The Passing Of That Music Man

Img via Sam Karanikos

Img via Sam Karanikos + ABC

In the vastness of the Northern Territory, it takes an incredible voice to connect the people to an ancient culture and tradition. These voices are so important, not just to Aboriginal people but to anyone who calls themselves Australian. So, we were greatly saddened to hear of the passing of such a voice this week. This music man, who’s name we will not use, passed away from complications relating to an illness he contracted as a child. Born blind in the remote East Arnhem island community of Galiwin’ku in 1971, he had a beautiful tenor and a talent for music across genres. He mastered a variety of instruments in his youth, even learning to play the guitar upside down as he was left-handed. In his family he was influenced by another famed Indigenous musician, his uncle, who was the singer of the acclaimed Yothu Yindi band.

This blind singer first experienced the world of music outside of Galiwin’ku in 1989 when, just a teenager, he became a part of Yothu Yindi as a keyboard player. At the time, we could hardly have anticipated the road his journey would take to him becoming the most significant Indigenous musician of his time. He released a debut self-titled album in 2008, and immediately connected with listeners around Australia, singing in his native language. His first album went on to achieve triple platinum, and this Northern Territory music man became the unforgettable voice of our generation.

Sadly, illnesses the singer had lived with since childhood began to have an impact on his health. He appeared at the National Indigenous Music Awards last year in a wheelchair, and it was confirmed that he was having renal dialysis treatment as a result of hepatitis B. He passed away on Tuesday afternoon in Royal Darwin Hospital, aged just 46.

At a time like this, it’s easy to get caught up in the discussions about Aboriginal life expectancy in Australia, particularly when many remote Aboriginal people consider any year after 50 a blessing. It’s a difficult reality we live in, but today there isn’t anything we can do about that. Instead, we will look over the sea and remember an Elcho Island man with the voice of an angel who brought together people not just in Australia, but around the world, with music that spoke volumes about his life, his people, and his culture.

Rest in peace music man.

The Impact Of Inaction – Why Aren’t We Listened To?

Aboriginal Flag

In the 200+ years since the ‘white settlement’ of Australia, various government has accomplished a fair bit. They’ve built a country from the ground up, conquering what they perceived as a harsh land and providing the citizens with the luxuries of Western civilisation. To achieve this, they’ve attempted to decimated an entire thread of humanity, wiping out tribes and language groups in the never-ending march of progress. They’re removed children from their mothers, abused power and left Aboriginal people, the First Australians, so much the worse for their coming.

Now, the government likes to think they can make amends, by apologising for the past and consigning it to the filing cabinet of history. They’ve muttered their apologies, as though a single sorry might act as a panacea, a Band-Aid on the pulsing artery of Aboriginal trauma. Unfortunately, the two hundred years of government policy have left a terrible legacy. PM Rudd acknowledged that the 50 years of policy preceding his 2008 Apology statement had been a failure. He promised a new beginning. What Aboriginal people got instead was an intensification of the intervention, rebadged as ‘Closing The Gap’. Rather than that new beginning, Aboriginal people have come to realise not only is it ‘business as usual’, but the pressure on them to assimilate is greater than ever.

Quality And Quantity

Let us give you an example of one of the many places governments have failed to properly engage with Aboriginal people towards their aim of improving them. In the march towards closing the gap, past and present Governments have been data focused. Unfortunately for Aboriginal people and service providers, their point of focus has been overwhelmingly the longevity, or life expectancy, of Aboriginal people. Don’t get us wrong, we feel that it is shocking that Aboriginal Australians do not live as long as their non-Aboriginal counterparts. However, we have to wonder whether, instead of quantity, we should be focusing on quality of life.

Improving the quality of life for Aboriginal people is almost guaranteed to have the knock-n effect of increasing its quantity. The key thing to remember when we’re thinking about quality though is the cultural space through which is it measured. The simple fact is that quality of life must be considered from an Aboriginal cultural space, even if that means something different to policymakers. Quality of life is, after all, a lived experience, and not something that can just be transplanted onto an Aboriginal setting.

Inaction In Action

To those looking in at our governmen, it’s quite clear what is going on. They are quite frankly paralysed by their own misunderstandings, and their inability to enact positive change through meaningful and engaged approaches. What we are seeing now is inaction in action. That is, a government operating in a risk-adverse environment where policymakers and advisors are unable to do anything that doesn’t fit into their comfort zone. As a result, everything they put forward is entirely cemented into their own cultural framework, and is unlikely to allow Aboriginal Australians operating within different cultural parameters a chance to be positively impacted by that policy.

In fact, even when Aboriginal people do talk to the government about what they want to do and what they hope to achieve, through community engagement, they are often ignored. Usually this comes down to an inability within the government to make an Aboriginal perspective on life fit into our current system. They are culturally strangled by their own rules, and what they believe to be appropriate. As they say, you can only know what you know.

That means that if you’re working in a different cultural mindset, and you aren’t making the switch when dealing with other cultures, you’re only going to get poor results. This is why our governments have wasted excessive funds, and caused serious damage, to people trying to achieve a quality of life that it outside of the parameters of a white Australian cultural setting. This isn’t just about health either. We’re seeing the same story in housing and education as well, all because community engagement is being done as a side-thought, a box to be ticked instead of an opportunity to get the voice of the community into its own future.

