I worked in Alice Springs as an anthropologist in the 1970s, at the time when the Commonwealth relinquished control of the reserves and settlements. Its policies of paternalistic assimilation and integration left a legacy of misery that none would want to see repeated.
In Alice Springs the 1300 to 1400 Aboriginal residents of 17 fringe camps shared 1 water tap, no houses, no toilets and next to no money. Aboriginal kids and their families clambered around the local rubbish dump looking forlornly for a discarded rusty tin of beans or some stale bread. Black adolescents were being tarred and feathered by white vigilantes, and Aboriginal people waited at the back wall in shops while whites were served. Alcohol problems were immense. Violence was a daily event and inescapable. Malnutrition was commonplace. And yes, s-xual abuse occurred then, too.
I lived for a period at nearby Amoonguna settlement, still under the control of a white manager appointed by the Commonwealth government. He had a 12 foot high wire mesh fence around his solid four bedroom house, and two dangerous dogs on the other side to prevent people bothering him with requests for things like a trip to hospital or a phone call for an ambulance, despite the fact that he was paid to provide such assistance.
Housing for the 250 Indigenous members of the community, by contrast, was appalling tin humpies, transitional “kingstrands” little tin boxes that were fiery hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, with no water and no electricity and, for a few, poorly designed basic brick houses that might have coped with a family of three but usually housed 30 or more people. The “theory” was that people “learned how to live like whitefellas” in this array of dog boxes and inappropriately designed disasters. The reality was that people suffered interminably.
Tourist buses used to drive in to Amoonguna unfettered. No need for permits in those days (I see the same is being proposed again today). White faces at the windows snapping cameras taking pictures of people living in desperate third world standard poverty and all too often going home to tell their friends how “debauched” or “degenerate” or “inferior” Aboriginal people were.
One elderly woman got so upset about this that she took to throwing stones at the buses and had to be “dealt with” by the police. White men looking for s-xual services were not uncommon visitors to the community. Nor were grog runners. Has the government really thought through the consequences of removing community control over access?
This was all at the conclusion of decades of “Commonwealth control”.
I undertook a brief survey of income in the settlements and town camps at that time. Per capita income was less than $10 a week. Most of it came from old age pensions and child endowment almost no-one qualified for “unemployment benefits” as, for the most part, people had no work history acceptable to the authorities. Policies restraining welfare payments to Aborigines were well and truly in place at the end of the assimilation and integration era of the 50s and 60s too. They caused immense suffering.
In the early 1970s, under Commonwealth control, the Indigenous infant mortality rate in the Northern Territory was 110 per thousand. By 1980, largely because of the introduction of independent Indigenous health, housing and support services and partly because of improved nutrition due to increased employment and welfare payments, it had fallen to 31.3 per thousand. By 2000 it had fallen to 17 per thousand still four times the rate of the white population but dramatically lower than it was in the early 1970s.
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There remains, as there was then, and has been for more than two centuries, an “emergency” confronting Aboriginal Australians, but it won’t be resolved by returning to the failed policies of a previous generation. The answers lie not in diminishing people’s ability to control their own lives but in enhancing it. Too many people today believe the very convenient shibboleth that “too much money is being thrown at the problem”. Too many people see the answer simply in terms of treating the symptoms in things like policing and control rather than the underlying causes.
All of the policing and micromanagement of people’s lives in the world will be to no avail if the fundamental structural issues cultural pride, economic development, elimination of poverty and purposelessness, improved availability of relevant education and health services and the like, are not addressed.
These things cost much more money, effort and creativity than a “back to the future” re-introduction of paternalism and STD checks for children, but they are the only hope for long term resolution of the issues which confront these communities.
Those who say the changes introduced in the mid 1970s had no positive impact and are the cause of the ongoing malaise are simply ignorant about how desperately bad things were prior to those times. Those who imagine that the solution is to return to the paternalistic policies of the 1950s and 60s risk making a terrible mistake.
Those who truly want to find answers to the desperate problems which still confront the Aboriginal people of Alice Springs and the communities of the Northern Territory need to invest much more real money, time, effort, thought and creativity in resolving such things. Knee-jerk reactions, crocodile tears and breast beating of the type we are seeing from the Federal Government at present is the last thing these people need.