By KIERAN FINNANE
Minister for Indigenous Advancement Alison Anderson (at left, during her election campaign) has challenged the “culture of entitlement and welfare dependency” in the Territory’s remote communities, calling on Indigenous adults to “grow up”, to become real adults “so that children, real children can depend on you”. She said she sometimes despairs at “the reluctance of some Indigenous people to take the jobs that are already there”, for instance in the “long-running mining boom”. Work is “not just about the money although the money is good”, it is “about status and respect, about responsibility and dignity”.
The Minister was speaking in the NT Parliament on November 1, the last day of the first sittings since her party, the Country Liberals, came to power. Her unsparing analysis was made during a Ministerial Statement on “The Status of Aboriginal Communities in the Northern Territory”.
In far too many remote communities “nothing gets done, no toilet is unblocked, no child taken to school unless someone from outside does it”. There is a dangerous but common “conversation of endless complaint” where “a person offers to do nothing for themselves and demands everything be done for them” and the rest of the world is wondering why: “They see remote communities covered in litter and able-bodied men complaining about lack of maintenance on the houses they live in, they wonder why Indigenous people in these communities will not do things themselves.”
She warned that the government cannot fix everything that is wrong with remote communities: “There are not the resources and everything should not be done by government because adults are not children.”
She also put her finger on the tragic significance of the Territory’s Indigenous population being very young, that there are simply not enough Indigenous adults to look after each Indigenous child – the missing adults are dead.
She pointed to some significant features of her government’s program, such as their support for Indigenous homelands with an asset management program funded by the Commonwealth including for future repairs and upgrades. She was critical of the performance of many non-government organisations (NGOs), and urged a greater role for Indigenous organisations, that nonetheless need to be judged by the same high standards that apply anywhere else. (On this at least Ms Anderson would seem to agree with the former Coordinator-General of Remote Services, Olga Havnen, whose position she terminated.)
But the great emphasis was again on “real education for real jobs”, with Ms Anderson promising “more boarding school places, more School of the Air, more experienced teachers everywhere”, laying the foundation for greater independence of Indigenous Territorians. “Even if we only made progress in the schools it would be something to be proud of,” she said.
At right: Alison Anderson (far left) visiting Ntaria School in August 2007. At the time we reported that Gwen Inkamala, standing, was working as the school’s home liaison officer, was the mother of four, all of them secondary-educated. She had also fostered 20 other children. An adult on whom children could depend. There are too few of them, says Ms Anderson.
What follows is an edited version of Ms Anderson’s speech (source: Daily Hansard):
“Even those of us with deep knowledge [of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory] have to admit how little we know because of the diversity of language and culture across this great landscape, so we approach the figures cautiously. Even so, the figures can be interesting.
“In Australia, 3% of people are Indigenous. In the Territory that rises to 30%. It does not just rise; it explodes and creates a whole new society, one this nation is still coming to terms with. Anywhere else [doesn’t come] close …
“What does it mean to be Indigenous here? Many things, of course, but some of the raw averages are interesting. It means we are young. For every non-Indigenous child in the Territory there are 4.5 non-Indigenous adults aged 20 to 59. To put that another way, over four adults to look after each child.
“However, for an Indigenous child there are only 1.5 indigenous adults. In other words, there are far fewer adults to care for our children, to protect and inspire them, to feed and look out for them. Where are the missing adults? There is no way to put this gently: they are dead.
“This is like the reverse of the old story of the Pied Piper where the children were taken away. Here it is the adults who have gone in places like Lajamanu where 29% of people are younger than nine years old. Something has spirited away many of the parents, the uncles, and the aunties.
“As I say, we are different. We are also remote. In all Australia 24% of Indigenous people live in remote or very remote areas. In the Territory that proportion is 81%.
“When I speak of remoteness, I mean not just remote from Darwin or Alice Springs, but remote from each other. There are 527 homelands and outstations funded by my department. In many ways, this is a wonderful thing, and this government is committed to homelands and outstations. However, the extent of our remoteness is unusual, not just at the national level, but internationally.
There will never be enough money
“In service delivery, remoteness makes everything harder – everything. Take transport, with road cuts during the Wet Season and expensive public transport. A return trip from Katherine to Lajamanu costs $320 and runs just twice a week. There will never be enough money to change this, not here or anywhere else in the world. That is something we ignore, but we ignore it at our peril, again and again. I see programs that do not factor in the true cost of remoteness: the travel time needed to reach communities, and the cost of planes to access them during the Wet.
“We are different, and it is time to admit difference has consequences. It has benefits and it has costs. I can put a price on those costs. According to the Commonwealth Grants Commission’s 2011 update, the cost of delivering welfare and housing services in the Northern Territory is 3.4 times higher than the national average. That is the price of remoteness. It is a price the government cannot afford to pay – not fully – which is why those services are usually deficient. That is one of the reasons for the problems we have in most communities of inadequate infrastructure and housing, poor health, and education. I point to these problems because there is no sense in denying them. There is no sense in denying our difference from the rest of Australia.
