Dennis Jensen’s Speech: The Full Transcript, In All Its Ranting Glory

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The Member for Tangney’s speech to federal parliament on Monday, February 22, 2016.

I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2015-2016, and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2015-2016. I was born in South Africa into a nation that had a vile racist policy. I fought against this policy when at school and in university. I found reprehensible the various apartheid laws, such as those reserving certain jobs for whites and defining race, the pass laws and so on. But racism, whether positive or negative in intent, is still racism. This brings me to the issue of Indigenous policy.

I will be blunt. In my view, there should be no specific Indigenous policy. There should be no race descriptors. There should be no definition of what it is to be Aboriginal, any more than, say, an Irish-Australian should have a definition and a percentage of Irish blood that he or she should have in order to be described as Irish-Australian. Self-identification is the key to this puzzle. Indeed, the only reason that this is done is due to the racist laws that we have here in Australia. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Alternatively, hell is full of good meanings but heaven is full of good works.

I am particularly disgusted with the headline in Saturday’s Weekend Australian, ‘Push for Aboriginal ID tests’. This takes me back to various racial identity tests that took place in South Africa. They were absolutely disgraceful. People would have to attend an office, and the authorities would look at their fingernails to determine whether they were blue or pink, because people with some ‘black’ blood were more likely to have more bluish-tinged fingernails. They would also do a pencil test in their hair, because people with ‘black’ blood were more likely to have curlier hair, so the pencil was more likely to stick. This sort of disgraceful nonsense ended up with a situation where you could have a brother and sister getting different racial designations, and the one who had the ‘white’ designation would then have nothing to do with their sibling for fear of being reclassified. This sort of disgraceful thing has got no place in civilised society.

I thought, when I migrated to Australia nearly 35 years ago, that I had left all of that behind. The fact that we are attempting to define what is Aboriginal or not, and what percentage blood makes a person Aboriginal, is racist and it is due to the nature of our laws, where many issues such as benefits, jobs et cetera are defined on the basis of race. I thought I had left behind a situation where certain people, based on race, had a privileged status when it comes to jobs. In South Africa, it was called job reservation. But here we have a situation where certain jobs are reserved for Aboriginals or Torres Strait Islanders. To add insult, many of the advertisements for these jobs say, at the end of the advertisement, that it is a position under the equal employment opportunity act. Really? Talk about Orwellian doublespeak!

Then we allow our Aboriginal Australians to live in situations — and we support these situations financially — that we would support with nobody else. Here I talk of the remote communities and allowance of the lack of attendance of Aboriginal children at school. With any other Australians, we would insist that they attend school and insist that they move to areas where there is the opportunity to find work and for the children to attend school. Racism is racism, whatever the intent. There is an argument about historical disadvantage, and that is true. Australia was invaded over 200 years ago. No Australians, regardless of race, were alive at that time, so none suffered directly as a result of that invasion. What is a stain on Australia is that it took so long, until 1967, for Aborigines to get voting rights and other rights as citizens. That is something I think we can justifiably apologise for as a nation. But you do not correct an injustice by instituting another injustice, however worthy the aim. You do not address inequity by imposing other inequities. We will never close the gap while we have racist and discriminatory policy. We will only do it by making sure that everyone is in the same tent, not some halfway in, halfway out.

We need to have policy to address issues, not race. Very few policy problems are absolutely unique to Aborigines, and even where they do exist they are best addressed in terms of the issue, not the race. So we should not deal with Aboriginal alcoholism, Aboriginal child abuse, Aboriginal incarceration or a whole host of other issues; instead, we should deal with alcoholism, child abuse, incarceration et cetera, wherever we find it. I can already hear the ‘but, but, buts’. Here is the question, though: have all those ‘but, but, buts’ had a real impact? Or would it have been better from the start to have a colour blind policy? An Aborigine with a university degree, working in a high-powered job, has far less in common with some of the disadvantaged Indigenous youth not getting an education and with all sorts of social problems than does some disadvantaged non-Aboriginal youth with no job and little education. As I said, we need to deal with the issue, not the race.

‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ That was from Albert Einstein. Yet here we are doing precisely that. Martin Luther King dreamed of a time where his four children ‘will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’. Yet today, in Australia, we have a situation where I, for instance, have been castigated by some as being a racist for having the view that we should be colour blind. To quote one such critic: ‘To be colour blind is to be racist.’ Is that really the way we want our nation to be? That is what we are doing with our policy. The word ‘racist’ in terms of our policy and legislation is extremely confronting, but it makes it no less true.

