Global Policy Forum

For Aborigines, Help Feels Like a Tightening Grip


By Tim Johnston

International Herald Tribune
August 22, 2007

When Long Jack Phillipus, at the age of 12, walked out of Australia's vast Gibson Desert in 1934 and saw white people for the first time, he found that he had no rights. Over the decades, he has seen his Aboriginal people win citizenship, then the return of some of their land. In time, as he watched, the authorities in Canberra promoted self-determination for his people. Then, last week, at the age of 86, he saw the government abruptly throw the process into reverse. And he's angry. "We should be the boss of our land, not that fellow from Parliament house," Phillipus said last week. Phillipus's land is the sun-baked heart of Australia. His home is in Papunya, 270 kilometers, or 170 miles, from the regional center, Alice Springs, and more than 100 kilometers from the nearest paved road.

For 40,000 years his people roamed free across the surrounding red sand scrub, and ties to the land still run deep. "I am the land, and the land is me," he said. Despite his age, he still occasionally sets off into the bush to shoot kangaroos and emus for the pot. Like many other towns in the wide reaches of central Australia, Papunya was set up by the government in the 1950s as a distribution point for the rations it gave to Aboriginal people. For its residents, there is still a sense of being an unwilling subject in a cultural experiment. There is a temporary feel to the town, with succeeding generations of government housing lying derelict. Plastic bottles and abandoned cars confirm that this ancient society has succumbed to the disposable culture.

Along with the trash, other ills - addiction, domestic violence, poor health and lack of education - have grown and festered, magnified by the isolation. Now the government has decided to act. Last week, Parliament passed the Northern Territory Emergency Response Bill. Among other measures, it requires welfare recipients to spend half their income on food, fines them if their children do not attend school, bans alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal areas and clears the way for the government to purchase five-year leases on Aboriginal town land. The catalyst for the legislation was a report prepared for the Northern Territory government this year that uncovered widespread sexual abuse and neglect of children in indigenous Australian communities. But the legislation goes far beyond the direct protection of children.

Critics call it a return to the paternalistic policies that disenfranchised the country's Aboriginal population in the past. They note that the problems it is designed to address are not unique to indigenous communities and argue that the fact that it applies only to them makes it racist. The government, they say, would not dare curtail the rights of white Australians in the same way. The bill lists 73 towns in which the legislation will apply, all of which have Aboriginal majorities. The towns are currently owned communally by their populations, with control in the hands of the town councils. But the new law will give the government control of the land within the town boundaries, as well as any local airstrips and water supplies.

Prime Minister John Howard has made sure that accusations of racism will not derail his initiative: the new law has a clause specifically stipulating that it may not be challenged under the country's Racial Discrimination Act. In the past, Aboriginal leaders have accused the government of being neglectful at best and racist at worst. Relations were poisoned by a policy only formally abandoned in 1969 in which Aboriginal children - the so-called "stolen generation" - were forcefully taken from their parents in an attempt to assimilate them into white Australian society. In part because of lingering guilt over those practices, the government has been reluctant to take forceful action about the social problems in indigenous communities. "It has always been too hard, there were no votes in it, and they were scared of creating another stolen generation," said Alison Anderson, Long Jack Phillipus's granddaughter. She serves in the Northern Territory assembly as the representative of the 35,000 square kilometer constituency that includes Papunya.

The indigenous population accounts for 2.7 percent of Australians, and by almost every measure they are worse off than the mainstream. Life expectancy is 17 years lower than the average Australian's. They are 13 times as likely to be incarcerated, three times as likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to be a victim of violence or to be threatened with violence. Almost all these indicators have gotten steadily worse since 1967, when indigenous Australians won citizenship and the right to determine their own futures. "It's good to have rights, but you've got to have responsibility too, and I think we lost sight of that," Anderson said. In a society that places little value on accumulating material possessions, and in which the government provides all the basic necessities, there is little incentive to join the mainstream workforce, especially if it means moving away from land and family, according to many who work with Aboriginal communities.

Though alcohol is banned in most indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, alcoholism is a severe problem, and marijuana addiction is widespread. "As a society we have been normalized to the behavior of people on alcohol and drugs, and we don't intervene anymore: this is one of the things that will have to change," Anderson said. "We've lost one generation to the government, and we're losing another to drink and drugs." Anderson says Aboriginal leaders, including herself, have to shoulder some of the blame for not doing enough to help their people. She is torn about the bill: she says intervention is needed and applauds some of the measures, but thinks others may be counterproductive.

Even in the dusty streets of Papunya, a relatively stable community, there is a lassitude that many attribute to inadequate education and a scarcity of jobs for those who can read and write. The school has recently been upgraded, but on a recent Thursday only 25 of the 125 enrolled children turned up. Many children are being brought up by their struggling grandparents, because their parents have moved to Alice Springs - many of them to feed their alcohol or drug addictions. Of Papunya's 360 residents, the overwhelming majority are entirely dependent on government money. Despite these problems, in places like Papunya, the new legislation has stirred deep misgivings. "John Howard's trying to make us into white men," said Sammy Butcher, a founder of Aboriginal Australia's most successful rock group, the Warumpi Band.

Many indigenous leaders say they weren't consulted about the bill, and the Northern Territory government was not told about the plan until after it was announced to the press. Community leaders believe many of its measures are fundamentally flawed, designed more to appeal to voters in the upcoming election than to solve their problems. They are particularly critical of the stipulation that the government will purchase five-year leases on town lands. That issue, they say, has struck a particularly raw nerve among people whose ownership of the lands their people lived on for thousands of years was only recognized in 1967. "I feel very sad that land is being taken away from Aboriginal society again and I don't know why: we don't have a fight with John Howard," said Long Jack Phillipus.

Sue Gordon, the head of the task force overseeing the government intervention, says the government needs the leases to build new schools, health clinics and police stations and upgrade existing facilities without interference. "If they didn't have the lease of the land there would be too much red tape that would bog down redevelopment and reconstruction," said Gordon, herself an Aboriginal Australian and one of the "stolen generation." Almost everyone in the Northern Territory seems to agree that significant intervention is needed, and most are resigned to the fact that it will mean ceding some powers and rights to the government. But people like Jane Rosalski, who has worked with indigenous communities for seven years, say better legislation could have given the authorities as much latitude as they needed without inflaming sensitivities about land.

She says the risk is that local people will fixate on the land issue, making it harder to win community acceptance for the measures tackling child neglect, addiction and educational issues. Some parts of the bill are less controversial. The proposal to put more police and health workers into Aboriginal towns answers longstanding demands from indigenous communities. Even the more controversial measures have support among people frustrated with the lack of progress on Aboriginal problems. "Sitting down and talking has been tried so many times before, it just goes nowhere," Alison Anderson said. "Do you want them to go on living in the conditions they have now? I don't."

Even if some of the policies are misguided, she said, having the central government engaged with the problems of her people is better than the neglect of recent years. "We're on a merry-go-round: every 30 years we seem to get off in the same place," she said.

More Information on Nations & States
More Information on Indigenous Peoples
More information on Emerging States & Claims to Autonomy and Independence


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.