So, What Next?

We believe that the way forward will come from engaging in a more meaningful way with Aboriginal people in their first language, to get a true understanding of what communities want and need to succeed. This means that most of the community engagement undertaken needs to be done by Aboriginal people themselves. Yes, we do need to be prepared that this won’t be a smooth process with a guaranteed win every time. The history of government interaction with Aboriginal Australians is littered with failed projects and funding black holes, and we have little to show for it. Now it’s time to pass the torch of ‘improvement’ where it belongs: in the hands of Aboriginal people.

We feel that the only positive solutions for Aboriginal people will be for them to approach their own problems from within their own cultural framework. Not only must they be heard, but they have to be able to articulate and proceed in to an action that they feel will result in positive outcomes for their community. Only through this kind of community engagement are results even on the horizon, but the process will be a long one. After all, successive governments have progressively worsened the state of Aboriginal people, under the guise of improving them. Perhaps now we should allow the people to improve themselves, as only they can know how.

Saving The Children – Whose Responsibility Is It?

Aboriginal child

Any time the subject of foster care and government child protection policies is raised with Indigenous people in mind, it creates ripples in the wider community of experts, carers, and people themselves. There has been a proven history of long-term failures in this country when it comes to proving Aboriginal children with Out-Of-Home Care, and although the government would like to continue as if saying sorry were enough to heal the traumas of the past, it isn’t. While the harmful and traumatic child removal policies of the Stolen Generations are now over, current policies meant to serve the betterment of the next generation of Aboriginal Australians continue to fail, and we need to do something about it.

What We Aren’t Arguing With

The right of every child to be raised in a loving, safe environment is not disputed. All the evidence, over decades of varied studies, have indicated that children who are subject to trauma or stress in four significant areas of development – physical, emotional, intellectual and social – are unlikely to grow into well-balanced adults. What also needs to be considered, particularly when dealing with children from Traditional Aboriginal backgrounds, is the spiritual aspect of development. Here we aren’t talking about religion so much as tradition, an important part of life for Aboriginal people.

Also not disputed, is the fact that there are growing instances of individuals and communities across Australia being subjected to varying degrees of stress in all five areas, regardless of race and background.

Of course, Aboriginal Australians are no exception.

There is no doubt that many Aboriginal Australian children are subject to conditions throughout childhood that no child should experience. Unfortunately, the mainstream response to this is potentially causing an even greater level of stress.

The current primary aim of our child protection system is to “protect the children”. It is a maxim that makes sense right up until the point it is enacted. See, there’s more to protection that what’s on the surface. Our dedication to keeping children safe is doing more harm than we can imagine, because making sure children are physically safe is not enough. There are other areas of the child development equation that are being entirely forgotten, but at the moment child removal is about the only move the government seems to have in its repertoire.

The Facts As They Are

There are currently over 15,000 Indigenous children in Out-Of-Home Care in Australia [1], a number that has risen 65% since 2008 [2]. In fact, despite making up just 5.5% of the population of children aged under 17, Indigenous kids represent 35% of the number of kids in the foster system2. Kids aged 1-4 who are Indigenous are 11 times more likely to be living in out-of-home care than a child not of Indigenous background [3].

Some suggest that the numbers of children being removed from their families is greater than at any other time in our recent history. As records were either destroyed or poorly kept in the decades leading up to the 1990s, this is hard to confirm, but certainly numbers have risen dramatically since the early 1990s [4]. Significant attention was drawn to this issue in the 1997 Bringing Them Home report [5], which showed that Aboriginal kids are dramatically over-represented in both child protection and Out-Of-Home Care, thanks largely to decades of forced removal and assimilation policies. The intergenerational effects of those removals, combined with cross-cultural differences in child rearing, are having a devastating effect on contemporary Aboriginal lives. Other studies have noted that family violence, substance abuse, overcrowding and inadequate housing also play a part [6].

Fixing The Current System

The current foster system in Australia, based on recommendations from the Bringing Them Home report, places Indigenous children removed from their homes first with extended family, then within their community, then to other Indigenous people, before placing them with a non-Indigenous family. This system seems, on the surface, to work well, but the children emerging from it are still suffering from the same dysfunctions of previous generations, and we need to ask why.

The fact is that the families these children are coming from, as well as many of the families they are placed with, are still suffering from high degrees of familial stress. Indeed, removing children from one traumatic environment and placing them into another similarly stressful home setting is just as traumatic. Unfortunately, placing Aboriginal children with non-Aboriginal carers can be equally traumatic for these children, and cause them to lose touch with their Aboriginal identity.

We would suggest that where Aboriginal children are placed in non-Aboriginal family settings, those children should be connected with Aboriginal organisations and networks, so that individuals in these networks can become something akin to mentors for these children and the foster carers. In this way, children outside of their home cultures can be connected to their original identity and have a strong foundation from which to grow. Unfortunately, our government doesn’t see the benefit of this because it’s goes beyond physically and emotional caring, into something that governments don’t understand, and can’t quantify.

