Journalism student Clare Negus toured aboriginal townships in mid-west Western Australia. In the third and final chapter, she writes on the fight for true reconciliation and the individuals taking ‘closing the gap’ into their own hands.

The nurse had been up all night. As the only medical officer in town he’d had to deal with a baby with third-degree burns after it’d fallen into a bonfire. At the same time, a feud between two local indigenous families had broken out. In the early hours of the morning he’d treated a woman who’d had her leg severed at the knee. It was unclear what the woman had done, but it was implied her leg had been hit with a shovel as a form of punishment.

As the nurse recounted this to me the next morning it became clear just how impossible it is to describe what anthropologist Peter Sutton calls “the visceral intensity” of indigenous communities. Sutton explains how “it is pretty well invisible to the casual outside visitor, until the lid blows off”.

“The story of high levels of community violence, substance abuse, child abuse and all the rest of it is not at the base a medical or legal or political story,” he said, “but one of emotions.”

Everyone surveyed in the 2008 national study, the Australian Reconciliation Barometer, agreed a relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is important. The survey “explored how we see and feel about each other, and how these perceptions affect progress towards reconciliation and closing the gaps”. But it also found trust on both sides was in short supply — 92% of non-indigenous Australians said they don’t trust indigenous people; 95% of indigenous people said they don’t trust non-indigenous Australians.

Building a relationship with the Balgo community was core to Maggie Kavanagh’s success as a community capacity builder. “You’re part of the community so you get to appreciate the ebb and flow and reality of community life — including things like sorry business, the hot arid winds, the electricity blackouts, the terrible roads, the four flat tyres on the Tanami, the $6.60 for two litres of milk, limited contact with the outside world,” Maggie told the Desert Knowledge Symposium in 2008.

Balgo is north of Alice Springs, off the Tanami Highway, with a population of about 450 people who speak English as their second language. The community used to describe their town as a “broken down car abandoned and forgotten in the bush”. Like most remote communities, past experiences with government administration had, they said, “shattered people’s confidence in themselves”.

When Kavanagh arrived in Balgo in 2007 the community had no control over resources and very few people were employed in jobs. It had no community hall, no aged care or disability program, no programs for children or mothers, a poorly funded school, and shared two police with two other communities. Kavanagh explained to the symposium that Balgo “had some of the worst and most inadequate housing of any community I have been to in 25 years”.

After a series of workshops the community decided to have 14 directors that represented the 14 main families. Kavanagh explains how the structure “is inclusive and ensures all families have a seat at the table.”

Meeting every second Tuesday the door was open to anyone who was interested. “These meetings became the focus for governance learning and training, for the rebuilding process,” Kavanagh explains. One of the first actions of the directors was asking a well-known drug dealer to leave town, which he did. The community also took control of requests from parolees to return to Balgo.

In the meetings the community negotiate the rules for parolees coming back, taking into account the views of the victims and their families. Not all parolees’ requests are accepted and the directors are strict on parolees obeying the rules set at the meeting. Importantly, the community now has a guide for how visitors should conduct themselves at meetings. Bureaucrats and other visitors are asked to speak in clear English which people can understand, without jargon and acronyms. Visitors have to be prepared with what they are going to say and when they are finished they are told not to hang around for business that isn’t theirs.

At the heart of Kavanagh’s relationship was the knowledge that empowering indigenous people doesn’t diminish non-indigenous governance. The community now feels “confident about facing their challenges”. Peter Sutton writes: “Where deep cultural differences are involved, it can be a tribute to the humanity of both parties that their efforts to connect can actually work, and so often have worked, to contribute to the rich fabric of understanding and appreciation of Australia’s cultures.” He suggests that this is the kind of reconciliation that matters most.

‘It will take all of us’ is the catch-cry of the national GenerationOne campaign backed by prominent Australian business figures. With the indigenous unemployment rate three times higher than the rest of the country, 48% of indigenous people are receiving welfare as their main source of income. The GenerationOne roadshow is travelling the nation trying to encourage business to pledge 50,000 to indigenous people and promoting education, jobs and job-ready training.

Such campaigns emphasise that ‘closing the gap’ is an individual responsibility and that it is time to take the onus off government. As Sutton suggests, there is no grand statement or legal document that would be more important than individuals simply deciding to make reconciliation an important consideration in their lives. Sutton writes that “reconciliation is too important a matter of personal, moral adjustment to be a process owned by the state”.

So what to do? Perhaps simply acknowledging our intrusion on individuals and communities would be a good start. It means being unafraid of being politically incorrect, constantly questioning, and admitting when you have made mistakes. It is listening when an elder explains their connection to where they come from. Listening when they talk to, sing to and worry about their country. When they describe their connection to their land.

“It says it in your Bible, God made Adam out of clay,” one elder in Geraldton told me. “We all come from the earth. Even you whitefellas know that.”

Beyond the despair: read part one and part two of the story.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey