Brief look at leaching the poison out of mutual obligation

Noel Pearson’s (The Age  7 May 2002) continuing denunciation of Aboriginal people of Cape York for “substance abuse” and “welfare dependency” has a familiar ring to it. Such an analysis formed part of the stated justification for Archibald Meston’s advocacy which led to the 1897 Protection Act in Queensland. Opium and alcohol were the offending substances at the time. The Queensland Aboriginal Protection Act continued to control every aspect of the lives of Indigenous people living on missions and reserves until 1975.

Dr. Roslyn Kidd and the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action have recorded how the government and protectors controlled Aboriginal workers’ bank accounts and helped themselves to approximately $ 30 million from these accounts. Professors Rowley and Reynolds have demonstrated how the containment of Aborigines on such missions and settlements assisted farming and mining expansion onto land previously controlled by Aboriginal people.

In 1963, encouraged by Oodgeroo and Joe McGuiness, I visited Pearson’s home community of Hopevale and some other communities on the Cape. The initiative-sapping aspects of the Protection Act were obvious in every community visited. At this time, people had to get their local protector’s permission to withdraw money from their own bank accounts, leave their community or to have their children or partner visit them. Such interference in people’s lives eroded their autonomy and undermined their initiative. Several Aboriginal people I encountered told me about enterprises they had wanted to establish but had been prevented from setting up by their protectors. No social security payments were made. People who could not find work on the reserves or on neighbouring properties had to rely on rations doled out by their protectors.

Pearson is correct when he points to the absence of viable Indigenous-owned enterprises in much of Aboriginal Australia. But his analysis totally misses the mark when he asserts that the absence of “a real economy in these regions” can be laid at the feet of either substance use or reliance on welfare payments. Throughout most of Aboriginal Australia the only “work” on offer to 80% of the population is a form of work for the dole called the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). For Pearson to claim that passive welfare is the problem denies the everyday existence in Aboriginal communities, where they work for their welfare payments, and have done so since the mid-1970s.

Widespread substance use exacerbates social tensions, interferes with labour productivity and increases domestic violence. It has long been acknowledged that in most communities in the Cape region these problems are having a considerable impact on the quality of life. The real issue, which is not being addressed, is dealing with the causes of such symptoms of social dislocation.

Government agents have been present on the Cape for well over a century. They imposed protection from substance use for 80 years. Government and church prohibition did not solve the problem. Government ‘protection’ did not solve the problem. Run-down community health, housing and educational facilities did not solve the problem. Dispossessing Indigenous people of their land did not solve the problem. Allowing multinational mining conglomerates access to whatever part of the Cape they wanted, despite Aboriginal protest, did not solve the problem. For instance, on the 15th November1963 an armed police party shifted the Mapoon people from their land and burned their houses to facilitate bauxite mining.

Given the longevity of government intervention on the Cape, one possible explanation of many difficulties which confront Indigenous people living there is that the present social problems are, at least in part, caused by the way the government has intervened in the past. Governments are reluctant to accept that they share any blame for present failures. The rebuttal often is that governments acted with good intent – therefore the blame must lie with the Aborigines: “Can’t be the Government, therefore it must be the grog and welfare dependency”.

Sanitising the history which accorded Aborigines passive civil rights cannot and should not be used as a convenient attempt to justify the new age mutual obligation ideology.

There are, however, solutions which Australian governments in partnership with the Indigenous people of Cape York could implement. The solutions will vary from community to community but will have some similar components. Adequate housing, education, health, sanitation, water, transport and power infrastructure must be provided as an act of reparation for past injustice and neglect. Employment at decent wages, in socially and ecologically meaningful occupations, needs to be created. People and their culture must be respected. Social security needs to be provided for those unable to work. Adequate funding will need to be provided to ensure appropriate municipal government functions are carried out. Land ownership issues will need considerable reworking.

This solution will not be able to be implemented without significant expenditure. However, the necessary expenditure will provide improved outcomes for Indigenous people on the Cape. Government will benefit by not having to waste money addressing social problems which present policies cause. The current “el cheapo” solutions have not worked. The only people who will lose from adequately funding Indigenous organisations to reinvigorate their communities are those who want to continue to denigrate Aborigines.

Written in 2000 not published.