At the end of the day, all children from all backgrounds have the right to be cared for in an environment that is safe and secure. That might not look the same for everyone, and our system needs to account for that. We also need to understand that if the current issues with the Australian foster care system aren’t addressed history will be repeating itself. Instead of having a Stolen Generation, we will be creating a Lost Generation, with the same trauma and identity issues that many Aboriginal Australians struggle with today.

[1] Child protection services, 2016 Report on Government Services, www.pc.gov.au
[2] Children in Care, Australian Institute of Family Affairs, www.aifs.gov.au
[3]Child Protection Australia, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. www.aihw.gov.au
[4]Bringing Them Home, Chapter 21, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report. www.humanrights.gov.au
[5]Bringing Them Home Report. www.humanrights.gov.au
[6] Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Australian Institute of Family Services. www.aifs.gov.au

Racism In All Its Forms

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Racism is very much present in Australia, despite what continue to assert. In our history, Australia has always had a kind of “culture of denial” about racism in Australia, claiming that it doesn’t happen, or that racist comments are meant in jest, not to be taken seriously. However, we know that denying racism only perpetuates racist behaviours [1], and that to truly tackle it we must be able to understand and identify it.

Racism In Australia

In the past year, around 1 in 5 people who call Australia their home were the target of some kind of racial discrimination, an increase from the 1 in 8 the previous year [2]. Putting that into perspective, we’re talking about around 4.6 million Australians, dealing with racial discrimination. For Indigenous Australians the numbers are even more worrying, with some 3 in 4 Indigenous Australians regularly experiencing racism [3].

So, let’s talk about racism, and the main kinds of racism you see in our society. There are three that we consider to be at play in Australia and elsewhere: Overt, Covert, and Institutional.

Overt Racism

Overt racism is the kind of racism that most people are familiar with. It’s the sort that yells obscenities in the street, that makes hurtful judgements and criticisms, that explains itself poorly. It’s premeditated hate. In terms of definition, we might call it the “unfair or unequal handling of a person or a group on racial grounds”, but essentially it is direct racism. This is the kind of racism that most of us can easily identify, and it involves deliberate and conscious acts of hate and intolerance, shown obviously and publically, by either individuals or groups.

Often, society feels that if there are little, or no, examples of overt racism, that racism doesn’t exist at all. However, there are other kinds of racism that aren’t so obvious, but insidiously exist in an underbelly of our society, generally only seen by those who experience it.

Covert Racism

As the name suggests, covert racism is the hidden or secret expression of racist beliefs, attitudes and ideas. It’s covert because it’s so indirect, and as a result it’s often not seen as being racist, not identified, and rarely called out. This is the sort of racism that people like to shrug off as misunderstanding or coincidence, when it’s really anything but. Where overt racism is considered clearly politically incorrect, covert racism often flies under the radar, and is actually thought to be the most common form of racism [4].

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism, sometimes called systemic racism, is the racism that exists in what at first appears to be commonplace rules of procedures of governments and other organisations. These systems treat certain racial or ethnic groups differently to others, putting them at a disadvantage if they aren’t able to meet rules or expectations. Often, an individual or group can’t meet those expectations because of a situation that is out of their control. In some cases, institutional racism is entirely unintentional, happening in situations where the organisation wasn’t intending to discriminate. Despite this, institutional racism does exist, and although subtle it can have much further reaching effects than other kinds of more obvious racist behaviours.

Institutional racism is often seen in the justice system, where minorities are much more likely not only to be charged with a crime, but also more likely to be convicted and serve jail time. In the Northern Territory, some of the policies associated with the much-maligned Intervention have regularly been accused of being a clear example of institutional racism, by limiting Aboriginal people from the freedoms that we enjoy [5].

The Future For Australia

Modern racist attitudes, particularly those towards Aboriginal people, have direct links with the way that Europeans de-humanised the First Australians as they colonised this country. These events are a part of shared history for those of both Aboriginal and European descent, but while white Australians celebrate the resilience of colonists, Aboriginal people mourn the massacres and invasions of their people. We often forget that the things we do in the past inform and affect our future. So, try though we might to reframe or simply ignore our history, we remain a product of it.

Australia’s future can be a bright one, but not if only some of our population benefit from it. Racism isn’t just harmful to those who are victim to it, but to all of us in society. It causes damage to community, limiting the individuals from truly realising their potential and upsetting both the collaboration and community of different groups. A racist Australia is one where social injustice and division are the norm, and that’s not the Australia we’d like to leave for our children.

[1] ‘Denial of racism and its implications for local action’,  Nelson, J.K., 2013, Discourse Society
[2] ‘Racism In Australia’, All Together Now, 2017, alltogethernow.org.au/racism/
[3] ‘Racism Undermines Health’, The Lowitja Institute, 2008, lowitja.org.au
[4] ‘What Is Racism’, Racism No Way, Department of Education, racismnoway.com.au
[5] ‘The current state of the Northern Territory intervention’, Amanda Midlam, 31/01/2012

PTSD And Its Impacts In Aboriginal Australia

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We often associate PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, with soldiers returning from combat, but in fact it can develop and be experienced by anybody who has been through a traumatic event. It’s just now that the general public is starting to realise that PTSD isn’t just a ‘war condition’, but a life condition. Over the years those living with PTSD have struggled for recognition, helped partly by the fact that they knew what they faced, and how they may begin to combat it. Imagine then, an entire group of people suffering PTSD across generations who do not have a good understanding of their condition, and who are unsure of how to tackle it.

