Much of my understanding of the issues facing Aboriginal Australians comes from my experience of living and working with Aboriginal people who still speak their own languages at home and live largely on their own land or on communities close to their traditional lands. It’s important to remember that these populations are a minority among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. So at one level, my focus may seem largely irrelevant to the situations and struggles of the vast majority of Aboriginal people.
But there are two points on that I’d like to make. First, the people I’ve lived and worked with are among the oldest continuing cultures, speaking some of the oldest languages, in the world. I think all of Australia benefits from their ongoing strength and survival. In particular, urban and southern Aboriginal populations, and left activists fighting for a sustainable alternative to capitalism, benefit from this.
Second, what is happening in the Northern Territory, with the recently passed Stronger Futures laws and the government’s “Closing the Gap” campaign, is the pointy end of the neoliberal approach to “the Aboriginal issue”. The approach manifests itself differently in urban and regional areas. But assimilation is the ultimate aim of these government policies.
State, territory and federal governments have signed up to a “Closing the Gap” campaign, which is meant to address the appalling differences in life expectancy, health, education and employment between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Closing the Gap is a framework through which different policies and funding agreements will be established.
In the NT, the Stronger Futures legislation, which passed through the Senate on June 29, is a recent example of a Closing the Gap initiative.
The federal Coalition government introduced the NT intervention in 2007, supposedly in response to a “national emergency” due to high levels of child abuse and neglect in NT Aboriginal communities. The harsh intervention laws were over the top and there was no consultation. The Racial Discrimination Act was suspended to get the intervention laws through parliament.
The “emergency response” was to last five years. It expired at the end of June this year. The new Stronger Futures laws are meant to be what the government calls the “normalisation” phase — the last five years having been the “stabilisation” phase.
Major social indicators have worsened in NT Aboriginal communities over the past five years of the intervention. Incarceration rates have risen by 67%. Domestic violence, self harm, suicide and school attendance are all worse than they were in 2007.
Yet Stronger Futures continues the most paternalistic and harmful aspects of the intervention for another decade. These include linking welfare payments to school attendance, harsh alcohol laws with mandatory sentences, long-term government leases of Aboriginal land and no recognition of customary law.
So what is being “normalised” in Aboriginal communities is the trauma of apartheid that people have been living with — and dying from — for the past five years.
All the evidence suggests these measures are not going to close the gap. In fact, they are already doing the opposite.
But Stronger Futures isn’t an anomaly or a mistake: Stronger Futures is the Closing the Gap initiative put into practice.
Within a generation, Closing the Gap aims to achieve health equity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and halve the under-five mortality gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. Within a decade, it aims to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy outcomes, halve the gap in Year-12 attainment rates and halve the gap in employment outcomes.
These are all very important goals. But the government’s proposed methods for reaching the targets are assimilation, pure and simple. For example, its funding principles for remote locations assume that investment decisions will be based on improving “participation in the market economy”, reducing “welfare dependency”, promoting “personal responsibility” and promoting “behaviours consistent with social norms”.
I don’t even really know what that last one means, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve celebrating linguistic diversity and communal ownership of land.
Bizarrely, one of the most common social norms in the Northern Territory, as far as I can tell, is excessive consumption of alcohol. The punitive approach to alcohol management contained in Stronger Futures is at odds with accepted behaviour in white Australia.
So it seems that while assimilation is the endgame, there are some things that Aboriginal people still can’t be trusted to decide for themselves — at least, not until they all live in nuclear family suburban homes and speak English as a first language.
But sitting in a park sharing a cask with family and speaking a language the cops don’t understand is clearly threatening behaviour.
Capitalism only has one solution to address the stark inequities Aboriginal people face: make "them" more like “us”. Bring them into the mainstream, get them a full-time English-speaking job, in a town, so they can buy a family home and settle down into the quiet, comfortable life of the Australian working class. Better yet, some of them may even become middle class, or small business owners.
But the thing is, this approach doesn’t work and can’t work.
Studies have shown the appalling impact racism — being stolen from your family, growing up without your language: that is, being assimilated — has on people’s health.
Apart from that, Aboriginal people don’t want to be assimilated. They will resist, because they look at what the system has to offer, and how much it is at odds with their own values and their own economies, and many say “no thanks, we can do better than that”.
There is plenty of evidence that staying on country, living in tiny outstations on your own land, with family, is very good for physical and mental health. Just like there’s plenty of international research that shows becoming literate in your own language first — even if it means learning English a little late — improves educational outcomes in both languages.
So why wouldn’t a government committed to closing the health gap throw all its resources at keeping people where they are healthy, on their homelands?
In the pages and pages of Closing the Gap literature I’ve read there is no mention of the evidence that homelands are healthier. No mention that it makes environmental sense to have small groups of people living sustainably and practising proven land management techniques. No mention of the genuine national asset such linguistic diversity is.
These kinds of facts scare neoliberals. How do Aboriginal homelands fit with the push to streamline, regionalise and centralise services? How can spending public money on a homeland of 30 people possibly be economically viable?
How can genuine bicultural and bilingual education make sense if the whole point of education is to get kids into the “market economy”, where they can practise “acceptable social norms”?
Within the framework of capitalism, it doesn’t make sense and isn’t viable. That’s why the only way capitalism can close the gap is to assimilate Aboriginal people.
It’s vital that we join together with Aboriginal people, and they join together with us, to fight it.
Because those of us struggling for a different world — a world that puts human need, community and our relationship with the natural world before profit — we need things like homelands, alternative ideas about what “community” means, what is and isn’t “viable”. We need Aboriginal people’s millennia-old knowledge of the unique natural environment if we’re to adequately deal with climate change and protect this planet.
And the Aboriginal people in the NT and around the globe, who are struggling to hold on to that knowledge, need our solidarity if they’re going to make it.