“However, it is not all bad. … I turn to how difference can become strength if it is treated with respect. This government respects the importance of cultural connections to land. We support the right of people to live on their country. One of the things this means is housing. At the moment, about 10,000 Indigenous people live in around 2400 houses in homelands and outstations. Statistically not overcrowded but then, people are not statistics. The reality is very different.
At left: Alison Anderson explains the Intervention to women at Papunya in August 2007, saying the concern was not only with sexual abuse, it was also with children not being looked after, being unhealthy, not being sent to school, nor given opportunities: “We have to change our thoughts,” she said then, essentially the same message as now.
“Under Labor, they were often forced off their country into larger communities and even towns, with disastrous results. We support their right to live where they choose, in decent housing. We also want to progress economic development in the bush. This is why we will begin our conversation with the Australian government to establish if housing programs that fall under the national partnership agreement on remote Indigenous housing will be administered through local organisations or councils. If so, they will be expected to develop an asset management plan to include setting aside funds for future repairs and upgrades. These plans will be audited by the Department of Housing to ensure compliance. My dream is to see the day housing in these places are built, occupied, and maintained by their owners.
“Of course, it is not just about housing. Another major problem is education, starting with language. In 2008, 64% of Indigenous people in remote areas of the Northern Territory spoke an Aboriginal language as their main language at home. There is nothing wrong with that; it happens with many cultures around Australia. The problem is that many of those children fail to learn to speak and write English properly at school. That meant they could never get mainstream jobs. That meant they could never have access to opportunities for travel and living in other places, for getting better jobs in their places. It denied them choice, it meant they did not have the choices that most Australian young people do have. That is something else that shows what it means to be Indigenous in the Northern Territory: to be denied choice. It does not have to be that way, you can be different and still have choice and that means that being different and strong, not different and weak.
“This government intends to make our Indigenous children stronger, not by providing stronger crutches, more interpreters and welfare workers and police and jailers, but by making them more independent. The first step in independence is education and the first step in education is language. All Indigenous people will be taught English just like the children from all other cultures in Australia. This government is committed to making education normal for all children, no matter where they live. Real education for real jobs.
“There will be more boarding school places, more School of the Air, more experienced teachers everywhere. We are different to the rest of Australia in where we live, but we have to be identical in what we learn. That sort of difference builds strength not weakness. It creates choice not limitations.
The jobs are there
“The jobs are there or they could be. They are there in the market gardens that existed decades ago in communities around the country and could exist again. They are there at this moment in the national parks. Anyone with dark skin has to have a head start going for a job in the Tourism industry in the Northern Territory. Let us face it, the tourists have not come here to go to the opera or for shopping. They are here in large part because of Indigenous culture, the landscape and art, animals and plants that our people know intimately. Who better to share it with them than us? Some Indigenous people work in that industry already and there could be so many more.
“And of course there is mining. Big companies are desperate for the opportunity to pay Indigenous people over a hundred thousand a year to work for them. Of course, we need education first if we are to go for those jobs but the jobs are there and that is a huge piece of good fortune. Australia is going through some economic good times. According to the Commonwealth government’s new report on Asia, those good times are likely to continue. Indigenous people need to be part of that by improving basic education. This government is determined that many more Indigenous children will be able to get real jobs and take advantage of this prosperity and break the welfare cycle.
At right: Jeffrey Matthews from Lajamanu. We reported in June that he had been working for Newmont Gold Mine for nearly three years and that the company was looking to double its intake of Aboriginal workers. Ms Anderson hopes that more Aboriginal people, especially men, will heed the call.
“I admit that sometimes I despair at the reluctance of some Indigenous people to take the jobs that are already there. I look at the men of Yirrkala and ask why they will not drive the 20km to Nhulunbuy to earn excellent money in the mine and the processing plant there. These are the kinds of questions the rest of Australia has been asking for years as it tries to connect the dots. Tries to understand why a long-running mining boom can exist literally next door to a culture of entitlement and welfare dependency.
“As I travel around with the Cabinet sub-committee I will be listening, but I will be asking questions too and that will be one of them. I will be asking why so many Indigenous communities have become welfare traps where somewhere along the way from poverty to prosperity we took a side road and got stuck in a hell from where there seems to be no escape.
“It is not good to live off welfare for ever, just as it is not good to live off mining royalties if it means you do not work. This applies to people around the world not just us. In the twenty-first century people need paid jobs, particularly men. It is not just about the money although the money is good. It is about status and respect, about responsibility and dignity. It is also about growing up and not being a child any more, about becoming an adult, so that children, real children can depend of you.
Fixing the schools
“We need more of such adults in our Indigenous communities. When I am out bush on my own and as a member of the Cabinet sub-committee I hope that this is one of the things that many people would want to talk about. How we can help people grow up. I will not just be listening. Sometimes in Indigenous matters we can despair because it can seem like we are always starting from scratch, never making any progress; but this government has policies that will work. The most important for me is fixing the schools to improve the quality of our teachers and their teaching.
