Abbott tells of “new consensus” on indigenous affairs at Earle Page College Politics Lecture

Published 02 September 2009

abbott_at_lecture“The end of the disaster narrative and the new consensus on aboriginal affairs” was the topic of the 26th Annual Earl Page College Politics Lecture, given last night by the Hon Tony Abbott MP, Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

The lecture was delivered to a packed hall of dignitaries, invited guests, students, and members of the public.

Afterwards Mr Abbott took questions on topics as diverse as emissions trading and whether to change the date of Australia Day.

David Ward, Master of Earle Page and Austin Colleges, described Mr Abbott as a politician “everyone stops to listen to, whether they agree with what he has to say or not.”

In introducing Mr Abbott, Emeritus Professor Graham Maddox sang the praises of his new book “Battlelines”. After the lecture, Prof Maddox said Mr Abbott deserved a “high distinction” for the academic quality of his talk.

The full text of Mr Abbott’s lecture follows:

The end of the disaster narrative and the new consensus on aboriginal affairs

Delivered by the arrival Tony Abbott MP at the 26th Annual Earle Page College Politics Lecture on September 1, 2009.

It’s a comment on his times that Sir Earle Page lived a very full and busy public life centred on northern NSW without, as far as the accessible sources are concerned, noticeably dealing with indigenous issues. It’s now almost inconceivable that someone could sit in the national parliament for 40 years, become the federal health minister and deputy prime minister, and not deal with indigenous policy in some significant way. We honour the memory of notable leaders such as Earle Page by reflecting on what they achieved but also by reflecting on what they ignored. Page and his generation focused on the issues that they thought were important and we must do likewise.

To most of Page’s contemporaries, the solution to Aboriginal problems was assimilation. Within a couple of generations at most, Aboriginal problems would cease to matter, the policy-makers of his era mostly thought, because Aboriginal people would disappear into the general Australian community. As they have since 1788, some descendants of Aboriginal people will doubtless continue to blend more or less seemlessly into wider society. That will be their choice. It’s the choice made by most of the children and grandchildren of people who originally think of themselves as outsiders in a country such as ours.

Most, though, of the people descended from Aborigines are now rightly proud of their heritage and conscious of their particular identity. Aboriginal ancestry, I suspect, has well and truly joined descent from a First Fleeter as a badge of being Australian. Over and above everyone’s right to be taken seriously and to be treated fairly, Aboriginal people have a stronger claim than anyone else to particular recognition and acknowledgment. This is why indigenous affairs and Aboriginal policy are unlikely to figure less in our polity just because the indigenous issues of this era become less pressing.

When he famously said that the treatment of Aboriginal people had “degraded us all”, former prime minister Paul Keating was onto something. Our forbears, of course, were never as bad as he insinuated. Although there had certainly been instances of killings as well as neglect and indifference, there had also been many attempts at friendship and inclusion at least according to the lights of the day. Governor Arthur Phillip’s original instructions from the British government included the injunction to live in amity with the native peoples. As early as the 1830s, after the infamous Myall Creek massacre, public outcry forced a trial of the perpetrators. White men were hanged for the slaughter of blacks.

For at least a century though, Aboriginal people either lived on the fringes of Australian society or disappeared into it. Noel Pearson’s grandfather had fought for king and country in the First World War but was subsequently banished from his home for allegedly stirring up his kinsmen. The 1967 referendum, ostensibly about counting Aboriginal people in the national census, was really a belated acknowledgment that Aboriginal people could retain their identity and still be Australians. Yet as “smoothing the dying pillow” gave way to assimilation, integration and then self-management; as overt racism gave way to paternalism and eventually to pride in the continued strength of a distinct Aboriginal identity and culture, Aboriginal people’s seventeen year life expectancy gap was an inescapable reminder that something was still seriously wrong.

Why couldn’t a country which had given its other citizens such a good life also deliver to the original Australians comparable health, education, and employment outcomes? I suspect that Keating’s question nagged at John Howard who began his prime ministership rightly complaining about political correctness and the black armband view of history but ended it promising a constitutional referendum to acknowledge Aboriginal people. Pearson has frequently noted that the political left “got it” on issues such as dispossession and land rights while the political right “got it” on issues of substance abuse and welfare dependency. A historical understanding of dispossession and racism, though, he recently said, “was not the central insight needed to turn the disaster round”. The fact that Australia’s “most conservative leader” had eventually accepted the need for symbolic recognition constituted, said Pearson, “a lasting gain”. Due in large part to Pearson, the former government grasped that the most important failing in contemporary Aboriginal policy was not, actually, too little respect for Aboriginal values but too little respect for western ones.

