Yesterday, no less a figure than Australia’s best-read columnist made mention of an article I wrote for Crikey in December of last year, though of course he declined to link to the publication. But, being Andrew Bolt, he also missed the point entirely.

My original article was written to explain what is going on in remote communities and to shine a glaring spotlight on both sides of government, highlighting that the issue is not about spending enough dollars but instead about understanding the true nature of the problem and the need to listen to the Aboriginal people who are making these so-called “lifestyle choices”. I am not an Aboriginal person and I do not profess to be an expert in the area of indigenous affairs, but spending a couple of years immersed in the lives and communities of Aboriginal people living in the East Kimberley I came to understand a little about culture and a lot about what government thinks it knows but doesn’t.

The focus of my article was on the result of intergenerational trauma and how this looks through the eyes of a service provider, who has been in the thick of it, at 3am wearing the St John’s overalls and protective gloves. Suffice to say, I don’t think I have ever owned a pair of rose-coloured glasses, but if I had, they would have been smashed to pieces within days of arrival in the East Kimberley. That was not a criticism of the people living there, it was a statement regarding how little my years of formal study contributed to what I was able to learn in a very short space of time.

But to Bolt, of course, the trauma I saw is not evidence of government indifference or misguided policy, but an indictment of life in remote Aboriginal communities and evidence that the government should stop providing services to them. We have arrived at that point where governments not only fail to take responsibility for the poor implementation of ill-conceived programs but then move to blame the unwilling recipients when they do not work — but Bolt doesn’t see it that way.

Trauma is at the heart of everything in communities. What lies as an insidious partner with that trauma is self-medication in the form of alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines, volatile substance misuse, violence and gambling. What this leads to is a cacophony of health problems, unemployment, sexual and physical violence, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, etc, until the circuit breaks, usually in the form of people taking their lives, ending up in prison or just surviving until they no longer do. I said all of that in my original story, but funnily enough Bolt didn’t print that part.

What I also said and still believe is that the problems at hand are incredibly challenging, that casting sudden decisions upon communities without consultation is not the answer. History speaks for itself on that front.  There is no quick-fix and blaming or suggesting that individuals ‘choose’ their lifestyle is offensive and inexcusably ignorant.

You cannot fix an addict by taking his drugs away; you have to treat the reason behind why he is reaching for the drug in the first place. We have a long road ahead, and as I have said before “the solutions cannot be pre-empted, but until the issues of trauma and substance abuse are addressed with a long-term bipartisan commitment, the so-called gap will never be closed”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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