Why 'Indigenous Policy' Doesn't Work


Shortly after the federal election I was in the Northern Territory. There were plenty of white Territorians talking about Tony Abbott, a squall in the national media about Warren Mundine, but I didn’t hear either name from the Indigenous people I chatted with. They were interested in the Northern Territory government’s reshuffle which pushed Alison Anderson to the backbench, and the prospects of NT senator Nigel Scullion. Local people, local issues.

In Darwin, I drove a senior Anangu woman from the airport. She peered out the window and murmured, “They say there are dark people here,” as if referring to some rarely encountered race. She is an intelligent woman in her mid-50s. It was her first visit to the NT capital, but she knew that people living 1500 kilometres north of her country must be different.

She does not belong to some agglomeration called “Aborigines” or “Indigenous”. She belongs to her family, her community, and a broader collective Anangu identity, and that is who she is. A couple of days later, when some long-grassers on the foreshore asked her a question, first in language and then in English, she was bewildered. “They think I am from here,” she said, shaking her head.

Indigenous Australia, Whitman might have noted, is vast and contains multitudes. There were hundreds of distinct groupings and languages prior to European arrival, and there is great diversity today. This is inconvenient for policy makers. To pretend that this diversity does not exist means denying cultural distinctiveness, and the continued erasure of identity that began in the late 18th century when for the first time the inhabitants of the whole continent were lumped into one grouping: “Aboriginal”.

Until politicians accept this, there will be no satisfactory policies for people from remote Australia. I made a brief visit to Melville Island with a half-dozen Anangu, and they found more commonalities there with their own experiences than in Darwin, but differences remain profound. Anangu live in communities physically connected to but philosophically estranged from the mainstream, where English is only ever a second or third language. The Tiwi we met spoke excellent English, had clear pathways mapped for their children from education into employment, and exuded confidence. Different from Central Australia. Different from Darwin. To think that one policy setting should apply across the board is nonsense.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s supposed connection to remote communities has come under closer scrutiny of late. Martin Hodgson showed the real costs of his “volunteer” experience back in August. During the federal election campaign, he attended the Garma Festival at Gulkula. On 10 August he said to Galarrwuy Yunupingu, “Why shouldn’t I, if you will permit me, spend my first week as Prime Minister, should that happen, on this, on your country?” He didn’t.

If the Prime Minister spends a week in Yirrkala at some point soon, that would be great. There is an enormous amount to learn from senior Yolngu. However, Yirrkala is unique – just like every community. It is 15 minutes from the wealthy regional hub of Nhulunbuy and the Northern Land Council. The Traditional Owners have accessed millions of dollars from bauxite mining companies. There is a local tradition of “both ways” education, strong women and leaders with a national voice. There are also elements of substance abuse and dysfunction. It is what it is.

If a politician spends a week in Yirrkala, she or he will learn a week’s worth of knowledge about Yirrkala, and a fractional amount of knowledge about remote communities in general. Yirrkala has different assets, drawbacks and local politics to Maningrida or Ngukurr – let alone communities beyond Arnhem Land.

What steps will be taken to ensure the new Indigenous Advisory Council reflects the realities of individual communities – especially given that only around 24 per cent of Indigenous people live in remote or very remote areas, and the likelihood that the council will be dominated by western-educated individuals from seaboard urban centres?

One cannot speak for all. If, as anticipated, the Abbott government gives its ear to Noel Pearson they will have access to a clever and passionate person whose power base is a fractional part of the north-east tip of the continent, plus a lot of non-Indigenous Australians. His Cape York welfare trial has so far received more than $100 million from the federal and Queensland governments with little evidence of significant positive change. 

Many Indigenous people living west of Canberra have long been unhappy that Pearson could be thought to speak on their behalf. Other Cape York leaders are now saying the same thing, specifically the eight members of the Cape Indigenous Mayors Alliance who have called on Abbott to work through their individual communities, not through the Pearson empire.

Most people I met in the NT would not know Pearson if he suddenly appeared at their campfire. Nor Marcia Langton, Larissa Behrendt or Galarrwuy Yunupingu, for that matter. The Indigenous leader they know best is Alison Anderson, and opinions on her are acutely divided. The other pollie regularly talked about was Scullion. London born (like Abbott) he was a professional fisherman who rose to chair the Australian Seafood Industry Council, hardly an ideal grounding for the contentious and intellectually challenging Indigenous Affairs portfolio.

As it happens, the Coalition has a man of Noongar, Yamitji and Wongi heritage on its backbench, Ken Wyatt. Australia has never had an Indigenous Affairs Minister who is Indigenous. Wyatt has been manager/director of Aboriginal Education in Western Australia and Director of Aboriginal Health in both WA and New South Wales. If ministries are merit-based, as the PM claims, surely Wyatt must have a better grasp of the portfolio’s intricacies than Scullion?

For example, Wyatt would know that some communities receive large amounts of money from mining ventures or other sources, often shared by just one or two families. He would know that some communities have whitefellas who insinuate themselves into local affairs and make a motza. Some communities have hideous problems with grog and ganga, and some manage to keep it out. Some have youngsters who listen to the Elders, while in other communities the traditional structures are fractured.

Remote Australia may not be where the bulk of Indigenous Australians live, but it is where problems are most acute. If remote communities are to remain the model, then solutions to their dysfunction need to be thrashed out on a place by place basis by locals, with interpreters involved who can communicate decisions to funding and administrative bodies, and ample time for discussion and dispute. It can never be a quick process, because it is not something where one size fits all.

However, that is the only way to ensure that local community people have the chance to decide their own dreams and aspirations and find ways to make things work. If they need support from whitefellas, so be it, but the aim should always be local agency. Real progress can only be made if it is founded on decisions made within individual communities – not by Noel Pearson, not by Nigel Scullion, not by me, and not by the government-appointed Indigenous Advisory Council.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.