We have a 40-year failed experiment in terms of affirmative action and positive discrimination. South Africa, similarly, is disastrously pushing on with its Black Economic Empowerment program, positively discriminating. It is a disaster, and the situation in South Africa, after so much early promise from 1994, is going backwards. Look at Zimbabwe, with their disastrous programs of positive discrimination. They are a basket case, and this previous food bowl is now having problems feeding its own people. Discrimination is still discrimination, whether positive or negative. Indeed, categorising, distinguishing, people and hoping to help them on the basis of discrimination means that negative stereotypes become self-actualising. What a terrible burden to put on people.

I put it to the members of this place that the taxpayers of Australia should not be funding lifestyle choices. Yes, I agree with the former Prime Minister, the member for Warringah, when he refers to Indigenous Australians’ choice to live in remote communities as ‘a lifestyle choice’. In essence, if the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle, a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the same one often eulogised, is true, then there is nothing stopping any Indigenous men or women from pursuing such an existence on their own. Just do not expect the taxpayers to subsidise it. My contention is that the ideal of the noble savage may be less sanguine and altogether more Hobbesian: ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

Separate to that fact is the intractable predicament of Indigenous positive discrimination programs being anticompetitive and anti-Liberal. The whole founding ethos and values of the Liberal Party were that we seek equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. We seek to bring all the horses to the same starting position, not to slow down our fastest horse. Robert Menzies would be appalled by what is being prosecuted.

Let me expand on what is broken with our current system and our current way of doing business with Indigenous Australia. I recall going on a trip to Broome, where we were driven around by the local chamber of commerce. We were driven past a region where there were lean-tos and a whole lot of smashed alcohol bottles and so on. The leader of the delegation said: ‘The Indigenous elders are extremely disgusted with us. We can’t do anything about it because it’s native title land. We can only do something about it with caravanning and camping legislation. After three days we can get them to move on, but they just cross to the other side of the road, which is also native title land.’ Here was the problem, and here was the question I asked: ‘If the Indigenous elders are disgusted by this and it is their native title land, why are they not doing something about it? On one hand we are saying we should not be paternalistic, but on the other hand we are being paternalistic by saying we will fix it and get the council to do it rather than having the owners of that land do something about it.’

There is almost no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university graduates. The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is not on track. So the question then is: where is the critical comment? Where are those people demanding better for Indigenous Australians? Those policies and prescriptions are not working and need to be scrapped, and the victim mentality must end. The gap exists because too many Indigenous people do not participate in the real economy. It will not close unless Indigenous policy shifts from welfare centricity to economic strategy.

Education and employment are the foundations of economic development. Without them, people cannot innovate or produce. If governments do not believe we can get Indigenous kids to school and Indigenous adults to work, they should simply abandon Close the Gap. Everything else is a waste of time and money because the gap will never close.

Between 1990 and 2015, Sub-Saharan Africa increased school enrolment from 52 per cent to 80 per cent. We need the same focus here. Indigenous adults need to work in real jobs. Nearly 80 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban and regional areas around the eastern and south-western coasts of Australia — areas with viable populations and real economies. Less than 22 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in remote areas. Economies have been built in remote and isolated places before. Look at Sydney and Melbourne. When Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Cove he did not say, ‘ There are no jobs, let’s go home.’ But Sydney did not become a thriving city because of bureaucrats or not-for-profits or welfare or governments.

In Aboriginal affairs, there is a preoccupation with things that do not deliver economic development, such as welfare and government programs, services and grants. All of these centre on government dependency. When they do not work, the typical response is to try more innovative or complicated versions of them, as if government dependency will somehow deliver economic development if you sex it up. Cashless welfare and income management, for example, may tackle social issues but they do not help people to get a job, buy a home or get a loan.

For decades, the central plank of Indigenous employment policy was the Community Development Employment Program, which employed Indigenous people on community projects and paid an income equivalent to welfare payments. Many ‘jobs’ involved people doing things that they normally do without being paid, such as mowing their own lawn. Giving it a fancy name — Work for the Dole — and calling it employment does not make it a real job. None of these things generates economic development.

Empowered Communities is another initiative with government dependency at its core. Here ’empowerment’ means shifting control of government programs, services and funding to local Indigenous community groups within a complex organisational, governance and legal structure.

This is not empowerment. Indigenous people are not empowered if they depend on government for everything, whether administered centrally or locally.

Welfare and government dependency do not generate economic development no matter how fancy you make them.

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