In recent years think-tanks such as the Institute for Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, and their associated organisation, the Bennelong Society, have promoted policy changes in Indigenous affairs. In a CIS-published book, Lands of Shame, Helen Hughes repeats a common think-tank contention, that Aboriginal disadvantage is largely confined to remote communities, with the corollary that moving Aboriginal people away from remote areas would be beneficial.

Bogus health statistics are used to support this contention. Hughes suggests there is a conspiracy to hide the fact that Aboriginal health is much worse in remote areas, because the only available statistics are national averages. In fact, the most accurate statistics available are from remote areas, and are readily available.

She says that a Western Australian survey showed that “remote child health is worse in every instance than overall Aboriginal child health”. This is wrong: it showed that on many indicators, particularly mental health, remote Aboriginal children do better than urban Aboriginal children. There is also evidence that the health of people living in the most remote communities – those currently targeted for closure – is better than those on larger communities. Hughes ignores this data.

The recent Commonwealth intervention in the Northern Territory includes a raft of components which appear to have little connection with protecting children. They were, however, foreshadowed in Hughes’ book, published in May, which included the following recommendations:

  • Small communities should be consolidated into “core concentration centres”
  • A health audit of all children should be conducted;
  • Local government should replace local councils, if necessary under a government-appointed administrator;
  • Communal title should be converted to leasehold;
  • Public housing should be privatised, with new houses and funding for maintenance to go only to those communities with 99-year leases;
  • The permit system should be abolished;
  • CDEP should be ended;
  • Customary law should be ended.

Most of these recommendations have since been implemented, under the guise of protecting children, despite the fact that they are supported by questionable scholarship.

A 2005 article in Quadrant by Peter Howson (founder of the Bennelong Society), reveals much about the real reasons for such recommendations. He says there are two reasons to reform land rights: the “disintegration of many Aboriginal communities”, and because “the NT has long been regarded … as a uranium province of world class, and the prospects of uranium exports worth billions of dollars is … a very enticing one”.

Is it really for the sake of the children?

This is an edited version of a talk to be given this afternoon at the Public Health Association of Australia’s annual conference in Alice Springs.



Helen Hughes, Senior Fellow, Centre for Independent Studies, writes: David Scrimgeour is correct that there is widespread agreement that the shocking conditions created by treating Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as different from other Australians and undeserving of the same living standards will no longer be tolerated. Unfortunately he has distorted several points in my book Lands of Shame. The only indicator on which remote Western Australian indigenous children were said to have better outcomes than other indigenous children was “mental health”. I did not use this exception to overall health because “mental health” is a subjective measure and there is much evidence mental health in remote settlements, for example in Queensland, is very poor. Health data are not available from remote communities because most children’s and adults’ health is not known. In some cases, even acute cases of ill health are not treated. Last week a woman in a community that is within easy reach of medical services had an otitis media ear infection that was so badly neglected that an abscess in her ear burst after she suffered agonizing pain. She was in danger of becoming deaf due to neglect by her local health service. In her area (of about 1,000 people) there has been no systematic response to ill health, there has never been an attempt to identify endemic diseases such as diabetes and to introduce self-management to control the disease. There has been no dentistry. The first dental clinic held in one of the settlements in 30 years saw 28 patients in the day and half available in May. There has been no follow up. The public health measures that have been the principal factor in health improvement in mainstream Australia are entirely absent. My aim in Lands of Shame was to analyse the breadth of causes of indigenous deprivation in remote “homeland” communities, and to make some suggestions for changing the policies and bureaucratic landscapes to improve this dire situation. In the introduction I defined “homeland” communities and set the limits of my investigation, I do not claim that only remote indigenous people are disadvantaged. I have made no assertion that small communities or “outstations” should be concentrated. I recommended that services be concentrated so that they are viable, in keeping with a more general local government debate that recommends consolidation of uneconomic units. I certainly did not say that communal land should be converted to leaseholds. I advocated 99 year leases for household blocks and businesses and strongly argued for the reservation of public lands in urban areas and as national parks. Mr. Scrimgeour appears to have misunderstood my work, failing to see the relationship between the plight of poorly educated, unwell and unsafe communities with the entrenched exceptionalist policies that have shaped their existence. Surely a more accurate critique could have been mounted using facts and research rather than Mr Scrimgeour’s assertion that think tanks, the Bennelong Society and the Federal Government are in cahoots over a nefarious plot somehow to secure the oil industry at the Aborigines expense.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey