both the curriculum and the delivery mechanisms.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating then some evidence could be the clear impression that Aboriginal leaders such as the 6 Territory Indigenous MLAs along with the highly educated Aboriginal people that lead major instrumentalities, manage major government functions and run significant non government organisations appear to have obtained their education without loss of identity.

Paul – I guess if I am to be an assimilationist because I advocate that Aboriginal kids should have the right to an education that gives them options including jobs in town then I stand condemned. I am in good company though. The Wadeye community adopted the overriding goal of ‘giving every kid a chance’ back in November 2001 and has never deviated – a few bumps in the road definitely, but never a deviation from the goal.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
16 years ago

When I knew Kormilda College in about 1983 it had an atmosphere of hopelessness. The air conditioning had that mouldy rotten smell that one finds sometimes in the tropics and the windows were fogged and running with condensation.

It was located miles from Darwin proper in an area where groups of drunken men hung around. There was no housing in the area; I can’t rightly recall now but I think it was semi-rural, certainly not a suburban neighborhood.

The pupils were entirely Aboriginal, there were behavioural problems and the staff was entirely white. It was not then a high school and the older kids were bussed to school in Darwin every day. It was a form of apartheid.

Two things got to me at the time. One was I thought that behaviour modification techniques might have done wonders and the other was that the children did not have bicycles whereas most Darwin kids surely would have. Neither measure would have cost that much.

The high school kids joined classes of white kids during the day but outside school hours they were sequestered. Education is what Kormilda was attempting but at the same time they were enforcing racial segregation.

16 years ago

When I knew Kormilda about 10 years later in 1993 it probably still had dodgy airconditioning. So did my school. Some kids from my school got in to Kormilda. We thought that was pretty cool, because it was thought to be a good school. A lot closer to Darwin, with better teachers, better classes, and less substance abuse. You could board there, which was pretty enticing to some of the kids at my school, who had to rely on their parents to drive them for half an hour to where the single bus run could pick them up and bus them for another hour to school (unless the creeks were up, or your parents were too stoned to drive, then you got the day off).

I guess it’s a matter of perspective.


[…] Club Troppo I drank what?— Socrates « Getting positives from the negative […]

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago


the logical consequence of saying Hunting, gathering, fishing and fire farming are much harder ways to survive than dole money. If anything is destroying aboriginal cultures, its welfare and the outstations.

seems to me to be:
1. IF you want to stop the destruction of Aboriginal culture, you should exclude them from the welfare system and mop up the outstations.
2. IF you are not prepared to exclude any group from the welfare system and mop up the outstations, THEN you are NOT REALLY interested in halting the destruction of Aboriginal culture.
quite a damning conclusion for it would mean there’s probably no-one left who is prepared to do what it takes to preserve Aboriginal culture.

you are quite right that you’re in excellent company with your assimilatory credientials. Once you accept that that is your agenda though, I refer back to comment #10 on this thread: an assimilatory agenda and respect for prior culture are mutually exclusive. Let me paraphrase the tension between the two by giving you a fictitious conversation with an Aboriginal:

W: “Good-day, mate, respect on you. I’ve come to help you”

A: “That’s great. What have you come to do for me?”

W: “I’ve come to teach your kids how to be different from you; I’ve come to tell you how to behave in order to have the same health as me; how to talk like me; how to stop drinking and looking at porn, unlike me; and how to behave towards your spouse like I should;”

A: “Jees, mate, and what if I think I’m doing fine and dont want to comply with this ‘help’?”

W: “I take your welfare away, I’m contemplating taking your kids away, and I lock you up. Not because I dont respect you, but because you’d be violating the law that holds equally for all Australians and has been decided upon by a the fair process called democracy”

A: “Its a good thing you respect me then.”

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago


You may consider those logical conclusions – I’d call them absurd, irrational and incomplete.

To reach your conclusions you’ve excluded a lot of middle – it’s either throw the communities off welfare and back into the bush to live in what you conceive of as a primitive hunter-gatherer culture which speaks an indigenous dialect in place of English, teaches its kids canoe making in place of science, ceremonies and sacred sites in place of an awareness of World religions, traditional healing in place of Western medicine, bush tucker in place of Maths, spearthrowing in place of Cricket, dream time stories in place of Computing and spirits and land in place of (unnecessary) Traffic laws or assimilate to whatever we think of as “mainstream Australia”. You have persistently refused – in a dismissive and condescending way – to consider any suggestion that elements of indigenous culture -such as language – might be preserved while imparting a “Western Education” – hence the absurdity and irrationality.

Your conclusions are incomplete because you haven’t considered what would be necessary to preserve what you regard as traditional aboriginal culture like a fly in amber – that is, the complete restitution of tribal lands and the complete withdrawal of “white” industries from those lands. The complete withdrawal of policing and our system of law, so that this tribal enclave can operate traditional systems of law and a traditional economy.

paul frijters
paul frijters
16 years ago

you clearly havent read all my comments above when you say
“Your conclusions are incomplete because you havent considered what would be necessary to preserve what you regard as traditional aboriginal culture like a fly in amber – that is, the complete restitution of tribal lands and the complete withdrawal of white industries from those lands. ”

I refer you to comment #33. I have considered this and indeed offer your very suggestion as the logical position to take for those wishing to preserve Aboriginal culture. You seem desperate to disagree with me on this point, Gummo, but in fact we’re in agreement. If you read my comments carefully, you will see that I nowhere make a statement about what I think is desirable. I’m merely trying to point out the logical inconsistencies in people who one the one hand argue for Western education, health, and moral norms to be imposed on Aboriginal groups, and yet on the other hand hypocrytically talk about respect for it.

Now, if you seriously wish to argue that more than a semblance of Aboriginal culture survives the onslaught of Western education and our welfare system, then we indeed disagree fundamentally, Gummo.

we’re in full agreement when you say “insofar as aboriginal culture reflects the conditions of life pre-settlement, its doomed.” Couldnt have put it better. I happen to think Marx was right when he argued culture eventually follows the conditions of life and I’m somewhat baffled to see someone naming himself after Trotsky disagreeing with it. As to using dichotomies, that’s merely a Marxist debating style to make issues clear. We can talk subtle shades of culture if you like, but the main point would be lost.

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago

You’re right Paul, I did miss that.

However my disagreements with you are not a matter of desperation.