Such is the reality of Aboriginal Australia.

A survey from 2008 indicated that almost one-in-three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have “experienced high levels of psychological distress” [1]. This is more than twice the rate that was reported for non-Indigenous Australians at the same time.

In more than two centuries Indigenous Australians have suffered at the hands of colonists, missionaries and politicians, all sure they were doing ‘the right thing’. They have been subjected to “unprecedented levels of political, social, economic, environmental and physical violence” [2].

As Paul Keating said in the Redfern Address:

“It was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.” [3]

Massacres, exclusion, colonial law and white privilege have left Aboriginal people broken, and dealing with the effects of PTSD not just as individuals, but in an intergenerational way. We’re talking about more than the psychological trauma of an individual, which is a challenge of itself, but the trauma that runs across generations, referred to by Atkinson as trauma lines:

“These trauma lines show the increase of so-called mental illness, alcohol and drug misuse, sexual and physical abuses and suicide attempts that reflect the pain of people’s lived experiences today.” [4]

Now we have two options in looking forward to a future Australia, where equality is a foundational right, not just a political catchword. Either go the way policymakers currently lean, seeing Aboriginal people as a failed group, or we see deeper than that, and recognise the long-term effects that PTSD can have on physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Currently, Australian politicians and those charged with protecting Aboriginal welfare have failed to apply what we know about PTSD to Aboriginal Australia. Our denial is hubris, but it’s not us that we’re failing: it’s Aboriginal people. This denial is one of the primary reasons that many programs specifically targeting First Australians aren’t getting results. It’s why schooling programs, mental health programs, wellbeing programs, and many other ‘closing the gap’ initiatives are doomed from the get-go. Essentially, it’s the real life version of forcing square pegs in round holes.

It’s Only Getting Worse

Unfortunately for Aboriginal people, intergenerational PTSD isn’t something that goes away with time. In fact, with each generation of people the issues faced are worse and worse, the trauma lines run deeper, and it’s hard to see a way forward. As older generations work to fight their demons, they are often caught up in substance abuse [5], leading to newer generations suffering with conditions like foetal alcohol which further adds to the trauma. We’re in a cycle that has to be broken, and now is the time.

What Can Be Done

The intergenerational trauma suffered by Aboriginal people isn’t something that white Australia can fix, and that’s probably the biggest hurdle for us to accept. Like so many other times in the past, we feel that we were the answer, but the truth is that the answer has lain with Aboriginal people from the beginning.

It is only Aboriginal people who can heal the wounds of the past, because we simply can’t understand the trauma that has been suffered by them, individually and as a group, for the last two centuries. We cannot understand the blatant murder and massacre of their ancestors, the denial of their cultural identity, the removal of their children, the separation of families, and the crushing of their spirit. It is a trauma that white Australia wants to wipe from the history books, because we are that guilty. But as Keating said, “guilt is not a very constructive emotion”, only opening our hearts and embracing practical solutions will net the future we hope to have for our great nation.

It’s time to stand up and accept that white Australia has done a number on Aboriginal Australia, but it’s not too late. It will take years for us to overcome the past, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to reach for the future.

[1] Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2013, healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
[2] Havemann, P. Denial of Modernity and Exclusion: Indigenous Placelessness in Australia, Macquarie Law Journal, 2005; 5:57-79
[3] Keating, P. 1992. Redfern Address – Year for the World’s Indigenous People. antar.org.au
[4] Atkinson, J. Making sense of the senseless: feeling bad, being mad, getting charged up. Problematic Drug and Alcohol Use and Mental Illness. Conference Proceeding, 1999; 37-49.
[5] Nadew, G. T., 2010. Exposure to Traumatic Events, Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Abuse in Aboriginal Communities, Primary Health Care Research and Information Studies. phcris.org.au

Why Are We Still Talking About A Treaty?

via http://www.nedmartin.org

via http://www.nedmartin.org

In May of 1967 Australians went to the ballots in a referendum to amend the constitution and include Aboriginal people in the census and allow laws to be created for them by the Commonwealth.

In May of 2017, Aboriginal leaders gathered again on culturally significant ground in Uluru, 500km from Alice Springs with a clear goal: to be recognised legally as the First Australians though inclusion in the legal framework on which modern Australian is based, and to be truly heard through an elected representative body.

The 2017 National Constitutional Convention brought together Aboriginal people from all over Australia. They met for days of talks about the current state of Aboriginal Australians and their hopes for the future. What emerged was something they called the Makarrata Commission, announced in the Uluru Statement.

