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21 April 2015
by John Slater

Race baiters don't deserve the high ground on Indigenous policy

There is perhaps no area of public policy as desperately in need of fresh ideas and honest debate than the disadvantage faced by Indigenous people. Yet it is difficult to think of a topic more hamstrung by political correctness and woolly-minded clichés than the plight of the first Australians.

The public reaction to Tony Abbott's recent description of living in remote indigenous communities as a 'lifestyle choice' which taxpayers should not be required to endlessly subsidise is a case in point. Admittedly, the descriptor of 'lifestyle choice' was ill chosen and unbecoming of a Prime Minister. However, Abbott's broader point: "that if people choose to live miles away from where there's a school… if people choose to live where there's no jobs, obviously it's very, very difficult to close the gap," is one that deserves to be discussed frankly and openly.

Unfortunately, any hope that Abbott's critics would offer a reasoned reply to the substance of his argument – that remote living places serious constraints on remedying indigenous disadvantage – were soon dashed.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert labelled Abbott "unbelievably racist and completely out of touch."

West Australian Labor frontbencher Ben Wyatt, went further, accusing Abbott of "portraying the ancient cultural practices of Aboriginal Australians as nothing more than a sea change move, the equivalent of painting landscapes on one's veranda."

Author Guy Rundle suggested that Abbott's comments were fuelled by cultural contempt for indigenous people, claiming "the destruction of remote Aboriginal communities has long been on the deep conservative agenda."

Thanks to this puerile mix of personal attacks and race baiting, the substantive issue of the sustainability of indigenous communities living in virtual isolation was successfully framed as being simply about cold-hearted conservatives forcing indigenous people off their land. Tainted by the politics of race and division, the matter was rendered unsavoury for discussion in polite circles.

Although silencing your opponent by way of public character assassination seems to be an effective way of winning an argument on any number of indigenous issues, it contributes nothing to solving the far-reaching disadvantage suffered by aboriginal people. And even if the sustainability of indigenous people living in very remote areas is a conversation politically correct elites would prefer stayed closed, the issues faced by those living in these communities remain real.

It is wholly unrealistic to expect that communities with fewer than 100 or in some cases even 50 people would ever be able to enjoy anywhere near the same standard of living as those in towns and cities. Ever greater sums of public funds in the areas of health and education have failed time after time to produce outcomes within even striking range of even semi-regional areas.

For children growing up in these communities, this isolation places undeniable constraints on their future life prospects, particularly their chances of achieving fulfilling careers and becoming self-sufficient members of society.

Abbott is equally right to point out that taxpayer support cannot be unlimited. It will instinctively strike many as cruel to even talk about cutting funds from a disadvantaged group like indigenous communities. However, the fact is that every cent spent subsidizing communities that are unlikely to ever be self-sufficient is done so at the direct expense of other areas of public need. At a time of ever increasing demands on public money, it is both reasonable and necessary to draw limits on how far resources can be redistributed to regions that are irremovably wedded to government life-support. Of course, where such limits should be drawn is the province of reasonable debate and disagreement. The point, however, is that with some communities housing as few as six people, the discussion is worth having.

None of this is to deny that Aboriginal people living in these communities have a close and abiding connection with their land. Rather, it is to expose the naivety of those happy to accept that the existence of indigenous cultural affinity with the outback is enough to end the argument before it has even begun. If we want 'closing the gap' to mean more than a tokenistic catch-phrase, the realistic prospects of improving the lives of those in the bush is a topic that cannot continue to be skirted for fear of causing offence.

The feverish determination of race-baiters to shut down debate was again recently seen in responses to announced plans to trial cashless welfare cards in remote communities. The brainchild of mining magnate Twiggy Forest, the welfare card would look and operate just like any ordinary debit card, with the exception that it could not be used on alcohol or gambling.

Given the scourge of alcohol and drug abuse in some rural communities, a modest form of income management that makes it harder for welfare to be squandered on destructive ends seems like a sensible idea. It is true that the card doesn't address the underlying social ills of alcoholism and problem gambling. Nor will it realistically prevent those who are truly determined from getting their hands on alcohol. But as a way of helping to ensure more public money is spent on meeting the basic needs of people in these communities, the idea deserves at least some credit for getting the ball rolling.

Predictably, Greens Leader Christine Milne, thought the welfare card was an idea not even worthy of civilised discussion: "I think it's really offensive to all Australians to see our Prime Minister standing up with a wealthy and privileged other white man, a mining magnate, telling people throughout Australia who are less well off how they should manage their income."

