Indigenous people must be able to set own course

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 20 Jul 2007

Undeniably there is a national crisis in Indigenous welfare. It’s taken years and numerous reports and calls for action from Aboriginal leaders for governments to act. Now there is the political will to invest in the sorts of basic services other Australians take for granted; primary health care, education, housing and health.
We have reached a crucial moment in our nation’s history. Right now we have the opportunity to stop the abuse of Indigenous children. The current focus on sexual abuse illuminates the larger problem in some Aboriginal communities: deep widespread poverty and social exclusion. Sexual, drug and alcohol abuse are all symptoms of this deeper malaise.
But it is also about improving the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders. It is a challenge to the nation to work to overcome the fact that an Indigenous child born today will live 17-years less than other Australians. There is much to be done if we are committed to closing this gap in life expectancy.
Significantly, however, the Little Children are Sacred report which has galvanised the Australian Government into action goes beyond documenting the current reality and offers hope for the future – hope and practical solutions though its 97 recommendations.
But it is bewildering that the Prime Minister’s recent announcement – and the enormous public debate it has generated – responds to only a handful of the 97 recommendations made by Rex Wild and Pat Anderson in their report. The report strongly focused on the need for education in communities, highlighting the need for more and better schools and teachers at a cost of $600 million over the next decade.
Beyond docking family welfare payments for truancy, will the Government meet the education resource challenge thrown down by the Report?
Nor has there been any response so far from the Government to the recommendation to dramatically boost the number of Aboriginal health workers to be trained and located in remote communities. This glaring omission is despite Australia’s leading health and Indigenous agencies having pleaded with successive governments to increase funding in this year’s budget for successful programs that are making a difference.
The evidence is there on health for all to see. The health of Aboriginal people improves when they are empowered to take control. Here in Perth for example there is a city wide counseling service called Yorgum that works with Aboriginal people whose lives have been affected by family violence and sexual abuse. Run by Aboriginal psychologists and counselors who work with children and adults, the service is having a positive impact on the wellbeing of Indigenous people. It works because at all times it promotes the cultural well-being of Aboriginal people that supports their spiritual, physical, emotional and mental needs.
Now is not the time to be conservative and myopic. Now is the time to be visionary to tackle the problems besetting some Aboriginal communities. So why ignore the majority of the report’s recommendations?
At the same time the Government has been sidetracked with ideological issues not even raised in the Little Children are Sacred report, such as permits and land tenure. Let’s be clear. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that changes in these areas will prevent further abuse or improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. If anything permits can help manage the flow of strangers into communities and protect children. Nor does the Government need to override leases on Aboriginal land to act. We should be very wary of attempts to entangle other political agendas in such an important and sensitive issue as preventing the abuse of children.
Working with Aboriginal people however is the critical success factor. They must be allowed to chart their own course and direct the aspirations of their communities. Many Aboriginal political, community and business leaders are trailblazers in their chosen fields and have much to offer as we map out a better future of understanding, equality and justice in indigenous Australia.
The public has demonstrated in recent days that our collective conscience is aching for a better future for the nation. It’s time to Close The Gap through working with Aboriginal people.
Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia
Published in Perth’s West Australian on 20 July 2007.