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Indigenous Peoples: Closing the Gap in the Face of Resilience, Courage and Humour

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

The following post was first published on the website of Civil Liberties Australia under the title, Aborigines: resilience, courage and humour. The post is a response to the Report by the Productivity Commission,  Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage  published 19 Nov 2014. It is also cross posted on my blog.

As the lights go down at the Belvoir Theatre, an elderly man with a wonderful white beard leads other actors in a recalled presentation to a Royal Commission.

In 1874 the Victorian government moved to close an economically successful enterprise at Coranderrk, near Healesville. Nearby farmers protested the land was too valuable for Aboriginal people. The people resisted. But anyway the area was closed in 1924 despite protests from Wurundjeri men, returned soldiers from the Great War: people were moved to Lake Tyers. There are scores of similar stories, hardly known.

Uncle Jack Charles, now 72, was taken from his mother at Cummeragunja mission as a one year old and raised in a boys’ home at suburban Box Hill. He was the only Aboriginal child there: they ”thrashed the living bejesus out of me’’, and worse. Jack was in and out of jail for minor crime and substance abuse. Reunited with some family at age 17, it was two more years before that included his mother. Jack is considered a founder of black theatre: he now helps young Aboriginal people.

As I watch Uncle Jack Charles perform, I perceive the resilience, courage and humour permeating every performance, comprising cultural achievement in spite of a life lived against the odds. (The play Beautiful One Day, also performed at Belvoir, has the same characteristics.)

Indigenous people are still here, teaching us cultural lessons, as we who are not indigenous have passed from hideous assimilation to integration through policies based on arrogance and now ignorance.

Denial, exploitation, removal of children, murder and rape, suppression of language. Refusal to acknowledge the past. Refusal to acknowledge a unique relationship with land with all its meanings, and managing the land through ice-age and desert periods. Refusal of equal rights despite judgements of the High Court, despite legislation, despite Royal Commissions, despite so many statements from elders white and black, despite increasing achievements in every field, not only music, painting and literature.

Disadvantage: Closing the Gap?

The extraordinarily comprehensive and, in some places, terribly disturbing Productivity Commission Report of late 2014 reveals trends that are a disgrace of international proportion against global standards. The report is comprehensive and detailed: every aspect of Indigenous disadvantage explored. It contains numerous examples of “Things that Work”. And it received about as much media attention as the chime on a time clock.

Horrendous statistics overshadow small gains and losses. Health, education and housing, which characterise Indigenous peoples’ problems worldwide, remain major issues. Australia is worse than anywhere: 78% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households lack acceptable access to water, sewerage and electricity service, but that figure is 5 points down from 2008…so overcrowding declined!

There is no progress in employment (likely affected by changes in the Community Employment Program), or in disability and chronic disease at 1.7 times the incidence for non-Indigenous people.

ClosingTheGap-childCPO

 

An increase in the non-Indigenous rate of family and community violence means the Indigenous rate remains 2.2 times the non-Indigenous rate. Over the nine years to 2012-13 the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care and protection orders increased almost five times from 11 to 49 per 1000 children; for non-Indigenous children the rate was between 3 and 6 per 1000 children.

Adult Indigenous jailing increased by 57% in the past 14 years. Youth imprisonment increased sharply to 2008 and has since remained at about 24 times the non-Indigenous rate. Repeat offending is 1.5 times the rate of 55% for non-Indigenous prisoners, as in 2000.

ClosingTheGap-AdultPrison

 

The over-representation of indigenous people in prison in Australia is 10 times that of the USA!

The suicide rate in the five years to 2012 was almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm increased by almost 50% to more than 400 per 100,000 in the past eight years; for other Australians it remained relatively stable.

In education, the figures are also far worse than for Indigenous people in other countries. In New Zealand, 85% of Maori have post-school qualifications and in the US it is about 65% of Native Americans: in Australia less than 20% have such qualifications.

