Madmen, Missionaries and Maniacs


When I tell friends in Melbourne that I have been to 50 funerals in the last 10 years they are genuinely gobsmacked. This is not because of morbid fascination. I could easily have attended twice this number had other commitments not got in the way. There are no notices or obituary columns in the local paper announcing the event; simply word of mouth that it is time again to don funeral garb and mourn the death of one too young by any Western standard. It is simply a fact of life where I work in the Kimberley in north Western Australia.

There is a saying in the Kimberley that there are only three types of white people who work with Aboriginal communities: madmen, missionaries and maniacs. After 10 years of trial and error attempting to provide culturally appropriate education in the communities here, I am yet to work out which one best describes me. The training programs I run have been hailed as successful on both a state and national level and the outcomes achieved by the Indigenous people recognised as Australia’s best practice. I present papers to other educators and government workers on how I have achieved the results: ‘micro business’ start-ups, traineeships and apprenticeships for young people, mentor programs and Indigenous board members encouraged at the state and national level.

Indigenous people in the Kimberley are now on a third generation of welfare. Today’s young people have never seen an auntie who owns the local milk bar or a cousin who runs the service station or the father who goes to work to a job every day. The last generation to hold down full time employment were the stockmen and women who were let go from the stations with the introduction of equal pay after the 1967 referendum. There are simply not enough role models for remote Indigenous people to look at to make an informed choice on the direction and choices they would like to make with their lives.

But there are Aboriginal people with the wherewithal to succeed just as in any society. They’re not writing letters to the editor of The Australian, but if you take the time to sit down with them and listen to what they have to say, it is amazing how often they can offer logical – and culturally appropriate – solutions.

Simply put, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Aboriginal groups throughout the Kimberley and to believe so is to show one’s ignorance of the culture. Government policy attempts to encompass an ‘all or nothing approach’ which in the majority of cases fails to deliver services to the vast majority of those in need. Bureaucrats by their very nature interpret and implement this policy and many (both black and white) use this policy as a lever to maintain the status quo.

An Aboriginal friend of mine describes this approach to policy implementation as "poor blackfella" syndrome: the new bureaucrat arrives in the Kimberley and looks at the situation in remote communities, wrings his hands in dismay and says, "look at all these poor blackfellas," and then goes about working out how much money is in their bureaucratic bucket and attempts to distribute his services equally, ultimately having little or no effect on the lives of individuals on the ground.

An alternative and ultimately more successful approach is to target specific individuals and family groups that have the potential to succeed and direct funding at these individuals and groups over a realistic period (three years) with a number of agencies supporting the process.

For the past four years I have been part of a team of Indigenous and
non-Indigenous partners undertaking research across Northern Australia
that has identified many of the issues that must be addressed to
improve economic and community outcomes. We have designed a ‘training through enterprise’
development model approach. Successful training works from Indigenous
people’s strengths towards shared priorities and is based on family or
enterprise groups rather than whole community programmes.

In his long-awaited report into the deaths of 22 Kimberley men and women, which was released this week, West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope paints an appalling picture of life as a Kimberley Aborigine and reveals billions of dollars are wasted as a result of confused government policy. To anyone working in the field, this is no surprise. The towns of Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing are truly Australia’s Soweto and anyone who has spent time in the area can see the social problems in full swing every afternoon. But scratch below the surface and you will find incredible individuals, off the grog and full of ideas as to how to tackle the problems. Where are they tonight? Trying to cope with alcoholic and drug affected relatives; trying to protect the children and the old people.

The women of Fitzroy Crossing fought hard to get a full strength alcohol ban in the town and it has had an immediate effect on the rate of domestic violence and child abuse. An Aboriginal friend of mine recently said to me, "if it was your brother, cousin or sister with this health problem, you’d want to see the grog turned off to them, wouldn’t you? Yet when we ask for it to be turned off for our own people’s sake, business gets up in arms that we are infringing on a human right."

Surely somewhere along the way, someone from the executive branch of government must take a stand and realise that if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we have always got. Answers are available and change will take time but we need people who are willing to get in the dirt and make some hard decisions. Before I attend my next 50 funerals.

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