Australians originally looked down on Aboriginal people. In more recent times, we have tended to look up to them as possessing a superior spirituality and appreciation of the importance of land and extended family. Only a toxic combination of old fashioned disdain with the notion that Aboriginal people might be uniquely serene and wise can explain the long neglect of basic law enforcement and educational requirements in so many remote towns. An important 2007 book, Beyond Humbug, coauthored by Michael Dillon, Jenny Macklin’s senior adviser on Aboriginal policy, and Neil Westbury even claims that the scale of governmental neglect of remote townships makes outback Australia a kind of “failed state”.

Mercifully, that is now changing. The Howard government’s intervention in 73 remote townships of the Northern Territory and the welfare reform process that Noel Pearson initiated and that government is supporting, now taking place in four Cape York towns are official acknowledgment that there can’t be one standard for social order and educational attainment in metropolitan centres and a different and lower standard in places where Aboriginal people live. It doesn’t matter whether these different expectations were the result of looking down on or up to Aboriginal people; the result has been that too many of them can’t fully participate in ordinary Australian life. Far from preserving Aboriginal culture and building the robust bi-culturalism that people like Pearson yearn to achieve, the permissive society has left many Aboriginal people in a kind of cultural no man’s land: “trapped between two worlds” as the local mayor said to me on my first visit to Hope Vale.

It’s no coincidence that that the legislation for welfare reform in Cape York was also the legislation (passed with bi-partisan support) to implement the welfare changes associated with the intervention in the Northern Territory. The intervention was actually the Howard government’s attempt to create swiftly in the territory the sorts of changes that Pearson had been working towards for a more than a decade in Cape York. Welfare reform in Cape York might be considered a kinder, gentler version of the intervention. Alternatively, the intervention should be thought of as inspired by Pearson and years of working with indigenous leaders in the Cape rather than merely a rush of blood to the heads of John Howard and Mal Brough.

The elements of the new orthodoxy in Aboriginal policy, whether manifest in “top down” measures such as the intervention or “bottom up” ones such as welfare reform are: strict controls on alcohol, a permanent resident police presence in all towns of any size, insistence on 100 per cent school attendance with access to high quality education to year 12 and beyond, 100 per cent participation in work programmes on a “no work, no pay” basis, and full social market rents for Aboriginal housing to be automatically deducted from welfare payments. Because the intervention is just two years old and dotted across the territory, it’s hard to make a general assessment of the improvements associated with it although it’s pretty clear that domestic violence is down and family nutrition is up.

The new orthodoxy is based on a more nuanced appreciation of the strengths (and not just the weaknesses) of the mission era as well as of the weaknesses (as well as the strengths) of the era of self-determination. Beyond Humbug, for instance, deplores paternalism while acknowledging that it wasn’t all bad:

“50 years ago, government…directly participated in community life…through the agency of patrol officers, magistrates, justices of the peace and police, ‘sub-contracted’ missionaries, pastoralists and traders and through ‘protectors’ charged with overseeing the administration of ‘native affairs’. Since the advent of self-government…those agents have been withdrawn or so severely compartmentalized that they may as well have been withdrawn….With that disengagement, the institutional framework of government which operates in the rest of the nation disappeared in those communities”.

In his new book, The Politics of Suffering, the anthropologist Peter Sutton notes:

“In early 1970s Aurukun, when I first went there…there was relative peace. Alcohol found its illicit way in, but only now and then, and was drunk in secret. Homicide, a common feature of the region from the earliest records to the 1950s, had been eradicated. Suicide was unknown….Child abuse, if it occurred, found the records only on the rarest of occasions. Local men mustered cattle and ran the butcher shop, logged and sawed the timber for house-building, built the housing and other constructions, welded and fixed vehicles in the workshop, and worked the vegetable gardens under a minimal set of mission supervisors. Women not wholly engaged in child-rearing worked in the general store, clothing store, school, hospital and post office. It wasn’t heaven but it certainly wasn’t hell”.

“That”, Sutton observed, “was to come later” when, between 1985 and 2001, “eight people known to me had died by their own hand…13 people known to me had been victims of homicide…(and) 12 others had committed homicide” in a town of just 1000 people. Despite this horrific record, even a partial implementation of the new policies is starting to make a noticeable difference.

