By Todd Fernando for IndigenousX
Indigenous and mainstream Australians often have very different ideas about the concept of “success”. For non-Indigenous Australians success opportunities are almost exclusively economic concepts, based on stolen and inherited resources and privilege. For Indigenous people, achieving this normative conceptualisation of success involves abandoning our home cultures and assimilating into the dominant culture, usually without any of the advantages of inherited wealth and privilege.
Indeed, success for Indigenous people involves coming face-to-face with the reality that we start out at the very bottom of the economic ladder because our assets and resources were stripped from our nations during Australia’s violent colonial history. Indigenous Australian activists have fought back against this structural disadvantage over the last century or so, particularly in more recent decades, and this has resulted in some wider recognition of this glaring economic reality.
Yet despite this transformation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to experience some of the highest incarceration, suicide and ill-health rates in the world. For these Indigenous Australians, the barriers to success are still real and visceral. In many cases, exclusion is still the reality. There are all too often hidden – or not so hidden – barriers that prevent some Indigenous people from feeling comfortable in places of overwhelming whiteness.
When Indigenous people enter Australian boarding schools, universities or workforce, they often carry historical baggage. They are still often the first in their families to attend these institutions, gain formal education and participate in the Australian economy. These opportunities simply were not widely available to our older generations. And when they position their lives according to the foreign values of these institutions, many fail due to this cultural difference. That failure can produce a tension between Indigenous people and these organisations or institutions. This is how Australian nation-building can negatively impact Indigenous communities and values.
The “last of his tribe” imperialist trope has now been replaced with “the first of her tribe” as an indicator to Indigenous people entering elite institutions solely by merit and fortitude. This new narrative causes a subtle racism of low expectation in the fact that each instance of success is considered remarkable, an exception to the rule. Their accomplishments elevate them above their peers as role models and are used to send the message that any individual can succeed, so those experiencing poverty and oppression have only themselves to blame. This brand of shaming has the potential to cause more economic marginalisation and social isolation.
Framing positive narratives of Indigenous life can place pressure on an Indigenous social presence in mainstream Australian culture. When Indigenous success invokes a political or ideological agenda, tensions rise because it applies Australian mainstream’s concept of success as the roadmap. Such traps are avoided when an Indigenous concept of success is viewed equally. When considering Indigenous employment statistics in areas of health, education, business, economics, law, the presence of Indigenous participation emerges. But the other side of these statistics shows how much more work is required. When narratives lead with the latter, deficit discourse seems to always prevail.
Most Australians, and our international visitors, first learn about Indigenous people through conversations that are often grounded in disadvantage: the automatic assumption that the male Aborigine is akin to an unemployed criminal, for example, or the fetishisation of the female Aborigine as a sexually wild beast, sprawled drunk under the shade of a eucalyptus tree. These narratives draw unsettling conclusions where the blame is placed solely on the Aborigine. They also seek to elicit shock, outrage and, in a Helen Lovejoy fashion, a paternalistic concern for the vulnerable children.
Negative fantasies of Indigenous communities’ lead to destructive representations that do not help. Nigerian-born Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns that if you tell “a people what they are over and over again, that is what they become.” It is without surprise that many loathe discussions of deficit discourse that paint a picture of Indigenous communities only in a negative way.
Native Alaskan academic Eve Tuck argues “that the research on our communities has historically been damage centered, intent on portraying us [Indigenous] as defeated and broken.” Therefore, we must forge new narratives to sit alongside as indicators of achievement. But how do we shift deficit discourse and allow Indigenous success to be seen, heard and told first? While there is no one correct answer, a practical solution is the rise of an Indigenous intelligentsia.
Intelligentsia is a term to describe a collection of people who push the boundaries of critical thinking. For Indigenous Australia, this intelligentsia includes Indigenous academics, lawyers, doctors, CEOs, consultants and a lot of young leaders and entrepreneurs. Indigenous intelligentsia should be understood, at least in part, as a cure to the crisis of low expectations and an end to the thought that Indigenous anything is first and foremost deficit, damaged or broken. To do this, however, we must affirm the growth of this intelligentsia in both Indigenous and Australian cultures.