Decades of continuing discrimination

Gough Whitlam, on election as Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, directed one of his first two major initiatives at Aboriginal people: no more grants of leases on Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory, appointment of Justice Woodward to commence an inquiry into land rights, and establishment of special schools.

Before and since Whitlam, any moves to advantage Indigenous peoples have been opposed by special interests in pastoral and mining activities and by state governments, except South Australia. In Western Australia discrimination continues as Premier Colin Barnett does his best to remove Indigenous people from remote areas, refusing allocation of mining royalties to support them and maintains mandatory sentencing for minor crime.

In 2006 Prime Minister Howard and Minister Mal Brough established the Northern Territory Intervention or National Emergency Response (NTER) to address alleged high levels of child abuse and neglect, with some allegations later found to be fraudulent and invented by an employee in the Minister’s office. The army was sent in, social security payments were managed, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended. Contrary to recommendations from a government-commissioned report, action was centralised.

Delivering the 2007 Vincent Lingiari lecture, Reconciliation Australia co-chair Fred Chaney expressed shock: the Intervention was contemptuous of Aboriginal property rights and the principles of non-discrimination, authorised micro management of lives, forced people into towns with devastating social consequences likely returning people to dependence, crushing the engagement essential to progress.

The Intervention has produced no gains. In the five years to 2011 Indigenous hospitalisation rates increased by 14%, income support recipients by 20%, reported child abuse by 56% and school attendance declined by 2 percentage points according to emeritus Professor Jon Altman.

Professor Larissa Behrendt says trying to change behaviour through welfare quarantining in an already dysfunctional situation likely exacerbates the stress on households. Improved attendance would be better achieved by breakfast and lunch programs, bringing the Aboriginal community, especially elders, into schools; teacher’s aides and Aboriginal teachers; a curriculum engaging for Aboriginal children which blends development self-esteem and confidence through engaging with culture as well as academic excellence.

A failure of policy: What could have been

Dr Christine Nicholls, now at Flinders University, was principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendumu for almost a decade. In Quarterly Essay 36 (2009), she points out that the issues of housing, health and employment need to be equal, simultaneous and concurrent foci of government and private attention before education can bring about real and lasting change.

People visited from government agencies out of town but nothing happened! The kids have otitis media (a disease of the Third World!) and can’t hear properly: if you can’t hear, you muck up in school, and don’t learn. It is ignored.

Few ESL teachers are employed, the value of teaching in language is denied, housing construction is appalling (and successive governments have done nothing about it). There is nowhere at home to do homework, overcrowding (with its attendant problems of potential child abuse), compromised health and hygiene. Lack of work for parents. Successive governments come to power wanting to be the one that fixes “the problem”. None do, small successes are not built on.

Many programs to advance Indigenous people are supported by private donations, corporate philanthropy, some together with government. Several help young people particularly. What on earth persuaded the Howard and Abbott governments to force on to Indigenous people wholly ineffectual policies that simply repeat all the mistakes of the past, are based on colonial and assimilative policies and in the end waste money and destroy people’s lives?

Governments could have decided to be far more engaged in ensuring proper housing, education and health programs. They could have ensured a substantial funding component of every initiative went to training Indigenous people. They could have stopped trying to justify policy by lying! And the federal government could have rejected the sometimes racist and backward looking objections of many provincial governments. Almost none have the courage to face down critics wanting to solve it all through rational economic solutions like private ownership and put everything in the “they need to adapt to our society” basket.

The majority of Indigenous people live in New South Wales and Victoria. The situations revealed in the Aboriginal-directed and -produced, award-winning TV dramas Redfern Now are situations of all people in towns and cities on the margin: difficulties of employment and daily living: health issues flowing from bad diet, cheap fast food, substance and alcohol abuse, poor housing.

