Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs

June 14, 2008

The paternalistic Northern Territory intervention, started up under the Howard Coalition government, and continued by the Rudd Labor government, has reignited the push for Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs.

The paternalistic Northern Territory intervention, started up under the Howard Coalition government, and continued by the Rudd Labor government, has reignited the push for Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs.

Below, Pat Eatock, a Goomiegyrie and a grandmother of the Kairi (or Gyrie) nation from central Queensland, looks at Aboriginal dispossession since the 1967 citizenship referendum. The article is based on a paper she delivered to the Climate Change — Social Change conference organised by Green Left Weekly in Sydney in April. Eatock is active in the Sydney Aboriginal Rights Coalition.

The 1967 referendum to recognise Aborigines as citizens resulted in huge population shifts from missions and reserves in the eastern states and "station camps" in remote areas into smaller cities and the fringes of country towns.

The referendum, which passed with an 83% majority, led to government "managers" being removed from reserves and missions. In many cases, managers' houses became residences for Aboriginal people and the keys to community property and services were handed over.

For instance, at Wallaga Lake, Uncle Teddy Thomas and his large family were able to move into the big house on the hill, and his wife began to run the small health clinic.

In other places the transition was less smoothly handled, and many Aborigines took advantage of the new freedoms to move out of reserves altogether.

There was an influx of Aboriginal people into major cities. In Sydney, Redfern, with its existing Aboriginal population, became the hub of Aboriginal development and the site of new Aboriginal initiatives such as the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service that still exist today. Other programs, such as the school children's breakfast service, were less long running.

However, in rural and remote areas many Aboriginal people became "fringe dwellers", and many smaller reserves with their dwindling populations were shut down. Government neglect of services, a lack of funding and state housing policies ensured that within a few years many pre-existing reserves and missions were closed. In NSW, 86 reserves were reduced to 18.

In remote areas, many Church missions were able to hang on to their domination of Aboriginal people with the support of the missionary zeal of their urban non-Aboriginal congregations and the consent and later the financial support from their Aboriginal congregations. Santa Teresa Catholic Mission and the Lutheran Hermansburg in the NT both spring to mind.

Equal pay

In the early 1970s more Aborigines lived in and around small cities and country towns. Flowing from the referendum and Aboriginal struggles, Aboriginal workers on station properties were awarded equal pay. Working for rations was no longer feasible: Vincent Lingiari and the Wave Hill strike throughout the 1960s had seen to that.

Yet in the NT and parts of Western Australia the move to equal pay led to massive unemployment for Aboriginal people. The cattle industry, in particular, almost shuddered to a stop in the light of the refusal of this sector of Australian capital to pay for services it had never paid for before.

Vast areas of country had been opened up to cattle primarily on the backs of Aboriginal labour — and not just that of Aboriginal men. At a time when "sheep men", "carters" and "bullockies" in central Queensland were using Aboriginal women as virtual slaves and sexual conveniences — as "mates" — Aboriginal women were helping to open up the far outback to cattle.

The process went like this: a man could ride up to a small group of Aboriginal people, shoot a few men, disperse the rest and capture a woman. She would then be tied onto the back of a horse and, at the end of three or four days, would have learnt to ride.

It was not unusual in the middle of the 19th century to see a drovers' "wife" riding along with her baby tied on to the front of her saddle. Later, as the cattle industry grew, Aboriginal men were induced into it in return for rations and the occupation of a station campsite somewhere on, or near, their traditional lands.

With the advent of equal pay and the refusal of cattle barons to meet the increased costs, the newly-unemployed Aboriginals were confronted with welfare benefits while governments moved to subsidise the cattle industry with taxation rebates and similar rewards for mechanising and automating the industry.

Motor-bikes, four-wheel drives, quad-bikes, light aircraft and helicopters helped mechanise the cattle industry after it had lost so much of its workforce. Aboriginal people were left without purpose, without the pride of meaningful labour and with demoralising and emasculating "sit-down money".

By the mid 1970s, under the Whitlam Labor government, many Aboriginal people were drawn back to their traditional lands and the "out-station movement" — later referred to as the "homelands movement" — became popular. Meanwhile some fringe dwellers had settled happily into living in "town camps".

The government responded to a perceived need to remove some of the racial tensions in many major rural centres such as Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. Some funding of services, including schools, health clinics, housing and community services, helped outstations to stabilise and grow.

This gave legitimacy to the development of almost 200 Aboriginal communities throughout the NT, and more in Western Australia.

Community development

The existence of comparatively stable communities eventually led to the Community Development and Employment Programs (CDEP) initiative.

In the late 1970s the government introduced a "work test" for all those receiving the unemployment benefit. Until comparatively recently, there were few employment opportunities for Aboriginal communities in remote areas.

Given the high Aboriginal unemployment and the fact that it was attracting the attention of human rights activists here and abroad, the CDEP allowed Aboriginal people to side-step the work test. It ensured that Aboriginal unemployment remained a largely hidden statistic.

The CDEP offered "work for the dole" activities on the assumption that 15 hours of labour per fortnight was equivalent to 15 hours at an average award rate.

Most of the early work opportunities under CDEP were built around raking, sweeping and refuse removal. Later, imaginative and innovative programs included house painting and home maintenance, driving, child care, supervising homework, assisting teachers, office work and community work.

Aboriginal arts and crafts, and educating the young in traditional hunting and gathering methods and in the traditional culture were important aspects of community development.

The CDEP's range of activities was expanded throughout the Northern Territory, the Kimberly in WA and into other states. Eventually it was even operating in major cities, providing employment and training opportunities for many long-term unemployed.

However, the CDEP began to fall out of favour with the authorities as many who had been "employed" — some for ten or 15 years — began seeking longer hours, a reasonable living income and superannuation.

CDEP was cut back dramatically prior to the Howard government's Northern Territory intervention. This attack caused many Aboriginal community organisations to collapse as millions of dollars of equipment and resources invested in Aboriginal communities and their organisations were withdrawn.

The Rudd government's reinstatement of CDEP may prove to be inadequate, or impossible, given the state of Aboriginal community organisations. In any case, CDEP will never provide long-term employment at a reasonable living wage with income security, long-service leave and superannuation.

The Northern Territory intervention, which the Labor government is expanding under various forms into other states, will have an even more disastrous impact on Aboriginal employment.

Turning back the clock

The sequestration of the welfare entitlement and its replacement with the ration cards system has turned the clock back by 50 years. The food voucher system restricts virtually all purchases of food items and some other necessities to three Supermarket chains — Woolworths, Coles and K-mart. The vouchers cannot be used at community stores.

The voucher system has forced a huge population dispersion throughout the Northern Territory. People are being forced off their traditional land and away from their communities to redeem the vouchers. They end up in town camps, or become "homeless" as "people of the Long Grass", or the "fringe dwellers" of yesteryear.

Rudd has said that part of his motivation for supporting the NT intervention is to "assimilate" Aboriginal people as workers, home owners and consumers.

The NT intervention has interrupted funding to Aboriginal community organisations and led to the commandeering of valuable resources and infrastructure.

Although the government is now proposing to reinstate CDEP, this will not always be possible without the re-establishment of many Aboriginal organisations which have been shaken or destroyed under the earthquake of the NT intervention.

These are yet more reasons to resist the government's attempts to extend the racist and paternalistic intervention into other states.

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