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Looking Upstream for Solutions for Aboriginal People

This article is an extended version of an article previously published in The Australian.

There are as many programs, strategies, and policies designed to help Aboriginal people as there are organisations devoted to helping them. This is good, as there is no one single magic bullet that exists that will fix every problem. Some of these sources of help are beneficial, while others are less so, in fact they can be very harmful. Ultimately, attempts to help Aboriginal people should converge on education, jobs, and location. That is, the people need to live in locations where they have the same educational and job opportunities as other Australians. In the case of remote communities, this could mean investing in them where they are economically viable, or, the less popular option of relocation where they are not sustainable. And of course, any such relocation needs to be done in a sensitive manner. I am not advocating simply uprooting the people and dumping them in a nearby city. But that’s a discussion for another time.

So, we know the solutions, and in fact they are not just hypothetical, because there is an abundance of successful Aboriginal people who are thriving. So what’s preventing those Aboriginal people who are suffering from partaking fully in what Australia has to offer? While there are several reasons, there is one that is not often discussed, which I will discuss here, by way of an analogy.

Imagine a river that is dirty and polluted. You can try all sorts of clean-up strategies downstream, but you will be forever performing the same strategies unless you identify the source of the pollution upstream and clean that up. There are many sources upstream, but a major one is the group of factories dumping waste into the river. Common sense dictates that efforts should be directed upstream if it is clean water downstream that is desired. I would argue that one of the largest factories is the ‘Aboriginal industry’. This industry is a figurative entity and not a single organisation. It comprises activists, government departments and universities. It is the collective mindset produced by those promoting the view that Aboriginal people are totally distinct from the general population requiring separate services, and separate solutions to the problems they face. Some of these people work in positions specific to addressing Aboriginal issues, while others are contributors in one form or another, whether they be commentators, journalists, or activists.

Obviously to clean up the water downstream, which in this analogy means addressing poverty, crime, unemployment, sickness, etc., means closing down the Aboriginal industry, or at least giving it a major overhaul, which will mean removing many of its workers and replacing them with people who are serious about helping Aboriginal people. This is not likely to happen anytime soon. The words of Upton Sinclair resonate here - “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

I am not suggesting that all players in the Aboriginal industry are less than helpful, as I have met some amazing people (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) who work tirelessly to close the gap – and they are often shunned by others in the industry. But there are many who thrive on keeping the people down because it allows them to play the part of moral crusader and saviour, not to mention sometimes earning a nice income along the way.

A hallmark ideology of the Aboriginal industry is its insistence on blaming colonisation and ‘white’ governments for the problems facing Aboriginal people today. Its members will tell us that Aboriginal people living in poverty, dysfunction, and despair are stuck there because they are still victims of the past or are suffering rampant racism today. Clearly this is false, as has already been stated, there is an abundance of successful Aboriginal people who do not use the excuses of the past and racism. The Aboriginal industry delights in demonising government and white Australians with words like ‘genocide,’ ‘assimilation,’ and the like. This erodes race relations and makes it less likely that those Aboriginal people most in need will embrace any opportunity/service provided by the government, thereby keeping the Aboriginal industry in business.

Another pillar of the industry is its strident insistence that culture, often a romanticised version bearing little resemblance to authentic Aboriginal culture, be given absolute priority. Matters of culture are fine, but not at the expense of child safety and family well-being. The hearts of thousands of Australian’s break whenever we read how a child’s safety has been compromised, sometimes with fatal outcomes - all because placing a child with Aboriginal carers was considered more important than safety. Yet we read daily of fears of another ‘stolen generation.’

When considering how best to close the gap on unemployment, ill health, and dysfunction, it is surely education and jobs that must be priorities, and not culture. While individuals can decide for themselves what role culture plays in their lives, and I am all for people embracing and expressing their culture in a way that suits them, this must not be focussed on at the expense of jobs and education.

Let’s focus upstream so that we get better results downstream in the lives of Aboriginal people. If this means scaling back the Aboriginal industry or at the very least giving it a major shakeup and wake up, so be it. Surely what really matters is the lives and the potential of Aboriginal people.

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