Recent stories about the abuse of Aboriginal children is tragic, but sadly, nothing new. Back in May of 2006, Nanette Rogers had been Crown Prosecutor in Alice Springs for more than 12 years. Tony Jones interviewed her on ABC’s Lateline, where she had this to say in regard to Aboriginal child abuse: “Well, in my experience, a number of children are assaulted as part of being a child. So, for example, I got a case the other day where the very small baby was stabbed twice in the leg because the husband was trying to stab the wife in the chest and she was holding the baby to the chest so he stabbed the baby twice to the leg.” Concerned readers who read the rest of the interview transcript will find much the same as what we read about today.
Atrocious crimes of this nature require an urgent response. Children’s immediate safety is paramount and activists can no longer hide behind the cultural curtain; that is, they can no longer use the argument that removing Aboriginal children from unsafe and dysfunctional homes somehow compromises their 'cultural needs'. But in addition to a rapid response that sees children removed from dangerous environments, a longer term solution that minimises the chances of Aboriginal children from ending up in these environments in the first place is needed. Fortunately, such a solution exists, and it’s not new.
In 2014, Deloitte Access Economics reported that success in addressing Indigenous disadvantage would benefit government budgets through higher revenues and lower expenditure. Specifically, the report stated that if the circumstances of Indigenous Australians improved to match those of the Australian average, then by 2031, governments across Australia would experience a net gain of $11.9 billion.
The imperative for closing the gap couldn’t be clearer: it is a win not only for Indigenous Australians but all Australians. While the economic benefits that come from being employed, like putting food on the table and paying the bills is a worthy pursuit, there are other far-reaching non-economic benefits such as self-respect, being a role model, and engaging in activities that contribute to the good of others – all of which provide a strong foundation for healthy robust self-worth.
When a majority of the adults in a community are employed, the children attend school because parents know that a good education opens doors that would otherwise remain shut. This is what a vibrant community is like – the people feel safe and secure, they have fun, families thrive, they are healthy, are largely self-sufficient, and they have goals and aspirations. Such communities are less likely to be plagued with the problems of drug and alcohol abuse, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, squalid living environments, family violence, and youth suicide.
Few would disagree with the need to improve employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Indeed, some are probably thinking: “Here we go again.” However, as obvious as the benefits of employment and enterprise may be, there are some barriers that make these difficult for Indigenous people to attain. Unemployment and its associated problems may well be intergenerational, particularly in remote communities. According to a report by Andrew Forrest, four out of every five Indigenous Australians in remote areas leave school without pursuing further study or work. The end result is that young people in communities do not get to see working as being normal and consequently have little to aspire to.
There are several factors contributing to this intergenerational unemployment that must be addressed if we are to see Aboriginal people be all that they can be. For example, in many rural and remote locations, some people still embrace traditional ways of thinking: the share mentality is a good example. Such a cultural obligation may have served Indigenous people well in pre-British times, but today it can be a huge hindrance. Aboriginal adults who would ordinarily be working or looking for work know that each payday, they can expect a visit from many relatives wanting ‘their share’. A conclusion very quickly reached may be “Why bother working if I only have to give my pay away and often be the source of family discord if I don’t?”
The second is the pervasive belief that there are no jobs available in remote parts of Australia. This can then become a deterrent to people looking for jobs. While there may be a shortage of jobs in some locations, this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. There are jobs, but they require the workers to be skilled and job ready.
Warren Mundine has stated that it’s not a lack of opportunity, but rather the problems associated with being unemployed for more than a year that make it difficult to seize those opportunities. He further adds that most of the jobs in remote communities are done by people from outside the community – often at great expense because they have to be transported in especially.
These barriers are not insurmountable. It takes commitment from both government and people, and a major rethink about what are the factors that hinder Aboriginal people from gaining meaningful employment.
However, in those communities where opportunities for meaningful employment is scarce, then some tough decisions need to be made, as Stan Grant has highlighted in the past.
If ever there was any doubt as to the capability of Indigenous Australians, consider that Indigenous businesses registered with Supply Nation are reported to have generated “around $1.15 billion revenue in 2014-15” and are described in the most recent Closing the Gap report as the envy of any sector in the Australian economy. Given that the state of disadvantage and suffering among so many of the Indigenous population is this country’s great shame, then this is great news.
The challenge is not small, but together, we can close the gap. We cannot afford to lose another generation of Indigenous Australians.