Assume civil order is restored wherever Aboriginal people reside and governments really want to address the underlying problems. What do we know about what works and what doesn’t in remote communities?

Well, we know that episodic fly-in-fly-out bureaucratic interventions don’t work. Much of the existing education system doesn’t work. Welfare is corrosive, a discovery publicised by Ian Viner as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs as long ago as 1977. Expecting ill-educated and financially under resourced communities to provide all their own essential services hasn’t worked. Nor has governments and their bureaucracies telling Aboriginals what to do.

On the other hand, giving people a say in their own affairs has provided some bright spots. Compare Pilbara and Ord developments in the 1960s, and more recent activity in those areas, and you see Aboriginal involvement in business development, education and employment. Compare the opening of the Argyle Diamond Mine in 1980 with now, when ADM has achieved 25% Aboriginal employment. Recognition of Aboriginal rights to land underlies these positive changes.

Employment does change things. The East Kimberley experience since ADM lifted employment is that locals are buying houses and capital goods when they get a job.

Some schools such as Kalkaringi (Wave Hill), Thursday Island, Karatha, Cherbourg, Clontarf, and Kununurra have shown that leadership, additional commitment by staff and students, and focused use of additional resources give Aboriginal kids a real chance at equal life opportunities.

Local control of resources helps. Centrally administered programs result in energy being wasted in serving the program rather than the program serving the community.

So what should we do?

  • In remote areas it is essential to restore civil order. Recent police presences in a number of remote communities has proved positive.
  • Governments should take full responsibility for essential services. Obviously use local labour as much as possible (through real jobs), but maintain government responsibility.
    • Find out what the locals want to achieve and get behind any positive local initiative.
      • Have trained, accountable people on site.
        • Be aware of shifting problems. Balgo is probably better now because the drinkers are in Halls Creek. Stop them drinking in Halls Creek and watch out Kununurra and Fitzroy Crossing.
          • Provide safe, supervised camping facilities in the towns around the desert as people will be visiting from the desert for many years.
            • Enforce school attendance and bring the generality of schools up to best practice. This is the only way to ensure Aboriginal people have a long term future where they have purposeful lives and equal opportunities to participate in what Australia offers most of its people.