Dis­as­ter plan

An econ­o­mist has a rad­i­cal pre­scrip­tion for Abo­rig­i­nal ills, writes Lands of Shame By He­len Hughes Cen­tre for In­de­pen­dent Stud­ies, 237pp, $ 38

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ni­co­las Roth­well

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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