Watching the media’s reporting of the miserable state of remote
Aboriginal communities this week is like watching a goldfish circling a
bowl. “Oh look, Aboriginal misery and dysfunction!” scream the
headlines. Glub. Glub. “Oh look, Aboriginal misery and dysfunction!”

Aboriginal people have been protesting for years about violence, misery
and government neglect. And they’ve been ignored. Alison Anderson, now
an Aboriginal member of the NT government was, in a previous life, a
Commissioner with ATSIC. She has given countless speeches and made
hundreds of pleas to government for real resources to tackle violence,
misery and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities.

Professor Larissa Behrendt, the first Aboriginal graduate from the
Harvard Law School, has also been fighting this issue for years.
There’s Associate Professor Boni Robertson. There’s Mick Dodson.
There’s Pat Dodson. There’s even Noel Pearson. While the suddenly
flurry of media interest is welcome, ­ the breathless, feverish
reporting will not result in any real change. The Australian media
lacks the capacity to properly engage in Indigenous affairs and to
analyse and expose what is really causing the problems.

And for the record, the number one problem is government neglect.
Rather than report that and explore how things got so bad, the media
simply swallows and reports the line popularised by Pauline Hanson,
embraced by John Howard and advanced by the ALP state and territory
leaders. That is: the solution is not to throw more money at the
problem.

Why does the media not realise that it might be in the political interests of politicians to advance that line? The solution is
to throw more money at it. When your car breaks down, you spend money
to fix it. When a society breaks down, you have to do the same. But
governments hold the line on Blacks awash with cash because they know
that while pandering to Aboriginal disadvantage won’t win you an
election, it could very well lose you one. They also know that based on
past experience, the media will glide on in its goldfish bowl sooner
rather than later and everything will be forgotten.

But if there’s a hint of enduring media interest, governments move to
Plan B: distract the media with a sideshow. Mal Brough blames Martin,
Clare Martin blames Mal Brough. There’s a good story. No-one seems to
have noticed that three years ago they were all blaming ATSIC.
The media has got to start looking at the core problems that
create Aboriginal disadvantage and the number one reason is government
neglect. No community ­ black, white or otherwise ­ could survive
generations of government neglect without becoming dysfunctional.

In The Australian today, historian Keith Windschuttle advances
the argument that remote Aboriginal communities are relatively recent
inventions and that they were formed with no economic purpose and thus
have failed. They should be closed down, he says. Notch it up to a
failed experiment in self-determination, adds Mal Brough.

The truth is, these communities have not been tried and tested at all.
They’ve been ignored. And now that they’re dysfunctional, whitefellas
put forward another solution, one that involves moving Aboriginal
people to bigger towns and cities. The good folk of Alice Springs can
tell you how well that works.

The key is self-determination, a principle described by The Weekend Australian
as the “ultimate absurdity”. Canada and New Zealand realised
self-determination was the only way forward several decades ago. The
life expectancy gaps in those countries between colonisers and
traditional owners is a few years. In Australia, it’s 20 years, but
much worse in regional and remote Australia (where it¹s more than 30
years).

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12