John Sanderson, AC. Photographer: Peter Hislop
by Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, AC, Special Adviser on Indigenous Affairs, Government of Western Australia
Presented at Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas "Australian Citizenship - is it really worth having?", 29-30 March 2008
I have been speaking on many platforms about the circumstances of Indigenous Australians for a number of years now, trying to spread a more strategic perspective than the one that informs most Australian policy making at the present time. I am humbled in this regard by the fact that I am not an Indigenous person and therefore cannot possibly grasp a full understanding of what it means to be declared a mendicant being – a beggar in your own country. However, as a consequence of my experiences abroad in disrupted states I do have some understanding of the degrading effect of vulnerability on both those who are powerless and those who exploit that vulnerability for their own ends. It is an age old flaw in human relations. Vulnerability corrupts the vulnerable and the predatory alike.
I think it would surprise most Australians to think that such a description might apply to their relationship with Indigenous people in this country. Larissa and Mick have given you an Indigenous view and a legal view on the question of whether Indigenous Australians enjoy full citizenship rights in this country. I suppose in theory they do, but, in my view there is a deep historical and cultural context to this question that needs to be addressed. How can you enjoy full citizenship rights if you are not engaged in the processes of governance and are alienated from them by a historical commitment to the annihilation of your culture?
A regular question we all face is: “ How come, after putting so much money into Indigenous Affairs over a long time, Indigenous people appear to be worse off now than they were many years ago?”
This question is certainly asked of me time and time again. I am sure many of you have asked the same question. When interrogated on failures in Aboriginal communities and therefore policies, political leaders invariably respond by putting out lists of increased expenditure on specific communities and programs to prove they care about the problem and are doing something about it.
There can only be one of two answers to this question of poor results. Either Aboriginal people are a hopeless case, or we have been doing it the wrong way.
Some of you might respond to this assertion by saying, “it is not as simple as that. Doesn’t this person know that it is complex and non linear? While it is worse than it should be, some people are much better off than they used to be.” I wouldn’t condemn anyone for making that observation because it has to be partially true. There are some great Aboriginal success stories.
But here we are, one of the richest nations on Earth, and we have in our midst a people who see themselves as culturally oppressed and condemned to an unfulfilling life of despair and disempowerment. The intervention into the Northern Territory in the middle of 2007 by the last Federal Government, without consultation and purely on the basis of race, confirmed this in the minds of Indigenous people in an indelible way.
Those of you who saw the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs on Television last week would have had this confirmed. He more or less said, “of course it was racist, but it was good for them. It was what they wanted.” Clearly, many of the women who suffer terribly in these places really did want an intervention of some sort to ease the pain of their lives. The gender divide emerging in Aboriginal communities is an area for great concern.
But for others it was seen as an attack on all the gains they had made since that referendum in 1967, forty years ago, confirmed that they were Australian citizens. What was obvious was that in 2007 they had no voice of substance to respond. I put it to you that this intervention was a direct result of the impatience and frustration that came out of a failed and failing process – the post-ATSIC COAG and Bilateral processes that never made a serious attempt to engage Indigenous people in the solutions to the problems of their communities. They were ideological in nature. Because they were aimed directly at individual engagement with the market they undermined all forms of Indigenous governance and hence the capacity of Indigenous communities to negotiate. They did little to address the despair and the lack of hope that lies behind the growing dysfunctionality we all hear so much about.
Try as some might to deny it, the growing prison statistics, health statistics, mortality rates, substance and family abuse all tell us what is true. The way we have been addressing our relationship with our fellow Australians of Indigenous background and culture is not working.
Many of you will know the history of how we came to be where we are. Having at first attempted to deny that Aboriginals were real people with prior tenure of the continent, settlers were than confronted with the need to engage them and their knowledge in order to survive and work the land. By and large, Aboriginal people were very generous about this until they realised that there was no respect for their culture and their sacred places. Our fearful response to their protests was to arrest their leaders and drive the rest off into places that made survival difficult, if not impossible.
