ABC Lateline‘s program in mid-May about sexual violence in Central Australian Indigenous communities shone a torch on the violence and dysfunction that blights some remote Aboriginal communities. The media frenzy which followed did not shy away from the salacious detail of these abuses. Politicians and commentators alike were breathless in their denunciations. The subsequent ‘violence summit’ convened by Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough generated more heat than light, and has done little to alleviate the suffering of remote communities. But public outrage has a use-by date, and the caravan has moved on.
However, there is an Indigenous community much closer to home than the troubled Northern Territory townships of Wadeye or Papunya, which suffers equally, if less spectacularly, than these remote locations. It’s called Victoria. The State is home to diverse Indigenous nations, and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have moved here from interstate. There are no screaming headlines to hang off the deeply ingrained systemic disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Victorians, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Only one in four Indigenous Australians lives in a remote community. Thirty per cent dwell in the major cities, and 45 per cent in regional centres. There is little ‘noble savage’ romanticism about the problems experienced by these latter groups. However, their circumstances are no less dire for the absence of current-affairs film crews.
Victoria ‘s 28,000 Aborigines find themselves in the majority only in a few bush communities like Framlingham and Lake Tyers. The Melbourne metropolitan local government area of Darebin has the highest concentration of Aborigines in the State, yet even here they make up less than 1 per cent of the population. The Koori community is sometimes hidden in Melbourne’s multi-cultural melting pot.
A 2004 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found that the Indigenous unemployment rate for Victoria was 23.5 per cent well above the national Indigenous unemployment figure of 16.8 per cent.
In 2005 the Productivity Commission updated the report on Indigenous disadvantage that it had produced two years earlier at COAG’s request. The figures for Victoria were not pretty. The education system was letting Kooris down, with rates for retention at Year 9 (94 per cent, compared to a national figure of 97.2 per cent) and completion at Year 12 (45 per cent, compared to 54.9 per cent nationally), among the lowest in the country. In 2004/05, 682 Indigenous Victorian children were on care and protection orders. This was 10 times the rate for non-Indigenous Victorians and more than double the rate for Aborigines nationally.
These soulless statistics disguise actual people, who don’t have a real stake in the general community people whose reduced life chances expose them to homelessness, family violence, substance abuse, and contact with the criminal justice system.
Historically, Indigenous Victorians bore the brunt of European settlement more quickly and more painfully than Indigenous Australians living in other States and Territories. The first 20 years of contact with Europeans saw a collapse in the Indigenous population of Victoria in the order of 85 per cent. These deaths were most often the result of introduced diseases to which Aboriginal people had no resistance. But it’s also likely that a substantial number of Kooris died violently and directly at the hands of the invaders.
Thanks to Bill Leak
In 1863 the settlement of Coranderrk was established near Healesville, for the ‘remnant tribes’ of Victoria. Under the progressive direction of John Green, the settlement prospered until the 1886 Victorian Aborigines Act declared that only ‘full-bloods and half-castes over the age of 34 years’ would be permitted to remain on Aboriginal reserves.
Historian Inga Clendinnen observed in her 1999 Boyer Lectures, True Stories, that the population of Coranderrk was halved in a matter of days, with those most active in the political defence of the community being forced out. She noted the bitter irony that ‘men and women Black enough to suffer the stigma and deprivations of Aboriginality outside the reserve, were suddenly not Black enough to stay inside.’ This malicious legislation set the tone for various Victorian administrations to deal with Kooris as though they were chattels rather than human beings.
Today, Victoria’s Kooris suffer under the radar.
Many remote communities struggle because of a lamentable lack of infrastructure in health, housing and education. If the services are not there, they cannot be accessed. Yet the reverse is not necessarily true: the mere presence of services in metropolitan and regional centres does not guarantee that they will be used by their intended clients.
The suburbs of Melbourne are relatively well serviced by general practitioners. However, many Kooris prefer to take their chances with the public transport system and travel beyond their local clinics to visit the Aboriginal Health Service in Fitzroy. It’s likely that many more delay seeking medical assistance of any kind until their problems become acute. Indigenous Australians often find contact with mainstream services to be stressful and relatively unsatisfactory, according to Peter Lewis, Policy Officer at the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency.
Aboriginal people have every reason to distrust bureaucracy. In the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report, produced by the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children, ‘Paul’ tells a story of manipulation and deceit on the part of the Victorian Government, and of his own inconsolable grief at being separated from his mother at a tender age. Paul was taken away in 1964, fully 100 years after the people at Coranderrk found themselves subject to the tender mercies of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines.
The 2001 census indicates that Aboriginal people tend to have lower incomes than non-Indigenous Australians. Statistically, they live in marginalised locations where services are often under-resourced and where public transport is limited. Anecdotal evidence is that low-level racism is still relatively commonplace, even if it is born out of ignorance rather than maliciousness. Few mainstream services employ Indigenous staff. A well-intentioned afternoon of cross-cultural training for service staff might provide a worthwhile introduction to Aboriginal culture, but cannot possibly equip them to deal with all the complexities of Indigenous Australia.
Indigenous community leaders in Victoria are having some success in demonstrating the merits of Indigenous-specific services over mainstream services, which struggle to meet the needs of Aboriginal clients. Specialist Indigenous services are effective because Kooris want to use them.
Nineteenth century attempts to ‘soothe the pillow of the dying race’ were in vain. The dawn of the third millennium sees Aboriginal Australia growing stronger, culturally and numerically, almost in spite of governments. The Indigenous population continues to increase at a rate far beyond that of the general population. This rate of increase is more pronounced in Victoria than in any other State or Territory except the ACT. Today, Victoria has a larger Indigenous population than South Australia.
Governments Federal, State and Territory have squandered hundred of millions of dollars over the years failing to get the task of service delivery right. Yet, in the Indigenous Affairs sector, ‘accountabili
ty’ remains a term used most often to browbeat Aboriginal organisations, rather than to invite some introspection on the part of governments and policy makers.
The Aboriginal communities of Victoria are having the life slowly squeezed out of them, but this does not make for the photo opportunities of a remote township wracked by the scourge of petrol sniffing. Nevertheless, justice like charity must begin at home.
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