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Punishment or Pride

The Abbott government’s approach to the problems facing Indigenous Australians is reactionary rather than visionary. Their paternalistic punitive measures are designed to address symptoms and show no understanding of the causes.

As Eva Cox said of the Forrest Review:

“[It] fails to accept that recognising and respecting the civilisations and contributions of Indigenous peoples is necessary to unravel the damages of long-term cultural dominance, which strips away communal strengths and well-being.

Nowhere does the report make any serious acknowledgement of systemic exclusion of both Indigenous knowledge and cultural competencies. It offers no recognition of the value of language diversity and the maintenance of cultural identity.

Missing too from the report are the data that show the failure of many of the proposed programs such as anti-truancy measures. Having children at schools that do not meet their needs does not improve outcomes.

Forrest dismisses oral cultures and languages, and all other learning that cannot be applied in job seeking. He ignores the importance of community and focuses on fixing individuals.”

We will soon see the introduction of a cashless welfare card. The Forrest Review also recommends financial penalties for parents whose children fall below a 90 per cent school attendance rate – a suggestion that Abbott has shown support for in the past.

In the budget from hell that slashed over $500 million from Indigenous funding, Hockey found $54 million to build seven new police stations in remote communities and $18 million for a school truancy officer program in 74 schools.

We also saw a cut in funding for remote communities and for many community programs which focused on crime prevention, legal and family support.

The three strike rule and mandatory sentencing have taken away the discretion of magistrates to recourse individuals to non-custodial programs and sentences they deem are without risk to society and led to children receiving custodial sentences for very minor offences.

Nicholas Cowdery QC, retired Chief Prosecutor of NSW said “Mandatory sentences for all but the most minor regulatory offences […] are objectionable because they remove or unreasonably fetter the court’s discretion and–inevitably–lead to injustice.”

In 2000 the UN’s Committee Against Torture called the mandatory sentencing laws in Australia racist.

According to journalist John Pilger, mandatory sentencing laws have given Aboriginal people “an imprisonment rate at least as high as that of apartheid South Africa, and have been a primary cause of one of the highest suicide rates in the world, among young Aborigines.”

All of these (re)actions further marginalise people, and do nothing to give them the skills to become productive members of society in a way that is culturally acceptable.

The self-determination theory (SDT), a psychological theory of motivation and well-being, is instructive here. The SDT shows that we all have three innate psychological needs which, if met, enable us to function well, to be proactive and to grow as people. These three needs are:

  • Competence: a sense of efficacy and self-esteem, a sense that you can have a meaningful impact on the world around you
  • Autonomy: a feeling of having choice in your life
  • Relatedness: the feeling that people care about you, and that you are close to others

Far from working towards these goals, we are moving away from them.

The Abbott government’s ‘welfare reform’ is making people feel insecure in their daily lives. It is making people feel like they are losing control over what happens to them now and in future. It makes them feel stigmatised and as though public opinion is turning against them. It is also making people feel more socially isolated, as they turn in on themselves to try and cope.

In a lifetime working with young people, I have seen the benefit of reward over punishment, encouragement over criticism. You must give people the courage to want to do better and the belief that they can. You must give them support when they make mistakes and the resilience to try again.

The recent Adam Goodes controversy highlights the folly of an approach that uses punishment rather than fostering pride. Rather than belittling ‘lifestyle choices’, we should be acknowledging the bravery and ingenuity of the people who made the greatest migration on the planet, benefitting from the wisdom of the traditional custodians of this land, and celebrating the culture of the oldest civilisation on earth.


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  1. Jollyjumbuck

    I’m all for the support for the aboriginal people. But it comes a time when they have to start acting for themselves and making themselves better. millions of dollars have and are being poured into Education and many other programs to assist them. If they want acceptance from everyday Australians then I’m afraid it’s a two way street. Acceptance and respect should come from both sides and stop blaming and accusing us for what our ancestors did. As far as Adam Goodes goes, I think he is a racist on and off the field. His behaviour over the last 3 years in my book is disgraceful and has taken the aboriginal cause back 30 years at least. Listening to people in the street I hear a lot discussing the upcoming referendum, and there were not many people saying they would now support it. All thanks to Adam Goodes. He is dividing this country and this is not a good outcome for his people or for the rest of us.