Many were treated in a brutal way in this process. Those that were retained to work the stock and perform domestic duties on the pastoral leases were treated, more or less, like slaves. In the belief that black people would die out under these conditions, they were separated into reservations, leaving the remaining problem of the part white offspring of mainly white men and Aboriginal women. It was decided to remove these children from their circumstances and institutionalise them, in many instances casting them into a twilight situation of not being one thing or the other.
At first, pastoralists and then missionaries were given almost total control over the remainder as protectors. Aboriginal affairs officers and police attempted to support these authorities on a shoestring, relying on pragmatism more than any concepts of justice. The results were mixed to say the least.
These circumstances I describe established the fundamentals of our present situation. It is no good trying to rewrite this history on the basis that some people thought they were doing the right thing. This is what happened, and, like alcoholics, if we don’t begin by admitting to it, there is no chance of recovering from it. No matter what your faith is, confession is always the beginning of redemption.
After the Second World War, while we were busy trying to establish our humanitarian credentials at home and abroad, we were required by the emerging protocols and conventions of the international community to treat our Indigenous people in a more humane way. They had rights that were acknowledged by the rest of the world, if belatedly by our own nation. It wasn’t until 1967 that we all agreed in a referendum to count them, black and brown, as citizens of Australia.
Since that time we have made various attempts to engage Indigenous people in solutions to their own futures, but we have generally failed to empower the depth of leadership that this entails. There has been absolute confusion about who is responsible. ATSIC was the most recent and largest of these failed experiments that attempted to engage the grassroots of Indigenous communities, but that organisation ended up being virtually left to its own devices and eventually scapegoated for the failings of the policies. Communities were left to fester in a more or less lawless state until recent times when we began to crisis manage them on the basis of alarming reports emerging out of social disasters, like deaths in custody, mass substance abuse, child abuse and suicides.
In the midst of all this recent history Indigenous people were acknowledged as have traditional land rights in the form of native title, which mainly applied in places where other forms of title had not been established. Strong rearguard actions were fought on many fronts against this enlightened initiative and native title continues to find resistance. Despite this, the fact that most of the nation’s wealth now comes from these areas has created the potential for a whole new relationship – one that has the potential to empower Indigenous people as partners in Australia’s future.
Western Australia is at the fulcrum of this change. As each day goes by the national economy becomes more dependent on resource extraction from tenements in native title areas. Some Aboriginal people, but not all, are about to have access to serious wealth. We should think deeply about this. Great change is happening out there. It has to be a good development, but we have little time to get the relationship right for the long term future. Given the complexity of the circumstances we have created it will not be easy, but we should be prepared to put more effort into it than we have in the past.
We need a lot more information about what we are dealing with here. You can’t plan and evaluate the success of any process unless you have base lined the situation at its starting point. The temptation always is to simplify this starting point or even to adjust it as you go along in order to make the process look more successful than it is.
After what has happened to them the baseline position of Indigenous Australians is hugely complex. For one thing we don’t even know how many of them there are, where they are and what sort of condition they are in. For the first time the last census examined the shortfalls of the process with respect to Indigenous people in an analytical way and admitted that there was probably a twenty five percent undercount in Western Australia, rather than the 5-10 percent rough estimate of previous years. This suggests for example that, rather than there being 58,000 Indigenous people in WA the figure lies somewhere between 66,000 and 88,000.
If you wanted to know more about this you would have to ask why the undercount is so large. Is it because there are simply not enough resources allotted to counting, or are the Aboriginal people disengaged or alienated from these processes in a broad way? This is a question of complexity. If the latter is true, then it may be that the numbers are at the upper end of this probability band or even greater.
We should be able to do better than this. If we are out by a figure approaching 30,000 then we have been under funding the issues in a gross way. How many of these additional numbers fall into the categories of requiring educational, medical or other support? Our attempts at economic and educational empowerment could fall way short and demand efforts and resources of a totally different magnitude. Rather than there being 6,000 Indigenous people unemployed in Western Australia there is probably in excess of 30,000 in limbo, a problem of a totally different order, I am sure you will all agree?