There are three fundamental requirements: Self Determination, Financial Security, and support of Women/Early Childhood and Parenting

Self Determination

The right to self-determination must be embraced completely. Sovereignty matters! The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has run hundreds of research studies over more than two decades in Native American communities. When Native Americans make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental forms, natural resource management, economic development, health care and social service provision.

Self-determination is a constant theme in every speech by Indigenous people. It is an expression of control over one’s own life. Many, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, have pointed out that redressing disadvantage in the longer term depends upon people having the power to make decisions that affect them, to be responsible for the programs designed to meet their needs, and accountable for the successes and failures that follow.

Michael Dockery of Curtin University has found these same outcomes for Indigenous people in Australia. But no notice is taken. What is axiomatic for white groups in society is seen as a threat if given to black groups! Capable institutions of governance, adoption of stable decision rules, establishment of fair and independent mechanisms of dispute resolution and leaders who introduce new knowledge and experiences, challenge assumptions, and propose change are recognised as essential by Harvard.

Financial security

Second is equitable funding as the bottom line, and more beyond that as success builds. Under-funding has typified programs for more than 100 years. Except for the Whitlam government, almost every federal government has strenuously failed to adequately fund Indigenous programs. Wages and social security payments have been withheld and compensation ignored. The funding must acknowledge the right to determine the nature of projects directed to community improvement.

Under the government of Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott:

Recently Prof Altman has pointed to the success of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme which began in the 1970s: it increased earnings, provided more time for ceremonial activities, and crime decreased. Howard cancelled the increasingly demonised scheme because it wasn’t “real work”. In December 2014 the Abbott government announced a work for the dole scheme for remote Australia. Utterly pointless!

Early childhood and parenting

Australian and international understanding of early childhood, mother–child relationships, cognitive development and the impact on later life has increased significantly. These relationships are critical. The stimulation and warmth of the relationship contributes to a successful later life. Young children learn how to behave, and about human relationships and self-control which is a greater predictor of later “success” than any other indicator. And they learn self-confidence which helps manage the stress of later life better.

Recalled experiences in early childhood carry over to later parenting situations. So a potential cycle is developed. Therefore maximum support must be given to women and young families. Preschool staffed by qualified teachers and before that maximum effective support. Later, while Indigenous parents may not be clear about what school has to do with education, because of their background, that does not mean they have no interest in education. On the other hand intervening at school age will not likely undo the damage of early life. And availability of jobs after schooling is completed is essential.

Conclusion

The Productivity Commission and many people working and studying in the area have identified successes. But generally governments have not addressed the causes of problems, they have not co-ordinated the policies across significant areas and have not recognised the obligations to First Peoples whose right to the land was denied for 200 years. The invidious comparisons with the Indigenous peoples of other countries testifies to that.

There is a crisis of intellectual laziness combined with arrogance. In particular, the critical importance of cultural issues have not been attended to, nor has the impact of removal from land and of forced removal of children from families, which continues. Nothing has been learned from elsewhere.

The paternalistic approach which denies people any sense of control over their own lives leaves them more than marginalised. A friend points to the fact that many Aboriginal people have little understanding of white institutions and the implications of such things as court judgements.

But they know very well what denial of liberty means. Anything approaching racial profiling, failure to deliver in the judicial and police arena, criminalising minor crimes, mandatory sentencing and imprisonment produces more destructive behaviour and undermines progress elsewhere. It should be stopped immediately. Everything should be geared to developing a sense of self-worth grounded in a unique culture so that Indigenous identity is genuinely valued by the whole Australian community. Surprising as it may seem, many Aboriginal people regard all white people as of greater value than any Aboriginal person.

David Gulpilil won best lead actor for his role in Rolf de Heer’s film Charlie’s Country at the annual Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) event in January 2015.  There are lessons in that if we only think about them.

The Abbott Government and the Future of Australia

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Like thousands of Australians I have been almost consumed by frustration over the political situation in Australia over the last several decades. To anyone reading these pages that will come as no surprise. The last 25 or so years have for the most part been exceptionally difficult as politically and economically the country seemed to retreat to the past, to embrace more than most other countries an economic model which on examination lacks any real justification in history or people’s behaviour, a subject I have already traversed in the context of education policy.