Some believe that Indigenous achievements in Australian mainstream culture are merely markers of assimilation. Some stir the pot by assuming any goal toward economic stability is to “sell out,” while others obsess over the emerging black bourgeoisie by using them to prop up their social capital. When this way of thinking is normalised, it shadows the brilliance of Indigenous success discourse by confirming disadvantage as the only margin from which Aboriginality can be performed. It redefines Australia’s tall poppy syndrome with the idea that there are too many crabs in the bucket.
This group of intelligentsia must guide and harness an archetype of Indigenous leadership in Australian society’s culture and polity to allow Indigenous people stand on the other side of the door entirely while contributing to the Australian economy. Professor Marcia Langton captures and propels the sentiment knowingly: “with one gate open, we should now think about removing the fences.”
The building of an intellectual community should be seen as an incredible and exciting journey that cultivates the thought that Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people can exist outside of deficit narratives, sporting arenas, and art exhibitions. That they too can capitalise on Indigenous ways of knowing to guide and shape the positive rather than continue the primitive, negative silhouette. These truths are not told to mask the areas of despair in Indigenous affairs, but to highlight that transformation and revolution occur when success outweighs deficit.
We must go beyond the idea that sport, art or welfare dependency is the only avenue to “success” and change the narrative through education and career-making. This logic goes beyond the superficial symbolism that sometimes results from reconciliation efforts. While it seems like an easy task to do, what makes this so complex is challenging the idea that Indigenous people are inherently disadvantaged and marginal rather than capable and successful, as, increasingly, so many are. It demands that we have to do better and it starts by challenging the notion that success is exclusively white.
Published on The Guardian on October 22, 2017.
The future of Australia's relationship with its indigenous peoples could be significantly influenced by a meeting at Uluru this week. It will discuss changing the constitution, but may also include support for a treaty. Australia does not have one, unlike many nations, reports Trevor Marshallsea.
In 1832, the governor of Van Diemen's Land reflected ruefully on his colonial administration's chaotic - and bloody - relationship with the island's indigenous population.
Amid a period of great conflict between white colonists and Aborigines known as the Black War, Governor George Arthur said it was "a fatal error" a treaty had not been entered into with the Aboriginal people of what's now the Australian state of Tasmania, after white settlement had commenced some 30 years earlier.
The absence of a treaty was cited by Mr Arthur as a crucial and aggravating factor in relations with the first inhabitants of the island, the scene of some of the worst treatment inflicted on Aborigines by British colonists.
Almost 200 years later, Australia remains the only Commonwealth country to have never signed a treaty with its indigenous people. While treaties were established early on in other British dominions such as New Zealand, Canada and in the United States, the situation in Australia has been, often notoriously, different.
Fifty years ago this Saturday, a landmark referendum voted for the country's constitution to be changed to allow Aborigines to be counted among all Australians (whereas they had previously been excluded from the national census), and to shift power to legislate on indigenous affairs from the states to the federal government.
A few years earlier, Aborigines had been given the right to vote in national and state elections.
In 1988, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke was presented with "the Barunga Statement", named after an Aboriginal community. Written on bark, it called for a treaty. The cause had been thrust forcefully into the public consciousness in the late 1980s in various ways. One was rock band Midnight Oil's 1987 hit "Beds Are Burning", which implored white Australia to "pay the rent, to pay our share". Part-Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi had an international hit with "Treaty" a few years later.
On receiving the Barunga Statement, which he had hung on a wall in Canberra's Parliament House, Mr Hawke vowed there would be a treaty by 1990.
In 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating made a now-famous speech in the Aboriginal-centric Sydney suburb of Redfern, addressing harsh truths about the often brutal and murderous "dispossessing" of the country's traditional owners.
A year later came the watershed Native Title act, which threw out the historical view that Australia before European settlement in 1788 essentially belonged to no-one.
And in 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a long-awaited apology to Australia's indigenous peoples, for policies that had inflicted suffering on them.
Despite these words, acts and gestures, there is still no treaty. Also, there remain contentious sections of the nation's constitution which are race-based, although two significant others were removed in the 1967 referendum.
Section 25 still says states can disqualify people from voting in elections on account of their race. Section 51 (xxvi) empowers the government to legislate for "the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws".