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.” [1]

Constitutional reform that will involve getting a First Nations voice in parliament and moving towards a treaty is on the agenda for Aboriginal leaders. While we welcome further discussions and actions on a treaty, we remain surprised that after decades of poor Government policies and promises there remains any doubt at all that a treaty is absolutely necessary. Australia is the only Commonwealth nation that does not have a treaty with its Indigenous people, and frankly that’s not good enough [2]. We agree that Aboriginal people are “voiceless and powerless” as Pat Anderson notes, and that there does need to be “substantiative change; structural change that will make a difference” [3].

Touching On UNDRIP

In 2007 a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The declaration was adopted by a majority of 144 states, with four – including Australia – standing against it [4]. A new Australian government went on to adopt the declaration in 2009 [5], with the then Indigenous Affairs minister Jenny Macklin saying the adoption was an important step towards closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is something that was 20 years in the making. The declaration was intended to set out basic standards relating to the protection and recognition for Indigenous people all over the world. It talks about their rights, including the right to land, resources, identity, freedom from discrimination, culture, traditions, language and self-determination [6].

When Australia refused to adopt the UNDRIP in 2007, the government of the time – led by John Howard – claimed that UNDRIP would risk raising Aboriginal traditional law over national law. This was despite the fact that UNDRIP is not a binding document, but rather a promise that nations make to work harder to improve the lives of their Indigenous people through policy and action. As Mick Dodson, the 2009 Australian of the Year put so succinctly:

“Human rights do not dispossess people. Human rights do not marginalise people. Human rights do not cause their poverty and they don’t cause the gaps in the life expectancy and other life outcomes. It is the denial of rights that is the largest contributor to these things. The value of human rights is not in their existence; it is in their implementation.” [7]

Addressing Structural Issues In Australia’s System

The reason we want to talk about UNDRIP is because, while the document is not legally binding, any treaty that is negotiated between the Australian government and the First Australians must represent the values contained within this document. UNDRIP should be considered the fundamental scaffolding on which any future treaty may be build.

We fully support a treaty and believe that one is long overdue, but understand there are some Australians still in denial. If you don’t believe there needs to be a treaty, consider this:

The entire system – from legal to social and economic – on which Australia stands is based on a lie. That lie is that Aboriginal people did not exist in Australia at the time of white settlement. That lie is that they had no structure, no significance and no value, meaning settlers were free to dispossess them in total ignorance of the most basic fundamentals of British law. Now that needs to be resolved.

Australia needs to understand that you cannot own something that you have stolen. It must always belong to those who possessed if first. Of course, now it’s much too complicated to simply give Australian land back to Aboriginal people. There are so many other things to consider, from ownership to past traumas. As a country, such an action would result in social and financial collapse, which is why a negotiated settlement must occur.

A treaty is, and always has been, the best way to accomplish this kind of settlement. It allows Australia to acknowledge the constitutional rights of our Indigenous peoples, and the importance they have and will continue to have in our cultural heritage. It allows these people to have a voice, a say in their future and control of their destiny and that of their descendants. Yes, there needs to be some kind of body that speaks for Aboriginal Australians in all matters effecting sovereignty, land and so on, but it cannot give away the fundamental right of non-Indigenous Australians to exist.

Any treaty that is negotiated needs to be undertaken respectfully, and with an open heart. This isn’t about winning and losing, it’s about securing a bright future for all Australians, and moving forward with a better respect and understanding of the immense value and importance of Aboriginal culture and heritage to all of our lives.

via www.greenleft.org.au

via www.greenleft.org.au

[1] Sovereign Union – First Nations Asserting Sovereignty, ‘Uluru Statement from the heart’, 2017, nationalunitygovernment.org
[2] Australians Together, ‘Why Treaty’, australianstogether.org.au
[3] ABC Q&A On Twitter, Pat Anderson, twitter.com/QandA
[4] Indigenous Law Bulletin, ‘The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, 2007, austlii.edu.au
[5] Rodgers, E, ABC News, ‘Aust adopts UN Indigenous Declaration’, abc.net.au
[6] Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘UN Declaration on the Rights Of Indigenous Peoples’, humanrights.gov.au
[7] Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, ‘Aboriginals of Australia: Government Praised’, unpo.org

So, Noel Pearson Swore?

Picture from Nick Cubbin

Picture from Nick Cubbin

In the matter of the recently reported ‘tirade’ between Noel Pearson and our honourable Prime Minister by the ABC News on Monday, here are a few of our thoughts.

First off, we certainly don’t condone the actions of Noel Pearson. Whether you agree with someone’s view or not, it is important to remain respectful. That said, we are sympathetic to the feelings of an Indigenous man driven to improve the current and future circumstances of his people who comes up against the brick wall of politics. The First Australians have not only been traumatised and driven into the ground by myriad governments and their failed policies, but also shelved and ignored at every possibly opportunity. The actions of governments, past and present, have shown quite clearly how little they care for community-driven action that may yield actual results. Instead our policy-makers trade laws between elections like playing cards and any positive outcomes get lost in the quagmire of administration and opposition.

It’s enough to drive anyone quite mad.

So, we certainly understand what might have driven the, as yet unsubstantiated, claims that Noel Pearson dropped a few choice insults at the PM and some others present. The mission to which Pearson has dedicated himself involves seeking inclusion in the Australian Constitution of an Aboriginal representative body. It is proposed this body will actively scrutinise legislation to ensure its full impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is well considered. As we understand it, the Prime Minister said in few uncertain terms that, while he meant no insult, the pragmatist within suggested that Noel’s model was “highly unlikely to be supported”.

