What’s working in Indigenous Affairs? A thirty year perspective.


What do Aborigines want and what do policy makers think they need? There’s more to those questions than meets the eye, says WILL SANDERS (at right). He is a frequent visitor to The Centre, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. His PhD was on the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the social security system. This comment piece also appeared in the Centre for Appropriate Technology’s tri-annual magazine “Our Place” and was given as a talk for the Killara Uniting Church last year.
Thirty years ago, as a young graduate, I was drawn into working in Indigenous affairs. As an undergraduate at Sydney University, studying politics and philosophy, I had been interested in other issues, like urban development and the environment.
I did not seek out my involvement in Indigenous affairs, I was just offered a job – by a senior academic political scientist moving to Darwin who wanted a research assistant and a potential PhD student.
In retrospect, taking that job was the most formative decision of my life. I was quickly intrigued by the complex balancing acts of Indigenous affairs practice on the ground in remote Australia, which contrasted somewhat with the more simple, strident moral rhetoric of Indigenous affairs policy at the national political level.
Exploring those balancing acts and relationships between policy and practice has, in many ways, become my life’s work as an academic political scientist at Australia’s national university, as I move constantly between Canberra and the Northern Territory and occasionally into Western Australia and Queensland.
I realize, in retrospect, that what I have been drawn into is the great moral challenge of Australian nationhood. How should a developing nation of immigrant settlers relate to the people who were already here and their descendants, who increasingly over time have quite naturally become inter-bred?
One obvious answer is just to treat everyone equally as individuals under a single body of law. This sounds simple, but it is not – and there have been times in Australian history when governments have felt justified in doing quite the opposite, that is treating Indigenous people as distinct social groups requiring different treatment in both law and policy.
For example, when the Australian social security system was being developed in the early years of the twentieth century, “aboriginal natives” were specifically excluded from its provisions. This remained the case until the 1950s, but was increasingly seen as discriminatory and untenable. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the social security legislation was re-written taking out all references to Aboriginal people.
They were thus now legally included in the social security system as equal individuals under one body of law. But this was more the beginning of a story about how they would be included in practice, than the end of story about legislative difference and exclusion. This was particularly so in relation to Aboriginal people in remote areas who had until the 1960s been managed in separate welfare or protection systems with little access to money.
Initially, in practice in remote areas, pensions were largely paid to third parties on Aboriginal peoples’ behalves, except for a small ‘pocket money’ portion as it was called. From 1968, when Bill Wentworth was the Commonwealth minister for both Social Services and Aboriginal Affairs, there was a push towards paying Aboriginal people their full pension entitlements directly. This was seen as equality of individuals before the law, as too was allowing them equal access to alcohol.
The extent to which these declared policies of equal individual treatment were implemented in practice, is open to debate – and this was arguably not entirely a bad thing. In the early 1980s, when I was first moving around remote Aboriginal communities seeing how the social security system worked for them in practice, I came across numerous instances of social security money still not going direct to Aboriginal people.
The most straight-forward way this could happen was that the Aboriginal person could run out of money before the next two-weekly cheque was due. They would approach a local shopkeeper with whom they were interacting and ask for credit to tide them over. The  shopkeeper, who often also ran a little community post office, would agree to the credit on the understanding that the person’s social security cheque came to their postal address so that the credit could be repaid before the next cheque was used for other expenses.
Of course, if the Aboriginal person got much further into credit than just a few dollars, it might not be long before they were not seeing much money in their hand at all and living predominantly on credit. But this could also mean that they were not spending money on alcohol, which many Aboriginal people were themselves realising could be quite helpful.
Indeed during the 1980s and 1990s in the Northern Territory there were quite concerted efforts by groups of Aboriginal people in conjunction with the Northern Territory Government Liquor Commission to develop local regimes which restricted access to alcohol – and ironically it was sometimes commercial business interests who used equal rights arguments to defend their right to sell to Aboriginal people.
So there were, in practice, some very delicate and tricky balancing acts to be worked through, which had continuities back to the 1960s and before.
Perhaps you can begin to see how I came to be intrigued by the practice of Indigenous affairs policy on the ground  in remote areas, rather than just the high moral rhetoric of Indigenous affairs policy in national politics.
Another common practice I came across in the 1980s was Indigenous organisations informally taxing their members’ social security payments as they came into the community. This was often called “chuck in” and it was used to run community vehicles or meet the expenses of running little community offices to assist people in various ways.
This too had continuities with the 1960s when missions and pastoralists used the social security income of community members to help sustain their enterprises or endeavours. Indeed in the Kimberley in the early 1980s I found some Catholic missions which were still, in a public document, showing the social security income of their  Aboriginal community members as part of the mission income, which was then paid out, after a local tax, as local wages or pensions.
This led to the Aboriginal community organization in the area, the Kimberley Land Council publishing some rather sarcastic cartoons implicitly criticizing mission practices (cartoon from the Kimberley Land Council 1981).