This week, marking the referendum's 50th anniversary, an Aboriginal leaders' summit at Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) is hopeful of reaching consensus on whether - and how - the constitution should be changed. But some delegations are expected to make statements about the need for a treaty, and financial compensation.
The meeting will also shine a light on white Australia's troubled, and peculiar, historical attitude to the country's first inhabitants.
Australia's distinct problem, historians say, took root from reports delivered back in England by the first white men to land on the east coast in 1770.
"Captain James Cook and (botanist) Joseph Banks reported the Aborigines were few in number and were just wandering around the place," says University of Sydney history professor Mark McKenna.
"The perception was they had no recognisable agricultural system, and they were basically savages."
Thus when Admiral Arthur Phillip led the first fleet to begin the colony of New South Wales in 1788, Mr McKenna says, "there was no expectation any treaty with the locals would have to be signed. The way Australia was settled was in fact quite extraordinary."
Tasmanian Aboriginal writer and activist Michael Mansell told the BBC the English were deceived by their perceptions of Australian indigenous culture, including that they lived in small groups, by contrast to the large and seemingly more organised tribes of North America.
"To them, the Australian Aborigines didn't display any of the trappings of a so-called noble culture," Mr Mansell says.
"They weren't riding horses like the native North Americans. They didn't have permanent dwellings. It was harder to discern who their leaders were. So they were regarded as a vulgar and backward people who could be treated as the invaders liked.
"In 1840 colonial officials in New Zealand were sitting down with the Maoris to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. At the same time in Australia, Aborigines were being hunted down, shot and slaughtered.
"All of this fostered a deeply entrenched cultural bias against Aboriginal people which, ever since, has been very hard to shake, both in attitudes and in a substantive way."
While provision was made for indigenous people in Canada's constitution in 1867, Mr Mansell points out that "the only mention of Aborigines in Australia's constitution of 1901 was to exclude us".
At that time, Australia's first prime minister, Edmund Barton, said race-based clauses in the constitution allowed his government to "regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth".
Little changed in attitudes in the ensuing years. This, Mr Mansell says, was partly due to a widespread belief that the Aboriginal race would simply die out, and be bred in amongst the European community, and because of the country's so-called "White Australia" policy on immigration. Existing in various forms from 1901 until 1973, the policy, though aimed at immigrants, did little to promote acceptance and cultural sensitivity.
While the 1980s and early 1990s brought attitudinal change, the plight of Aborigines was set back, Mr McKenna and Mr Mansell agree, under the conservative John Howard government of 1996-2007.
Contrasting Mr Keating's Redfern Speech, Mr Howard said he would not take a "black armband" view of Australia's history on Aboriginal relations.
In 2000 he said a country "does not make a treaty with itself". And in 2004 he announced the abolition of the peak government body handling indigenous issues, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), following corruption investigations.
"John Howard shut the Aboriginal movement down completely," Mr Mansell says. "ATSIC had its problems, but it was a sound moral concept. There's been plenty of crooked MPs, but they don't shut down parliament."
Still, despite Australia's troubled past on indigenous matters, and fears from government and business on the implications of a treaty, of financial compensation, or of official recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty over Australian lands, Mr Mansell is "very optimistic" substantive change can be sparked by this week's summit.
"What we need is a clear plan capable of being adopted by governments which will not interfere with the rest of Australia but will give empowerment to Aborigines, and give land back to those who can't get it under the Native Title Act," Mr Mansell said.
With Australia's constitution difficult to change, many agree a more pressing need is the establishment of a national representative body allowing Aborigines to make their own decisions on matters affecting them, rather than have decisions forced on them from Canberra.
"A treaty would break the 200-year-old cycle of governments not negotiating with the Aboriginal people," says Mr McKenna, adding it would provide a framework for how negotiations are held on indigenous issues such as welfare, employment, education, health and land ownership.
"It would say 'we're no longer just going to do things to them', but that they're included and empowered."
Published on BBC News on May 24, 2017.
By Calla Wahlquist
Australia’s Indigenous incarceration rates are among the worst in the developed world but it is in the increasing rates of child removal that Australia stands out as being particularly behind other nations, the UN special rapporteur on Indigenous rights has said.
In a preliminary report delivered to the government on Monday after a 14-day visit, the special rapporteur, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, highlighted the growing Indigenous incarceration rate as an area of serious concern.
