Ignorance of indigenous initiatives

Australian - 25th April, 2001
Author: Marcia Langton

Aboriginal society needs tradition and progress, writes Marcia Langton

EXTRAORDINARY claims have been made by a club of white male doomsayers, such as Ron Brunton (Opinion, April 19), about the alleged incompetence and failure of Aborigines to deal with problems confronting indigenous Australians. Now, retired academics and judges allege a failure by Aboriginal leadership through its purported stubborn commitment to tradition rather than progress.

These offensive ideas, disseminated to a gullible readership, must be considered a factor in explaining why it is so difficult to achieve improvement in the measurable social conditions -- such as mortality rates, criminal recidivism and retention of students at school. Doctors whinge about Aborigines who won't follow their treatment, teachers about lazy Aboriginal students, and police and correctional service officers about Aborigines as if we are all criminals.

Is there any compassion in school classrooms for Aboriginal children who are deaf? Only from a few devoted medicos and teachers. Is there any compassion for Aboriginal youths who steal to satisfy their hunger? Only from a few who are accused of being caught up in Roger Sandall's ``Pocahontas syndrome''. Apparently, according to this guru, they see Aborigines as innocent primitives on whom to hang their white urban neuroses.

The almost complete absence of fact and rigorous argument is what astonishes me in these ``debates''. I want to break with Australian tradition and present some facts about modern Aboriginal life.

Despite the high unemployment and low education levels in Aboriginal society, there are extraordinary efforts being made by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to overcome these problems by building pathways into equitable and sustainable economic participation.

There are hundreds of agreements across the industrial landscape, from the resource and tourism industries to the arts and crafts, and even some in finance, retail, agriculture and bioprospecting. There are as many small Aboriginal enterprises in mine regeneration, roadworks, retailing and tourism, with many based in work-for-the-dole schemes. The Aboriginal art and craft industry contributes an estimated $40 million to the Australian economy and to the incomes of non-Aborigines in the culture and tourism industries.

The changes in Aboriginal economic life in the past 25 years could not have been imagined in the 1950s. Most Australians are not aware of these changes and there are several reasons for this. First, the media remains resistant to telling good news stories about Aborigines. Second, Aboriginal groups sometimes do not advertise their successes because of the threat of vandalism and hateful obstruction to Aboriginal endeavours by organised race-hate groups and the many spiteful Australians who ascribe to Hansonite downward-envy politics.

AN extraordinary example of a commercial and community development initiative occurred in March, with the conclusion of the Western Cape Communities Co-existence Agreement between the Cape York Land Council, Comalco, 11 traditional owner groups and four indigenous community councils. It will deliver long-lasting benefits, including employment, training and youth educational programs, support for community development, indigenous business enterprises and homeland centres on parts of the lease area.

This modern agreement barely rated a mention in the media and will be ignored by those who don't let evidence stand in the way of propagating the view of Aborigines as failures. Consider the time, human resources and effort that went into that agreement.

Such developments are occurring in the depressed rural regions of Australia where infrastructure development and government services are declining. The farming lobby complains about Telstra and the flight of medical personnel to the cities but there have been many other problems and the Aboriginal communities are the most poorly serviced sector in the rural regions. Successes, then, are won against many odds.

The problem is not simply an Aboriginal one but is evident wherever rural areas are in economic decline. Identifying strategies and achieving successes in these circumstances require hard work, persistence and commitment from all parties. There are few overnight successes in this difficult policy area.

The problems that Brunton and others purport to analyse have been analysed and acted on by Aboriginal leaders for 20 years. The challenge is how to achieve economic development in Aboriginal Australia through capacity building and getting a fair share of Australia's wealth and social capital.

This task requires working with Aboriginal people who are members of cultures that are very different to those of Ron Brunton and Roger Sandall. Complaining about the existence of difference is absurd. Cultures cannot be dispensed with or eliminated except by unthinkable measures, such as genocide. The challenge is in finding strategies that work for people who are acculturated in Aboriginal society and want to enjoy both their Aboriginal ways of life -- such as kinship and religion -- and equity in the Australian economy.

Marcia Langton is director of the Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management and Ranger chair of the faculty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies, Northern Territory University