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Shepparton pulls together to face up to indigenous disadvantage

Indigenous disadvantage exists in all indigenous communities, including urban and regional communities, not only in the remote communities of far north Australia.

I was introduced to the indigenous community of Shepparton, a regional city 175km north of Melbourne, about three years ago by the late Ron Evans, former Essendon player and AFL chairman. This is Victoria’s second largest indigenous community after Melbourne, making up about 5% of the city’s population.

Some statistics looking at greater Shepparton’s indigenous population versus the rest of its people paint the picture.

The rate of low-birth-weight babies is 50% higher. The number of babies born to teenagers aged 15-19 years is nearly four times higher. Child protection substantiations for children aged 0-8 years are nearly five times higher. The gap in life expectancy is startling — according to the 2006 Census, only 12% of the indigenous population is over 50 years old compared to 32% of the general population of Shepparton.

The Year 12 retention rate for Shepparton’s indigenous students is 24%, compared to 32% for indigenous children nationally, 70% for all regional students and 86% for all Victorian students. Finally, look at the number of indigenous students enrolled in Year 12 in Shepparton — in 1999 there were nine, in 2004 there were five, and I can tell you that in 2009 we are no further advanced.

About 18 months ago, after several years of involvement, I became chairman of a group called the Eminent Australians Group. Our role is as objective and independent observers to help develop a realistic scorecard on the challenges facing indigenous people in Shepparton, to measure the real situations in terms of living standards, to identify what policies work to improve their standards and why, and which ones don’t and why.

Addressing this level of disadvantage ought to be easier in urban and regional centres, with their economic and social infrastructures, compared to remote communities, but the evidence shows it’s not. We have seen some great things being done in Shepparton and the indigenous community is working hard to help itself. Nevertheless, a substantial gap still exists.

One of the major things I have learned is that any solution needs to be a whole of community solution. Clearly social inclusion, or lack of it, is a major part of today’s problem.

I conducted a workshop on indigenous identity in Shepparton a few years ago and asked indigenous people for their views. I fully expected the response to be about reconciliation, apology, and land rights. The immediate response was “there are no indigenous checkout chicks in Safeway and Coles. There are no tellers in bank branches. I want our younger people to feel welcome in the mall. I want to see my kids skipping to school.”

These responses are not about politics; they are about the lack of social inclusion. The indigenous community simply cannot do it by themselves. The whole of Shepparton and the city’s leaders need to participate in making the situation better.

A high-profile example of what Shepparton’s indigenous people are up against comes from Deborah Cheetham, an internationally renowned soprano, who sang at the opening of the 2000 Olympics and who was refused service in a Shepparton shop because she is indigenous.

The Essendon Football Club doesn’t see itself as expert in indigenous issues. What we can do is harness the power of our brand to be conduits to attract and deliver support to those who are experts. We can broaden awareness of the issues and marshal support to find solutions.

This year the Club has joined with Shepparton’s remarkable Rumbalara Football and Netball Club and the Bill Hutchison Foundation to launch the Barpirdhila program.

Barpirdhila — which means “dawn of a new day” in the Yirta Yirta language — aims in just a small way to be a whole of community solution, we want to engage all sectors of the Shepparton community. It will be a mentoring program with the aim of retaining Indigenous students in school in greater numbers, through to Years 11 and 12, so they can go on to undertake apprenticeships, traineeships, TAFE or university educations, depending on their academic capability and their interests.

In 10 or 12 year’s time we might have some ordinary attainable role models for future Indigenous students coming through the system. And the mainstream community might respect their achievement and work on improving social inclusion. It won’t be easy. If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago.

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  • 1
    Heathdon McGregor
    Posted Thursday, 13 August 2009 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    thank you Mr Jackson for a report on the actions your organisations have been involved in and I look forward to future updates. Hopefully by discussing actions that have/have not worked people who are trying to aid other people can discuss and work on ways forward, rather than self congratulation and attacks on people who dont share their passion or power.

    Thank you and looking forward to future updates

    ps I thought not another sports person telling us how we are racists who don care about anybody else. A pleasant and proactive surprise

    Best of luck for the future endeavours in Shepparton

  • 2
    Posted Thursday, 13 August 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Reads as very constructive and if you get some talented players too then good luck.

    I stopped wearing my Essendon jumper as a kid about the time bruiser Billy Duckworth was (in)famous. This was 25 years back. Takes alot for a kid to reject their own team. I started barracking for the Roy Boys who at least became successful later on as the Brisbane Lions. At least the RoyBoys nurtured the current Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos.

    Reading this makes me want to get another red striped black Essendon jumper.

  • 3
    Victor Hart
    Posted Thursday, 13 August 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago”.

    So true. Thanks for making this final point. Many like to believe that “simple solutions exist” - and can be applied and will magically ” -fix-“’ what are essentially symptoms of Aboriginal disadvantage that are intergenerational.

    Thanks for the leadership Mr Jackson. A pity our elected leaders(politicians) are not able to see it as clearly.

    And yes, we need more Deborah Cheethams - but then again, she is herself, pretty unique.

  • 4
    Gary Stowe
    Posted Thursday, 13 August 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    You are spot on Peter - it was refreshing to read, especially by comparison to the incessant cries of ‘racism’ and ‘blame the white guys’ from other Crikey contributors.

    In NSW, we have a program where 300 teaching scholarships are currently on offer with 80 reserved exclusively for indigenous candidates. I don’t know if Vic has anything similar but its an idea worth promoting if you have the contacts.

    I found your comparison of statisitics from remote communities interesting, ie. that they are essentially the same in urban situations. I’m happy to bet that in 10 - 12 your sort of program will be showing that urban inclusion is the healthier and more successful alternative.

    Gary Stowe

  • 5
    Jon Hunt
    Posted Thursday, 13 August 2009 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    I suppose if you want to improve social exclusion, one must first determine why it exists in the first place. And yes, doesn’t matter where you are the outcomes are similarly grim!

  • 6
    Terri Cowley
    Posted Thursday, 13 August 2009 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    this is actually quite a positive story about a community trying to address it problems. but as a resident of the city in question i was pretty perturbed by Crikey’s sensationalist headline.
    the fact that there’s a problem isn’t news, surely. the fact that positive steps are being taken is.
    give us a break guys. is shepparton so different?

  • 7
    Sophie Black
    Posted Friday, 14 August 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your feedback Terri, the original headline was not Peter Jackson’s, it was made in house.

    We have now amended it to read: “Shepparton pulls together to face up to indigenous advantage” which we think more accurately reflects the opinion of the writer.

  • 8
    Terri Cowley
    Posted Tuesday, 18 August 2009 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    wow. a media organisation that actually listens to feedback and then acts upon it. i’ll put my Crikey socks back on now. i’m still sorry that such an influential readership as yours probably thinks Shepparton is the pits because of what they read in the daily email that goes out to subscribers. problems, yes. silent shame, no.

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