What was not acknowledged, however, was that emerging Aboriginal organisations in the area were, through their “chuck in” systems, doing something rather similar. Perhaps this was why the Kimberley Land Council cartoonist used irony and sarcasm, rather than direct criticism, in commenting on mission practices.
Missions were generally on the outer in Indigenous affairs in the early 1980s and Indigenous community organisations were on the rise.
Thirty years on it is Indigenous community organisations who are on the defensive as they are now being blamed for the supposed lack of progress of the previous 30 years in much the same way as missions were back then. In both cases, I would argue, these are high-handed moral judgments that are far too easy to make divorced from the practical realities of life on the ground in remote areas.
Those practical realities have moved on a bit since my first observations, but there are still great continuities. Through the Commonwealth re-inserting itself in Northern Territory affairs four years ago in a way not seen since the 1970s, there has in recent years been a reinvigoration of efforts to manage alcohol in remote areas.
Ironically, this was probably more needed and has had more effect in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, than in the Northern Territory where the government has worked hard on alcohol management over many years.
Also people now get their social security payment by direct debit into their bank accounts rather than as cheques, which can make chuck in systems and credit arrangements a little harder to sustain. But with new electronic banking technologies Centrelink has become involved in helping people with financial management, such as through having direct deductions from their pay for rent or regular bills.
Also some people in the Northern Territory and a few other places, have half their money now going into a special Centrelink bank account which can only be spent at shops which meet certain standards and cannot be spent on alcohol and some other prohibited goods [income management – ED]. Reactions to these developments are very polarized, with some Aboriginal people saying they are good and helpful and others saying they are a step backwards to unnecessary government involvement in their daily lives. But underneath there is great continuity, tussling with some very hard balancing acts about equal rights and difference.
In my teaching, I use this triangular figure with students to get them thinking about the balancing acts of Indigenous affairs. I say that there are at least three interpretations of the dominant equality principle in Indigenous affairs – individual legal equality, equality of economic and social outcomes, and equality of opportunity.
I say that debates between these different interpretations of equality at the top of the triangle are difficult enough, but that these are in many ways the easy bit of Indigenous affairs. Where debates really get tricky is when we start to think about Indigenous difference and diversity. To what extent should difference and diversity be seen in positive terms as reflecting autonomy and informed choice, on the bottom left of the triangle? And to what extent should it be seen negatively and as requiring guidance and guardianship at the bottom right of the triangle?
I suspect that at the level of national policy we have vacillated between seeing Indigenous difference rather too positively from the 1970s to the 1990s, and rather to negatively at present. What is needed is to be able to think about Indigenous difference in both positive and negative terms at once. And that is no easy task. But to start, I think it is useful to return to Indigenous affairs at the ground level.
This old lady (pictured at top) lives on the edge of small open highway town in the Northern Territory. Within 500 meters of her camp, or walking distance, she has access to an old peoples’ day care centre, a health clinic and a roadhouse which sells food and alcohol – but only beer to “drink in” and only a couple of hours a day. This old lady’s  prospects of ever getting accommodation in the town are slight, if non existent.
Houses in the town go to “whitefellas”  who come to work there and to locals who have jobs. Anyway the old lady says she doesn’t want accommodation in town because she wants to live with her dogs – and she thinks that anyone who gave her accommodation would not allow her dogs. She likes living in her camp, which perhaps can be seen by its order – water containers lined up, food and other thing stored hanging up out of the reach of dogs.
Our old lady could go and live at one of two designated Aboriginal communities, 10 or 17 kilometres out of town. But if she did, she would either end up sharing a house with lots of other people or in a similar camp to this one on the edge of one of those communities – neither of which has a shop, a health clinic, an aged care day centre or a licensed alcohol outlet where she can go for a quiet afternoon tipple – as she has been known to do.
Those two outlying communities are nominally “dry”, or alcohol free, but in reality they have intermittent trouble with grog being smuggled in from Alice Springs by some of the less scrupulous “entrepreneurs” of central Australian society – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and binge drinking. So our old lady is not interested in living in those designated communities.
This old lady seems, in her own way, to have worked out a quite good and sustainable way of living, given the constraints of her circumstances. I have been observing her live like this since 2004 and she had already been doing it for quite a long time then.
In many ways, her choices are very understandable and deserve respect, given the constraints. But at the local level of government her camp is sometimes seen as blight which should be removed. And at the national policy level, she would be included in government statistics as a homeless person and as part of the justification for building more housing in Indigenous communities.
But her prospects of ever accessing such housing, if and when it is built, are non existent – and she wouldn’t want to anyway. She wants to live right here, with her dogs, on public land, paying rent to on-one – getting some help with her water supply and meals on wheels from the aged care day centre 500 meters away.
These are the sorts of complexities of Indigenous affairs policy and practice which intrigued me thirty years ago and intrigue me still. They defy easy solutions and easy categorisation into whether what is being done in Indigenous affairs is working or not.
All I can really do is tell you what it has been like to work in Indigenous affairs for thirty years and how I have come to think of it in terms of balancing competing principles in both ground-level practice and high moral rhetoric.