  2. Kaye Lee

    We put money into things we white people think will work. That’s the whole issue Jollyjumbuck. We took money from many programs that WERE working to fund truancy officers and police.

    And could I add that someone who would determine their vote about Indigenous recognition based on booing football fans is NOT someone I would have ANY respect for. Shallow football bogans should not determine the fate of this country. That makes me furious so I can only imagine how an Indigenous person reading that drivel would feel.

  3. Lee

    Good article, Kaye.

    Jollyjumbuck, the assistance given to indigenous people often amounts to what is viewed as useful in our culture, without attempting to understand theirs or get their input.

  4. gonemango

    Well said again Kaye Lee!
    Jollyjumbuck, I disagree with you but I respect your right to your opinion.
    Adam Goodes didn’t divide this country. It was divided the moment that white settlers (refugees of the penal kind) arrived on ships and decided that the land was theirs and that the traditional owners weren’t to be given any rights at all.
    Frankly, I believe that Mr Goodes is a good man, who may well have shifted this debate forward into a positive conclusion where recognition of past injustices might be possible. There may well be hope.
    Something has to change! All that Naplan isn’t making any difference after all! Maybe we should all try a few war crys in PE and a local language rather than a foreign one to spice the learning up a bit and make it relevant to here and now.

  5. Blinkyewok

    Good article. I agree; govt not comprehending real issues thereby making them worse. It’s not surprising given Abbotts comment about Aust being empty before colonisation. His comments about white settlement being the outstanding event in Aust history, the “life style” statement etc. We hear about Abbotts devotion to aboriginal wefare; but only from govt front bench, not from Aboriginal communities. Most of the govt statements and actions, toward the first people, have been offensive to say the least.

  6. Kaye Lee

    When I was born, we lived with my grandmother in a very small country town in NSW. She had an aboriginal woman who helped in the house and who was nanny to both my mother’s generation and mine. She was part of our family and we all loved and respected her. Even though she lived out at the mission with all the other ‘coons’, as the white townspeople called them (I never knew to which tribe she belonged – it was never spoken of), she refused council housing and she and her husband built their own shanty. She was ashamed of the drunkenness and all in the settlement were very wary of incurring her wrath. She was a very proud woman. I tell this story because her nieces and nephews went on to do very well in life. She made them proud and convinced them that they could be whatever they wanted to be. Pride is enormously important but hard to maintain when you are treated like an inferior species. When well-meaning whites decided to build a meeting place for the Aborigines they got a Maori to advise them. Needless to say it was trashed which caused all the more resentment from the whites and furthered division.

    Meanwhile, even though Aborigines could not go into pubs in the early days, that didn’t stop the publicans from selling alcohol to them – they just came to the back door and pressed a buzzer. The local theatre had a roped off section for Aboriginals to sit in. What hope do children have growing up in such circumstances?

    We need Aboriginal leaders to advise us how to address the problem. We need Aboriginal communities to tell us what they need and how we can help. Abbott’s approach is all wrong. For those who find Goodes offensive, ask yourselves why. Is he too proud of his Aboriginality?

  7. Phil


    “I’m all for the support for the aboriginal people. But….” is like saying “I’m not a racist, but….” – this s invariably followed by racist comments.

    You say “If they (sic) want acceptance from everyday Australians..” Who says that is what ‘they’ want and who are these ‘everyday Australians’? Your commentary is almost pure paternalism.

    From what I see and hear, indigenous leaders speak of a desire for recognition and acknowledgement of their cultural and social history and for recognition and acknowledgement of the history of their dispossession. That is not what I would characterise as a claim for support.

    Your opinion that Adam Goodes is racist shows your own deep prejudice – in fact I wonder if you have mistaken Goodes for Tony Abbott?

  8. Bilal

    The racism of the bogan minority is an embarrassment to this country. That it feels emboldened by the opportunist politicians pandering to the right wing rump of the Tea Party is a disgrace. For the swastika to be paraded in the city and to be met by Abbott’s silence, which suggests approval, reveals something very dark in the present political scene. That combined with his mealy mouthed statement on Goodes has consigned him to the dustbin of history.

