Aboriginal people – addressing dependency in australia

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aboriginal people – addressing dependency in australia
Cedric Wyatt

Chief Executive Officer, Aboriginal Affairs Department

Chairman, Aboriginal Lands Trust

Western Australia


In this paper I will discuss the issues facing Aboriginal people and policy makers in addressing the issue of dependency which has undermined indigenous peoples efforts to be self-determining. Overcoming dependency is critical to the future of Aboriginal people and provides us with a timely opportunity to reflect on past efforts and to consider new initiatives.

Much of what I have to discuss will be about Western Australia, the vast third of Australia which exemplifies the nation-wide complexity of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations.

the history of welfare dependence

Australians are largely uninformed about Aboriginal society and how it has co-existed within the wider culture. The reasons for this are many and varied but essentially most Australians have a view of the past and present which is not based on the reality of how most indigenous people live, how they have flourished as communities and how they have sustained a strong sense of Aboriginality despite their exclusion from basic rights and services.

My intention in painting this picture is not to promote guilt, which is unproductive, but to provide a wider context for why we find such misunderstanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians who believe they live in a "land of opportunity". They cannot understand why many Aboriginal people do not give up their culture and attachment to the land and "assimilate" into the great suburban dream. Worse still, whilst desiring assimilation, many Australians wish Aboriginal people would live anywhere but near them.
Most Australians view Aboriginals as living off the welfare system – dependent upon the Taxpayer's dollar to survive. They are unaware that as long ago as the end of the last century there were numerous examples of Aboriginal people engaged in small business, in sub-contracting, in partnerships with non-Aboriginals (usually in rural industries) and many who had purchased land in their own right. However, Aboriginal people's independence and entrepreneurship was undermined when government extended is controlling hand to "help" Aboriginal people.
One of the key events in the history of Aboriginal peoples' dispossession in Western Australia was The Aborigines Act 1905 which – whether well-intentioned or not – radically undermined Aboriginal self-reliance and capacity to co-exist or compete in the wider community. The effects were devastating.
The 1905 Aborigines Act reduced Aboriginal communities to total dependency on non-Aboriginal generosity, it dissolved the stability of Aboriginal families and communities, it destroyed trust between Aboriginal people and governments, and it tore apart the cultural fabric which provided Aboriginal people with their spiritual and social unity.
This Act made it legal for Aboriginal children to be forcibly taken from their natural parents and removed them from the lands their ancestors had lived on for more than 40,000 years. The establishment of reserves and missions segregated Aboriginal people from the rest of the community and excluded them from participating in community life.
This history is not some distant past, the legacy remains in the living memory of many Aboriginal people. One in 10 Aboriginal people aged over 24 were taken away as children from their natural families by a mission, the Government or welfare agency. This frightening experience leaves an impression which lasts for life.
Until the mid-1960s Aboriginal people were excluded from participating in the normal social, political and economic life of the Australian community. It was not until 1962 that Aboriginal people had the right to vote, and only in the 1967 Referendum did the majority of Australians vote in favour of giving Aboriginal people equal rights and the Commonwealth Government make policies for Aboriginal people and include them in the population census. However, there was little positive impact on the lives of most Aboriginal people. "Citizenship" involves a lot more than the change of a sentence in the Constitution.

the current situation of aboriginal people

Despite significant changes to government policy, programmes and expenditure over the years, there has been little impact on the environment circumstances or the fundamental dependence of Aboriginal people on the welfare system.

The condition of Aboriginal people in remote areas has recently been starkly illustrated by a survey undertaken by the Western Australian health department. The survey results showed that:

  • 41% of communities had significant water supply problems;

  • 35% had significant sanitation problems;

  • 70% had significant or serious housing problems;

  • 36% had inadequate waste water disposal;

  • 44% had no medical, nursing or health worker either visiting or stationed on the site;

  • 37% had no rubbish disposal service; and

  • significant or serious problems with pests were found in 44% of communities.

