Gulkula in north east Arnhem Land will once again this weekend host Garma, the Territory’s leading Aboriginal festival of culture and ideas. This year’s theme — Indigenous health: real solutions for a chronic problem.

But there’s a Caucasian in the woodpile.

One of the rapporteurs at the Aboriginal health forum will be the Territory’s AMA president, Dr Peter Beaumont. A long rambling letter he wrote to the federal health minister Tony Abbott has surfaced. In it he calls for “some mild dictatorship” of “Caucasians” to take over Aboriginal-run health services (mind you, he does warn Abbott, “neither you nor I must ever use this word publicly”).

The reason, according to the good doctor, is that Aboriginal people simply lack “any form of management structure in their culture”.

The letter was sent in February, on the cusp of his attaining leadership of the local branch of the AMA — though his experience in medical politics in Victoria and elsewhere goes back 20 years.

”It is my conclusion,” the doctor told Minister Abbott, ”that the major error started from the time self-determination was returned to the Aboriginal people some 40 years ago. That error was to hand all management over to people who have never had processes, accountability or any form of formal management structure in their culture … Although it is poltically incorrect … we need to exert some mild dictatorship into the management of aboriginal healthcare.”

It’s not clear whether he would support the kind of “intervention, stabilisation, normalisation, exit” strategy currently underway, but he is certainly now embarrassed.

On Wednesday he was reduced to saying that the letter was a purely “private” note to the federal health minister — though he didn’t explain why he had copied such a confidential letter to Dave Tollner, the local CLP member of the house of representatives.

Embarrassment, too, for the Garma Festival. Forum coordinator Dr Christine Fletcher, who sounded a bit nonplussed on a radio grab.

“He’s on the program in a very passive role, he’s a rapporteur meaning he’ll be taking notes and winding it all up at the end,” she said.

“So whether he’s the right person or not, I mean, who knows? “But it might be good for him.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey