All too often in indigenous affairs people focus on the things that are not working, the problems. But, in this Reconciliation week and in the spirit of the Recognise campaign let us be positive, because we have many good reasons to be so.
Indigenous Australians have been making leaps and bounds forward against all the odds for decade after decade. I believe now with young indigenous Australians grasping better futures and with their fresh approach, the environment is changing yet again for the better and the rate of progress is going to accelerate.
It is useful for us to recognise just how diverse Australia’s Indigenous population is .There are around 670,000 people that identify. Less than 100,000 live in those very remote parts of Australia, from the deserts to the coastal rainforests and the islands of the Torres Strait. Some of them live a very traditional life, they might speak very little English, and they may still follow their traditional customs. Others are living a more Western-style life working with a mining company perhaps, owning their own house and so on.
People are often surprised to learn that Sydney has the largest concentration of Indigenous people in the country – around 50,000 people. While some of them might not be living on their traditional lands, they will tell you that they are no less an indigenous person than their brothers and sisters in very remote parts of Australia.
So when we talk about policies we need to take into account the diversity and avoid falling into the trap of thinking that governments have all the answers. It is a fact that Indigenous Australians have often succeeded in spite of government. In most cases they are doing it for themselves
It will be obvious to everyone that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have excelled beyond measure in the sporting arena in of art, film, theatre and dance. Indigenous Australians involvement in the political life of the country has a long and proud tradition and is growing rapidly. Adam Giles – an indigenous man -is now chief Minister of the Northern Territory.
When I was a young fellow there were two Aboriginal university graduates in this country Charles Perkins and Margaret Valadian. Now there are more than 25,000 indigenous graduates and the number is growing rapidly. Today there are over 10,000 indigenous students enrolled in university. There are over 150 indigenous medical practitioners.
Indigenous household incomes are growing with many indigenous Australians making their own way quietly with no assistance from government. Around 40 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now own or are buying their own homes.
I travelled recently to an isolated homeland community called Baniyala. A beautiful quiet place with a school and a few houses, a shop, a clinic and not much else. A small family group of about 80 people had moved back to their traditional country to pursue a life away from the hassles of the larger centres in the area. Brendan has a full-time position as a ranger. He gets a good wage with annual leave and superannuation. Two of Brendan’s children are doing their higher School certificate at a Kormilda boarding school in Darwin. He is renting a house and he now wants to lease the land so he can buy his house.
There are many stories like Brendan’s and there are many Indigenous organisations making life better for their indigenous brothers and sisters. Recently I met with the people from the Indigenous health services for Brisbane. Indigenous people choose to go to these health services because they feel comfortable and they get an excellent professional service. These Aboriginal Medical Services are funded through mainstream programs such as MBS like other medical clinics. They get funding for some specific indigenous programs but that is at the edges. They are operating a very professional and cost effective medical service business for a niche market and everyone’s a winner. We need policies that support that sort of work.
Policies should be about getting behind Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, recognising their individual capacities, and removing barriers that might limit their aspirations. Sometimes the roadmap is simply those ingredients that make a better life for any other Australian.
Welfare is killing people. Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute and other Aboriginal leaders in Australia have developed a model of reform that could be expanded. School attendance is a major problem. We should be funding education systems on the basis of school attendance not school enrolment and we should require parents to send their kids to school. On Aboriginal land you cannot own your house-we must change that. When we spend government money we should make sure it creates jobs for aboriginal people. We need more of the money the government spends hitting the ground and actually benefiting the people it is meant to reach. We spend too much of the money on public servants and administrators that frankly add little value. We must stop that.
Indigenous people are a diverse group they will chart different courses depending on where they live and their circumstances. To that end decisions should be made at the local level wherever possible and we should devolve decisions of government wherever we can. Governments have a limit in terms of what they can do. Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander Australians want to write their own stories. More government can sometimes mean more strings attached .And government departments with the best intentions can end up disempowering people. We need to work against this.
Finally there is the movement to recognise indigenous Australians in our Constitution. Some might see this as a symbolic gesture only. They think it will have no impact- so what is the point they say.
If we get this right as a nation we will be able to work together to write a new story for all of us. If we change the Constitution, if we get it right, it will mean something, it will make a difference , it will be a significant tool in overcoming indigenous disadvantage. It will make all of us feel better about ourselves and it will complete us as a Nation.
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Scullion op-ed – Many reasons to be positive.pdf