How the Hell Did We Get Here? 2

The situation of Indigenous people is Australia is not unique in its general outlines. European colonialism displacing and impacting on Indigenous populations is a feature of other modern liberal-democratic states; the USA, New Zealand and Canada.

Where we stand out is that we’ve done it far worse than these other examples, on key indicators. The most obvious and most often quoted is life expectancy (LE). The latest figures still show a 17 year gap in LE between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In the other 3 analogous situations the LE discrepancy is only half of that in Australia. What are we doing so wrong or so differently here?? Or are there other factors that explain the difference?

While there are differences, I suspect that our overall approach is the most significant factor. The other possibilities are the very low Indigenous population in Australia, at just over 2%. Indigenous people make up 15% of the NZ population and 4.4% in Canada. The US sinks the theory with a very similar proportion to Australia (around 2%). Another suggestion has been the proportion of people living in very remote locations, but Canada also has very remote locations with Indigenous populations.

But what is it we do so poorly? And why can’t we learn from our own past experience, as well as that of others? I’d argue that the recent ’emergency response’ in the NT shows exactly what it is we do so poorly. Here we had an unco-ordinated, poorly planned response to a chronic situation that involved zero consultation with the affected population. Juxtaposed with this was the Federal Governments’ own Productivity Commission report of this year, ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2007’ , which was the subject of a presentation by the Chairman of the Productivity Commission at the OECD World Forum, just 7 days after John Howard and Mal Brough’s notable press conference. This is the Commissions’ summation of what we have learned (or should have learned) ,

Analysis of the ‘things that work’, together with wide consultation with governments and Indigenous people, identified the following ‘success factors’:

-cooperative approaches between Indigenous people and government (and the private sector)

-community involvement in program design and decision-making – a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ approach

-good governance

-on-going government support (including human, financial and physical resources).

The Federal Governments reponse in the NT has been pretty much the opposite of what its own Productivity Commission, and years of experience, recommend.

But why?

I believe it is the wilful ignorance (or denial) of the ‘chain of history’; that what we see today is inextricably linked to yesterday and beyond. Aboriginal disadvantage today is the outcome of past, as well as current, choices, policy and practices. Ignoring this leads to policy reactions focussed on today, such as bringing in the army or short term policing strategies, when we know that indentification and solving of problems must include Aboriginal people at every phase, from diagnosis, to implementation, to evaluation. Not doing so, simply guarantees further failure, no matter how urgent an emergency is evoked as reason not to do what must be done.

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