Such factors are important contributors to the excessive mortality and morbidity found in Aboriginal communities through infectious and parasitic diseases, childhood malnutrition and injury. We therefore need to ask what effect our programmes are having to change the life chances of Aboriginal people. The provision of a healthy and safe environment in Aboriginal communities has historically been construed as a welfare issue rather than as an investment in the future of the state. This has lessened the imperative for action and created a tendency to provide for environmental health needs on a peripheral or "funds permitting" basis rather than as a central element of government's infrastructure spending.

The upgrading and normalising of services to Aboriginal communities is based on a sound economic argument. The estimated additional costs to the state government of the disproportionate levels of infectious diseases alone amongst Aboriginal people in remote areas is $11 million per annum. The levels of illness for Aboriginal children in remote communities are 50% higher than for non-Aboriginal children, resulting in a very high frequency of hospitalisation and use of clinical services.
Given the lack of progress to improve the quality of life of Aboriginal people, it is no wonder that after 12 Royal Commissions and over 800 special inquiries (in Western Australia alone) many Aboriginal people justifiably believe they are no closer to being treated as equal citizens in our country.

retreat from the welfare state

One of the consequences of the history of Aboriginal-European relations in Australia has been the historical progression from exclusion to dependency. Since the 1980s in particular, there has been a rapid expansion of financial resources marked for Aboriginal people across a range of state and commonwealth agencies.

The inclusion of Aboriginal people within the Australian welfare system has had two important effects – the increasing dependence of Aboriginal people on the welfare state and the proliferation of government programmes and policies resulting in fragmentation, duplication, overlap and inefficiency in programme delivery. It is these issues we need to confront as policy makers and as leaders of indigenous communities.
The assumptions of the "welfare state" clearly do not hold true in these times of post-industrial society. Social Security income transfers are a way of life for many Australians, not a short-term stop-gap between bouts of structural change. How much more so for those 55% of Aboriginal people whose income is derived from government payments, many of whom live in remote areas with little access to employment opportunities.
The paradox is that the "welfare system" has itself created the very conditions which have perpetuated poverty and dependence. The myth abounds that "welfare" will somehow magically restore people to a productive place in the community – like a mixture of Christian redemption and social work theory. The underlying Christian paternalism has pervaded all welfare systems, but has been particularly destructive for Aboriginal culture, leaving a legacy which will be paid for by generations to come.
There is a clear consensus emerging that although the moral vision of the welfare state – the pooling of resources for provision of basic services and the alleviation of poverty – remains valid, the method of delivery must change. For Aboriginal people this involves the recognition of both the need for cultural appropriateness and the great variation in circumstances of Aboriginal people, not least between urban Aboriginal people and those in remote areas.
The transfer of income alone is not sufficient. For Aboriginal people as well as non-Aboriginal people the future of income transfers as the basis for sustaining social welfare can no longer be justified. The welfare system needs to be based on providing people with skills and competencies which provide the opportunity for self-support and direction. Aboriginal people need these skills too, although for many the technological context and social milieu may be different from that of other Australians.
For example, a project which demonstrates the successful use of culturally appropriate technology in a remote community is the Mankuni Wilykikaja Bush Tucker and Seed Harvesting Project which is operated by Martu women of the Great Sandy Desert near the Canning Stock Route.
Over 40 women are employed on a casual basis for seed collection. Although still in the early stages of development, the project generated over $18,000 income for this remote community in 1995/96. This project has the potential to become economically self-sufficient within a culturally appropriate context. It is this kind of appropriate technology which needs to be fostered to assist Aboriginal people to gain economic independence.
In Australia, like New Zealand and many other countries, there has been a change of mood away from a hand-out welfare mentality to one of greater reciprocal responsibility.
One reason for the shift in mood is the passionate embrace by western governments of the precepts of economic rationalism which – at its crudest – is the simple observation, "Look at what we spent and look at what we got for our money!" Applied to a lot of spending on indigenous interests there is a sense of alarm because outcomes in terms of a better quality of life for Aboriginal people have not been apparent. However, it seems to me that economic rationalists regularly throw babies out with the bath water, because all spending is bad spending in their books. As a result, specialist spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs has become subject to increasing challenge and this is putting a lot of positive development among Aboriginal communities under threat. It is also quite clear that the dollars are gone for good, not just for one budget.
The overall message is that the amount of government money dedicated to indigenous interests is going to diminish progressively and people have no choice to adapt. In that respect economic rationalism is responsible for a sink-or-swim approach to breaking dependency.
However, the stark reality is that many indigenous people are prisoners of the welfare system, whether they are under lock and key or not, and their chances of breaking away from that system, or of leading their kids away from it are negligible. Individual Aboriginal people cannot bear the blame for these circumstances.
This is a reality which I believe politicians are starting to understand and, in some cases, they are looking more carefully at the impact of creating generation after generation of welfare dependents. The exponential cost of having indigenous people continue to be so dependent on state systems – based on current rate of hospitalisation, imprisonment, employment and so on – is simply staggering.
The legacy of dispossession and social exclusion is reflected in the current situation of Aboriginal people who continue to be the most marginal of all groups according to recent (1991 Census) social indicators. The following statistics for Western Australia bear this out:

