Wealth not welfare

Sydney Morning Herald - 6th April, 2001
Author: Debra Jopson

What began with the lone voice of Noel Pearson is now a chorus as more Aboriginal leaders call for a fresh start and greater economic independence, writes Debra Jopson.

THE missionaries had already brought a white way of life to the vast Pitjantjatjara lands of South Australia 26 years before Bruce Smith was born there in 1959, but he spent his childhood learning how Aboriginal law and government worked in a country he believed his people owned.

"Later on in life" when native title was recognised as part of Australian law, he was advised that his Ngaanyatjarra people close cousins to the Pitjantjatjara should claim their land in Western Australia.

Smith was surprised they did not already have title to it, he told a conference this week in Canberra on indigenous governance. "They said, `It's Crown land taken by Cook and the flag.' It was my grandfather's country."

The 1600 Ngaanyatjarra whose lands cover 250,000 square kilometres of desert have in the past decade shifted a considerable way along the white economic path. They own an airline, servicing Australia's deserts from Alice Springs to Kalgoorlie.

They have service stations in Alice, Tennant Creek and various communities, plus a Perth warehouse and transport enterprise. Their elders oversee it all through the Ngaanyatjarra Council.

But Smith, the chairman of ATSIC's Western Desert regional council, said that they still did not have control over their affairs. The managers and advisers they employed to make up for a lack of business skills have taken their authority from them. They were locked out of their own warehouses. Some native title applicants split from the others and secretly signed an agreement with a mining company.

The authority his people once held was "somewhere else", he discovered. "We have to break through that. Otherwise, you can build an empire which someone else can run and fill up someone else's pocket." Discontent with the status quo of welfare dependency, lack of indigenous control and the impotence of many community organisations is now rife throughout Aboriginal Australia.

At the conference organised by Reconciliation Australia, ATSIC and the National Institute for Governance, hundreds of influential indigenous people, including elder statesmen Patrick Dodson and Lowitja O'Donoghue, struggled to harness this discontent and to craft a major shift in the way indigenous communities and governments do things.

Cape York leader Noel Pearson alerted the public to this craving for a shift 20 months ago when he said: "A rule of thumb in relation to most of the programs and policies that pose as progressive thinking in indigenous affairs is that if we did the opposite we would have the chance of making progress."

The prominent Melbourne University anthropologist Professor Marcia Langton explained: "Aboriginal people all over the country are coming to similar conclusions almost independently of each other. It's not only Noel Pearson who's saying these things, because we've hit a glass ceiling."

Many who started Aboriginal community-run legal, medical, housing and child-care services in the 1970s are among those seeking a fresh start. "We spent 30 years of our lives setting up these organisations, trying to reconstruct Aboriginal society and put in place all these governance structures as best we can that can accommodate the way that Aboriginal people do business," Langton said. "We find ... we cannot move any further forward because we're trapped by the great white Australian mythology of the useless, lazy darkies." Government structures were heavily focused on Aboriginal organisations being accountable for "the mythological taxpayers' dollar" which consumed organisations' time and resources and made it harder to "get on with business", she said. "Instead of the missionaries we have an army of accountants."

Pearson's boldness has been followed by others. The Northern Territory's only indigenous minister, John Ah Kit, said last month his people "must escape from the cargo-cult mentality of government doing everything for them; of relying on the empty rhetoric of playing the victim. Aboriginal organisations must bite the bullet and develop innovative strategies to overcome the cancerous ideology of despair."

A former Kimberley Land Council head, Peter Yu, now working in private enterprise "to carve out economic independence" for his people, this week urged a new push for self-determination. "We cannot afford to be complacent and passive participants in the bureaucratic processes of governments whose sole agenda is assimilation," he said.

Linda Burney, the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) head, gave an insight into the sheer frustration of daily lives entangled in red tape. A woman living at "Top Camp" in Moree told her recently that she had been unable to cook her family a meal for several weeks because she could not get the stove in her rented house fixed. Could Burney help? Well, no, she couldn't. Because of the way the ATSIC funding arrangements for her house worked, the landlord was the local land council then in the hands of administrators. DAA was unable to help.

Contrast this lack of control with the news several North American indigenous leaders brought to Canberra. They spoke of vast lands owned and ruled by American Indians, levying taxes and running a justice system based on indigenous values.

Professor Stephen Cornell and Manley Begay of the University of Arizona said that a 15-year Harvard study, which they had co-directed, found that self-government had improved the economic and social functioning of American Indian communities. Nothing else in the previous 400 years of colonisation had worked.

Cornell and Begay, with Neil Sterritt and Grand Chief Edward John of Canada, praised organisations they had seen here on the path to self-determination. These included Tangentyere Council, the Aboriginal local government of Alice Springs, which does everything from collecting garbage to running work-for-the-dole.

Indigenous self-government in Australia? Langton argues it still exists in a masked form in bodies such as land councils and legal and housing services. "Behind the facade of these formal organisations, which incorporate wider legislation and are funded by government departments, there is also Aboriginal governance [and] jurisdiction," she said.

But the Federal Government is moving in the opposite direction. It shuns the words "self-government" and "self-determination". It prefers "self-management". Just over a week ago, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Philip Ruddock, challenged the Aboriginal emphasis on collective rights in his "five-point plan". No1 on his wish list was: "Shift the policy emphasis towards individuals and families."

Langton said: "It's code for: `Aboriginals need to become a nation of small shopkeepers'. This was also [Ruddock's predecessor] Senator Herron's idea the Thatcherisation of Aboriginal Australia." Yu described it as a "misconstrued ideological push for assimilation". Ruddock must talk to the indigenous leadership and re-evaluate that push. Aborigines must critically assess the nature of their leadership and the "functional responsibility of our many institutions and organisations" with a firm eye on "corporate and cultural governance".

Smith said: "In a remote community, doing business as an individual is very hard. We do it as a collective. We listen to the old people."

Ah Kit told of how the Aboriginal management of the Katherine West Health Board persuaded the Federal Government to give it the Medicare funding it saved because local indigenous people used hospitals rather than general practitioners. Its members "became skilled at understanding the money story".

They then took control of spending in all surrounding Aboriginal communities. They increased spending on community clinics and increased GP and Aboriginal health worker numbers. Then they moved to base causes of ill-health, with environmental and nutrition programs. Next stop on the road to self-determination linking up with other organisations to promote economic, social and political health.

"Illiterate old stockmen with sweat-stained hats and broken boots; little white-haired ladies bent over from the hard work they've done all their lives," Ah Kit said. "All those people with almost no possessions but with endless grace and dignity give their time and utmost effort to the health board, proud of their own organisation which has achieved so much in such a short time.

"There are good things happening for the first time in decades."

`We cannot afford to be complacent participants in the bureaucratic processes of governments whose sole agenda is assimilation.' PETER YU

`Aboriginal organisations must ... develop innovative strategies to overcome the cancerous ideology of despair.' JOHN AH KIT

`We cannot move ... forward because we're trapped by the great white Australian mythology of the useless, lazy darkies.' MARCIA LANGTON