Editorial: Putting people first


Individual Aborigines matter more than ideology

WHEN elite indigenous leaders talk about black rights they often see red. Like Mick Dodson who angrily opposes the idea of individual Aborigines privately owning what is now communal property in remote Aboriginal communities. Mind you, Mr Dodson does not think all private property is theft. As The Australian reported last week, the home he bought in Canberra in 1994 has appreciated nicely. But he says proposals to privatise housing in the bush is an attack on the culture of indigenous Australia. The argument that traditional cultural values are essential to the wellbeing of Aboriginal Australians has been used for years, but it is just not good enough anymore. The problems of Aboriginal Australians living in cities and regional centres should not be dismissed. However, as economist Helen Hughes argues in her new report on the economics of indigenous deprivation, Aborigines who are integrated into the mainstream economy have prospered, like all other Australians, over the last 30 years. Most of the misery occurs in the remote bush, where 110,000 people, 25 per cent of the indigenous population, are trapped by ideological assumptions, and inadequate services.

It is time to treat Aborigines in the bush as individual Australians, not subordinate their human rights to traditional ideals. It is easy to argue that traditional indigenous culture has no role for private property. But the abysmal state of much communally owned housing in remote settlements demonstrates what happens when no one takes responsibility for an asset owned by everybody. Even if loan repayments were made from welfare benefits, allowing Aboriginal families in the bush to buy a home or lease it over 99 years, would give them the same stake in society that every other Australian, including Aborigines who live in cities and towns, has a right to. The idea that Aborigines are served by maintaining separate systems of property rights is only one aspect of the failed orthodoxy. There is also the idea that traditional law and folkways can take precedence over the rights of individual Australians. Last month, a 50-year-old indigenous man was convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage girl, whose family had promised she would marry him when she was four. Because he believed his act was sanctioned by traditional law, a Northern Territory court sentenced him to just a month in jail. It is hard to imagine a more appalling example of an abstract ideology being imposed on an innocent individual. But there are many that come too close. Like the way indigenous children are left in homes where they are at risk of violence because officials fear being accused of breaking up black families. Like the schools who will not confront truancy among indigenous students, for fear of being accused of cultural insensitivity.

When it comes to the survival of Aboriginal culture, the concerns of activists such as Mr Dodson must not be lightly dismissed. The prospect of the beliefs and practices of the first Australians dying out is unsettling. And vulnerable Aboriginal people in remote and regional communities must be protected from opportunists, whether they are peddling grog, or false promises of prosperity. The behaviour of banks, revealed last week in The Australian, which sold car loans to Aborigines far beyond what they could afford to repay is unconscionable, even if legal. But the days when any but handfuls of the most isolated Aborigines can live traditional lives are long gone. For all the problems that contact with Europeans has brought, any idea that indigenous Australians are served by isolating themselves from the mainstream social structure is absurd. Whatever their community bonds and beliefs, no Australian should be treated differently because of their ethnicity.