She told Guardian Australia that child protection policies, which saw Indigenous children removed from their families at almost 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children, contributed to the numbers in detention.
“The thing that makes it different in Australia is this child protection system where they are taken away from their parents and brought to other families, I think that’s the one that I find quite different compared to what I have seen for instance in the US,” she said. “I think that’s quite unique here in Australia.”
Tauli-Corpuz toured the Cleveland youth detention centre in Townsville and Bandyup women’s prison in Perth as part of her visit and said both the rates of incarceration and the crimes for which people were being incarcerated were alarming.
“Some of the reasons for them being incarcerated are very petty,” she said. “I went to Cleveland, I spoke with the young children there, and one boy was like 12 years old, he just stole a fruit, and on that basis he was incarcerated and then he just kept going back.”
Tauli-Corpuz is the second Indigenous special rapporteur to conduct an official visit since Australia signed the declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples in 2008. She said she found it “disturbing” that so few of the recommendations made by her predecessor in 2009 had been implemented, and that the bulk of recommendations made by both the 1991 royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and the 1996 Bringing Them Home report, among other recommendations, had also not been enacted.
She also made a number of her own recommendations, including introducing justice targets to the Close the Gap goals and refunding the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, both of which she said would be necessary for Australia to win a seat on the human rights council.
“If those actions are taken then maybe they have the justification to sit in the human rights council,” she said. “But if there are no good, serious efforts to implement some of the repeated recommendations then I think it’s not … it doesn’t speak well of having a country being there.”
The visit coincided, rather awkwardly, with the parliamentary vote on abolishing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, in which the Turnbull government sought to remove protections against insulting, harassing or humiliating people on the grounds of their race.
The proposed change was stopped in the Senate, but Tauli-Corpuz said the highly publicised debate, which in another awkward piece of timing began on Harmony Day, sent a message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about their position and value in Australian society.
It’s no wonder, she said, that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are frustrated. “What they really feel is so, so, helpless,” she said. “They feel so frustrated …
“There are all these different recommendations for royal commission reports, etc, and they are looking up to the implementation of these recommendations, but nothing is happening …
“And in everything they have to push, they have to fight for it, nothing ever comes to them. They have to fight for every little bit of their rights.”
In intensely bureaucratic processes such as securing native title or obtaining funding under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, where the system is already stacked against them, that lack of faith can turn to despair, Tauli-Corpuz said.
“I think there are many positive things happening within Indigenous communities with them taking up the cudgels and dealing with the issues themselves,” she said. “But the way that they are being regarded is like they are wards of the state: they don’t have the agency themselves to address these issues … [and] the services that they need are not really shaped in a manner which is structurally competent.”
It’s a model used by governments across the world, she said, to curtail the rights of Indigenous peoples while still outwardly appearing to comply with international law.
“The thing that governments do generally is to really bureaucratise the system … they put in place very complex bureaucratic processes that Indigenous peoples will not be able to hurdle,” she said.
Tauli-Corpuz particularly criticised the Indigenous advancement strategy, introduced by the Abbott government in 2014, which she said undermined the right to self-determination by promoting a shift towards service delivery in Indigenous communities by mainstream, centralised services.
She called for the government to reinstate all funding cut under the strategy and accused it of abandoning its public commitment to support the self-determination of Indigenous peoples.
She also criticised the federal government’s decision not to fund political advocacy work traditionally undertaken by organisations such as Aboriginal legal services.
Advertisement“How will these discriminatory or racist policies be rectified if the people who are directly affected are not even provided support to do that?
“It costs a lot of money to do advocacy work, to get people to analyse the law, to get people to go and meet with the members of parliament or the members of government. It requires a lot of resources and by not giving the resources you are basically capping the ability of organisations to influence the reforms that are very much needed.”
Other draft recommendations included immediately reinstating funding for Aboriginal legal services, increasing funding to Aboriginal family violence services, establishing national strategies for reducing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in both the justice system and out of home care, developing a national charter of human rights, and urging the government to act on the recommendations of the joint parliamentary committee on human rights.
The Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, defended the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which he said increased the number of Indigenous organisations delivering services from 30% to 45%.