  • Aboriginal life expectancy is 20 years less than for other Australians;

  • Aboriginal infant mortality, although improving, is nearly three times higher than for other Australian families;

  • Aboriginal unemployment is about four times the national average;

  • On average, Aboriginal people only earn two-thirds the income of other Australians;

  • The number of Aboriginal people who have never attended school is about 11 time the figure for other Australians;

  • And Aboriginal people are arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned at rates many times higher than the rest of the community. For example, although Aboriginal people only account for 2.7% of the Western Australian population, they make up more than 30% of the prison population.

Obviously it is very hard to escape from the welfare framework if you are sick, grieving, unemployed, poor and uneducated, or have spent a third of your life behind bars.

The 1996 change of government in Australia brought into sharper focus the impact of an economic rationalist philosophy, and already significant changes have been made to the administration of Aboriginal affairs. Funding cuts estimated to be $470 million over four years will result in the loss of many services and community programmes provided by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).
As a result of a freeze on the participation level in the Community Development Employment Program it is estimated that unemployment among Aboriginal people will rise from the current 38% to 42% by 1999/2000.
Far-reaching changes have been implemented in the administration of social security benefits, health care provision, childcare, education, legal aid and housing, all of which will have a heavy impact on Aboriginal people who are over-represented in the lower income groups and who will bear the greatest share of the burden of these cost cuts.
With the election of the new federal government many of the assumptions under which we have been operating for the past decade or more are being challenged, and organisations such as ATSIC and the Reconciliation Council are feeling under siege. I believe some of these changes are necessary and I accept that these organisations need to be held more accountable for their actions. After more than five years we have not seen ATSIC deliver major outcomes where they count, that, is in health, housing and education. There has been duplication and growth in bureaucracy which has swallowed up a lot of money.
The previous Government was guilty of promising the world to Aboriginal people and delivering very little. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the "Aboriginal industry" without showing any real outcomes for Aboriginal people. This has caused frustration and disappointment, with expectations being raised and then dashed.
The involvement of Government in Aboriginal affairs has seen a vast bureaucracy grow to swallow up funds. This bureaucracy is made up of non-Aboriginal people, predominantly, who have no real stake in solving the problem of dependency, since their own livelihood is derived from the dependency of Aboriginal people. Australia seems a long way behind many other nations in having indigenous people running indigenous programmes.
The issues for Aboriginal people remain the fundamental ones identified long ago – social and economic independence. They require access to land and a chance to participate as equals in the economic, social and political life of our country.

getting government right in aboriginal affairs

We need a radical new approach based on a vision for the future in the medium and long term. This will need wide-ranging reform and strong political will. This is the challenge confronting Aboriginal people, governments and the community as a whole.

