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We have failed the First Australians

“Her paintings have been exhibited in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo and Milan. But in her old age, renowned Aboriginal artist Kathleen Ngale lives on a mattress outdoors, unable to walk, kept warm during cold desert winter nights by about a dozen dogs who sleep alongside her.” (ABC article; “Utopia: Aboriginal elderly sleeping on ground with dogs amid calls for improved aged care“, by Neda Vanovac).

Isn’t it appalling, saddening, disgraceful that an Australian lives like that? Many do. They might be young or old, from whatever walk of life, or from whatever culture. I do not know who they are. But Kathleen Ngale is an Aboriginal Australian, and I have some understanding of the history that put her where she is today.

I once heard a comment that went something like this: “The aspirations of Aboriginal Australians are expressed through a political system designed, first and foremost, for the white majority.” In my many years in Indigenous affairs and as a student of Indigenous history it was a theme that dominated my public and academic life.

Australian history has left a legacy of Aboriginal inequality and disadvantage. In our self-congratulatory celebration of egalitarianism and the fair go, we conveniently overlooked that fact that our treatment of Aborigines amounted to a contradiction of the very values we claimed to espouse. The inability to regard Aborigines as equals has never really left the ‘white’ consciousness.

There are a number of measures that can be used to establish the degree of inegalitarian treatment accorded to Aborigines: legal equality; political equality; economic equality; equality of opportunity; and equal satisfaction of basic needs. I could broach social injustice, government ineptness and bureaucratic mis-management in emphasising these inequalities.

There are many disadvantages suffered by Aborigines that need remedying, but what needs to be dealt with, and in what order? Is it inadequate housing? Is it the parlous state of Aboriginal health which still results in unacceptably high infant mortality rates as well as a diminished life expectancy? Is it the rapid loss of Aboriginal culture? Or the high rate of Aboriginal unemployment? Undoubtedly the problem is complex, but where do governments start to seek remedies? What are the political solutions?

History illustrates government inability above all else to deliver any remedies, due mainly to the makings of the Australian polity. Federalism stands out, and in particular the complex space that Aboriginal affairs occupies within our political system. In a federation like Australia it can be very difficult to achieve uniformity of power. Why cannot governments that perceive the existence of a regional or national problem, for example Aboriginal health, work constructively to eradicate the problem? Who is to be blamed, Commonwealth or State?

Aboriginal affairs involves many areas of governmental responsibility, including education, health, sanitation, land use and relations with police forces, which are all State government responsibilities. When Commonwealth and State governments disagree in such matters, whose view should prevail? A great deal of essential service delivery falls within the responsibility of State governments, but these governments often fall short of delivering full and satisfactory programs.

However the argument goes much further than being based on pure politics. In a polity like Australia, where the development of the land by both farmer and miner has for so long been described as basic to Australia’s prosperity, it is difficult for governments to ignore claims from such powerful interests. The mining interest has fought particularly strongly against land rights and native title. The propaganda battle is rarely won by the central government. It is easier for a State Premier to claim that the Native Title Act threatens peoples’ backyards than it is for the Commonwealth to explain the complexities of the legislation.

This is but one of the many shortcomings if we focus on program failure or distortion, for it is in these results that many hopes and expectations are deflected, destroyed or frustrated. An analysis of service delivery reveals that the problem is multi-faceted, not only having to do with the nature of modern bureaucracies, but also with the activities of politicians, the attitudes of white Australians, and the perceptions of Aborigines themselves.

In this arena of political and public perceptions, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) used to come under some heavy fire; from politicians, the media, and the wider community. Perhaps there was resentment because ATSIC had given Aboriginal people a voice in the political system.

The argument on this was compelling. Many Australians watched distrustfully as, under Whitlam’s grandiosity in 1972, large amounts of money were directed to Aboriginal affairs.  As a result there was a great deal of importance placed on the need for ATSIC, in particular, to be accountable for its operations, reflecting no doubt the uncertainties of mainstream Australians concerning the standards of operations of Indigenous institutions. Following accusations of the misuse of money, audits were made of various bodies, again nominally ATSIC, and government funds for many Aboriginal services were reduced, and eventually, ATSIC was wiped from the political and social landscape. Yet claims about ATSIC’s waste of public money usually ignored the difficulties that that body had in delivering any worthwhile services to the Indigenous community. ATSIC had an unbelievable array of demands on its finite budget and was simply not in a position to meet every demand.