I raised the question of whether many Aboriginal people were alienated from the processes of governance, including the census of 2007. I think you would also agree that, given the complexity of the relationship I have described, we should not be surprised if they were. Nothing really good has come for them from cooperation with the non Indigenous authorities. While some intentions might have been good they have rarely been sustained.
The two phrases that have dominated recent policy discussions about Indigenous people have been:
- Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, and
- Closing the gap
These are both assimilationist statements when you think about it - but no one can gainsay their intent. They can both be interpreted as being in the interest of establishing a happy and fulfilling life for the objects of these policies. They are accompanied by what seem to be clear objectives, such as halving this deficiency by that date, and halving that one by another – all grist to the mill for evaluators of such programs.
Most Aboriginal people I have met appreciate the attention this gives to their troubles, but, strangely, many see the issues of a happy and fulfilling life as being about having more control over their own destiny. They don’t like being constantly on the receiving end of our interpretation of their needs. Why should they trust us? As I have said, too often they have been cast into the role of beggars in their own country as a result.
Tragically then, the proud people who had evolved as part of this environment have been cast into a mendicant mode – beggars at the mercy of the aliens. Non Indigenous Australians were brought up to see them purely as a generically primitive people who had needs, rather than as people who could teach us what this continent is all about. This ‘needs’ approach is both patronising and paternalistic. It is also self fulfilling in the sense that it destroys confidence, builds shame and undermines the capacity for self determination. People begin to see themselves as mendicant. They lose all sense of self discipline and behave badly towards one another. It is an approach that has proven to be disastrous.
And yet we continue to define our approach to addressing the future in the simple economic rationalist terms of “closing the gap” or “overcoming Indigenous disadvantage”. We refuse to see how important Indigenous cultures are to the long term future of our nation and deny most of the potential strengths and assets of Indigenous people.
Why is it important to recognise these things? Because there is a simple realisation that only Indigenous people can solve Indigenous problems, and they must be empowered on the basis of culture to do this. Building on strengths and assets has the capacity to turn the ‘needs’ formula on its head in an exponential way, making Indigenous people an overall contributor to the nation’s power, rather than a source of its erosion.
What are these strengths and assets? Well, an obvious one is labour. Indigenous labour out there where we are harvesting the continent’s resources is a popular idea in our contemporary scene – as it was in the days when the pastoral industry was almost totally dependent on it.
But there are many other things that need to be done in the natural environment that the rest of us in our urban concentrations need someone to do – even if we are not interested in doing it ourselves. Someone has to take up the burden of nurturing the vast deserts and temperate savannah of this continent. Natural resource management is a strength that Indigenous people have to offer the nation.
Access to resources on traditional lands is now a powerful strength, as is the awareness of the cultural heritage that goes with it. The knowledge and commitment to maintain that heritage will save us from destroying it in the interest of our short term needs and ensure its preservation for future generations. This is a powerful contribution to our national strategy.
Culture itself is a great strength, particularly to those of us who are wedded to a North Atlantic culture that has very little to do with this continent. There has been a powerful recognition of this through Indigenous painting in recent times – more so by foreigners than by Australians, but Indigenous story telling through song, dance and theatre is growing rapidly. At the same time, the need for the nation to define itself as part of the region in which its future is bound has created an awareness that Indigenous culture is key to connecting us to the landscape.
We can only hope that the damage that has been wrought on Indigenous culture will not prevent us from reinvigorating it for future generations. I am sure you will agree with me that we don’t have much time in this regard, and that there are many obstacles to this awareness remaining in our communities.
So why have I taken you down this path? It has been in the hope that you will recognise how dependent we all are on generating trust in the Indigenous people as part of the process of building a partnership for the future. I wanted you to recognise that this is a strategic issue of some immediacy that we are talking about here – that new forces are looming over our horizon and that we are looking increasingly like asset harvesters on behalf of a culture that will not be the dominant force in this region. That partnership I speak of is only possible if Indigenous people are empowered to negotiate as full partners based on equity, respect and a shared vision. Without that, I believe that Australia can never fulfil its destiny.