Yesterday in Crikey, journalism student Clare Negus reported from aboriginal townships in mid-west Western Australia, where a pervasive sense of hopelessness has settled over many community workers. In the second chapter of a three-part series, Negus looks at the communications barrier.

“It’s the next big fight,” said an Aboriginal Liaison Officer from the Midwest Department of Indigenous Affairs one night in Mount Magnet. “The doors to Canberra are closed on so many issues, but this, this is the next battle.”

The fight he described was the battle to effectively communicate the needs of indigenous communities to government. Sarah Maddison from the University of New South Wales writes in Black Politics that indigenous people: “…occupy the same peripheral political space that they did 30 years ago; if anything, they have become more marginal to an Australian polity.” Successive reports from the Council of Australian Government confirm that conditions for indigenous communities are the same, or worse, than 30 years ago. How can this failure be explained?

Sometimes it comes down to the guy with the clipboard. While I was doing an interview with a group of Aboriginal women, in their Homeswest house in a remote mid-west community, a man from the Department of Housing knocked on the door. He had been sent to check on the condition of the house a year after its construction and walked around checking off boxes on his clipboard. Finishing the interview, I mentioned to the women I had interviewed how I was trying to track down a community elder.

At the mention of the elder’s name the chap with the clipboard piped up: “I’ve just been to his house. No-one is living in it.”

The women explained that this was because the elder’s wife had recently died in the house and, as tradition dictated, he left the property for six months and would return once the house had been smoked out. It was if a light bulb had gone off in the guy’s head. Without the appropriate explanation he would have returned to the Department of Housing under the impression houses were not being used, therefore no more were needed. But cultural training, which encompasses all indigenous cultures, would be next to impossible with almost every community having different traditions. All the chap with the clipboard had to do, however, was ask.

“That’s a fairly regular thing,” said a community development officer, after I described the event. “But it’s not just that. Departments come out here and treat people like you wouldn’t believe. I was shocked to see how they treated people the first time I went to a government meeting. They were just pigs.”

The Department has made particular efforts to ensure that houses are designed to suit the lifestyles of those they are built for. Gone are the days of people ripping up floorboards to use as firewood after being given gas stoves and not taught how to use them. Yet, the idea that indigenous people trash their government housing still persists.

“When we had a Department of Housing guy out here last, I took him to visit a few houses,” said the Community Development Officer. “He entered one and slammed the door and the window pane fell out. No-one had filled in the seal.” The problem, she believes, is that “a bunch of white guys rock up and go ‘this is what we’re going to do’ without asking people what would work.”

There seems to be an assumption that all Aboriginal peoples are the same, that what works for one community in Queensland will work for a community in the Kimberly, when in reality they couldn’t be more different. The community development officer described to me with frustration how her primarily white shire council treat the suggestions of Noel Person as gospel without asking the people from their community what they think or need. Maddison suggests that by ignoring the complexity of Aboriginal people it limits “the full scope of their political demands”.

Understanding that communities are different, that they have different needs, would be the first step in assessing how people should interact with them. Patrick Dodson suggests that we have the potential for a revitalised country “with a new philosophy that will transcend assimilation and subordination, in which current partnerships are trapped, with a commitment to a functioning partnership of indigenous societies, governments, industry and civil societies”.

But the despair in Aboriginal communities is spilling into the rest of society; people seem exhausted that nothing ever seems to change and dump the issues into the ‘too hard’ basket. Yet from what I’ve seen the situation is not hopeless — there is good work happening that should be lauded.  To dismiss indigenous affairs as hopeless is an insult to the teachers, nurses, police, community development officers and innumerable others who live, work and breathe these communities.

Part three tomorrow: As successive governments fail to improve living conditions for indigenous people, individuals are taking ‘closing the gap’ into their own hands. Read part one of the series here.

Peter Fray

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