  1. This is one of the best and most insightful short articles I have read in my own 30 plus years living and working with Aboriginal people in the NT. It is a pleasant and encouraging surprise for me to know there are such honest and thoughtful people working in the academy. I had almost given up hope. Congratulations to Alice Springs News for continuing to publish articles worth reading and standing up for our community in all its wonderfully frustrating diversity.

  2. I understand fully how the subject woman feels and empathise with her. Sometimes I feel I’d like to live in isolation too, just far enough away from some place to escape from the maddening crowd, but still be able to access the liquor barn, supermarket, hospital and drugstore (not necessarily in that order).
    I’ve been observing our indigenous brothers and sisters since 1957 and for a few years worked in an agency that distributed large amounts of funding to communities. It always surprised me that the First Australians lived on the land, without housing, motor vehicles and other luxuries for thousands of years and apparently did very well since they are still here. Now we have convinced them they need to live in houses, many expect one … for free. I wonder whether we should be building sheltered areas with water supplies, a cooking area and no walls so that they can either sleep on the ground or if they prefer, pull out their fold up metal beds and camp under the shelter. Given the price of building houses, at least we’d have half a chance of providing enough shelters for everyone to live under.
    While it wouldn’t be true to say that nothing has changed since 1957, it’s fair to say that progress has been terribly slow and only incremental. It looks like we need at least another 300-500 years to make any real headway. If we all last long enough.

  3. Now here is a man with his finger on the pulse. Someone telling it like it is is so refreshing.
    To be honest, the worst thing that ever happened to the Native Australian people was the coming of the white man. That said, there is much we can do to remedy some of their, and our problems, and that does not include housing them in a style the do not want, or giving them large amounts of money.
    Aboriginal people have a whole different set of needs and standards, and these are just as much their right as are ours.
    Something that illustrates this comes to mind from my time in the Alice in the seventies and early eighties.
    A “government man” came to town with a wad of money to give away to the Aboriginal people to finance their “business ideas”. He interviewed many, and gave out large amounts of cash.
    One of the recipients was an old man who wanted to establish his own camp for his extended family. He received a cheque for $10,000 and promptly vanished from the town.
    Some time later, during a follow up to this government project, the old man was looked up, and was found some miles away, sitting quite contentedly in a small valley with the cheque still in his pocket. Surely there is a moral to this story, and incidentally, this is not something from the Dreamtime, I actually witnessed this episode.

  4. This is truly a thought-provoking article, by someone with the knowledge and experience to write it.
    I too would like to congratulate the Alice Springs News for running this informative series of articles which, judging from the public’s response, is just what we need in out town to spark community debate.
    Please keep it going, as your “paper” appears to be the most effective forum we have at the moment for discussing the important issues which are too often side-stepped by our political leaders and mainstream media.

  5. I too enjoyed the article Will. Experience, and thinking more broadly than the “over night solutioners”, will eventually help immensely in finding remedies to various problems that our Governments over the years haven’t been able to do, unfortunately.
    Well done Alice News!

  6. Thank you for providing the opportunity to read such a comprehensive, sensitive and sensible article on the situation on the ground in “Aboriginal Affairs”. The succession of policies and active interference by Governments or NGOs, churches of a range of denominations or community based Aboriginal organisations, all meant well but achieved so little. The story of the old lady is the wonderful example of self determination. After some 27 years of working life in Central Australia and the Katherine Region, I have reached a level of despair and disenchantment, and came to the conclusion that any changes in the circumstances of the Australian indigenous population must come from within. Whatever is offered or imposed from the outside will remain evasive and controversial.

  7. Will, I wonder if you’d comment on that section of your article where you refer to “Indigenous Community Organisations supposed lack of progress”?
    I was maintaining conversation with a young bloke who was fitting new tyres to my vehicle in Alice last week and he was concerned about how local Aboriginal Organisations were buying up supermarkets and businesses and where the necessary millions of dollars were coming from. He was particularly critical of their ownership of liquor outlets while Aboriginal alcoholism is rampant. While I have some idea of the complexity of inter-family relationships within Aboriginal organisations, these appear to frustrate genuine leadership to some degree, e.g. the Lhere Artepe Native Title Organisation currently reported by the News. In my opinion, if ever there was a time for Aboriginal leaders in Alice Springs to speak out about the need for multiple takeaway-free alcohol sales, then it’s now. This is very much a ground level argument and many of those who are critical of Aboriginal alcoholism in Alice Springs are cynical about these issues, including youth. Sure, it’s not easy, and indigenous have been marginalised for a long time in Alice, but remaining on the defensive seems to be creating a climate of distrust.


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