Guest Notes

Hands on the scales of Aboriginal affairs

22 February 2020

9:00 AM

22 February 2020

9:00 AM

Recently we saw the release of the latest Closing the Gap report for 2020. There were no real surprises, so I’m not going to discuss its findings here. Rather, I will discuss why I believe we are not seeing a narrowing in the gap. And this is despite recent claims in the Australian of ‘A new structure for Closing the Gap is expected to be reached by April.’ Unless this proposed new structure takes into account the problems I mention here, future Closing the Gap reports will all be like the previous ones, accompanied with the usual responses of ‘Government have failed and must do more’.

For over a decade I have written about the problems that face far too many Aboriginal people (violence, poverty, suicide, etc.) and also spoken about what I believe are the solutions — employment, education and access to modern services. There is certainly nothing original about the solutions I propose. Perhaps where I have been a little original, is emphasising that Aboriginal affairs are everyone’s business and that the commonalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people far outweigh any differences. These assertions are not well received by many in the ‘Aboriginal industry’ — a point I will expand on shortly.

I have also discussed other controversial ideas like: Aboriginal people are not victims of colonisation, nor are they victims of racism and that ‘healing’ comes from forgiveness and not receiving a (forced) apology. For a long time, I have suggested that addressing serious problems facing Aboriginal people needs to be prioritised over feel-good gestures like a national apology, constitutional recognition and Australia Day protests. Closely related to these gestures is the excessive use of rhetoric: ‘treaty now’ or ‘sovereignty never ceded’ that prevents real solutions from being openly discussed. I believe if each of these points was addressed, we would make greater progress in closing the gap.

We know the problems, we know the solutions, we know the major distractions, yet still the gap is huge. Why? All my thinking has converged on the following idea: that too many of those charged with the responsibility of helping Aboriginal people are like the butcher with his hands on the scales when weighing your meat — the involvement of his heavy hand in weighing is to his advantage. Simply stated, far too many of those working in Aboriginal affairs — the ‘gate keepers’ — benefit from keeping Aboriginal people from advancing.

I should state from the outset however, that I believe that many of those involved in Aboriginal affairs are there for the right reasons. It is a minority who are there primarily for their own self-interest. They may be a minority, but they form a critical mass that acts as the arterial plaque that starves the heart of Aboriginal affairs of much needed nutrients.

This minority with their hands on the scale includes leaders, academics, politicians and activists. They are clearly interested in maintaining problems or even creating problems where none exist. I base this opinion as a commentator on Aboriginal affairs and from the conversations I’ve had with many people in my travels. I also base it on the many caring people who write to me after reading my commentary to tell me what they have observed.

The situation is best summed up by a man I met in a remote community, who, when speaking of the people in his community who were responsible for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people stated: ‘If they did their job they’d be out of a job.’ This sort of thing has been happening for a long time. Consider what David Pollard wrote back in 1988 in his book Give & Take: the Losing Partnership in Aboriginal Poverty:

The interest of the political parties in maintaining an Aboriginal problem is compounded by the existence of a small group of Aboriginal activists whose vocation is confrontation, who generally derive their own income from governmental sources, either directly or indirectly, and who must have poor Aborigines to point to in order to have a raison d’etre themselves. (p. 10)

The ‘hand on the scale’ phenomenon isn’t just restricted to Aboriginal Australians. Consider what African-American Booker T. Washington had to say more than a century ago:

There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.

So what are some of the payoffs for those with their hands on the scale? Well for many it’s a job. But there are some other benefits. For some, having the ‘poor Aborigines’ enables them to build an empire, be a consultant, be an expert and to play the part of rescuer.

So what to do? In redesigning the next incarnation of Closing the Gap targets, I suggest focusing on changing the underlying assumptions that seem to infiltrate every aspect of Aboriginal affairs that I alluded to earlier. First, let’s not assume that Aboriginal people are fundamentally different from non-Aboriginal people. While their circumstances may sometimes be different (i.e. living environments, remoteness), they have the same basic needs as other Australians. Second, if Aboriginal affairs is everyone’s business (and it is), then non-Aboriginal people do not need to wait for an invitation or be given special permission to discuss the problems facing Aboriginal people and the associated solutions. They are entitled to give their opinions and know that such opinions are just as valid as those from Aboriginal voices.

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