A pervasive and profound sense of hopelessness has settled over many people working indigenous Australia. Journalism student Clare Negus visited townships in Western Australia and — in the first of a three-part series for Crikey — reports on how communities keep the faith.
“You’re seen as seagulls,” said the principal of a remote community school not trying to hide his contempt. Casually leaning against a rail he made it clear he was more bothered by my presence then the persistent flies he was waving away from his eyes. Busy looking teachers passed us on their way to morning class and he nodded affectionately to them, a sign of solidarity only earned after years spent slugging it out in the driest, roughest and most isolated schools. I was another invader, an intruder in their home.
He looked down at his watch and sighed. “You fly into town, pick and pick and fly away again.”
Two weeks into a trip to remote communities in Western Australia’s mid-west, the comment articulates the reason people were treating me with a mix of disinterest and disdain. I’d seen it on the exhausted faces and heard it in the bored voices of the people I’d interviewed. The principal was referring to every journalist, academic and government department who, uninvited and unwelcome, swoop in, take what they want and leave. The promises of progress left behind merely add to the sense of despair.
There’s no defining moment, no light switch. But, sometime between watching the tar road become red dirt and pulling spinifex shards from my socks, the soles of my feet begin to grow roots. It’s a gradual sense that takes over my being and the longer I spend in the outback the deeper my roots grow. Growing up in Perth it came as a huge shock to find third-world poverty and disadvantage, not in a distant country, but right in our own backyard and the realisation of my ignorance was a slap across the face.
As a bright-eyed student journalist, trying to make sense of how our communities have deteriorated into what anthropologist Peter Sutton calls “diaster zones”, I lay awake in my donga every night of the trip asking the seemingly basic question: how is it that after billions of dollars have been spent — after being the subject of a harvest of PhDs, after being interviewed, followed, poked, prodded, interpreted and analysed — how can it be that the situation for indigenous Australians hasn’t improved?
“There are a couple of answers to this,” says Lieutenant General John Sanderson, head of the West Australian Indigenous Implementation Board (IIB). “But, the correct one is that we have been doing it the wrong way.”
The IIB was set up in 2009 “to advise the state government on how to identify and cut through the obstacles and really improve social and economic outcomes” with indigenous people. Since then, the IIB has been attempting to establish indigenous voices in Western Australia that can communicate effectively with government departments.
But recently WA Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister Roger Cook said the recommendations of the IIB are being ignored. “The Barnett government has failed to respond to the issues confronting Indigenous communities,” he said. The IIB has criticised the industrial development in the Kimberley, calling it ‘ad hoc’ and ‘driven from Perth’ and claims Royalties for Regions has failed to deliver to indigenous people. As the advice from the IIB falls on deaf ears, it seems the cycle of ‘all talk, no action’ continues.
Confronting what is described in terms of indigenous ‘dysfunction’ and ‘disadvantage’ for the first time, there was a moment of clarity when I realised that the government just needed to start listening, that communities just needed to communicate better with politicians and force the kids to go to school and ensure the houses are built without fault. But it’s a simplistic notion.
Problems have been entrenched for centuries; others tried and failed. Some of the brightest minds in the country have attempted to answer why conditions in Aboriginal communities continue to worsen. Academic Sarah Maddison from University of New South Wales argues until Australian governments come to grips with the complexity of Aboriginal politics they will continue to make bad policy with disastrous consequences for Aboriginal people. But people are tired.
“It’s just been forever and a day they have been researching Aboriginal people and asking them all these questions,” said Annie Pepper who works with the region’s Community Drug Service Team. In her spare time Pepper runs an Aboriginal women’s cancer support group in Geraldton. She, like many others, can’t see the point in all the surveys and questions, especially when “nothing ever happens”.
In her book Black Politics, Maddison wrote: “Aboriginal people are tired of being asked to educate white people about what it means to be Aboriginal.” Maddison explained how she, like many white ‘do-gooders’ before, respond to their growing sense of awareness about the impact of our colonial history with a “paralysing guilt”.
She transformed her guilt into anger, then into something more productive. But how can I not feel guilty? Indigenous Australians are the most researched people in the world and I’m just another white fella with a notepad.
Register to read Part II: the communications barrier in black Australia
Part III coming tomorrow: As successive governments fail to improve living conditions for indigenous people, individuals are taking ‘closing the gap’ into their own hands.