Decades of Neglect: Remote Indigenous Communities and the Myths about Money

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‘Indigenous violence' against women and children in remote communities is once again the focus of media attention and political debate. The Howard Government's response has been to paint itself as ‘tough on crime', framing the violence as a law and order issue. With comments like “Law enforcement, not more money”, “The Government had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into indigenous programs” and “more money is not the issue”, the Prime Minister has acted quickly to head off calls for more funding.

As Prime Minister, John Howard has been the consummate politician, reading the electorate and responding to popular opinion on talk back radio. With his assistance, this emotive issue soon began to echo the frenzied debates on native title and the ‘threat to the back-yards of Australia' which followed the Wik decision in the High Court during the first year of the Howard Government.

Appearing tough on crime is both a popular stance and serves to feed the myth that Indigenous Australians receive special treatment from the courts and through government funding – reflected in Howard's comment “I hold a very clear view on things like this, that there is one law in this country”. Taking the lead from the Prime Minister, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough called for a summit to be held later this month in Canberra. Despite the many debates on the issue in recent years, the Minister claimed that there was a ‘culture of fear and silence' on ‘Aboriginal Violence'.

Responses that appear ‘tough on crime' have become popular with federal and state governments around Australia. In the past weeks there has been no shortage of graphic headlines and depictions in the media of child abuse, and the violence has highlighted the crisis in many Indigenous communities. There has also been widespread media debate on the failure of past policies, and much of the reporting has blamed indigenous culture for the violence and the silence on physical abuse.

In contrast with the mainstream reporting of the issue, some have pointed to the disadvantage and disparity between Indigenous and white Australians in health, housing, education, and employment. A few voices have also highlighted the cumulative systematic neglect and under-funding of such services to remote communities since the federal government assumed responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs through the 1967 referendum.

Professor Larissa Behrendt provides a comprehensive review of Aboriginal Affairs under the Howard Government, describing Indigenous Australia as an ‘impoverished minority' where average life expectancy is at least twenty years less than the general population. Death rates among under thirty year olds are four times that of non-Aboriginal people, infant mortality is three times that of other Australians, and the rate of infectious diseases are twelve times higher than amongst non-Indigenous Australians. Lower levels of educational attainment, higher unemployment rates, and Indigenous income at only sixty-five per cent that of the general population, highlight the indisputable socio-economic inequality between Indigenous peoples and other Australians.

Following a cut to the Aboriginal Affairs budget in the first Howard Government budget, the funding of Indigenous programs has not kept pace with inflation or with the increase in the number of Indigenous Australians between the 1996 and 2001 census.


Thanks to Bill Leak.

While there has been a call for a summit on ‘Aboriginal Violence' there has been less attention drawn to the need to increase spending on health, housing and education employment in Indigenous communities. The services required to provide basic necessities of life — normally considered basic human rights — are chronically under-funded in remote communities. There has been no shortage of voices highlighting the injustice of the inequality being experienced by Indigenous Australians, including Indigenous leaders, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the Reconciliation council, and the World Council of Churches among others. However, amidst such debate there have also been some media players and political leaders who have taken the opportunity to blame Indigenous culture, past policies of self management, and Indigenous rights.

Remote Indigenous communities have also become the focus of debate about what constitutes a ‘sustainable community' and on the continued funding of services to such communities. Indigenous Australians in remote areas may not be forced to leave their communities, but with little hope for sustainable levels of funding for essential services, many Indigenous people from remote communities may be forced to live on the margins of larger regional towns or cities.

While in the future the Howard Government may not be accused of the removal of Indigenous children from their families, there will be widespread debate on the level of institutional neglect which has allowed the basic rights of the child in health, housing and education to go unmet. Blaming past ‘failed' policies or state and territory governments for the contemporary state of affairs in remote communities does not acquit the Howard Government for the lack of adequate funding for health, housing, education, and employment opportunities.

While the Australian Government has quite rightly pledged over two billion Australian dollars in funding the reconstruction of communities in Indonesia following the Tsunami, a similar level of funding, if not more, is needed to bring hope for a future for Indigenous young people in remote communities. Governments and media commentators should end the blame game and work together towards a better future for all Australians.

Substantive change and sustainable communities are possible if the myth that money does not make a difference comes to an end, and if it is acknowledged that there is a link between substance abuse and the dramatic disparity in the levels of health, housing, education, and employment opportunities in remote communities.