If Milne had bothered to look beyond the gender and race of those spruiking the welfare card, she might have noticed that wives and partners from within remote communities have in fact been calling for moratorium on welfare-funded booze for years. In any event, painting the welfare card as a case of wealthy white men controlling how the benighted spend their pittance is either deliberately coy or peddling pure fantasy. Welfare isn't pocket money. It is distributed to those who need it in order to alleviate poverty and disadvantage. The welfare card does this by limiting spending on gambling and drinking; two luxuries that might readily be described as the polar opposite of what such payments were intended for in the first place.

The intersection of child protection and indigenous policy presents a lesser known, but equally compelling example of political correctness sucking the oxygen out of reasoned debate. Under the 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ACPP), indigenous children who require out of home care are to be placed wherever possible either with immediate family members, or within their existing community. Introduced following the public fallout of the stolen generation, the ACPP was devised with a view to preserving the cultural identity of indigenous children in need of care.

The trouble is that by giving precedence to the preservation of 'culture' above all other factors, such as the ability of carers to meet basic needs, the ACPP has consistently seen aboriginal children placed in conditions of sub-standard care. According to Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies Jeremy Sammut, the problem lies in the fact that "the sorts of culturally determined parenting practices… which may have been suitable in the social conditions of the past, are no longer functioning well in the present." Anthropologist Peter Sutton describes this culture of "customary permissiveness in the raising of children" as being responsible for the neglect of basic need such as adequate food, shelter and medical attention in Aboriginal communities.

Naturally, any explanation for the alarmingly high incidence of child abuse in indigenous communities that centred on the prevailing culture within such communities was simply "divisive grandstanding" according to Ngiare Brown, the deputy chairman of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council.

The race baiting continued from National Children's Children Commissioner Megan Mitchell, claiming that "a level of racism" was behind the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in the child protection system.

Yet with the number of aboriginal children on care and protection orders doubling between 2000 and 2011, blaming these disturbing figures on 'institutionalised racism' starts to look more like a convenient scapegoat than a plausible explanation.

Some have even attempted to explain-away far-reaching evidence of systemic neglect in some communities by accusing social workers of being insensitive to 'cultural difference.' Paddy Gibson, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney has argued that allegations of neglect are often unfounded because aboriginal children usually have more autonomy than non-indigenous children.

This might be more convincing if Indigenous children were not eight times more likely than other children to be victims of substantiated abuse claims. Then again, with Gibson arguing that whether or not a child is neglected is merely a "subjective" judgment call, it is hardly surprising that statistics seem to carry so little weight with some members of the intelligentsia.

All this would be less concerning if current indigenous policies were achieving anything close to their desired effect. Yet according to the latest 'Closing the Gap' report, there has been no progress in indigenous reading and numeracy since 2008. Worse still, this same period has seen a decline in Indigenous employment.

If we are honest, the shouting down of any idea that presents even a modest challenge to the status quo is depriving Indigenous people the benefit of an honest debate about how their disadvantage might best be ameliorated.

This raises a puzzling question: what motivates those who time and again have expressed their concern for the Aboriginal community in the most in the most emphatic terms imaginable, yet so fiercely resist ideas that sit outside the existing paradigm of chronically underachieving policies? The most obvious explanation is the long shadow cast by past atrocities committed against aboriginals has fostered an innate wariness of any 'tough love' measure designed to push aboriginals towards greater self-reliance. Perhaps it is this instinct that has so often seen those who question the wisdom of policies which view state dependency as a cure rather than a temporary treatment accused of being mean-minded or lacking in sympathy.

Again, this would less perturbing if allowing indigenous policy to be dictated by lingering guilt for the wrongs of past generations had yielded anything better than an uninterrupted string of abject failures.

On the more extreme ends, it is doubtful whether deep down race-baiters actually accept that measuring indigenous progress according to the usual indicators of living a healthy and successful life - things like educational achievement and workforce participation - is even the right thing to do. For these people (often Greens parliamentarians or academics who find themselves sitting on the far left fringe of the progressive peanut gallery), the original sin of British settlement means it will always be wrong to hold any expectation of Aborigines participating in mainstream life in modern Australia.

Sadly, the costs of sticking to policies stifled by shibboleths of cultural Marxism and political correctness is borne solely by the Aborigines who continue to live lives marred by despair and despondency.