Friday, 20 March 2015

Lifestyle Choices?

Tony Abbott wants to be the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Australia.  Then again he also wants to be the Minister for Women.  When he was asked what he had achieved in this portfolio he said he had abolished the carbon tax.  Perhaps as Prime Minster for Aboriginal Australians his main achievement is stopping the boats.  Only 227 years too late but I guess there's no use crying over spilt milk.

Now Abbott has flagged another seminal achievement in Aboriginal affairs by supporting the Western Australian Government's decision to stop providing basic infrastructure to approximately 150 outstations - small Aboriginal communities, often remote, that have been set up by Aboriginal people since the 1960s as overflow from the towns and larger Aboriginal communities.  The Western Australian Government says continuing to provide services to these communities is too expensive, and Abbott says that governments shouldn't pay for the people's "lifestyle choices".

"What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if these lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have."

As usual Abbot is historically blind, and on a grand scale. Aboriginal Australians were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands (that is to say, by police and soldiers) over the period stretching from first contact to the early 20th century, and confined to missions in out of the way places.  There they were given minimal education, forced to live wherever the "Protector" ordered them to live, and worked for wages much lower than those paid to non-aboriginal workers for the same jobs.

Because they were in remote areas they were the hardest hit by the restructuring of rural industries in the post-war years and unlike the farmers who could at least sell out to agribusiness companies, they had no assets (even the land they lived on was owned by the government) so had nothing to fall back on. When they finally got control of the communities created by the missionaries they had no economic base. When they moved to the cities and towns they felt out of place and suffered discrimination and extreme poverty.  Add to this the grief of dispossession and destructive "child welfare" policies and you have the cycle of poverty, alcohol abuse and violence that characterises large parts of the Aboriginal community today.

Outstations were one of their ways of trying to break the cycle of destructive behaviours. We see a lot of footage of dysfunctional outstations but rarely see footage of the many which operate as quiet refuges from the larger communities where things have gone wrong and places to recover something of their original cultures. They are an attempt by people to take control of their own lives and reconnect with family and culture away from the dysfunction of the larger communities.  From the government they asked for no more than basic supports - help with housing construction, navigable roads, power, water and basic communication infrastructure.  These were provided but in a niggardly way.  These are not Club Med, they are very basic places to live.

The current move to close a large number of these settlements is the latest step in a policy trajectory which began with the Howard Government's abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2005.  ATSIC was created by the Hawke Government in 1990 as a way of giving Aboriginal people control over the delivery of services in their communities.  It consisted of a heirarchy of elected regional councils which then fed into a national body of elected officials.  This body had control of a substantial allocation of resources to provide services to Aboriginal people - health, housing, infrastructure, legal services, employment, community development and so on.  This was a serious experiment in self-determination.

ATSIC was certainly not without its problems.  In the early 2000s both its Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson were tainted by allegations of criminal conduct, although most of these were never proved.  At the same time, the organisation's effectiveness and connection with ordinary Aboriginal people were questioned.  A large number of critics, both in the Aboriginal community and in mainstream politics, agreed that there needed to be change.

However, not many Aboriginal people think that the changes the Howard Government made are the ones that were needed.  Most wanted to see the blundering ATSIC bureaucracy replaced by a greater level of local grassroots control.  Instead, Howard went for an approach based on the mainstreaming of services.  Health was to go back to the health departments, housing to the housing departments, infrastructure to local and state governments, employment to the Jobs Network,

The result is that a somewhat dysfunctional process of Aboriginal control was replaced by no Aboriginal control at all.  Every part of the system was run by predominantly white bureaucrats.  Like everything else, service provision was either done directly by mainstream departments, or was tendered out to private and non-profit service providers with the big winners being consulting companies and large charities - many of them run by the churches that used to run the missions.

Of course the blame for the complex and deeply rooted problems of Aboriginal communities was placed at the feet of Aboriginal people themselves.  The fact that ATSIC didn't manage to solve these problems could be used as evidence against self-determination.  White people needed to come in and save Aboriginal people from themselves.  This dynamic was ratchetted up with the 2007 Intervention in the Northern Territory, where reports of high levels of child abuse led to a declaration of a "State of Emergency", the imposition of even higher levels of government control (overseen by an authority led, ironically, by a senior military officer) and the removal of more Aboriginal controlled programs such as the CDEP, the sole source of work for many in remote communities.

The next logical step in this process is a major shift from Commonwealth to State provision of services.  Because mainstream health, housing and infrastucture services are delivered by state and local governments, it was only a matter of time before responsibility for the now-mainstream Aboriginal  services went the same way.  There was considerable haggling, because State governments were hardly likely to accept responsibility without extra funds.  However, this process is now pretty much complete.  The result is that cash-strapped State Governments now inherit the problems that neither ATSIC nor the Commonwealth Government managed to fix, in exchange for the pitifully inadequate funds the Commonwealth originally allocated to not fixing these problems.

In the case of the outstations issue, the relevant pitifully inadequate funds are those allocated to infrastructure and housing.  On housing there has, at least, been a serious effort.  Commonwealth and State Governments have agreed to a 10-year program worth about $5b to upgrade existing housing and build new housing in remote Aboriginal communities.  That sounds like a lot of money, but alongside overdue repairs to existing houses the program will provide only 4,500 new houses over a ten year period.  This will barely keep up with population growth over that period, never mind seriously addressing overcrowding.  Apropos of "lifestyle choices", a policy decision was made that none of this money would go to outstations - it is all being spent in the main communities.  As a result, outstation housing will continue to deteriorate while houses in the larger communities are repaired and rebuilt.

On infrastructure, there is no such program.  The Commonwealth doesn't think this is its responsibility so it has simply passed on the money it used to spend and washed its hands.  In Western Australia the amount to be passed over was $40m per year for the whole state in 2012.  Broome Shire estimated that for its local government area alone (which includes five Aboriginal communities on the Dampier Peninsula) the infrastructure needed $125m of capital spent to upgrade it to normal community standards and then $25m per year to operate it thereafter.  This didn't include any spending whatsoever on outstations.

Given these prior decisions, its not surprising that the WA Government has decided it can't afford to spend any money on outstations.  Still it's funny how things become impossible or unaffordable when you don't want to do them.  Since 2008 the WA Government has spent over $5b on regional infrastructure projects under its Royalties for Regions program, but a few measly millions to upgrade outstations is "too expensive".  Pardon my cynicism, but it seems that the drive to give back to the communities that get turned on their head to provide the resources doesn't extend to giving anything back to the country's original owners.

What is the upshot of this?  Aboriginal policy has gone almost full circle since 1970.  The gains in self-determination made between the 1970s and the early 2000s have almost all been undone.  Aboriginal people are now told where they can and can't live.  The services that used to be provided by Aboriginal community councils and community-controlled organisations are now delivered by government departments and outside contractors over whom they have no control,  Programs like CDEP which gave people meaningful work and a stake in their communities have been replaced by passive welfare and pointless training programs while the infrastructure the now idle CDEP workers used to maintain steadily deteriorates.  If they complain about any of this, they are told that the problem is that they are not integrating well enough, not having "the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have".  In other words, they are not white enough.

Aboriginal people find themselves thwarted at every turn.  But worst of all, whenever something goes wrong, it is portrayed as their fault.  It is absurd that we gradually narrow the range of choices they are able to make, then turn the question back on them as if their desire to have a choice was somehow selfish and a drain on the community.  If Abbott wants to be the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Australia, he will have to do better than this.

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