There is obviously a marked divide between what Aboriginal people want to achieve in terms of constitutional recognition, and what the Australian government is willing to give ground over. As it stands, Aboriginal people want more control over their future, and the future of their children, and the Australian government wants to stick with old ideas and white gatekeepers (because god-forbid we let Aboriginal self-determination come into the equation).

Are We Being Distracted?

It is also worth noting that the alleged tirade reported by the ABC on Monday the 5th of June actually took place quite some time earlier. And by some time, we mean late November of last year. In this case we feel there may be something sinister at play in the ABC’s report. Can it really be coincidence that they seek to pull the carpet out from under Noel Pearson’s feet as he, one of the well-recognised faces and public orators of the recently ground-breaking convention in Uluru, speaks for his people? We don’t believe it is, and it’s frustrating that the media seeks to confuse the public, drag down the reputation of Indigenous leaders, particularly with claims that barely stand on their own two feet.

Allow us to explain. For one, the ABC report offers no direct quote from anyone actually present at the meeting to substantiate the claims of Noel Pearson’s tirade. Instead they print a few groundless statements from Liberal MP, and known Pearson critic, Warren Entsch who claims to have heard what happened from “witnesses who were there”. Labor MP Linda Burney, herself a well-respected Aboriginal leader, admits two men present told her that an exchange of words took place. She herself wasn’t present”. This game of whispers is underhanded, and frankly quite disturbing.

The End Game

At the end of the day, we can’t say for sure what happened in a private meeting between the PM, Noel Pearson, and other Indigenous leaders. Perhaps a tirade really did take place all the way back in November, but there’s no saying now what is truth and what is a media beat-up. With dignity, and perhaps understanding, the other participants have chosen to act honourably.

What’s important to us, and to all the people in our communities near and far, is that the ultimate message and mission of Noel Pearson and other Aboriginal leaders doesn’t get lost in the media distraction. Tirade aside, this is an exciting time for Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal leadership. There is a thought revolution happening all across Australia, and we welcome it. Now is the time to stand together in realising that the only way for Aboriginal people to move forward is with strong self-determination and governance, not junk policy and overarching control. Instead of choosing to tear down a great Australian, with a true passion for his First Australian heritage, let us practice some forgiveness and honour also.

Unleashing The Creative Potential Of Aboriginal People

At the time Captain Cook first arrived in Australia he described Aboriginal people thusly:

“From what I have said of the Natives of New Holland they may appear to be the most wretched People upon Earth; but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the Superfluous, but with the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe…”[1]

Cook’s opinion was not unusual at the time, and it was generally believed that Aboriginal people had little to offer intellectually to a Western marketplace despite the millennia of culture and knowledge that preceded settler arrival. This belief has unfortunately tended to hold over the two century history that mainstream Australia shares with Aboriginal people, and it is only in the last few decades we have begun to see change. Mainstream Australia is finally understanding that there is a range of expression that is distinctly Aboriginal, uniquely creative, and valuable in its own right.

From art, to dance and theatre and even comedy, Aboriginal people are now stretching out into their creative potential, and many Australians are embracing the trend. It’s why we’re seeing musicians like Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu reach the world stage, and television programs like Black Comedy and Cleverman being celebrated at home and abroad. However, while white Australia is happy to accept Aboriginal potential in the realm of arts and sports, there needs to be a greater acceptance of Aboriginal intellect as well. Embracing Aboriginal thought leaders is a necessity in shutting down many long-held views that Aboriginal people aren’t ‘quite as good’ as those of European heritage. So, how can white Australia support and encourage Aboriginal Australia to unleash their creative potential, and what kind of possibilities are out there?

Economic Systems In Different Culture

Aboriginal economy functions in a very different way to white Australia’s economy. Relationships go beyond the basics of business, and obligation and trust run deep. It is challenging for someone coming from outside an Aboriginal mindset to properly understand the economic structures of Aboriginal Australia simply because it is a totally different world perspective. Aboriginal people view the world in a different way, and that has caused issues throughout the timeline of interaction.

A major issue when two economic systems come together is that the dominant one tends to assume that the other culture will assimilate to prevailing cultural norms, which clearly hasn’t happened in Australia. Unemployment among Aboriginal people is much higher than non-Aboriginal rates, around 3 times in fact [2]. When surveyed, some 63% of Aboriginal Australians say that it is inadequate training limiting them from getting a job, while some 47% say they just don’t have an understanding of the rules inherent in a workplace [3]. It is those rules that we need to target to achieve long-term and sustainable Aboriginal employment.

