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Monday, December 27, 2010

Aboriginal Living Standards Still too Low

On 27th May 1967, a referendum was held to change the constitution. It wasn't about giving Aboriginal people the vote - they already had that - it meant Aborigines would be counted in the census and to empower the federal government to make laws for the Aboriginal race. The yes vote was a staggering 99.77 per cent which meant that Australians were very serious about wanting to raise the standard of living of Aboriginal people. Barry Cohen was assistant campaign director for the yes vote team in 1967. He writes in The Australian about how the gap in living standards between black and white Australians still exists today but it's not entirely the fault of past and present governments - Aboriginal people must also take some responsibility for it.

Arriving at Collarenabri in February 1970, we were taken by a local doctor to a settlement on the banks of the Barwon River where humpies made of corrugated iron, hesian and scraps of linoleum housed the local Aboriginal community. The doctor told us "The children are fine while being breast fed but when that ceases, mothers, knowing little about nutrition, feed them rubbish. They get sick with a range of illnesses that have them in and out of hospital so often, that by the time they are five, they are a couple of years behind their white contemporaries, physically and mentally. Their parents are invariably unemployed, heavy drinkers and gamblers, with a limited vocabulary. This cultural backwardness flows on to the next generation. When the children go to school, they can't compete. When at home, they don't have electricity to enable them to study. We have to break the cycle of poverty."

That was forty years ago and despite considerable improvement, too many still live like this. We would never permit this if they were non-indigenous children. But there have been improvements. In 1965 the first two Aborigines to graduate from university were Charles Perkins and Margaret Valadian. Now there are more than 20,000 with university degrees and tertiary qualifications. That's little consolation to the tens of thousands who live in abject poverty today with appalling accommodation, poor health and no jobs. It's worse if they suffer from physical and sexual abuse and are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

While governments must bear the responsibility for that, the Aboriginal community must also recognise that it too has contributed to the big gap in their standard of living. They must cease living in a mythical paradise that they imagine existed before the arrival of the Europeans. They are angry that their life span is 20 years less than non-Aborigines, but in their nirvana, it would be 50 years less. They have the right to choose any lifestyle they desire but they cannot expect governments to provide the essential facilities to hundreds of tiny remote communities. They must decide their own future. If they want a semi-nomadic life in a netherworld then they will have to do it with minimal government help. We are fooling ourselves if we pretend otherwise. Opportunities are opening up for employment of Aborigines, particularly in northern Australia, in mining, cattle raising and tourism, but not enough. Aborigines must relocate to areas where they can obtain employment and where they can also find accommodation and adequate health care. We must provide them with the best education possible. There are schools in remote areas but they vary from ordinary to awful.

We must stop pretending that Aborigines can live in two widely diverse cultures. They must choose between a modern Western lifestyle or a primitive subsistence similar to that which they enjoyed before the arrival of Europeans. Some will argue that it will destroy their culture, but it doesn't have to. They can preserve both while advancing their education in a range of areas. That's what's happening to the rest of the world and it has been happening to the 20,000 plus Aborigines who now have tertiary qualifications.

Jobs count, not noble gestures.
Barry Cohen
From: The Australian
27 December 2010