“The Coalition government is absolutely committed to working with Indigenous Australians to deliver better outcomes – and this can be seen in a range of areas, from the stunning success of our procurement policy to our remote school attendance strategy that is getting more kids to school,” he said on Monday.
He said that while he welcomed Tauli-Corpuz’s visit and her preliminary report, it skipped over more positive developments.
“I thank the special rapporteur for her initial findings and reflections as captured in her statement released today but note there is only a passing reference to the many positive things occurring in Indigenous affairs in this country,” he said.
Tauli-Corpuz, who met Scullion before handing down her preliminary findings, said he had acknowledged the importance of engaging local community-led services but suggested that could be difficult in areas that are under state control, including law and order.
“That kind of response really allows for the abdication of the federal government in terms of their responsibilities in complying with the international human rights obligations to the conventions they have ratified,” she said.
The final report is due in September.
Published on The Guardian's website on April 3, 2017.
By Calla Wahlquist
More than 100 legal and community organisations have written to Malcolm Turnbull demanding a national solution to the Indigenous youth incarceration rate and calling for the introduction of justice targets.
As the Northern Territory royal commission prepared to release its interim report on Friday, the letter from the Change the Record coalition, which is signed by 107 organisations, said problems of both over-incarceration and mistreatment in care, including abuse and the use of isolation cells as punishment, was not confined to the Territory.
“This is a national crisis, which demands an immediate national response,” it says.
It comes as an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report on youth incarceration, released on Friday, found that the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in detention had increased over the past five years, as numbers of non-Indigenous children in detention had fallen.
In 2015-16, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 25 times more likely to be in detention and 17 times more likely to be under some form of youth justice order than non-Indigenous children, up from 21 times more likely to be in detention and 13 times more likely to be in some kind of care in 2011-12.
The total number of children under some form of youth justice order fell 21% over the same period.
According to the AIHW report, 48% of the 5,842 people aged 10 to 17 who were on some form of youth justice order in 2015-16 were Indigenous, and 59% of those in detention were Indigenous.
Of those in detention on any given day in 2015-16, 57% were unsentenced, meaning they had been remanded on bail. Indigenous children spent two weeks longer on average in detention than non-Indigenous children, and were more likely to spend more time in detention before being sentenced.
Indigenous children were also much younger when they entered the youth justice system: 50% of Indigenous people under some form of youth justice order were 15 or younger, compared with 33% of non-Indigenous people, and one in eight were younger than 13, compared with one in 20 non-Indigenous people.
“Although less than 6% of young people aged 10–17 are Indigenous, Indigenous young people made up 48% – or about 2,300 – of those under youth justice supervision on an average day,” AIHW spokesman David Braddock said. “And while there has been a drop in the rate of Indigenous young people under supervision in recent years, the decline for non-Indigenous young people was proportionally greater, effectively increasing Indigenous over-representation in the youth justice system.”
Change the Record Coalition spokesman Shane Duffy said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were still more likely to get stopped by police and more likely to receive a custodial sentence from magistrates, despite broader efforts to divert children away from jail.
“You could be a young non-Indigenous person walking down the street and police might look at you, but they won’t stop you,” Duffy said. “But if you’re a young blackfella straight away the police pull you up, ask what you’re doing, ask for your name and address.
“We try and tell our young people to go along with the police, but they say to me: ‘uncle, I get sick of these bastards stopping me all the time’.”
Duffy said the national statistics on youth incarceration, which show that more than half of all children in detention or on youth justice orders on any given day were from NSW or Queensland, showed efforts to address the problem should not be confined to the Territory.
Associate professor Thalia Anthony, from the University of Technology in Sydney, said issues that had emerged in the Territory royal commission, such as the number of children in detention who were also in out-of-home care, and the use of police and the youth justice system to control the behaviour of children living in foster or residential care situations, also existed elsewhere.
“There’s been so much discussion on the NT and what’s pretty clear here is that there are huge problems elsewhere,” she said. “The fact that the royal commission has been focused on the NT makes it a bit of a scapegoat that precludes us from looking anywhere else.”
Anthony said it was particularly concerning to see that Indigenous children were entering the youth justice system at a younger age than non-Indigenous children across the country, as that often led to them receiving harsher sentences and becoming entrenched in the prison cycle.
Published on The Guardian's website on March 30, 2017.