There are many assumptions that cause issues when Aboriginal people attempt to join a western workforce. The first is that they’ll just ‘figure it out’ without any kind of induction or support. This mistaken assumption could be because many Australian employers simply cannot see how Aboriginal culture is that different from white culture. Instead they often view Aboriginal people as ‘lazy’ and happy to take money for nothing[1]. The second, and one that probably isn’t talked about enough, is the fact that even when Aboriginal people work they often encounter failed systems. There is a definite, and unfortunate, trend of workplaces flooding their employee pool with unsustainable short-term Aboriginal jobs simply to fill Indigenous employment targets [2]. There’s also the issue of Aboriginal-specific positions, which can be a fantastic way to enter into the job market, but must also include more defined pathways so that Aboriginal workers aren’t finding themselves stuck in roles that cannot advance [3].

Recognising The Past For The Future

It is our contention that recognising the contributions of the past is the best way to pave the way for Aboriginal creative potential in the future. While early settlers to Australia may have believed that Aboriginal people had nothing to offer, the reality is that the country would not have advanced so quickly if not for the help of local Aboriginal experts. They assisted European explorers in the crossing of mountains, the navigation of rivers, the transport of goods, services and people, the navigation of a harsh land, and the survival of it. However, as Dr Cahir notes: “they contributed in many ways and that contribution hasn’t really been recognised” [4].

With more recognition about their impact on the past, we feel that Australia as a whole would be more receptive to the potential involvement of Aboriginal people in the future. Take, for example, our relationship with our Asian neighbours. Well before European settlers even thought of exploring the area, the Yolngu people had a thriving trade with the Makassan people that could have lasted some 400 years [5]. This venture was no doubt assisted by the cultural similarities in the two people, something that we have failed to consider up to this point in our relationships with Asia.

Aboriginal Australia and the Asia Pacific region have more in common than we may ever have with either. Perhaps partnerships with Aboriginal people are what we need to succeed in the Asian environment. History has shown us that strong partnerships, built on cultural similarities, personal relationships and trust can create prosperous communities at both ends. We say that success is worth embracing!

[1] Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards, NSW. Plunder and Protection: attitudes to Aboriginal Art. ab-ed.bostes.nsw.edu.au

[2] Korff, J. 2017. Aboriginal Employment, Jobs & Careers. creativespirits.info

[3] ‘Insights provided in report’, Koori Mail 459 p.39

[4] Cahir, D.F.’Documentary film explores significance of Aboriginal entrepreneurship in Victoria during colonial times’, ABC News              19/11/2015

[5] Makassan Contact With Australia. wikipedia.org

 

Can People In The Dominant Culture Truly Understand Racism?

It’s the battle cry of white Australians, arguing against an uncomfortable reality: Australia’s not a racist country… we’re so multicultural.

Yes, Australia is certainly a multicultural country, but to suggest that would preclude racism is naïve to an extreme. Particularly when 97% of Aboriginal people report they experience racism ‘often’(1), and almost 50% of white Australians still believe that Aboriginal people are given some kind of unfair advantage. When one-in-five Australians would move seats if an Aboriginal person sat next to them. When 10% of non-Aboriginals say “they would not hire an Aboriginal job seeker”. When a third of Australians still think that Aboriginal Australians are ‘lazy’(2).

These are not signs of a country free of racism. The underbelly of Australia is a racist one, make no mistake, and we all suffer for it, even if we do not understand it. While Aboriginal people talk about the racism they experience, others shake their heads in disbelief, in denial.
So, can the dominant culture really understand racism?

White Privilege

“White privilege is an institutional set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate powerful positions in our institutions.”

~ Francis E. Kendall, 2002 (3)

Privilege is hard to see when you’re born into a situation with easy access to everything you need, and much easier to see when you aren’t. The two most common kinds of privilege in our society are white privilege and male privilege. When it comes to racism, those with white privilege find it hard to talk about those on the other side of their experience because they might not feel privileged, or feel that they have more power. Quite simply, they just don’t notice it because they take it for granted.
Most cultural experts agree that an understanding of the often unconscious ways that white privilege works is the first step to tackling racism. A lack of understanding about white privilege is what many believe stops white Australians from failing to understand the impacts that racism has on people in this country.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism, sometimes called systemic racism, is a term used to describe a situation where companies, organisations, or government bodies act in a racist way. Sometimes these actions are deliberate, sometimes they are indirect, but they all have an impact. Institutional racism often slips past the general public undetected, tending to get so caught up in being worried about individual actions of racism, often failing to see the structures of our systems are inherently racism.

Institutional racism is often found in the structure of government programs. These programs might be intended to work for the majority of the population, but minority groups are often excluded because of circumstances or a lack of in-depth understanding of their situations. As a result, they aren’t able to access these programs, which the government might blame them for, instead of seeing how the system has actually let them down.

The Effects Of Racism

We often fail to see the long-term effects of racism, recorded in any instance where an individual is exposed to racism continuously, at any age. Studies with Aboriginal people have shown that experiencing regular racism can lead to poor emotional and physical health, can push people into unhealthy activities, and can limit equal access of necessary services (4).
Basically, if Aboriginal people feel that they aren’t being treated well, they’re less likely to put themselves in those situations again. Where this racism occurs among health care provides or health workers, trauma over racist actions could stop Aboriginal people from seeking treatment, even when they really need it.
The ripple effect of racist behaviour is often much more than we all consider, and when three out of four Indigenous Australians experience racism every day, it’s worth paying attention to.

