Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

‘Why Indigenous Disadvantage is so hard to overcome’

Last Thursday went to a lecture by Larissa Behrendt at the Wheeler Centre (named after Tony & Maureen of Lonely Planet fame). They have a neat ‘lunchbox’ format – half-hour polemical soapbox lectures on a lunchtime.
Some speakers might have had trouble getting over an important and complex set of ideas in 20 minutes with time to spare for a few questions (there’d have been time for more questions had your standard TWM – Tedious White Male – not refused to shut the f**k up when he was blatantly talking bollocks).
Behrendt, herself of indigenous Australian origin, knows how to structure a talk (she’s also a professor, author and Australian of the Year recipient; none of these things necessarily mean someone can speak well, but she can). She split her time into 3 sections, each concentrating on a different example of what she called ‘particularly unhelpful rhetoric’ skewing debates on indigenous rights. These she identified as:

1. the idea that self-determination has failed. A myth stemming from the Howard era, which says that self-determination is a dead duck and needs to be replaced with a ‘reconciliation approach’ which in practice looks a lot like forced integration.
In rejecting this idea, Behrendt cited the fact that, although formal self-determination has been withdrawn from many communities and declared a failure, those communities which feel empowered and are well-enough organised to take responsibility into their own hands are acting out a kind of self-determination themselves, even if it’s not labelled as such by the powers-that-be. One of her examples was Menindee, where the strong moral guidance coming from the town’s women involves them taking direct action to tackle problems like truancy. The women there feel like they have the ability to deal with problems themselves – so are effectively acting self-determination – and this results in fewer social problems and lower crime rates. By contrast in communities with higher crime rates people were apathetic and disempowered, with no sense that they could address issues in their communities themselves – ie they had no sense of their own self-determination. If indigenous people are properly, genuinely involved in decision-making and policy development in their communities, says Behrendt, they are empowered to act and take responsibility. If they are disempowered by having governments, police and bureaucrats take over their communities by force, as in the Northern Territory Intervention, they further abdicate responsibility for the state of their surroundings. The study comparing Menindee and Wilcannia which Behrendt cited is here.

2. that a human rights approach to Indigenous relations is either a failure or a luxury.
In the 1970s and 80s there was a lively Indigenous Rights movement, working in parallel with Women’s Lib and other rights movements. It brought major changes in access to education and land rights.
Again, under the poisonous leadership of ‘Li’l’ Johnny Howard, rights were presented as a ‘luxury’ which could not be afforded in the ‘emergency’ situation in the Northern Territory and which had to be suspended ‘for the sake of the children’ (as Mr Irving points out, Howard had ‘form’ on lying about children in order to score propaganda points against adults; he claimed that the refugees aboard the Tampa threw their children into the sea, when the navy officials informing him of events made it clear that nothing of the sort happened). One NTI measure, for instance, is income quarantining, where a percentage of welfare payments is given in stamps which can only be used for priority items such as food and rent. This was supposed to protect children and encourage school attendance. In fact, quarantining was imposed on all welfare recipients in 73 communities – including people on veterans’ or disability welfare who had no children. The Racial Discrimination Act had to be suspended in order for the government to be able to implement such a clearly racist policy (since it’s not applied to white folks who have truanting kids or where the parents are substance abusers…).
On top of this, the NTI suspended all right of appeal to the government Commissioners who usually provide the checks and balances on executive welfare decisions. There is, therefore, no due process which allows NT Aboriginal people to appeal against the decision, regardless of their individual circumstances. By simply living in one of the targeted communities, they are deemed incapable of managing their own incomes.
Needless to say, rates of anaemia in under-5s have increased since the introduction of income quarantining under the NTI, and the government has stopped releasing childhood malnutrition figures because they are too embarrassing. And school attendance has gone down.

3. The third of Behrendt’s three myths is yet another Howard relic, enthusiastically adopted by the Labor government under Rudd and Gillard, namely that ‘Aboriginal people need to take responsibility’ mantra.
As Point 1 shows, governments continue to repeat this line whilst ignoring examples of indigenous communities taking action and the successes that result.
As Point 2 shows, indigenous communities have actively had responsibility taken away from them, whilst being told they have to show it. Behrendt also pointed out that Gillard’s ‘Aboriginal people need to put down their bottles and engage in mutual responsibility’ line is unhelpful because you need trust in order to carry out mutual action, and with the NTI the Howard, Rudd and Gillard administrations have comprehensively destroyed any relationship of trust which might ever have existed between the Australian government and its indigenous peoples.
Behrendt also pointed out that the government systematically ignores evidence of what does work when indigenous people do take responsibility, because they’re not very interested in anything that doesn’t come straight out of Canberra. Low-cost initiatives she cited which work included: community-run breakfast and lunch programmes to get kids from problem homes coming to school; having elders-in-residence at school or on the staff; having culturally appropriate curricula at school; running minibuses to collect substance abusers and take them to safe dry-out spots. In contrast to these cheap, practical measures, income quarantining has cost the Australian taxpayer $88 million to implement, with no apparent signs that it’s met any of its stated aims.

There are more examples of successful indigenous community schemes and social enterprises in a report by ANTaR (Australians for Native Title & Reconciliation), downloadable here.

Mr Irving’s take on the same event is here.

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