Leaving is the key to survival

Patricia Karvelas and Ian Gerard
12sep05

FIVE-YEAR-OLD Sarla Hart represents the future of her indigenous community. But Greg McLean, the Mayor of Hopevale in remote northern Queensland, knows that if his town and its people are to be saved, its children must leave and head to the city.

Mr McLean does not expect Australian taxpayers to prop up his community and is desperate to see its 1800 residents escape the devastating cycle of welfare dependency.

"Now is the time for action," he said yesterday during a tour of Hopevale. "We have to grasp what we can now to be economically viable and stand a chance in the future ... we cannot talk about it any longer." Mr McLean supports incoming ALP president Warren Mundine's controversial call for Aboriginal communities to adapt to the modern capitalist environment in order to survive.

Mr Mundine's push for radical changes to the way indigenous Australians live has sparked a bitter debate in the black community, with senior indigenous leaders claiming he has gone too far.

On Friday, Mr Mundine told the conservative Bennelong Society: "It is neither the strongest nor the most intelligent species that survive, it is the species that is most responsive to change. How very true those words are to the situation of indigenous Australians."

Mr Mundine yesterday told The Australian he did not resile from his comments. He said moving away from traditional lands in search of jobs and better opportunities was not akin to abandoning cultural connections to land.

"Aboriginals aren't stupid - how do you think we survived the last 40,000 years in this country? When we didn't get fed, where we are not able to protect our children, we packed up and moved.

"And that's a traditional trait of Aboriginal society and Aboriginal culture. Now, that doesn't stop us from going back on to our country as well. You can move off and on your country on a regular basis."

Peter Yu, chairman of the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, said he found Mr Mundine's original comments "quite disturbing".

"I don't think those sorts of comments reflect the true situation, and in fact denigrate Aboriginal people and really promote the assimilationist view," Mr Yu said. "I think the consequences of the lines he's proposing would be absolutely disastrous. The fact of the matter is that by continually attacking Aboriginal people in this regard, it reaffirms the view that white Australia has ... and it's just doing the dirty work for the Government."

NSW Labor MP and senior indigenous figure Linda Burney said Mr Mundine had done his reputation a disservice by addressing the Bennelong Society conference.

"If you want to look after your reputation and you're an Aboriginal person, I wouldn't be talking at the Bennelong Society," she said.

Ms Burney said Aboriginal identity was "not in a state of decay".

"Aboriginal people have survived 213 years of everything that's been thrown at us, and we're still here, so I can't see that changing."

For Mr McLean and the people of Hopevale, this means sending the community's children away after finishing high school so they can take advantage of the opportunities available in bigger cities.

"Then after five or six years we would like them to come back with their training and their knowledge and bring business back," he said.

"Then the community could really make use of that ... people staying in communities is just because of habit."

Like most remote Aboriginal communities in Cape York, Hopevale is racked with violence, alcohol abuse and health problems rarely seen in other parts of the country.

A handful of locals work at the nearby Cape Flattery silica mine but there are no local job opportunities.

Mr Mclean wants local businesses established, such as fishing, pottery and crabbing. "Aboriginal people don't like change and ... have had a hard time adapting to change, but we cannot let that happen any more if we are to be financially sustainable.

"But we are like the average punter that walks into the TAB with a few hundred dollars and expects to make $100,000. We need to be financially equipped to do it."

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