Here’s The Thing

Australia is a long way from being a country free of racism, but it seems to us that the first step is an obvious one. For those born into cultural privilege, who make up the domain culture in this country, it’s not you who decides if the experiences of the minority are true or false. You cannot speak about them being sensitive, or about political correctness gone crazy, when you have not stood in their shoes. You may not be able to comprehend the level of racism in this country, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

1 ‘How racist are you? Take the test’, Daily Life 11/9/2014
2 ‘BeyondBlue to launch a new campaign highlighting the link between racism and depression’, news.com.au 29/7/2014
3 ‘Understanding White Privilege’, Kendall, F.E., 2002, CPT 6/09
4 ‘Poor health, racism go hand in hand – research’, Koori Mail 448 p.32

Why is Reconciliation important to modern Australia?

Reconciliation.

More than 200 years after the English invaded the land they so erroneously entitled Terra Nullius, it seems that much has changed for the worse, and very little has changed for the better for the original people, the First Australians. In a period of 50 years, Aboriginal people went from being masters of their domain, to being supplicants in their own land, with a population loss of over 80%. As a result of the ongoing marginalisation and exclusion that has been a feature of the interaction between the new masters and the old, Aboriginal people in this country still suffer from higher child mortality, they still get far worse educational outcomes, and they still die much earlier than their counterparts of non-Aboriginal descent. These are some of the measurements used when our Government talks about Closing the Gap, initiatives by which they hope to reduce the disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on numerous fronts.(1)

So, what about reconciliation? Is it really important?

In modern Australia, those viewing the many failures of the Australian Government to enact positive change will tell you that there is almost nothing more important to Australia’s future as a nation than reconciliation. In fact, the process of reconciliation is something many feel that modern Australia can’t afford not to pursue.

What Is Reconciliation, Why Does It Matter?

In the big picture sense of the term, reconciliation in Australia signifies the bringing together of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with other Australians. Rather than being a single action, program or behaviour, reconciliation is a process that eventually hopes to achieve an equality between Australia’s original inhabitants, and those who came after.

Reconciliation matters because Australia has a unique history, but we don’t acknowledge it. It matters because we tell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they should just Get over the atrocities committed to their people, their ancestors, throughout history and as late as the 1970s (and beyond) while standing by a Lest we forget acknowledgement of ANZAC history. We aren’t saying that the ANZACs shouldn’t be commemorated, but why accept one aspect of our past when we shy away from the other?

What it comes down to is this: Australians have a view of themselves, but that view doesn’t match up with the history of the country they call home. As Sol Bellear, the chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service said: “Put simply, reconciliation hasn’t worked in Australia because as a nation, we continue to refuse to face up to our real past.”(2)

Australians often argue that, individually, they didn’t have a hand in these atrocities and that is true. But that doesn’t mean that they should just be ignored, or that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should just be expected to go on as if they had never occurred. The damage has been done, but there is still a way forward. History has taught us that without reconciliation, there will always be anger and hate. A better future is made so by understanding the mistakes of the past, and working to ensure they aren’t repeated.

What Is Reconciliation Not?

Reconciliation is not assimilation. It is not making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people just like us. The Australian Government, and the Australian people, have attempted this in the past and succeeded in causing yet more damage. We have tried to wipe Aboriginal people out, we have tried to breed them out. We very rarely realise that just because our way of life is ideal for us, doesn’t mean it will also be ideal for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The river is the river and the sea is the sea. Salt water and fresh, two separate domains. Each has its own complex patterns, origins, stories. Even though they come together they will always exist in their own right. Our hope for Reconciliation is like that.

– Patrick Dodson(3)

Beyond History

Of course there is more to reconciliation than history. Reconciliation Australia has identified five interrelated dimensions of reconciliation (4), to get a better idea of what is needed to achieve reconciliation, and how we will know our country is reconciled. These are:

– Race relations: That two-way relationships exist between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal Australians through society, based on trust and respect.

– Equality and equity: That Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participate equally and equitably in all areas of life and society, meaning all life outcome gaps are closed and the unique rights of each cultural group is recognised and respected.

– Institutional integrity: Political, business and community institutions support and uphold reconciliation in their structures and goals.

– Unity: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and rights are both recognised and valued as a part of Australia’s shared national identity, leading to national unity.

– Historical acceptance: All Australians both understand and accept the wrongs of the past, and their impact. Agreements are made to ensure those wrongs are never repeated.

These are big goals, but they are the kind of goals that Australia should be embracing if we want to have this bright future that we have dreamt of, and that we have been promised.
There is no future for Australia without reconciliation, and while we still have a long way to go, the tide is starting to turn. All we need to do now is go with the flow.

1 ‘What is Closing The Gap’, Australian Indigenous Health Info Net, healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au, Nov 2016
2 ‘NACCHO Aboriginal health: Hostility to Utopia film a denial of nation’s brutal past – Sol Bellear and Adam Goodes’, nacchocommunique.com, Mar 2014
3 ‘RAP blessed with water’, Reconciliation News, Dec 2009, p.26
4 ‘The State Of Reconciliation In Australia’, Reconciliation Australia, Feb 2016, p.7