Shortly after becoming Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, it occurred to me that I’d visited dozens of Aboriginal townships since becoming a member of parliament but scarcely spent longer than 12 hours in any of them. Noel Pearson suggested that I spend three weeks in Coen as a teacher’s aide last year. I have just been ten days in Aurukun working with the truancy team and helping with remedial reading in the local school. I was permitted this time off because, the whip thought, it would provide a more direct “feel” for indigenous issues than reading official documents and media reports, however insightful they might be.

About ten years ago, Aurukun’s previous wet canteen was replaced by a tavern opening for several hours on four evenings a week. Under Pearson-inspired Queensland alcohol management legislation starting in 2004, light beer had eventually replaced mid-strength beer which had earlier replaced full strength beer. Last September the tavern was closed because the Queensland government thought that there was a conflict between the local council’s duty to citizens and its interest, as licensee, in maximizing alcohol sales. Since then, there has been a dramatic reduction in binge drinking and in trauma related presentations to the local clinic. As well, the permanent police presence, once just four, is now being increased from seven to ten. Already, the police are regularly searching vehicles entering town for sly grog.

About a year ago, the Pearson-inspired Family Responsibilities Commission began working in Cape York’s four welfare reform communities. It’s headed by an experienced and well-respected magistrate assisted by local commissioners familiar with the people appearing before it. The commissioners must concur in any orders that the FRC makes. People who have been convicted of an offence, are the subject of child safety orders or whose children have not been attending school come before the Commission which can order that up to 85 per cent of welfare income be quarantined to the necessities of life. So far, about half of Aurukun’s families have been before the Commission with only a handful subject to specific quarantine. In the first instance, the Commission has been more inclined to order family members to talk to the school about poor attendance or to participate in alcohol programmes run by the recently established well-being centre. Even so, school attendance has increased from about 30 per cent last year to almost 70 per cent now. As well, about 300 people are now participating in voluntary family income management to save for Christmas presents, a car or educational expenses. Although it’s stressed that poor choices can have adverse consequences, FRC hearings have the flavour of counselling sessions as much as of the courtroom.

From October, every household in Aurukun will pay rent set at up to 20 per cent of household income for houses that are supposed to be better maintained. This should improve the comparative economics of moving to places with more employment. On the other hand, a majority of adults in Aurukun are still on unemployment benefits rather than in part-time community employment and don’t seem to be under any real obligation to seek work. The most common adult pastime seems to be gambling on cards. Despite this, thoughtful people who have lived in Aurukun for many years seem to think that there might finally be some light at the end of the tunnel. So far, it’s the change of mood that is as perceptible as any big change in circumstances. It remains a far-from-idyllic community. It’s most immediately striking features are extreme untidiness, a profusion of scrawny dogs, and the absence of almost any signs of commerce. Locals are going about their daily tasks and there are quite large numbers of enthusiastic outsiders providing education, health, police, municipal and other services. The impression, though, that service organisations are gradually making headway against entrenched disadvantage and that local people are determined to preserve their culture while promoting economic opportunities is not so much false as incomplete.

The distressed eleven year old truant thrashing around with a carving knife in her hand, the woman badly beaten by her partner inside a government building, the teacher just avoiding a rock thrown by an angry student, the respected elder trying to come to grips with a family member’s suicide attempt, and the gangs of twelve year olds smashing car windows most nights (all of which I saw or heard myself or had directly reported to me by the person experiencing it) are aspects of a daily life that officialdom normally misses. As Sutton has noted the “visceral intensity of a remote Aboriginal settlement is almost impossible to describe. It is also pretty well invisible to the casual outside observer until the lid blows off”. Still, squalid living conditions, dysfunctional families and occasional violent outbursts are no more representative of Aurukun today than the 50 local teenagers studying at boarding schools around the state. The rawness and the tragedy of life is closer to the surface there than in most other parts of Australia but that can make the decency and effort that’s also found all the more striking and impressive.

In Aurukun, there are Aboriginal people trying to adapt to modern Australian culture without losing their own; as well as smaller numbers of white Australians trying to help Aboriginal people while understanding why it’s hard to make a difference without giving up or becoming cynical. There’s a tendency to take an almost prurient interest in Aboriginal disaster narratives. These can appeal to both sides of the political spectrum: affirming one side’s stereotype of officials who don’t really care about Aboriginal people; and the other’s of Aboriginal people who aren’t really interested in being responsible. Aurukun has provided plenty of grist for that mill. But it’s not the whole story. It probably never has been and certainly isn’t now. If the tavern stays shut, the school continues to improve, and the FRC remains focused on reminding people that there are consequences for poor parenting, my instinct is that the next five years will see far less bad news coming out of Aurukun.

