Friday, July 03, 2009

Musings on Australian Indigenous disadvantage

Yesterday the Productivity Commissions, the Australian Government's main independent research and policy review body, released its annual key indicators report on Indigenous disadvantage in Australia. Those  interested can find the report here. Without going into details, the report suggested that while there had been improvements in some areas, things had gone backwards in others.

The report coincided with two personal things, my musing on Canadian history together with attendance at a training session for Aboriginal mentees and mentors. I won't comment on the training session except to say that I thought that it was very good.

Those who have read this blog on a regular basis will know that I have written fairly extensively on aspects of Aboriginal history and policy, somewhere between 150 and 200 posts across several blogs. In doing so I have been fairly cautious. For example, I have been cautious about writing on things outside my direct area of experience or knowledge.

Over the last six months I have been fortunate in meeting and working with quite a large number of NSW Aboriginal people. While nothing in these contacts has caused me to alter the basic policy positions I have developed, the opposite is true, I have become much more conscious of nuances and complexity. I have also become confused on certain issues.

I have said before, and I repeat now strongly, that uniform national policies will fail. How could they succeed? The Aboriginal community is not uniform.

I also repeat my oft stated comment that we need to distinguish clearly between those policy problems that are Aboriginal and those that are in fact sub-sets of other issues. The absence of jobs or facilities in certain areas affects all members of the community, not just our Indigenous citizens. The progressive creation of social underclasses is not unique to the Indigenous community. We just don't measure it for other groups. And so it goes on.

The comments that follow deal just with the NSW position.

Just under one person in three of Aboriginal descent lives in NSW, in numeric terms this is the largest of any State and territory. Of the NSW group, around one in three lives within the broader New England. The last I think of as especially my people simply because of my commitment to New England. This New England group outnumbers the Aboriginal population in the Northern territory. Yet NT Aboriginal problems drive political and policy thinking.

So what can we say about NSW?       

To begin with, the pressures placed upon younger Aboriginal people who want to do new things are simply enormous. They face pressures from within and outside their communities, pressures to perform, pressures to confirm. I had no idea of the real scale of this.

Then we place pressure on the elders. Take a riot or an outbreak of trouble in a non-Aboriginal housing estate. We look to Government to solve these problems. If a similar event happens in an identified Aboriginal context, we go to the elders. They have an impossible task in that we expect them to sort problems far beyond their real scope to do so. 

One women I spoke to has fifty three different Aboriginal groups living in her area, many traditional rivals. She has only her personality and her position in the community to deal with problems, yet she is expected to and tries to deal with complex social and group issues.

Culture, politics and expectations lie at the heart of these pressures. Culture, politics and expectations within Aboriginal communities, culture, politics and expectations within the broader Australian community.

For the benefit of international readers, many NSW Aborigines are indistinguishable in appearance from White Fellas. This gives rise to a problem. How can someone who looks like me, who apparently has open to them the opportunities that I have had, be so different? Why should they talk about White and Black Fellas when they are clearly white?

The answer lies in culture. If you have grown up in an Aboriginal community, identify with that community, have been classified as Aboriginal because of you have links with that community, then you are Aboriginal. I have tried to make this point very carefully because I do not think that many Australians understand it. They look at the physical appearance of the person and draw conclusions from that.

This brings me to my next point.

I now support cultural awareness training such as teaching non-Aboriginal people about current Aboriginal cultures in a way that I did not before. But I am also much more confused.

I suppose that I have a reasonable understanding of Aboriginal pre-history and history. Certainly I know more than many Aboriginal people I talk too. Here I think that one of the most useful things that I can do is to make that history more accessible to all Australians. That said, I have become increasingly cautious about talking about this with Aboriginal people. The reason is emotional content.

Listening to Aboriginal people talking I can understand, in some cases I agree strongly, but my view is always different because I come from a different world. I wish all the time that there were more anthropological and sociological studies that focused in an objective, non-judgemental, way on current Aboriginal cultures.

Current Aboriginal culture is not the same as that in 1788. This may sound self-evident, how could it be the same, but people simply do not recognise what it means to say that that Aboriginal culture has evolved. They still want to apply stereotypes.

The current NSW Aboriginal culture or cultures has links to the traditional past. Yet it has also been strongly formed through Aboriginal experiences and especially interactions with official Australia whether at State or Federal level. The most awful thing is that those who have done the greatest real damage have been those with the greatest concern for the Aboriginal peoples. Simply put, in imposing their ideas, in trying to do good, in trying to redress past evils, they have damaged those they are trying to help.

On my still limited sample of Aboriginal people, their biggest criticism of the Northern Territory Intervention is a simple one. They say that the Government has imposed actions and controls regardless of their views and in a way that would not be acceptable in the broader community. They define their biggest challenge, to quote one Aboriginal women, in finding ways of modifying their culture to meet problems and to fit in without destroying what it means to be Aboriginal.

I am tired and do not think that I can properly extend this discussion. I suppose that my biggest wish is that I understood more.


tikno said...

From Aboriginal people perspective, how they seeing others people outside their community? Did they feel comfortable or not?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Tikno. That's a good question. The younger Aboriginal people I have met feel very much Australian. But they also feel very pressured because of pressures from their people on one side, the broader Australian community on the other.

To the degree that we can talk about an "Aboriginal" culture, it is different from that holding in the broader community. This holds with both language and attitude.

Many do not feel comfortable trying to fit into the broader community. They know that they have to too get on, but its hard.

tikno said...

Thanks for your responses.
Whether they are in between two difficult choice, namely to keep maintain their origin culture that closer to nature or receive modernization that will slowly scrape their original mores in daily life.

Jim Belshaw said...

Tikno, many of the Aborigines I know are in generational terms as far removed from their traditional lifestyle as I am from the Industrial England of my ancestors. Yet they still have their own culture if modified through time.

Your comment exactly captures the dilema they face.

tikno said...

Usually a dilemma is something interesting matter to read. Right?

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting to read, Tikno, more difficult to experience!