Defending Aboriginal culture


A group of Aboriginal leaders supported by the West Australian Social Justice Network has initiated a campaign in the wake of what "appears to be an orchestrated attack by the federal government and sections of the media on Aboriginal culture" and leaders.

Curtin University health economics professor Gavin Mooney, the co-convener of the WA Social Justice Network, told Green Left Weekly that, as part of the Campaign for Justice for Aboriginal People, the network is organising a public rally in Perth on October 28, "which will be a protest against government policy with respect to Aboriginal people".

The campaign was launched at a forum — titled "Enough is Enough! In Defence of Aboriginal Culture" — at Curtin University on July 17. The meeting, chaired by Mooney, was addressed by Fred Chaney, the deputy president of the National Native Title Tribunal; Dennis Eggington, a Noongar leader and CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Services; Labor federal MP Carmen Lawrence; and Ted Wilkes, a fellow in Aboriginal health at Curtin University.

Federal health minister Tony Abbott's June 21 statement that the problem of Aboriginal disadvantage "is not the lack of spending, but the culture of directionless in which so many Aboriginal people live" incensed Aboriginal leaders like Wilkes. "The poverty that Aboriginal people and particularly people in WA have to live in is unacceptable", he told GLW. "The continual encroachment of western systems into Aboriginal peoples' domains is happening without proper planning and proper respect for Aboriginal peoples' culture. It's time for governments to do it properly."

Wilkes and other tribal elders think it is time to bring forward the next generation of young Aboriginal leaders. "We think the campaign can generate enough enthusiasm amongst younger Indigenous Australians who need to get some of that knowledge that older leaders have and as a way to embrace our community so that we can remain strong", he said.

Citing Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, Wilkes gave a sobering assessment of the state of Aboriginal health. He noted that for the 70,000 Aborigines living in WA (3.5% of state's population), life expectancy is only 55 years for males and 63 for females — compared to 77 and 83 years respectively for non-Aborigines.

Despite the decline in infant mortality rates among Aborigines since the 1970s, life expectancy has not changed because of high adult mortality rates.

Wilkes explained that Aboriginal children regularly experienced major life-stress events, including "family breakups, arrests, financial difficulties, witnessing domestic violence, experiencing sexual and physical assault and racism". With "over one in five Aboriginal children living in families where seven or more major life stresses have occurred over the proceeding 12 months", these children are "five-and-a-half times more likely to be at high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties than children in families where two or less life stress events had occurred".

Wilkes believes the only long-term solution is an Indigenous family program run by the Aboriginal communities at the regional level and supported by governments. "But it should never be within government ... It has to operate outside of the bureaucracy, it has to be controlled by our mob and it has to be supported by government properly."

To find out more about the campaign, email the WA Social Justice Network ><>.

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