Aboriginal assimilation: the hub of the matter

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Friday, 29 May 2009

Since anthropologist Donald Thompson visited Arnhemland in the late 1930s and early 1940s missionaries and governments have not been able to keep from interfering in the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Perhaps the worst form of intervention has been the forcing of Aboriginal clans to assemble at one point for the convenience of white administrators. This in the past led and continues to lead to internecine disputes between rival clan and language groups.

At one level the suggestion is that white “saviours” intervene in the lives of Aboriginal people to “protect” them from the ravages of other whites. But it can’t have escaped the notice of such “saviours” that removing Aboriginal people from their traditional lands opens the way for other whites to lay claim to recently vacated Aboriginal land.

When it comes to testing the bona fides of such “saviours” one only has to look at the record of police and other protectors in Queensland who, according to historian Dr Ros Kidd, stole the present day equivalent of $500 million from their Aboriginal wards.

Assimilation has been forced on Aboriginal people throughout Australia, including the Northern Territory. The process is allegedly employed to assist Indigenous people to accommodate to the demands of White Australians and thereby ready themselves for life in the mainstream. Even at its most benign level, assimilation separates the Aboriginal person from their culture, kin and belief systems – that is, assimilation separates Aborigines from their Aboriginality and hence any specific claim to separate treatment on account of their prior ownership of this country. This further privileges the white power holders. No serious commentator has ever suggested that the place Aboriginal people were offered was mainstream.

The Howard government, led by then Minister Amanda Vanstone, started the latest attack on the outstation movement by claiming that any community of less than 1,000 people was not viable and would be amalgamated with other communities or abolished. The NT Labor Government then did not support such a frontal attack on Aboriginal sovereignty. Now that the Rudd Government has handed control of such matters to the Northern Territory Government, and grossly underfunded the program, it has wedged the NT Henderson Labor Government to set up a process of 20 hub communities which will be funded to provide schools, hospitals and other services. In their crazy white minds, this will justify denuding even the larger of the outstations of resources such as schools.

All this comes on top of the Brough/Macklin Intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory which necessitated the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act so as to force Indigenous people to comply with the quarantining of half their Centrelink money. United Nations Committees have condemned such action as racist.

Macklin will now be able to insist that parents who wish to receive Centrelink payments must enrol their children in school, even if there is no school in their community. Parents will have to shift to hub communities or forego welfare payments that all the nice white people in towns and cities all over the rest of Australia get without such requirements. Alternatively, it will involve sending their children away to school in hub communities, leading to a new round of stolen generations.

The Rudd Government is in the process of destroying the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) before establishing an employment program to replace it. The CDEP, first introduced by the Fraser Liberal Government on the advice of Nugget Coombs, has managed to employ 30,000 and to provide necessary community services to hundreds of communities in the Northern Territory and elsewhere in regional Australia. These services will not now be provided in the Northern Territory outside the hub townships. This will further increase pressure on Aboriginal people in remote communities to drift into hub communities.

Much of the important cultural artifacts, the production of which the CDEP has encouraged in recent years, has occurred on remote outstations. Much of the Aboriginal spiritual revival has occurred on these outstations. The health profile of people on remote homelands is generally better than those living in larger communities. This is not a mysterious phenomenon; it is because people are more at one with their Aboriginal identity and more bush tucker is consumed in such communities (Anthony 2009).

Perhaps it would not matter so much that people from remote communities were pushed by economic factors to come into town if there was any hope that the hub communities could accommodate their needs. The absence of any proper plan to prepare for transmigration is the real betrayal in the NT Government’s plan to push Aboriginal people into these 20 hub communities. Vacant houses are not available in the hub communities for the new- comers to move into. There are no jobs awaiting the newcomers. Community services and schools are already over-stretched.

Just in case anyone is foolish enough to think that hub communities are a brand new idea then it is time to think again. Wadeye, formally the Catholic Mission 400km southwest of Darwin, is typical of hub communities. It is a town of 2,500 people and has been the site of constant upheaval for the last decade. As Mark Whittaker wrote in November 2007, youth gangs “are based loosely on ancient divisions between the town’s twenty clans and seven language groups, but also interwoven by marriage to make them more complicated. They had kept the town in a perpetual state of hostility as historic rivalries turned to modern squabbles.”

The whites in Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Nhulunbuy and Alice have amply demonstrated their racist intolerance of iterant Aboriginal families in their towns. Forcing people into hub communities where life is going to offer them very little will lead to many drifting to the white enclaves of the Territory frontier and in turn to increased criminalisation and social dislocation. Criminalisation and social dislocation combine and eventually lead to premature death of those subjected to these twin processes.

If younger families with children are forced by Macklin’s racist intervention to move into overcrowded houses in hub communities and young able-bodied people shift there in search of work, the old and people with disabling conditions will be left to fend for themselves on outstations without the kin support to make life tolerable. Their health will deteriorate and they will die earlier than they might have – so much for Rudd’s mealy-mouthed slogan of “Closing the Gap.”

Rudd is just the last of the colonisers who have waged a relentless race war for 220 years against the Indigenous owners of this country. The Labor Party in Canberra and in Darwin won’t stop foisting their ill-thought through plans on Aboriginal people until the last Aboriginal person gives up their last claim to land or separate identity.