First things first. The poisonous culture of sexual abuse we saw exposed onLateline
this week is not Aboriginal culture. It is the culture of people with
no hope. It’s not unique to Australia; it is replicated in every poor
community around the world. If you took any race of people and
subjected them to the dispossession and neglect that Aboriginal people
have endured for generations, you would have precisely the same result.

Building
a first world community with first world morals out of a third world
community that has endured third world conditions for generations is
not cheap. In fact it’s very, very expensive. And the truth is,
Australia has never even tried. Last week’s federal budget delivered
1.5% of the total national funding pool to tackling Indigenous
disadvantage. The percentage levels for Indigenous affairs funding have
not shifted by more than 0.16% for a decade. In 2003, for example,
Indigenous funding was 1.57% of the national budget. This last
budget allocated 1.50%. In 1997, it was 1.41%.

The federal
government is not drawing up the Indigenous affairs budget according to
need, it is drawing it up by rote. It does so because it knows spending
time and money in Indigenous affairs will not win an election, but
could possibly lose one. And all the while, the nation demands ­ – and
enjoys – tax cuts and massive budget surpluses ­ more than $60 billion
since the Howard Government came to power.

All this has occurred
while the unmet need in Indigenous housing has remained at $2.3 billion,
and while annual health funding shortfalls have grown to half a billion
dollars. Education funding is grossly insufficient and there is no
investment in economic development or infrastructure. So there are the
problems, but what are the solutions? Can toxic communities where
violence and dysfunction are so entrenched be turned around?

The
gut reaction to these appalling crimes is to call for the closure of
these communities. In other words, to cut and run. We must not do
that. Closing down Aboriginal communities simply transfers the problem
elsewhere. The Alice Springs town camps are the prime example of what
happens when we refuse to confront the causes of dysfunction and
violence.

Of course, there are immediate imperatives. The
perpetrators of these crimes must be removed from their communities,
indefinitely if need be. Children who are at risk of harm need to be
protected. But that does not mean removal, that means resources.

Communities
must be properly funded to solve their own problems. Whether
Australians like it or not, we cannot fix the mess we have created, we
can only provide the resources to help Aboriginal people fix it. A
mountain of evidence from the international experience in advancing
First Nations shows that self-determination is the only way to tackle
disadvantage. Aboriginal people must create and own the solutions. If
they are imposed, they will fail.

Despite what many may believe,
in the vast majority of these communities there are a multitude of
leaders who, if given the necessary resources and support, can turn
their communities around. By way of example, Wadeye, the NT’s largest
Aboriginal community, is brimming with young and old men and women who
have not lost the basic aspiration of a life that has meaning. Their
frustration is that for decades they have been trying to achieve it
with little or no help. For several years, Wadeye elders have been
screaming for more police resources to help restore law and order, but
in spite of an NT government promise for seven additional police, none
have arrived.

Wadeye today has three police. Tennant Creek,
with an almost identical population, has 26. Wadeye is a black
community. Tennant Creek is a white community. Wadeye is a
dysfunctional community. Tennant Creek is not. Wadeye has identified a
solution to one of its problems. Wadeye has been ignored.

These
remote Aboriginal communities need to be rebuilt from the ground-up;
socially, structurally and swiftly. You can’t do that by providing
rights and not resources, or resources and not rights. You must provide
both.

Peter Fray

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