If we are to address the issues of duplication and fragmentation of policy and programmes to Aboriginal people we need to address the problems of government. Australia, unlike New Zealand, has a multi-layered government of commonwealth, state and local jurisdictions. The failure to confront the power play and jealousies between these jurisdictions perpetuates the problems we confront.
I believe the Commonwealth should get out of Aboriginal affairs except through its funding role. The states can manage Aboriginal affairs. ATSIC needs to focus its role on priority funding of core services through state agencies. The priority must be to see that funds are directed to areas of most need. In specific terms these include health, housing, employment and education.
Accountability by the states for services to Aboriginal people could be assured through performance outcome based agreements between the states and the commonwealth, using a combination of incentives and sanctions to ensure that the states deliver better quality services to Aboriginal people. The states need to agree on their responsibilities to Aboriginal people, just as the Commonwealth has recognised its responsibility in the Australian Constitution.
The new Howard Government initially made strong statements about the need to address this problem across the board. However, since coming to office it appears to have put the issue of Commonwealth/state relations in the “too-hard basket” despite calls from West Australian and Victorian Premiers Richard Court and Jeff Kennett to address the fundamental inefficiencies in the current arrangements.
The principles of the commonwealth/state National Commitment To Improved Outcomes In The Delivery of Programs And Services To Aboriginal People make a good agreement in my view. This agreement sets out a range of principles to address the issues of duplication and fragmentation of service delivery and gives the states a primary role in service delivery.
Neither the previous nor the current commonwealth government seem willing to honour their commitments to addressing the inherent inefficiencies in our current system. I believe the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Mr. Herron, should use this agreement as the basis for future commonwealth/state negotiations in Aboriginal affairs.
Local government has been a silent partner in Aboriginal affairs for too long. Willing to hide behind the state and commonwealth governments and to cry poor, local government has been ready to take the economic incentives offered to communities with special need groups such as Aboriginal people, however, there has been a failure to pass on services to Aboriginal people.
A true partnership needs to be forged between state government agencies and the commonwealth and local governments. The pooling of resources and effort at the community level is essential if services are to be relevant and responsive to Aboriginal people.
Major problems stem from the overlapping responsibilities and duplication of effort between the state and the commonwealth in the provision of services. Currently over 20 state and commonwealth agencies provide direct or indirect services to Aboriginal people. We need a fundamental rethink on how we respond to the needs of Aboriginal people and I believe it is at the state, regional and local levels that we need to concentrate our efforts. Canberra is too far away to know what anyone needs, especially Aboriginal people. Regional and local strategies need to be the basis of Aboriginal programme development and implementation, undertaken in close consultation with Aboriginal people.
The Western Australian Government, through the Aboriginal Affairs Department, is currently working in partnership with two Aboriginal communities, Oombulgurri and Jigalong, to upgrade essential services and also provide the capacity to generate local income. The focus is on the needs of the communities which are not being addressed by other government programmes. Three million dollars of the Western Australian Government 1996/97 budget will be provided to improve and normalise services such as housing, water, power, roads and waste disposal, but also to provide appropriate training, community development and management support. The key to a successful outcome to this project is to build on work the communities have already done through their Community and Town Layout plans. Local participation and support by all community members is essential from the outset to ensure a culturally appropriate outcome in line with the aspirations of each community.

the high court mabo decision

Nothing brings into clearer focus the problems in addressing the real needs of Aboriginal people in Australia and the complexities of commonwealth/state relations, than the High Court land rights decision in the Mabo v Queensland and Others case on June 3rd 1992. The Mabo decision was based on morality and not legal precedent. The judgment recognised a form of native title, held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which pre-dated European settlement. This fundamentally changed the common law of Australia by overturning the doctrine of terra nullius, that is the Australian continent belonged to no-one prior to European settlement.

