Paternalism: its impact on Indigenous communities

November 17, 1993

Not Part of the Public: Non-Indigenous policies and practices and the health of Indigenous South Australians 1836-1973
By Judith Raftery
Wakefield Press, 2006


"Black men, we wish you to be happy. But you cannot be happy unless you imitate white men. Build huts, wear clothes and be useful." Thus spoke George Gawler, the newly arrived South Australian governor, in 1838. He addressed a crowd of a few hundred Indigenous inhabitants, plus white settlers. When the speeches were over, the Indigenous people retreated to enjoy their "presents" of tea, sugar and meat, while the settlers took tea in the marquees.

Not Part of the Public examines how attitude and policy has construed Indigenous South Australians (although it can be generalised around the country) as apart from, and less than, "the public". While the period covered ends in 1973, this critical examination of our colonial past has far-reaching implications for the present and future, not just for Indigenous people but also for health policy more broadly.

Raftery views health as largely determined by social, historical and political factors. While this perhaps comes as no surprise to many of us, it is a theory that flies in the face of the individualist ideology that informs much public health policy and service provision, which promotes "lifestyle choices" as the major contributing factor in an individual's health. Behaviour and choice cannot be separated from their social context, Raftery argues.

Raftery draws attention to significant research that has found that in the developed world the healthiest populations are not found in the richest countries, but in the most egalitarian. So, while in the first world the standard of living has increased across the board, as the gap between rich and poor increases, so too does the mortality differential between the wealthy and the disadvantaged. Poor people are dying - compared to the rich - more than previously, even though our standard of living has increased. Health, it would appear, is not simply a matter of material circumstance, but also a direct consequence of equality, empowerment, control over work-related issues, social connectedness, etc.

With this broad and structural analysis of health, and of what makes populations healthy, Raftery turns her attention to an examination of the colonisation of South Australia. It is not hard to see why the entire history of Black-white relations has inevitably led to the health of Indigenous Australians being what it is today: amongst the worst in the developed world. Since settlement, Indigenous people have been viewed invariably as deprived, "other", subhuman, unequal: while the names of policies may have changed - from "protectionism" through the 19th century to the "self-determination" of the last thirty years - the ideology has remained essentially one of assimilation: Indigenous people can be saved from their pitiful circumstance, if only they become more like "us" and thus part of the public.

But Indigenous people were never seen as part of the public by white decision-makers. "The public" were the ones eating sandwiches in the marquees, feeling happy that they'd extended the hand of Christian friendship to "the natives", while the Indigenous people took their tea and sugar somewhere, preferably out of sight.

This early tradition of giving such "gifts" at official gatherings was perhaps the beginning of the rations system. The use of food as a means of control, and a way of structuring Indigenous-settler relations has come up also in the oral history work I have done with Indigenous people in South Australia.

In country where water is scarce, there are stories of precious waterholes being boarded up, by the same European explorer or missionary who then acts as the saviour, bringing water to the tribe. The common theme is a lack of willingness to accept Indigenous agency, a total denial or disrespect of a pre-existing social and economic order that ensured people were provided for, and which had prevailed for thousands of years.

However, while rarely told, the stories of resistance are also there: many ration depots were established with the hope of inducing the tribes to settle, to break ties with their traditions. In many cases, these ration depots were simply incorporated into the seasonal movements of different groups - somewhere else to get food if the land wasn't providing adequately and ceremonial obligation didn't require them elsewhere.

It was this determination not to assimilate that led colonists to instead focus on children, teaching them English and Christianity and "encouraging" them to marry and move away from their family. The devastating end point of this line of thought had tragic consequences well into the 20th century, as has been well documented.

While this "indoctrination" was often drenched in well-meaning jargon about providing opportunity, Raftery points out that "assimilation" only ever meant acceptance of a few into the very edges of the mainstream. Education was limited to menial and demeaning tasks, thus negating any possibility of Indigenous people becoming equal, productive members of the emerging colonial society, should they so choose.

The material Raftery draws on is extensive. She charts almost 150 years of tumultuous and ad-hoc state intervention into the lives of Indigenous South Australians. As the sub-title implies, she focuses almost exclusively on non-Indigenous materials, which can seem to reinforce the historical tendency to omit or deny Indigenous agency, although she acknowledges this limitation in her introduction. Set, as it is, within a public health policy framework, it is perhaps beyond the scope of the book to examine the community - and oral-based histories where more Indigenous-centred perspectives can be found.

While the book ends around the time that "self-determination" was being proclaimed, 30 years later many of the issues raised are yet to be addressed. Raftery points out that Indigenous people have most often been denied the means to organise their own communities. In any case, "self-determination" seems to have been downgraded to "self-management", perhaps because sectors of society are not prepared to deal with the autonomy, plurality and potential power that giving Indigenous people real choice may imply.

As well as providing a new and informative contribution to the areas of Indigenous affairs, history and health, Not Part of the Public also raises a lot of questions. Perhaps it falls to all of us, whether Indigenous, or non-Indigenous working in related areas, to begin to answer them. In fact, the book seems to end with an implicit challenge to all of us who wish to see positive change for Indigenous people. Certainly a structural, historical view of the current health situation can't help but lead us to the conclusion that solutions that focus solely on service provision and health promotion, without addressing a history of dispossession and ongoing marginalisation, will inevitably fall short.

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