So perhaps it’s time to take a more comprehensive look at how government policies impact black lives. In this piece, a long-time MP explores connections between Australia’s rapid population growth and its poor treatment of minority citizens.
by Kelvin Thomson
Black lives matter. It’s true, and in Australia it’s not as if we haven’t had opportunities to face up to and address the consequences of it.
We’ve had mass rallies, we’ve had Royal Commissions, we’ve had the High Court cases Mabo and Wik, we’ve had native title legislation, we’ve had Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech, we’ve had the Parliamentary Apology to the Stolen Generations, we’ve had the Australian Football League’s Indigenous Round.
These things have all been worth having, but the bottom line is that they have not made much practical difference. The “Closing the Gap” (between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians) initiative and its reports are important. They disclose some areas of progress, but also that targets such as halving the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous children in child mortality, and halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy, have not been met. Indigenous school attendance rates have not improved, nor has the national indigenous employment rate.
Now to be fair, at least in the circles in which I move, I find people are very positive about indigenous Australians. They want them to do well and live happy lives. They are saddened by the accounts of lives blighted by poverty, unemployment, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, incarceration. I think this is true of political leaders as well as ordinary Australians.
But if there is good will, why are we still doing so poorly? I think a key problem is that Governments have become too busy solving the problems of population growth, and the attendant problems of their big cities. Half their time is devoted to creating “jobs and growth”, the modern political mantra, and the other half is devoted to dealing with the Frankenstein monsters, such as Melbourne, Sydney and south-east Queensland, that their “jobs and growth” have created.
All their money, all their time, all their energy, goes into big city growth problems – traffic congestion, housing unaffordability, inadequate infrastructure, declining open space. Indigenous Australians get squeezed out. They get superficial, rather than genuine and concerted, attention.
Any non-indigenous person wanting to help indigenous Australians has to be careful about the risk of paternalism, of course. I have heard claims that wanting to provide indigenous Australians with employment and housing and career opportunities – the white picket fence – is paternalistic. I have heard counter claims that suggesting that indigenous Australians don’t want employment and housing and career opportunities is paternalistic.
Given this, it makes sense to me to listen to what indigenous Australians are themselves saying about what they want, and not to merely listen, but to take notice. One couple I have been listening to is Anne Poelina and Ian Perdrisat, who have an outstanding lifetime of working in the aboriginal communities of Broome, Derby and Fitzroy Crossing in Australia’s remote north-west Kimberley Region. Anne has pulled together six traditional owner nations to form the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council.
The Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council and other Kimberley traditional owners recently issued a powerful call to the Western Australian Government, headed “Martuwarra Fitzroy River Too Precious To Pump”, calling on that Government to work with them to protect the mighty Fitzroy River. The indigenous traditional owners are very concerned about proposals for large-scale water extraction, fracking and land clearing. They point out that the living waters of the river and floodplains support culture, tourism, fishing, and rare wildlife such as the critically endangered freshwater sawfish. The Fitzroy River is recognised as an Aboriginal Heritage site and a National Heritage place. This recognition doesn’t mean much if projects that do irreparable damage to the environment and wildlife through land clearing and industrialisation are approved.
In my experience Governments and corporations typically view indigenous objections as a matter of project cost. They ask, “what do you want in exchange for agreeing to our plan”? However, if we are sincere about improving the lives of indigenous people, we have to listen to what they actually want. In this case, they want to protect the Martuwarra Fitzroy River from land clearing and industrialisation. That is precisely what should happen.
Now the proponents of the various proposals to industrialise the Martuwarra Fitzroy River will say, “indigenous people need jobs, and we are going to provide them. They need us.” That is where Ian Perdrisat comes in. He and Anne and others have put a lifetime of experience with indigenous young people into developing an education proposal called Mardoowarra College. It isn’t a traditional school or university. It would provide culturally appropriate alternative education for Kimberley youth to give them life skills and career opportunities in the pastoral industry, agriculture, animal husbandry, science, culture and the arts, conservation and land management and tourism.
So far they haven’t got either the Federal or Western Australian Government to agree to fund it. That is a pity. Ian and Anne tell me that indigenous youth in the Kimberley experience extremely high levels of disadvantage, with poor physical and mental health, and very high levels of incarceration and youth suicide. I believe that in order to make black lives matter we need to get better at listening to indigenous people, and prioritise “Closing the Gap” over building ever bigger and ever more unsustainable cities.
At TOP we’re curious: what’s the situation in your country? What connections do you or your fellow citizens see between neglect of minority interests and a focus on growth at all costs?