An economist has a radical prescription for Aboriginal ills, writes Lands of Shame By Helen Hughes Centre for Independent Studies, 237pp, $ 38
THE condition of remote Aboriginal Australia today is famously bleak. Poor health, grim housing, drug abuse, no jobs, bad education, depression and anomie: these are the prevailing features of the social landscape. From the far reaches of the Pilbara to the Pitjantjatjara lands of the South Australian desert, from the savannas of Cape York to the tropical forests of the Top End, the pattern is similar. Earlier this month, a detailed report by a Northern Territory government board of inquiry found evidence of widespread sexual abuse of children in remote communities; it laid much of the blame on poor educational standards and endemic alcoholism and provoked Prime Minister John Howard to intervene with radical emergency measures.
This is the social realm described in Lands of Shame, a work of unflinching precision and disturbing details. The pattern of breakdown in Aboriginal communities, now so hard to miss, has been long in the making; indeed, even by 2001, the centenary of Federation, the evidence for the failure of established policies towards remote Australia was plain enough for the commonwealth Government to feel pressed into action. Strongly influenced by Cape York intellectual Noel Pearson, it began deploying a set of reforms intended to change the picture.
In short order, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was abolished, shared responsibility agreements were introduced and a plan to encourage private housing on Aboriginal communities was unveiled. In intent, if not yet in effect, these shifts amount to a counter- revolutionary program, aiming to roll back the policy architecture put in place to guide the growth of remote communities a generation ago. This book constitutes, in tightly argued form, that counterrevolution’s late- coming manifesto.
Sometimes new eyes are best and Helen Hughes, a development economist of international distinction, turns her unsentimental gaze on remote Australia with startling effect. She makes mincemeat of the incongruities in existing arrangements and chronicles the tragedy of good intentions that has produced today’s pattern of corruption and maladministration. But the most intriguing aspect of her slender book is its tone. Hughes is angry. She still has the capacity for outrage that has long since leached from the grief- stricken groves of academe, where the puzzling failure of remote Australia to thrive is regarded as one of those depressingly inevitable consequences of colonial history. Hughes believes the 90,000 Aborigines, most of them very young, who live today in 1200 or so communities and outstations across the country’s centre and north can, and should, have a future. They can be educated, have meaningful jobs and wide choices while still preserving the core elements of their traditional culture.
But for this vision to be within reach, the present context must be described with pitiless accuracy. This is the task Lands of Shame seeks to accomplish. It is nothing less than a report card on indigenous communities, drawn from personal experience and published sources.
Inevitably, there are shortcomings in a survey of so broad a field. Central Australia gets sketchy coverage and Hughes is oddly unimpressed by the heroic efforts of Glendle Schrader, creator of a large Aboriginal- owned business network. She is more at home in the Top End, where she has formed a special connection with the remote homeland of Baniyala, in the Yolngu cultural area of northeast Arnhem Land. As a result, she provides a detailed, and devastating, account of the education policies in this region.
Hughes highlights the bizarre system in place where homeland schools are rarely open, many local teachers are semi- literate, primary schools are ill- equipped and simplified workbooks are produced for indigenous pupils. ‘‘ Many of the non- indigenous managers of Northern Territory and state education departments doubt the ability of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to be educated,’’ she contends.
The result is teaching in local languages with sharply restricted curriculum: ‘‘ Basic arithmetic such as times tables, spelling, the evolution of man, Australia’s geography and history and those of the wider world are not taught. Most schools lack dictionaries, atlases, globes of the world, the excellent educational programs most children enjoy, or internet to substitute for them. There is no logic, no literature, no classical music and no film. The biggest deficits are in maths and the natural sciences.’’
Territory residents are regaled almost daily with good news about indigenous education, but Hughes rather undercuts this stream of official propaganda with a startling disclosure: she contends that Aboriginal students who claim to have completed years 10, 11 and 12 on application forms for training courses in Darwin ‘‘ cannot read or write in English or do basic arithmetic’’. Hence the bleak conclusion that ‘‘ another generation is being lost’’.
Hughes zeroes in on the outcomes at the Community Education Centre for Aboriginal children in Yirrkala, probably the most famous indigenous community in Australia. This is what she has to report: ‘‘ It is not a school. It uses the excuse that its students are Yolngu speakers to deny them a mainstream primary education in English. Year 10 students do not reach Year 6 standards of mainstream schools. Adding years 11 and 12 is farcical. The students are prey to alcohol, drugs and sexual exploitation, contributing to the lack of civic mores in a settlement that has a floating population of over 1000 people.’’
There are similar Kafkaesque snapshots of remote area health, employment and housing programs. They pave the way for some bracing conclusions.
The introduction of private housing, the ending of the permit system, the break- up of corrupt local councils, the twinning of mainstream and Aboriginal schools, the phase- out of work for the dole: these are the kinds of drastic changes Hughes believes are essential. She advocates the appointment, in larger communities, of administrators with sweeping powers to enforce social order and the creation of a threetier system of remote homelands with different grades of basic services.
Saddest of all is her diagnosis of the way we got to where we are and of the ironies that hide in the thickets of ideology: ‘‘ The most damaging discrimination in Australia’s history has been the exceptionalism of the last 30 years that was intended to make up for past mistreatment. It has widened the gap between indigenous and mainstream Australians in critical respects. It persuaded them, moreover, that they wanted apartheid in property rights, education and welfare rather than employment. The natural enemies of apartheid on the Left, who played such an important role in dismantling it in South Africa, have been the principal defenders of exceptionalism in Australia.’’
The results of these policies, pursued for a generation, are plain for Hughes: ‘‘ Homeland dwellers have been denied equality of opportunity, the ranges of humanitarian and scientific learning that enable other Australians to find satisfying jobs, careers and family contentment in a tolerant, materially comfortable and healthy society.’’ Such is the case for the prosecution, penned by a passionate economist. Nicolas Rothwell is an award- winning author and a senior writer on The Australian.