Australia has achieved some astounding things in its relatively short history.

And it has been through some horrendous experiences, though almost as nothing compared to what has fallen on the citizens of many countries. And continues!

But more than that, the embrace of a policy – neoclassical or market economics – which focuses so much on the short run, on a belief in the merits of competition and financial rewards and more, indeed an ultimate gain in individual gratification through financial success, has led to further marginalisation of the less advantaged and ongoing limitation in the expectations for many. That is seen in policies for education and housing which entrench advantage, in limited investment in infrastructure of all kinds and in continued reliance on resource exploitation and primary production, a “dig it up and ship it out” mentality which allows that commercial enterprises, especially those owned by overseas interests, need not necessarily devote resources to research and development in this country because the answers can be got from overseas, sometimes from their branches. In particular little attention has been paid to economic diversification whilst the contribution of some areas of the economy, especially mining, are vastly exaggerated by their supporters. The Australia Institute has released reports showing, for instance, that solar energy contributes more to the economy than coal mining.

To some, such things as concern for the disadvantaged, for universal access to education and universal health care, to decent housing for everyone and to functioning and attractive physical and natural environments, to a system of justice which recognises and protects the dignity and justifiable right to reasonable privacy for all, a society in which creativity and inquiry are valued and not least a society in which diversity, cultural, racial, gender, age and more including sexual orientation, seem justifiable only in an economic frame. That these things, along with workplaces which respect and appropriately reward the unique contribution of everyone, do actually contribute very substantially indeed to economic success is evident beyond any doubt to anyone who considers that evidence. Seemingly, that is not sufficient to those who allow that personal experience and entrenched belief should trump everything. So political propaganda and patronage of fear can play havoc and divert attention from the imperatives of the future in favour of the emergencies of the present. Something that the wonderful Barry Jones said decades ago.

Ignoring the substantial contributions that Australians have made to science and the arts are just part of the mix, a view that innovation is something that business does but government doesn’t. That is wrong! As Mariana Mazzucato points out in her book The Entrepreneurial State (Anthem, 2014), very many extremely significant commercial developments developed from basic “blue sky” research by government funded agencies, not from business. Business takes on the results of the basic research and brings the product to market. To do that requires business to be prepared to take risks, including the risk of failure, an essential element of innovation. The claim for certainty heard often from business is antithetical innovation and ignores the real world.

The response? The Australian government’s spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP is now the lowest it has been since 1978 and the third lowest of any OECD country. For several decades there has been a drive for CSIRO to be more commercially oriented and substantial numbers of staff have been lost from the organisation. In 2007 the Productivity Commission reported concerns about the focus and called for the tax breaks for business investment should not be targeted only at commercial benefit. Then science minister Julie Bishop dismissed the concerns.

In October 2014 the Abbott government announced $500 millions for programs entirely directed at certain areas of the commercial economy and Industry Minister Macfarlane acknowledged that there were concerns about reductions in funding but blamed the budgetary situation!   At the same time most other countries are investing heavily in science. The 2013 budget contained very substantial cuts to research in universities and proposed increasing charges for students attending universities. These were part of proposed university deregulation which large universities, some policy groups like the Grattan Institute and the Business Council supported. That is despite clear evidence that in Australia the return to the community is far greater than that to the individual.

Of course we do well in sport: well we don’t actually achieve internationally in sport as we do in the arts and in science, for our size. Recall the number of leading actors, dance companies, orchestras – the Australian Chamber Orchestra recognised as the best small orchestra in the world – authors and musicians. Films don’t miss out because they are no good but because of the scene being swamped by huge promotional spends by overseas companies.

