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Macklin at risk of stalling

26 September 2009 1,120 views No Comment

ALTHOUGH Tony Abbott, a senior federal Liberal MP, says there are grounds for optimism about Aboriginal policy (Inquirer, September 5), it’s far too early to declare victory.

Still, there have been advances. Take Cape York, for example. Thanks to Noel Pearson, there are now at least some controls on alcohol in four indigenous communities. Also, the Queensland government is finally providing appropriate police numbers in Aboriginal communities and, thanks to a mix of carrot and stick, at least in Cape York more children are going to school.

But there’s still an enormous indigenous drug and alcohol problem, plus chronic gambling, largely a result of a concentration of unemployed people who aren’t forced to participate in work programs.

Lifting Aurukun school attendance rates from 30 per cent last year to about 70 per cent in 2009 is an achievement of sorts but only because truancy for years has been a way of life in most remote indigenous towns. What’s the point of an education, many Aboriginal people tend to think, when there are no jobs available that require it and no real encouragement to move where meaningful work is available?

For almost a decade in Aurukun, in far north Queensland, pupils had to be taught in all-age clan groups, not standard classes. As a result, only a small percentage of children came to school and those who did achieved little of academic value. Yet it’s years since there has been a successful truancy prosecution in Queensland.

More children are now attending school in Aurukun because parents might otherwise have their welfare money quarantined, but how much they’re learning isn’t clear. Keeping indigenous culture strong remains an ideological priority of school authorities across the country even though it betrays the children, who need a good education in English. As the political Left used to understand, an excellent education, not sympathy and victimhood, provides the best escape from poverty for all disadvantaged children.

In the Northern Territory’s remote schools, pupils are now supposed to receive their instruction in English for the first four hours of the day. This is an improvement but it begs the question of what was previously happening. There are also big issues about the quality of teaching, regardless of the medium of instruction.

Meanwhile, Pearson seems to have been distracted from the work of saving Aboriginal people from semi-permanent welfare dependency by the campaign against the Queensland government’s wild rivers legislation. It is indeed hypocritical of Premier Anna Bligh to commit to indigenous economic development while locking up Aboriginal land.

Pearson is entitled to be indignant that green votes in Brisbane seem to matter more to Bligh than Aboriginal economic prospects, even though, at least in the short term, his vision of dozens of Aboriginal-owned and operated cattle stations and eco lodges may be unrealistic. What matters much more now is breaking the welfare mindset and encouraging people to take the jobs already on offer elsewhere in Australia.

Then there’s the unfolding disaster of the $670 million Aboriginal housing program in the Northern Territory. As is now apparent, $45 million has been spent and not a single house has yet been built. This is yet another case of government doing badly for Aboriginal people what most other Australians have to do for themselves. While those on low incomes ought have first call on public housing, why should it be assumed that government’s job is to house people where they live rather than where there might be better economic prospects?

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin says delays in producing the houses are due to sorting out land tenure and establishing a clear expectation that standard public housing rent would be paid, no matter how tenants treat their dwellings.

However necessary, this objective is delaying housing that’s needed now. These delays seem to be due to bickering between the federal and Northern Territory governments and the usual round of consultations, which inevitably produces a conflict between what tenants want and what government is prepared to pay for.

Readers may recall that a housing “war cabinet” was supposed to have been a key outcome of the Prime Minister’s apology to indigenous people, but, like some other Rudd government programs, it has fallen victim to the tendency to over-promise and under-deliver and to expect to make a difference without antagonising any of the vested interests.

Macklin is a thoroughly decent person who wants to bring about change for the better in Aboriginal peoples’ lives. She seems to genuinely believe the intervention was necessary and wants to continue it.

Her tendency to give everyone a hearing, and to agree with all and sundry, means the intervention that raised such hopes in remote communities is slowly reverting to mind-numbing business as usual. Macklin has even encouraged the idea of an elected national Aboriginal assembly to advise state and federal governments. This would become another grievance factory with status but no real responsibilities.

The intelligent Left and the compassionate Right now substantially agree on what needs to be done. Making it happen, however, will require more money, more time and, above all else, more personal commitment from senior people in government than before.

This could so easily become another demoralising false dawn. Macklin has said she’ll be taking a close personal interest in the Territory housing program. It won’t be enough to don a hard hat for a photo opportunity. To achieve anything of lasting value, Macklin will need to go on sites for days at a time and immerse herself in the detail before things really start to change.

Ross Fitzgerald The Weekend Australian September 26, 2009