Also, political parties are demonstrably divided on Aboriginal issues. The Howard Government, for example,  was less sympathetic to Aboriginal issues – or too cautious in the invocation of Commonwealth power for the benefit of Aborigines – than were the previous Labor Governments of Hawke and Keating. (It was forcefully argued that Howard was indeed influenced by the claims of the more powerful interest groups). Political parties’ views are extremely important in helping explain the place of Aboriginal people in the Australian political system. A series of questions that were asked of a sample of members of parliament* revealed the existence of varying party views that form an important framework to the development of Aboriginal policy. Some of the differences between Labor and Coalition MPs were imposing. It is worth having a look at some of these answers as they clearly identify who did and did not support Aboriginal causes. Consider them as a backdrop to discussions on issues such as Mabo, Wik, Native Title, the Stolen Generation or the more contemporary Northern Territory intervention.

Members of parliament – support for Aborigines

  1. Government has responsibility to grant land rights: ALP 93.2%, LNP 40.8%
  2. Settle land claims before development: ALP 78.2%, LNP 24.2%
  3. Aborigines should have special cultural protection: ALP 76.7%, LNP 43.7%
  4. Approve of treaty recognising Aboriginal rights: ALP 85.6%, LNP 11.2%
  5. Law should allow for Aboriginal customs: ALP 60.0%, 21.4%
  6. Constitution should recognise Aboriginal self-government: ALP 29.0%, LNP 4.6%
  7. Aborigines should not be assimilated: ALP 80.3%, LNP 42.2%

I could attack the media with as much veracity as I do the political interests. Press coverage should help ensure that the area of public policy is kept well and truly on the political agenda, for without it would be very difficult for Aboriginal interests to achieve anything of importance. Perhaps the best example in recent years has been the manner in which the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody disappeared from sight once the report became public. Such a lack of sustained coverage makes it easier for governments to ignore many matters of short-term notoriety. The desire for a story often overrides considerations of accuracy or fairness. Who could argue with this? Drunkenness, rioting and poor living conditions are given more attention than the stories that could show Aborigines playing a positive role in the general community.

It just isn’t good enough.

If you are as appalled as I am about the lack of services to Indigenous Australians, why not let you local member know? They can be contacted here.

*This survey was taken during Howard’s prime ministership and goes a long way in explaining Howard’s commitment to the reduction of government spending in Aboriginal affairs. If it is representative of the Abbott and Turnbull governments, this I could only speculate. Given the apathy and funding cuts since September 2013, perhaps it does.

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  1. joni

    Excellent post, Migs.

  2. Freetasman

    Thank you Michael for the excellent article, it is our responsibility to keep this issue alive.
    Yesterday news in ABC about Kathleen Ngale made my day full of sadness and anger and immediately sent email to my local federal member expressing my views and asking him to act.
    I am sure that the fellow bloggers in this site are proud to be Australians and will not tolerate be part of this injustice.
    Please contact you local member, send them the ABC link with the article about Kathleen Ngale, share the article on your social media network.
    We cannot longer expect that the politicians do something about this issue, the hope for them is on people power and we have to be part on it.

  3. Terry2

    This is so very sad !

    Is there nothing that her celebrated relative Rosalie Kunoth-Monks can do to assist ? After all, she is President of the Barkly Shire and has an ongoing involvement in NT politics and as an activist for the Utopia people.

    I really despair that this sort of thing is still going on and all we seem to be able to do is point fingers and blame government : even the government officers blame the government.

  4. Stadi K

    Thanks Michael, “Drunkenness, rioting and poor living conditions are given more attention than the stories that could show Aborigines playing a positive role in the general community.”
    What makes a ‘good story’ for mainstream media? One that leads to outrage and sales!
    The bonus of this mindset for msm with their neo-con agenda is that their shallow exposes degrade the target group, stalling progress. White privilege, stone hearts, msm.

    Rather than properly investigate problems, msm seems happy to create rubbish analysis.
    If their purpose is to delude the masses then I have to say they are doing a great job.
    The reason for their deception? Likely, if they traced back to source the reason for dysfunction in Aboriginal communities, they’d be staring at the actions of the first wave of white aggressors.
    With such a realization comes the challenge to make fair the situation.

    That challenge seems beyond the media, they’re too busy doing the bidding of the elite.
    Repair will happen as increasing numbers of people, seeing through the unconsciously built social structures and dated paradigms, act in the name of humanity. The past is going to be destroyed. The intent of the msm to maintain the status quo is nothing really, just a stupid desire. See it as such.

