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.