The fact that business can thrive quite satisfactorily and at the same time be regulated to protect the legitimate interests of the citizenry is not a deeply held view. Too often, especially in respect of financial institutions (which incidentally have done best from the measures put in place to confront the Global Financial Crisis), an attempt by government to regulate is howled down. For the governments led by John Howard and Tony Abbott almost any regulation is seen as a burden. Indeed the Abbott government seems intent on abandoning any role in regulation and even the notion of Australia as a nation except in respect of defence and foreign policy and a few other things such as “being open for business”, whatever that means. Providing we determine who comes to this country and allowed to stay!

All of these issues are ones traversed energetically in the increasing conversations in social media and more serious places. But governments in the last 25 years have not necessarily listened to those views which do not suit their philosophies. Though one would have to say that the Rudd and Gillard governments were characterised by substantially greater intelligence than some others. A contested view of course. But think education reform and the response to the Global Financial Crisis. And the substantial raft of legislation passed despite it being a minority government: being supported by intelligent and committed independents made a difference which Abbott refused to admit, branding the government illegitimate but not labelling the coalition government of David Cameron in the UK with that epithet.

Go back further and think of the reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments, not just economically. The Whitlam government whose achievements have been so acknowledged in the last weeks of October following the death of Gough Whitlam aged 98, achievements of vast long-term economic importance, achievements denied at the time. The Fraser government which enacted some of the Whitlam initiatives, embraced humanitarian approaches to asylum seekers and immigrants which have so enriched this country in the context of multiculturalism initiated during the Whitlam years, difficult though that was. And advanced Indigenous interests.

Now we face critical issues at almost every turn. As I have already written, these essays under the subject of “In Australia” address some of those issues and eventually will suggest some approaches for the future. But the views and suggestions are just more amongst the many views and suggestions of others, the thoughts and opinions of the many Australians whose commitment and intelligence will be evident to anyone reading, listening to or watching the more serious publications, radio and television programs. Most of the last two and some of the first are to be found on the platforms of the ABC and SBS, media branded as inefficient at best and biased at worst by those of the right. Despite being trusted by over 80 per cent of the population on every survey! Despite their attention to the very values which so many cherish and which on occasion have been embraced politically.

The next two essays address a very difficult subject: is the Abbott government competent to lead the country.

A Challenge to our Vision of Humanity

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

‘Are we all here, Do we really count?’ references a statement Australian sociologist and writer Hugh Mackay made some years ago. In his most recent non-fiction book he points out that The Good Life is not one “lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust … It is one in which we treat people the way we would like to be treated… A good life is not measured by security, wealth, status, achievement or levels of happiness. A good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.” Mackay has written 14 books including novels, his latest being Infidelity.

Mackay’s lesson is the basis for contrasting statements about humanity with observations of the horrors which ordinary human beings have perpetrated or simply allowed. That humanity has made progress is an arguable statement which is too seldom not seriously thought about or realistically discussed. It is also a view which contrasts with the dominant economic view, one that as Professor Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and one time Sustainability Commissioner for the UK, has pointed out shows we have evolved as social rather than economic beings.

Two books, Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room and Bernard Schlinck’s The Reader are among many scores of books and films which draw out the horrors and the conflicts faced by ordinary human beings, not politicians or generals or soldiers. Do these books and films make any difference to how we run out lives and influence the future of our society? Though there is greater international peace, the horrors continue within national boundaries, sometimes boundaries artificially drawn by colonising powers.

Conflicts continue to generate millions of refugees, deny a future to men, women and children, destroy towns and cities, economies and futures. Yet countries with influence seem unable to agree to stop them. Aid becomes another just another business, another opportunity for colonisation in another guise.

Faced with the need to help those fleeing persecution, arguments are advanced about queue jumping, about illegal asylum seekers, about population growth at the same time as skilled people from poorer countries are recruited to jobs in rich countries so corporations can avoid the costs of  training people already resident in that country. Inequality increases as fewer people gain greater wealth and what should be self evident truths remain denied. And discrimination on the basis of race and more continues, as it has for centuries.