There are four big threats to the improvements now starting to be seen in remote communities. One is the tendency exemplified by the United Nations’ representative last week to see discrimination, even racism, in any policy which expects Aboriginal people individually and collectively to take some responsibility for turning around their own lives. Another is the tendency of politicians and voters to despair of new policies which don’t produce quick results. A third is the myriad uncoordinated government programmes regularly initiated by officials in head office with a chronic tendency to reinvent the wheel. The fourth is many officials’ reluctance to convert their respect for Aboriginal culture into a readiness actually to live among Aboriginal people.

Sutton has noted the pressure on the new government from “within Labor and certain Aboriginal circles to water down” the intervention. A progressive politics, he said, has “dulled our instincts about the sanctity of indigenous people’s right also to be free of violence, abuse, neglect, ignorance and corruption”. In most Aboriginal towns’ special circumstances, the right of children to a good night’s sleep and of women to be free from drunken violence should trump the normal right of adults to drink alcohol. The prevalence of humbugging in places where everything tends to belong to everyone means that the right of children to have food on their table should trump adults’ normal right to spend their money on cigarettes and gambling, especially when that money is not actually earned. As Warren Mundine has frequently said, it would be better to extend welfare quarantining to all welfare dependent families with children than to lose its benefits for Aboriginal people because it might seem to some like racial discrimination.

The failure of previous policies is grounds for pessimism only if the current ones are much the same. Unlike policies which expected Aboriginal people to lose their identity or to preserve it more-or-less unchanged, the new orientation respects Aboriginal culture but tries to give Aboriginal people real choices about the courses their lives can take. The small size of most Aboriginal towns often means that the departure of one or two key people can undo years of work. In Aurukun, for instance, a once thriving furniture workshop and a sewing centre have closed because the initiators left town. Across remote Australia, art workshops tend to open and close with the coming and going of the non-indigenous coordinator. Still, for the first time in many years, in at least some remote Aboriginal towns, there now seem to be two steps forward for every one step back. Sustained change for the better seems not only possible but even likely. No one thinks that the new policies should last as long as those based on Aboriginal exceptionalism before being judged a failure. They shouldn’t require the passing of another whole generation before being assessed but they ought to be given at least five years.

In a 2007 cri de coeur, Noel Pearson lamented the apparent need to be “a campaign Aboriginal all your life”. Even now, with heads of government giving him enthusiastic public support, local bureaucrats with their own fiefdoms can still sabotage efforts to get children to school by making backsliding cultural excuses for unexplained absences. Former indigenous affairs minister Fred Chaney has noted the “plethora of programmes which seem to get on top of rather than behind the community” and the “endless consultation usually without clear outcomes for those consulted”. Paradoxically, the implementation a few years ago of a “whole of government” approach at Wadeye in the NT increased separate funding agreements from 60 beforehand to over 90 after the introduction of supposedly more seemless arrangements. Under such circumstances, it’s no wonder that capable Aboriginal people have been forced to become professional meeting goers whose advancement depends upon endless micro-politics.

Not before time then, governments are finally trying to establish a strong presence (rather than just a bewildering array of “programmes”) in remote towns. In Aurukun, the head of the local projects office is, in effect, the Queensland government’s representative on the spot. In the territory, resident “government business managers” are supposed to have authority to coordinate all local service delivery. After a generation of pretending otherwise, governments have finally realised, as Beyond Humbug puts it, that “indigenous control of service delivery does not guarantee effective outcomes nor does it guarantee effective governance”. Government control doesn’t guarantee it either, as the apparent shambles of the strategic housing programme in the territory shows, but at least there are then much higher levels of scrutiny and accountability and less tolerance for lame excuses.

Pearson has suggested that last year’s apology might actually have made it easier for conscience-troubled white people to “move on” than for Aboriginal people doing it tough. Important though it undoubtedly was, alcohol bans have reduced drunkenness, resident police cut domestic violence, truancy patrols encouraged more pupils back to school, and welfare quarantine put food on families’ tables in ways that the apology, naturally enough, never could. These measures have faced, and still face opposition from influential Aboriginal leaders that the apology never did. Most of all, these measures require the ongoing support of the general public and the ongoing engagement of government in the daily life of indigenous people in ways that a make-and-move-on event like the apology never would. Many people were understandably ambivalent about the apology because of the inference that this generation had better moral credentials than its forbears. The new policies provide the necessary reassurance of an understanding that good intentions are not enough. Ultimately, they’re a better test of how fair dinkum we are about real improvements in Aboriginal people’s lives but we’re not failing so far and I don’t think we will.