    As a footnote: there are some exceptional journos around, eg ‘4 Corners’.
    Maybe if we just delete all msm and increase 4 Corners budget x 100?

  5. helvityni

    Black, female, old, an artist…

    As Pell would say : It’s a very sad story, but not much interest to me… It might move our PM to tears…..

    Maybe Abbott will cycle there, and do a captain’s (in- waiting) call….

    The World is watching…if Oz is not.

  6. stephentardrew

    Great post Michael totally agree.

  7. Kyran

    If you can find the time to read Mr Burnside’s lecture, you will not have wasted your time.
    “On 1 July 2017 I gave the inaugural Ralph Summy lecture for Ngara.
    The event honoured Ralph Summy and was also the occasion of the award of the inaugural Australian Activists of the Year Awards. The winners were Murrawah Johnson and Adrian Burragubba of the Wangan and Jagalingu Traditional Owners Family Council, for their tireless work in opposing the Adani coalmine, which will destroy the traditional lands of the Wangan and Jagalingu.”


    Mr Burnside’s speech is profound, in so many ways. It provides context to the evolution of Human Rights as a concept, to be availed to all. Of course, that is only an aspiration in 2017, just as it was in 1776, when America declared;

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
    That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to then shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness …””

    After reading the article, the word ‘Ngara’ became of interest.
    “Ngara means listen, hear, think in the language of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.”
    It seems entirely appropriate for a think tank to adopt such a word as its raison d’etre.


    Your premise that we have failed our First People is undeniable. What so many of us need to accept is that, by failing our First People, and by allowing that failure to continue, we are failing ourselves, as a community. Most egregious, we are failing the heirs and successors of our community. Our youth.
    In Mr Burnsides article, he notes that ‘slaves’ and ‘women’ were once considered as ‘chattels’ as a matter of law. Whilst many of these laws were repealed last century, their intent remains to this day. In practice, we have taken one step forward by repealing the laws, and two steps back, by allowing the practice to continue. Whilst this may seem in conflict with your article (as it is expressly referring to our First People), until we accept the premise that all people are equal, we are doomed to discuss our violations of such a principle in isolation. That allows the conversation to be protracted and diversionary. That fails us all.
    After Ngara, we need Bayala. We need to let those we have disenfranchised speak. And we need to listen.
    Thank you Mr Taylor and commenters. Take care

  8. diannaart

    We, as a nation must take responsibility for our failure to treat First People as… people.

    We expect the Catholic Church to take responsibility for their treatment of children, therefore, as a nation we take full responsibility for the welfare of our most marginalised people; the First People.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Hi joni, how is England treating you?

  10. John Lord

    ATSIC had an unbelievable array of demands on its finite budget and was simply not in a position to meet every demand.

    And the conservatives hated it.

    It is true that there was some abuse of the system but with government oversight it could have been a success.

  11. Michael Taylor

    John, it would have been a great success but for government interference. The Howard Govt had us guessing what their next move would be and so we were always trying to stay on step ahead. It just ended up becoming a series of mind games.

  12. Kyran

    Not unexpected, but still sickening.
    “Federal Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt says people in Aboriginal communities and in camps on homelands need to call him if they have concerns about elderly residents.”

    “Mr Wyatt, who is also the Minister for Indigenous Health, said aged care services and funding for the Utopia region was adequate, and it was up to individuals to “raise the alarm” about people who fall through the cracks.”

    “The Barkly Regional Council and the local Urapantja Aboriginal organisation said they had been on the phone, but there was limited funding available to service the vast, remote region.
    The 2008 Intervention was responsible for stripping organisations of the services they once offered, said Michael Gravener, Urapuntja chief executive.
    “Since 2008 and the NT Intervention, the onset of the Barkly Regional Council and the super-shires, Urapantja was disenfranchised in that they lost all access to their housing, services they delivered prior to that time,” he said.”


    One more time, the relevant minister shows absolutely no knowledge of his own portfolio. But get this straight. It’s not his fault if no one tells him. The same defence was run by scullion, when news of Don Dale broke.
    Speaking of scullion, he’s not happy with the NT government about housing.

    “Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion is demanding an explanation from NT Housing Minister Gerry McCarthy as to why he has “walked away” from a program promoting home ownership in remote communities.”
    “The NT Government said only one person had bought a house through the program and only $626,000 of the $4.5 million previously allocated to the scheme over three years had been spent.”
    The article does not ‘breakdown’ the $626k spend. If that’s the cost of one house, $4.5 mill won’t go far. But that’s not the case.
    “The Government said the $4.5 million previously allocated to the program covered promotion and set-up costs, financial and mortgage management programs, policy development and staff.”


