The
problem about responding to the recent shocking revelations of sexual
abuses in Aboriginal communities is the same problem that has prevented
effective responses in the past when the same or similar horrors have
been publicised – it would cost big dollars, much bigger than any
government wants to commit.

Mal Brough’s emphasis on policing
provides the promise that an essential starting point, civil order,
might be achieved to enable other positive changes. But responses to
crisis in the past have not led to comprehensive action.

There
are at least three scenarios which could flow from the current crisis:
(1) what has happened in the past, ie get over the fuss then back to business as
usual until the next time the ongoing crisis resurfaces; (2) adopt the
“end the cultural ghettos” argument that’s increasingly finding favour with
Government-aligned elites and encourage depopulation of the desert
communities; (3) seriously address the needs of the remote communities
so that they become places where Aboriginals can have purposeful lives
which equip them to participate fully in the economy and society.

Option 1:
This option is clearly the worst because we know that while jailing
Aboriginals may provide temporary protection, it changes nothing in the
long term. We jail them at 17 times the general community rate in my
state, to no other good effect. With the population growing at a rapid
rate – in Wadeye the working age population will grow by 100% over the
next 20 years and in the East Kimberley by 80% – we are storing up even
bigger problems.

Option 2: The enormous cost of the
second option is evident from the recent crisis in both Alice Springs
and Halls Creek. In each case, substantial emergency funds are being
provided to get over the immediate crisis. Just which towns are going to
receive the influx of desert people and what housing education and
employment facilities will they need to avoid making them unliveable
for black and white alike? We saw the results of that approach after
the equal wage case in the pastoral industry in the 1960s. The now
derided outstation movement was a response to the social chaos and
degradation in the desert towns unable to integrate new residents
forced from their lands.

Option 3: This is also an
expensive option, but it acknowledges the close attachment many
communities have to their land and would permit the gradual integration
of those communities through rigorous education and making people
economically mobile as advocated by Noel Pearson. It would avoid
creating new crises in Alice Springs, Kalgoorlie, Port Augusta and all
the towns which are in the desert or on its fringes.

Sadly the
first option is likely because it postpones the financial reckoning –
even though, at a time of unprecedented prosperity, we could afford to
tackle the social and economic deficits which lie at the heart of the
problems.

Peter Fray

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