A Prime Minister apologises, people weep, then what?

Continue to essay, “Are we really all here. do we all really count?

UNDERSTANDING MUSEUMS – UPDATE

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On June 10 last year I reported that the first part of Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, edited with Leon Paroissien, had been published as an e-book by the National Museum of Australia.

Late in the year the remaining essays were published. The complete e-book includes 25 separate essays covering everything from a review of the Pigott Report, developments since 1970 in museums generally through progress in art, science and history, education and touring exhibitions, digitisation and social media.

Following a consideration of the recent history of museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien,  Anne-Marie Condé of the National Museum reviews the important Pigott Report into museums and national collections which reported ot the Australian Government in late 1975. Ian Cook, inaugural Director of the State Conservation Centre of South Australia (later called Artlab Australia) and colleagues describe advances in collection conservation, Tim Hart from Museum Victoria and Martin Hallett from Arts Victoria recount the revolution in technology in museums. Des Griffin considers the very recent advances in technology and social media.

John Stanton of the Berndt Museum writes on ethnographic museums and Bernice Murphy, presently National Director of Museums Australia discusses Indigenous art and art museums whilst Michael Pickering of the National Museum and Phil Gordon of the Australian Museum review repatriation.

Discussions of History and museums are provided by Peter Stanley of the National Museum, Tim Sullivan of Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Margaret Anderson of the South Australian History Trust, Kevin Jones of the South Australian Maritime Museum and Viv Szekeres, formerly director of the Migration Museum in Adelaide.

Daniel Thomas, one time director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, provides an overview of art museums. Caroline Turner, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and the Arts at the ANU recvounts the expansion in international exhibitions and independent consultant Anne Kirker reviews paper conservation in art museums.

Natural history museums and their challenges are discussed by Doug Hoese, onetime head of science at the Australian Museum. Michael Gore, foundation director Questacon in Canberra, and Susan Stocklmayer, director of the ANU Centre for the public Awareness of Science review science centres.

Regional Museums are considered by Margaret Rich, former director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat and by museum and heritage consultant Kylie Winkworth. Representatives of various regional museum organisations consider developments in many of the states of Australia.

Lastly, education and the visitor experience in museums, one of the fields in which there have been significant advances, is addressed by Jennifer Barrett of Sydney University who describes museum studies at universities, Barbara Piscitelli, researcher on young children and museums, who focuses on the relationship that children have with museums, Janette Griffin of the University of Technology Sydney who reviews school students’ learning in museums and Lynda Kelly of the Australian Museum who discusses family visits.

Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), 2011, Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia.

The first part of a volume on developments in museums in Australia since the 1960’s has just been published as an e-Book on the web site of the National Museum of Australia.

Museums were established across many parts of the Australian continent during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. However it was in the latter part of the twentieth century that the greatest burgeoning of museums occurred. These decades also witnessed the consolidation of a sophisticated museum profession, the creation of a single national professional association “Museums Australia” and an active participation of Australian museum professionals in the international museum context. The essays in this section jointly seek to present a scholarly study of museums and museum practice that is also accessible to people outside the museum profession, who daily demonstrate their active interest in museums and their programs.

There are 11 essays in five sections.

Museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

Conservation in Australian museums by Ian Cook et al.

Ethnographic museums and collections by John E Stanton

Transforming culture by Bernice Murphy

Repatriation by Michael Pickering and Phil Gordon

War and Australia’s museums by Peter Stanley

History in the new millennium or problems with history? by Tim Sullivan

Art museums in Australia by Daniel Thomas

International exhibitions by Caroline Turner

Collecting works on paper by Anne Kirker

Museums and the environment by Douglass F Hoese

The second part to be published in late June or July will include further essays on history and science museums. Additional sections will deal with education programs and regional museums and there will be essays on museums and digitisation and social media.