There were high expectations raised by lawyers and so-called “activists” that native title would deliver Aboriginal people from dependence and poverty. Among Aboriginal people the High Court decision was seen as a major symbolic shift in recognition of their rights. It offered the capacity for Aboriginal people to become economic participants with integrity, not to be the beneficiaries of handouts.
Although there is very little evidence yet of actual financial gains from native title, it is leading to a new level of thinking about self-sufficiency and independence which is having spin-offs in a number of areas.
Resource development is vital to Australia’s future. Native title has brought Aboriginal people and industry groups, such as the mining companies, together at the negotiation table. I believe that Aboriginal people recognise the opportunity to share in the prosperity that resource development can bring by participating in constructive resource projects which recognise and respect their culture and heritage. There exists an opportunity for Aboriginal people to develop the skills, talents and human resources which will be the key to equality for them, as opposed to the welfare dependence which has dominated policy so far.
Native title is therefore giving Aboriginal people a claim to land and also an increasing power in the negotiation process. At the broadest level, it has made people reassert their desire to be economic participants. This is not only contingent on having a piece of law which may give you right over land, but is part of a larger mind set which has been growing since the 1980s.
Another positive outcome of this ruling has been an increasing dialogue between the State Government and Aboriginal people. In response to the Government’s view that the Native Title Act is unworkable, the Western Australian Government is successfully negotiating land agreements with Aboriginal people outside of the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) process using the State Agreements Act. Successful examples include the Ord River Stage 2 project, the Balanggarra Lands and Water Agreement and the Rabibbi Agreement in Broome. These agreements are demonstrating the capacity for good will between Aboriginal people and the wider community to negotiate real economic advantages for Aboriginal people.
However, the notion that the Mabo High Court decision would delivery social justice to Aboriginal people can now be seen as one of the great myths of Aboriginal affairs. The 1993 Native Title Act which came out of the Mabo decision occurred in a vacuum with no reference to the needs of Aboriginal people or the particular links between land title and economic progress. Aboriginal people were betrayed by the bureaucracy in the cumbersome and technocratic translation of the high court decision into legislation.
As a result – although the Mabo decision has had some positive outcomes for some Aboriginal people – the actual management of native title is a sham. The procedures are bureaucratic and obscure, the intentions are misleading, and the outcomes are non-existent in terms of both economic development and Aboriginal aspirations to independence.
In addition, the very complexity of the Native Title Act and the procedures of the NNTT have created an absolute dependence on a bureaucratic European management framework and (usually non-Aboriginal) specialists. That framework is top heavy and absorbing more and more resources without guaranteeing outcomes.
The projected cost of maintaining the Representative Bodies created under the Native Title Act is anticipated to be over $42 million in 1997/98. As of January 1997, 457 claims had been lodged with the Native Title Tribunal (292 in WA), covering vast areas of the continent, of which five have been referred to the Federal Court – however, not one case has been determined in three years. Native title has not liberated Aboriginal people from welfare dependence.
I believe the Native Title Act is not workable in its present form and I strongly support the need for the amendment of the Native Title Act to ensure that all parties can have security and certainty in doing business. Nonetheless, despite the current difficulties with the Native Title Act, in the longer term it should prove to be a stepping-stone for Aboriginal people who are increasingly turning to the judicial and legal processes to redress past injustices.
On the 23 December 1996 the High Court handed down its decision on the Wik case which addresses the issue of the existence of native title to pastoral leases. Although the decision was in favour of the Aboriginal claimants, the Court’s decision should be seen as a win for both pastoralists and Aboriginal people. The decision sets the scene for negotiation on a commonsense level between pastoralists and Aboriginal people, on the basis that native title and pastoral rights can coexist.

future directions in aboriginal affairs –
the challenge for indigenous people

Despite the challenges confronting Aboriginal people there are many good-news stories to be told. Aboriginal people are being heard, education standards are rising, employment opportunities are increasing, and Aboriginal people are moving into professions and influential positions in business and government. In comparison to the 1971 census, by 1991 Aboriginal people have shown improvements in almost all social indicators (with the disturbing exception of aggregate employment and unemployment rates).