Indigenous Australians do not receive special treatment and increased funding can make a difference. Indigenous Australians have not received their fair share in health and education in contrast with other Australians. (See John Taylor paper)

Specific changes are required to engender hope for a future for Indigenous young people:

Short term:

  • In the first instance, there is a need for wider public support for increased spending on Indigenous Affairs, and all Governments need to publicly endorse further spending on infrastructure and services to remote communities.
  • Community consultation is essential for successful program delivery, as communities endorse and implement community based initiatives for change. There are many policy recommendations that Indigenous leaders have argued would make a difference in the fields of governance, education, health, housing, and employment.
  • The funding of diversionary programs for intervention in substance abuse among Indigenous young people in remote communities is an essential short term strategy to address conflict and self harm.
  • As has been highlighted by many commentators, the implementation of a housing program to address the immediate need to increase the housing stocks on remote communities is another short term strategy.

Long term:

  • Representation of remote communities needs to be included within the Howard Government's new ‘whole-of-government' policy approach. The determination of priorities and consultation over the allocation of funding for infrastructure and services is essential to make sure that the resources allocated are effective in making a difference for remote communities.
  • Education and training programs at a remote community level on community governance and relations between different levels of government is one important way to help communities break free from the reliance on non-Indigenous administrators and advisors, as well as giving Indigenous young people experience that could lead to future work opportunities. There has been extensive debate on welfare dependence in remote communities; the training of Indigenous young people in community governance is one first step towards these communities becoming more independent.
  • The introduction of scholarships for Indigenous young people to attend educational programs located in remote communities and regional centres for students over the age of 15 years designed to cater for the needs of remote communities in areas of health, housing, education, and community governance would address the need to increase the shortage of experience and skills required in many of the professional areas.
  • There is a need for education and training programs for Indigenous young people with educational scholarships to undertake courses in areas of governance, health, and education, with opportunities for university places in regional centres and cities.

As Professor Larissa Behrendt concludes:

The situation in many Aboriginal communities where there is chronic poverty and dysfunction are the result of decades, even centuries, of failed government policy and neglect. This neglect has occurred in three ways: the failure to provide basic essential services to Aboriginal communities across the country, the failure to provide adequate infrastructure in those same communities, and the failure to invest in human capital. It is this neglect that has created profound cyclical poverty, despondency and hopelessness, and an unravelling of the social fabric that create an environment in which substance abuse and violence become normalised. (See this article by Larissa Behrendt.)

It is clear that there is no substance to the myth that money is not an issue. The myth that there is not a link between substance abuse and violence, and the dramatic disparity in the levels of health, housing, education, and employment available to Indigenous people in remote communities must be challenged if governments are going to make a difference in the future. Public debate may then shift to what level of investment is required to provide hope among young Indigenous Australians in remote communities.

References

Crown Prosecutor speaks out about abuse in Central Australia , Lateline, ABC, May 15th 2006, http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2006/s1639127.htm

‘Race no reason to ignore abuse: PM, Cairns Post, May 19th 2006, page 11; see also ‘Aboriginal child abusers to full force of the law — PM', AAP News, May 18th 2006.

Gale, Peter. 2005. The Politics of Fear: Lighting the Wik, Pearson Education, Sydney.

Leaders snub violence summit — Plan to help Aborigines, in Canberra Times, May 19th 2006; see also One law for all, Daily Telegraph, May 19th 2006, page 22.

There were over one hundred newspaper reports on ‘Aboriginal violence' over the first week of reporting on the issue in major newspapers around Australia. Research based on Newsbank. The focus of many reports was violence against Indigenous women and children, for example, see Rothwell, Nocolas, ‘Cry of the innocent', The Weekend Australian, May 20-21, 2006, page, 17.

Behrendt, Larissa, 2003, Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia's Future, Annandale, NSW, The Federation Press, pages 7-9; see also Behrendt on abuse claims, Lateline, ABC, May 18th 2006, http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2006/s1642124.htm

See Taylor, John, Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research, http://www.anu.edu.au/caepr/Publications/DP/2003_DP246.pdf

Cited by, Horin, Adele, ‘Money Spent on votes, Not Aborigines', in The Sydney Morning Herald, May 27th 2006, page 37.

Sanders, Will, 2004, Thinking about Indigenous community governance, Discussion Paper No. 262, Centre For Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Canberra.

Behrendt, Larissa, 2006, ‘Indigenous Policy: No Quick Fix', Australian Policy Online, http://www.apo.org.au/webboard/results.chtml?filename_num=80532

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