    For anyone who thinks scullion is the epitome of a minister who is across his brief, remember he was the one bagging macklin for not building any houses with $700 mill.


    Speaking of macklin, she consulted widely in 2011, just before announcing draconian measures to address her confected ‘welfare’ problems.
    “Michele Harris and Rosa McKenna prepared a report, Cuts to Welfare Payments for School Non-Attendance: Requested or Imposed?, on behalf of a group called “Concerned Australians” on Macklin’s latest round of alleged consultations.”


    The minister completely ignored that report and the input of many groups from First People nations. She knew best.
    No, the government narrative, both flavours of government, is that government knows best.
    With regard to ATSIC, and just to apply a different perspective, imagine comparing it to the HofR.
    ATSIC was regarded as the voice for 200 indigenous groups, yet was expected to ‘speak as one’ for all of our First People. One of the criticisms was that it did not present as unified, in speaking for all. That it would often present many different perspectives on the behalf of its constituents.
    The HofR has 150 duly elected members. They invariably can’t even tow the line on party policy, let alone govern for the good of the people.
    ATSIC was a rabble but the HofR is a perfectly functioning example of democracy, apparently.
    ATSIC had governance and accounting issues usually being ATSIC members abusing their ‘entitlements’. How about we compare that with the entitlements of our pollies? It’s not a fair comparison. If a pollie gets caught, they get a please explain, followed by a polite request to repay the amount they consider appropriate. When the ATSIC members get caught, it’s page one, newscorpse.
    Ah well, all fixed now. ATSIC is gone. It has been replaced by the National Congress of Australia’s First People’s. The big plus is that the new body is not funded by government and we can still ignore any of their work.


    It’s not like our First People can contribute, or make a better path.
    “If you are as appalled as I am about the lack of services to Indigenous Australians, why not let your local member know?”
    Mr Wyatt has requested calls should go to him. It seems only fair to oblige.
    Thank you again. Take care

  13. wam

    ‘The inability to regard Aborigines as equals has never really left the ‘white’ consciousness’.

    I do not think I have ever read a truer description of the special insidious racism against Aborigines. Xavier Herbert knew it, Anyone who watched the demolition of Adam Goodes saw Australians at their worst yet the majority denied any racism. Even when ross lyons asked the dockers not to boo the sandgropers ‘ingrained’ racism took over and a read of the facebook showed the racism denial.

    I tried to use an incident in 1988 to illustrate the point but I was and still am an emotional and obscure writer and easy to ignore.

    An old man from turkey creek was sitting on the floor when the GG and Bishop Tutu were talking. The ABC recorded the old Aborigine saying

    “He (hayden) can talk to that blackfellah how come he can’t talk to me?”

    I have told that story hundreds of time over the last 30 years to many gatherings of teachers but nobody considers it as important as ‘attendance’

    The end of last century I was working with Aboriginal liaison personnel and invariably we would be dealing with base clerk level.

    If the Aborigine asked a question the answer was direct to me not the Aborigine. To me that is abject racism but to the Australian it is the norm.

    Just outside our office was another project. The staff were listed not alphabetically but whites, urban Aborigines then community Aborigines.

    Remember the rabbott’s ‘lifestyle choices’?

    “COMPARED to Australians living in major cities, people who call regional Australia home have higher mortality rates, higher rates of heart disease, higher risks of stroke, and are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.”

    I feel pretty sad at the Angel flight ads??? Solutions for Ngale?

  14. Matters Not

    Remember George Wallace, a former Governor of Alabama, stating that he really loved his Negroes and he also loved his dogs but the notion that they should eat from his table was unthinkable.

    Perhaps I should also mention he ran for President of the USA. And on more than one occasion


  15. diannaart

    Thank you, FT

    … am a big fan of Steven Oliver

  16. Kyran

    “Just one key question should be taken to a potential referendum to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a place in Australia’s Constitution, according to a major report released today.

    The Referendum Council advised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to hold a referendum to establish a “Voice to Parliament” — a national Indigenous representative body.

    The council, tasked by the Parliament to consult widely with Indigenous people, described the proposal as “modest”, “reasonable” and “capable of attracting the necessary support of the Australian people”.”


    What are the chances of keeping politics out of this?

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