It is a tragic reality that Aboriginal Australians do not share equally in the benefits of Australian life. Be it health, housing, employment, education, wealth, mortality rate or life expectancy, Aboriginal Australians falling behind the national average.
Many Aboriginal people live in regional and remote areas where economic opportunities are few and high unemployment and poor housing are common. Family First believes this inequality between living standards and life opportunities of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians can be equalized.
Family First believes there are five key areas of focus to ensure that Aboriginal people have the economic and social opportunities they deserve as Australian citizens. In responding to these focus areas it is important that initiatives be developed in partnership with local Indigenous communities and be responsive to need.
1. Community Safety
While many Aboriginal communities are safe and harmonious some communities need better support to tackle causes of disorder and dysfunction, particularly endemic drug and alcohol abuse. Family First believes community safety programs are essential and effective policing ensures that all Australians, whether they be in cities or remote communities, receive the full protection the law affords.
In South Australia, Family First has campaigned for years for adequate resources to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities.
Family First supports the Intervention in the Northern Territory, South Australian and other Aboriginal communities. Once child sexual abuse and neglect had reached epidemic proportions, the Howard Government in 2007 launched the National Emergency Response to address high incidences in the Northern Territory. This initiative was later extended to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in north-eastern South Australia. Through comprehensive welfare reform and the strict enforcement of alcohol and pornography bans, the programme has appropriately expanded the law to protect those most at risk.
Despite criticism from various commentators, most prominent indigenous elders and spokespeople declared their support.
One of Australia’s leading Aboriginal scholars Marcia Langton wrote in 2008[i]:
"There is a cynical view afoot that the intervention was a political ploy - to grab land, support mining companies and kick black heads, dressed up as concern for children. Conspiracy theories abounded; most were ridiculous ... those who did not see the intervention coming were deluding themselves."
Indigenous leader and politician Bess Price praised the programme three years after it had begun[ii]:
" I am for the intervention because I've seen progress. I've seen women who now have voices. They can speak for themselves and they are standing up for their rights. Children are being fed and young people more or less know how to manage their lives. That's what's happened since the intervention."
2. Workforce Participation
Breaking reliance on welfare and boosting workforce participation is considered by Family First to be essential in creating economic independence for Aboriginal children. Family First is committed to supporting initiatives which expand the range of employment opportunities available to Aboriginal people.
Family First believes that a strong foundational education is essential in preparing children for adult life. Family First supports rural learning centers and schools that are providing education adapted to their community and focused on encouraging lifelong learning at an early age.
In communities where it is not possible for children to receive such an education we believe that it is important to explore other alternatives. Alternatives may include distance education; online learning or boarding options where these are considered appropriate to the circumstances and in the best interests of the child. Pathways that allow for online learning and distance education continued through to higher education will enable rural students to stay in their communities, further enriching the economy and community.
4. Home Ownership
Land ownership arrangements in many Aboriginal communities make individual homeownership a difficult proposition. However, Family First believes that the stability and security that homeownership offers holds. Home ownership brings benefits for all people regardless of race.
It is important to find ways to assist Aboriginal people into home-ownership as this develops wealth and strengthens family life and cohesion. Native title laws need to be reviewed to ensure there are pathways for families to have freehold title in their own homes.
Family First supports the repeal of the Wild Rivers legislation in the far north of Queensland and opposes any similar legislation, as it unreasonably impedes the economic opportunities for Aboriginal communities and corporations.
5. Connecting with the modern world
The appalling state of affairs in Aboriginal Australia has so often prompted the refrain “the government should do something.” In 2012/13 Federal and State governments spent $30.3bn on Aboriginal programs accounting for 6.1 per cent of total direct general government expenditure while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians made up 3.0 per cent of the population in 2013. Clearly more funding isn’t the answer.
The only long term solution is for Aboriginal Australians to come into the modern world and connect with the modern economy. Family First believes that this transition can be done respectfully and with sensitivity to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tradition and heritage and in cooperation with the Aboriginal communities. Such a transition cannot take place while our statute books contain any law which distinguishes between any Australian on the basis of race or colour. There is no place in Australia for laws such as these.
All over the world urbanisation is on the march. Fuelled by the prospect of a better standard of living people are moving to where economies are at their strongest and home ownership and employment are accessible. We cannot expect that an economically richer life and greater opportunity is to be found in a remote community or small rural centre.
Without Aboriginal communities moving toward modernisation, the isolation, addiction, violence, and passivity that infects life in many remote areas will remain. Despite the unpopularity and difficulty of a more interventionist approach, in the interests of a generation of Aboriginal children we can no longer look the other way.
Family First does not support compensation for the ‘Stolen Generation’. The complexity of the matter requires a good deal of sensitivity and Family First respects that people’s experiences in this area are different. Indeed, the accounts from Aboriginal families vary greatly and allegations by some advocates that children were ‘stolen’ do not represent the entirety of Aboriginal experience. In many cases, children were voluntarily given an opportunity for a better life elsewhere, whilst in other cases the government and non-government agencies were acting in the best interests of the children at that time.
Family First does not support the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Constitution. Recognition of race, language or heritage will not automatically improve race relations. Symbolic gestures do little to improve the living standards and increase opportunities afforded to Aboriginals, particularly in the five key areas above.
Although symbolic and practical outcomes are not mutually exclusive, more practical approaches could achieve greater improvement in Aboriginal economic and social opportunities. Inserting a specific reference to Aboriginal Australians would introduce a divisive and racist theme into our Constitution.
Further, recognising a particular race, language or heritage in the Constitution raises issues of legal interpretation and other constitutional difficulties. Recommendations from previous government consultations have gone beyond constitutional recognition and have proposed changes to the scope of legislative power; potentially impacting upon the validity of state and federal laws.
Family First believes that this change is unnecessary, and resources and efforts would be better spent on ensuring Aboriginal Australians have access to the same opportunities as non-Aboriginal Australians. Considering the unique nature of Australia’s diverse heritage and migration history, it is untenable for any Australian law to distinguish people on the basis of race, language or heritage.
Australian families deserve better. Australian children deserve better. Australia deserves better.
i. Marcia Langton, Trapped in the Aboriginal reality show, The Drum ABC, Feb 2009 (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-02-08/trapped-in-the-aboriginal-reality-show/1036918)
ii. Defence, Discrimination and Regrets, ABC Q&A Programme, April 2011 (transcript: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3182043.htm)