  9. Maureen Walton (@maureen_walton)

    Great article Kaye. It is well time the Goverment really listened to Indigenous Leaders and work out what is really needed. Allow Leaders to appoint their own workers, allowing for their Culture etc. Goverment ideas have not been working. Time for a prober Review. Not Twiggies and Abbotts expectations, that will not work as we will have many more Mental issues with Twiggies untrained Ideas.

  10. Samantha Jane Roberts

    Jollyjumbuck – you stated ” If they want acceptance from everyday Australians then I’m afraid it’s a two way street. Acceptance and respect should come from both sides and stop blaming and accusing us for what our ancestors did.” ‘ ***I am sorry to say Jollyjumbuck but Our first people do not want acceptance at all – they want manners.. Respect is something earned by all peoples and lets be honest – it would be very hard to show respect to an overwhelming invasive and murderously rude culture such as and still is today within our society and our government, etc… If things in the world continue the way they are or have been – it can not get any more kind or in sync with harmony but rather disjointed and guided by minds that do not think correctly or logically .. Frustration spreads quickly, agitation also.. then before you know it – there are many minority groups joining up because they are all or have been experiencing the same conditions enforced upon them… ‘US and THEM’ (ironically – this is the exact type of mindset of the government presently led by Mr Abbott) – US or THEM…. LIFESTYLE CHOICES, ETC ETC ETC…

  11. Samantha Jane Roberts

    ps… great article… Thank you!

  12. Wally

    Could not agree more Kaye Lee “We need Aboriginal leaders to advise us how to address the problem. We need Aboriginal communities to tell us what they need and how we can help.”

    It doesn’t seem to matter if what the government tries to do is right, wrong or indifferent it is doomed because of the resentment that lingers on. Until the indigenous communities push for change and set the agenda it is unlikely to succeed.

  13. Kaye Lee


    I look at it like this. If someone who knows nothing about you, your family, your circumstances, came to you and told you this is what’s best for you, this is what you must do from now on, this is what we are doing for you so be grateful, I would be pissed off.

  14. Wally

    Particularly if it is Tony Abbott Kaye. hahaha

  15. eli nes

    I wouldn’t mind ‘us’ and ‘them’ if ‘us’ wasn’t so ignorant, arrogant and self-righteous. Twiggy is the typical ‘us’!

  16. Garry

    The issue with Abbott’s approach to Indigenous matters is that it is systemic. For decades government has taken punitive measures to Aboriginal communities to comply with white dominant paradigm rules despite rhetoric to the contrary. I,E. We will undertake meaningful consultation with the people our policy will affect. The way this shapes policy and practice, therefore shared majority belief, naturally falls towards racism until that itself is naturally systemic.

  17. Sir ScotchMistery

    Well someone talks about Bogan racist with a hint of paternalistic bullshit and then along came a jumbuck.

    Many Australians look for a way to work with first people. Many bogans see no need to do so. Not all of us are on either side but all of us should pay more than lip service to what was done and is being done to other Australians by us and in our name by the government. Not just this one. All of them, with one or two exceptions.

    Part of the process of financial payoffs is us assuaging our historical guilt, but a bigger part is hoping that we can pay our way out of the shit storm we have built over the 2 centuries of murder and disenfranchisement we have visited upon those who were here before us white invaders.

    White Australians appear to be either apologists or refusers of any responsibility for the state we have set up. WA and NT manage with automatic jail sentences for indigenous children, thinking in their usual backwoods way that if the white fellas can’t see the aboriginal kids they are no longer a problem.

    Those of us with a semblance of intelligence, who don’t live in the backwoods states, hope that our national stupidity won’t come back to bite us in the arse eventually. That makes sense as a plan considering the deaths in custody, the murders of drunks in Queensland police lock ups and the other minutiae of indigenous management.

    As a country, we are beneath contempt. Aboriginal citizens, refugees, the poor, the homeless, the victims of domestic violence, and so it goes on.. Just make sure the shareholders get their pay day.

    And for the jumbuck, what is someone like you doing in a place like this? Go back to the racing and football pages in the daily telegraph. You have nothing useful to add to this conversation. In future when you say “everyday Australians”, just refer to yourself, you speak only for those backwoods dwellers. Try the expression “racists like me” on for size. It would certainly be more accurate.

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