In the long term, economic independence and self-management are the only solutions to the many issues which confront Aboriginal people today. I believe that there are a number of ways of breaking the cycle of dependency, none of which have any guarantees attached to it.
The first thing I would suggest is that indigenous people have to start looking to themselves more often than they look for outside support. I believe that if we depend on government we are pinning our hopes on the same system which has helped entrench indigenous people in dependency.
This does not mean I have abandoned any hope of working for improvements in government in Australia. I support the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in Australia and I support the recognition of indigenous people in a redesigned Australian Constitution. I cannot rest my faith in any single government action which will create radical political or social change.
One of the paradoxes of the age we live in is that stable indigenous communities may be better placed than mainstream society to adapt to changes in lifestyle and technology. There are aspects of indigenous lifestyles which are infinitely superior to the singular work ethic of Europeans. The rest of the developed world has sacrificed a lot for so-called progress and it is questionable whether their level of development can be sustained. By saying this, I think we have to avoid simply accepting the benchmarks of progress given to us by Europeans. Some of the best communities I come into contact with in Western Australia are hard working and ambitious, but they have not given up the things which make their culture and their lifestyles good in order to compete with non-indigenous standards.
Therefore, I see the only option for indigenous people is to reassert themselves. I hope this can be done with the support of government making better informed decisions, but it cannot be left purely to the discretion of governments. It must be driven by indigenous people themselves.
To reassert ourselves we have to create a mind set among indigenous people that builds self-assurance. I increasingly think this can only be achieved through reasserting the basic family and clan structures where they still exist, by making them the building blocks of community ambition and community confidence.
Among ourselves we have to practice independent thinking, reminding ourselves at every opportunity that individuals and communities ultimately control their own fates. We have to stop blaming governments or each other for what goes wrong.
I am convinced we can gradually change the perceptions we hold of ourselves and the perceptions others hold of us. We have to refuse to perpetuate the colour bar among ourselves. Only then will we be in a much better position to make governments listen to us.

future directions in aboriginal affairs -
changing government

The two priority strategies being developed by the Western Australian Government through my department, the Aboriginal Affairs Department (AAD), are

  • to see all of government involved in services to Aboriginal people – rather than marginalized sections of government providing sub-standard services; and

  • to assist the re-development of Aboriginal independence at a grassroots level.

The shift is away from an apologetic approach which was constantly compensating for Aboriginal dependency, yet still building reliance on government intervention, to resources now being dedicated to self-management strategies and economic development, community by community.

The economic and social advancement of Aboriginal people hinges on the productive use of the land held by Aboriginal people. Therefore we have initiated a total review of all lands vested in Aboriginal use in the Aboriginal Lands Trust (approximately 13% of the land mass of Western Australia) to identify what economic opportunities can be developed for and by Aboriginal people and, ultimately, to see most of these properties managed by resident communities in their own right.
The State is also supporting a wide range of initiatives which are essentially about providing Aboriginal communities with the models to manage their own affairs in a culturally appropriate way. One of these is the establishment of the Commission of Elders made up of Aboriginal elders from throughout the state. The State Government has established the commission to ensure that the views of Elders are taken into consideration in the development of policy and initiatives for Aboriginal people.
The Aboriginal Affairs Department is looking to develop a ten-year Aboriginal Service Plan based on Aboriginal community and regional plans. The strategy will involve close-co-operation with the Commonwealth Government and a greater planning and monitoring role for the Aboriginal Affairs Department.
There is a need to work towards enabling Aboriginal people to gain the skills to identify, design and deliver solutions which will overcome the barriers to their economic and social advancement. We must also focus on positioning government agencies so that they can be truly responsive to the needs expressed by Aboriginal people. This is critical to avoid the raising and subsequent dashing of expectations of Aboriginal people which has been a feature of Aboriginal administration in the past.
Significant achievements are being made in redressing the dependency of Aboriginal people in Australia. However, there is a great deal we can learn from colleagues in other countries such as New Zealand and Canada. I value the opportunity to hear about initiatives elsewhere and to share ideas and experiences with colleagues overseas.
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