Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australian Aborigines 4; Policy Interlude

My thanks to Lexcen for drawing my attention to an incredibly depressing piece written by Noel Pearson describing current problems in Hope Vale (and here), the Aboriginal community in which he grew up. I do recommend that you read it.

The article encapsulates some elements that I am trying to explore in my current stocktake series on my own writing and thoughts on the Aborigines, accepting that as a non-Aboriginal I am writing from an outsider's perspective.

Noel himself as an educated and thoughtful person is an example of the progress I was talking about. Hope Vale is an example of the problems.

I have not been to Hope Vale and cannot comment on the detail of the problems. Further, I do not have the specific expertise or knowledge on, for example, all the suite of Government policies and programs towards the Aborigines. You can find details of Federal Government programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders here. However, standing back, I would make a number of general comments.

First, and taking Hope Vale as an example, am I right in thinking that the conditions of some of Australia's indigenous peoples have in fact deteriorated over the last thirty years? I say some, because its not true for all. If so, where, how, why? Where will I find the statistical data and supporting policy analysis that I can use as a reasonably educated observer to understand the problems.

I pose all this as a question because such material may exist. My gut judgement, I stand to be corrected, is that available material is too aggregated on one side, too localised or fragmented on the other, to tell us what we need to know.Secondly, are the problems faced by Hope Vale an Aboriginal problem to be dealt with through Aboriginal policy or a problem for particular Aborigines to be dealt with through other mechanism or a combination of the two? If a combination, where is the dividing line?

To try to tease this question out, I did a number of web searches around the topic Cape York economic development. I chose economic development because this and associated jobs would seem to be a key issue from the viewpoint of the locals. I did not attempt a detailed analysis for time reasons, but formed three strong impressions.

1. There has been a lot of discussion, but it appears very fragmented, almost too hard.

2. The discussion appears strongly set in an indigenous frame. The bulk of the locals may be indigenous, but that does not mean that a Cape York economic development strategy is or should be automatically the same as an indigenous development strategy.

3. Cape York locals appear caught between a rock and a hard place, between their own needs including the right of indigenous people to manage their land and the externally imposed desire of the conservation movement to preserve Cape York as a heritage area. See, for example, the Wilderness Society Cape York campaign. I do not know what local attitudes are to this, but it certainly adds to the difficulties.

Now if you look at the detail of the case as outlined by Noel you will see an interaction between the three levels of Government, creating a very complicated pattern.

European settlement came to Australia in waves, creating a rolling pattern of impact over a long time period on our indigenous peoples.

This pattern varied between regions and was strongly influenced by the policies towards the Aborigines, in the case of Queensland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, developed by the different colonies/states including the Federal Government in the case of the Northern Territory. These approaches were not uniform, creating varying impacts between and within jurisdictions.

The 1967 constitutional referendum gave the Commonwealth Government power to legislate on matters affecting the Aborigines. From this point, and especially after the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 and its adoption of the policy of Aboriginal self-determination, Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal issues grew rapidly as did Commonwealth spending. A time line on some of the changes can be found here.

All this is fine, but it means that communities such as Hope Vale have not only inherited the legacy of past policy, but now sit at the centre of interaction between ever changing Commonwealth and state policies.

Take CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects) as an example, one referred to by Noel. The official description of CDEP reads:

"Indigenous community organisations are funded by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and the Torres Strait Regional Authority to run CDEPs in urban, rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

CDEPs relate to each community's needs. Activities develop participant's work and employment skills. CDEPs also act as a stepping stone into the mainstream labour market."

This sounds praiseworthy, but in fact CDEP appears to have become a long term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific work for the dole program. Worse, CDEP appears to have become institutionalised into the support structures of particular communities. Take it away, and some community activities would collapse. I stand to be corrected, but we appear to have created something that combines long term welfare with underpaid work.

Here I was struck, in fact horrified, by a recent program on ABC Radio's Away. I only heard part and by accident, so I may have got things wrong.

According to the program, CDEP in northern Aboriginal communities has created some real skills that, in combination with supplied radio sets, make Aboriginal observers a key part of Coastwatch. However, CDEP has yet to create a single longer term job. The program asked why these Aborigines were not now being properly paid by the Government for their work?

I thought that this was a fair question.

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