“I have spoken before here, just a week ago, but the need to teach English so that the education a child receives here will be as good as that in Sydney or Brisbane. I know that the majority of kids in remote communities do not begin school with the same level of English as kids in our cities, and I know we need to work with the language that kids come into the classroom with to bring them up to the speed in English as quickly as possible.
“This is not controversial, this is common sense. This is about our kids having a proper grasp of English and receiving the same standard of education as any other kid in Australia. Real education and real jobs. This government is going to listen a lot and fix a lot. Even if we only made progress in the schools it would be something to be proud of. It would be much more than has been achieved in many decades. …
“I spoke earlier of the frequent failures of the NGOs because they do not understand the communities where they work. I spoke of the need for more culturally appropriate delivery of services by Indigenous people. I stand by that, but let me make one thing perfectly clear, that does not mean simply throwing dollars at communities and telling them to fix problems themselves. There has been some of that over the years and we know too often it does not work.
“I want to say a few words about that about how we know what works and what does not. It seems to me that despite all that has been written about efforts to help Indigenous people, all the evaluations and the reports, we do not know very much about what works. Too often we read something that tells us a real project worked and should be introduced anywhere.
Too many anecdotes, not enough data
“But why did it work well in that one place? Was it for some local reason? It will not necessarily work in other places. We are almost never told. There are too many anecdotes in public policy making for Indigenous people and not enough data. Some people have calculated that thousands of pages of evaluations, reports and submissions are now written each week on Indigenous Australia. Never has so much been written for so little result.
“The quantity is enormous, but the quality is poor. We have been let down by too many of our advisers, too many bureaucrats and academics. I will always listen but I am getting sick of the poor quality research and poor quality evaluations. There is too much noise and not enough content. As minister I am looking forward to evidence of what works. I say to all the Indigenous people, I will be talking to you over the coming years. Let us talk but let our talk be about the facts.
“Here is an evaluation that will not need a doctoral thesis. People with jobs , 100% employed. People on welfare, 100% unemployed. We have all been avoiding the facts for too long now – avoiding the evidence of thinking it was not necessary because Indigenous people were different or because we were scared of what the facts might show.
At left: Sharona Richardson. We reported in June that she works for the Aboriginal Interpreter Service and is also a mother. After her son’s birth she thought, “I’ve got a baby, now I need a job”. A native Western Arrernte speaker and fluent in English, she applied to the service, got a job and is completing a Diploma in Interpreting. Education has given her choices, a core theme for Ms Anderson.
“The time for that is over. One thing that we do know is that such an approach does not work. We have proved that by now and the rest of Australia knows it too. Government does not always get it right in Perth and Melbourne, but they have a much better track record than we do because they usually apply policies that have been tried and tested and honestly evaluated.
“I ask the NGOs and bureaucrats from those places to come here and apply the same standard to us as they apply back home. When you write your reports and your evaluations, be as tough as you would be if you were evaluating progress in your own communities.
“This is one of the reasons I spent so much of my last speech here talking about education. The evidence is in on education. The facts are clear and we know what works. What works are teachers and schools, like those in Bunbury, Port Augusta, Bathurst and Gladstone. The same approach to education works everywhere and it is time we tried it here in every school in the Territory.
“That is why I will continue to talk so much about schools. I support my colleague, the Minister for Education, because with education the evidence is well and truly in. We know what works and we know what has to be done to make it work here. Much is uncertain, but not that one.
Communities like nursing homes, full of illness, complaints and death
I travel a great deal. I have visited so many remote communities and too often they are like nursing homes, full of illness, complaints and death. Too often they are places where nothing gets done, no toilet is unblocked, no child taken to school unless someone from outside does it. I say they are like nursing homes; perhaps I should say nurseries – everyone is a child, even the adults.
“It is time to change that for the sake of our respect and our dignity. It is not as though the system we have works well. The non-Indigenous NGOs, or not-for-profits, are easy for government to deal with, especially the Commonwealth government, which takes a long view all the way from Canberra. Often these NGOs are bright and shiny, run like clockwork, and fill in all the paperwork perfectly. They are good at lobbying and writing submissions, I do not mock that; however, they are not as good at providing services because they do not understand the communities they go into. Like so many non-Indigenous advisors over the years, so many experts are cursed by the combination of noble intentions and utter ignorance.
“I suggest a greater role for Indigenous organisations. There is growing evidence community-based and controlled organisations can do better. We need to judge them by the same high standards we apply to non-Indigenous NGOs. However, when we do that we will find many of our own are up there with the best – local knowledge, there is nothing quite like it.
“How do we get from here to there? What is the way forward? I offer no magic solution, no silver bullets. My basic approach is to have a few core ideas which are real education for real jobs, and to keep travelling and doing what I can to make them reality, to keep visiting and keep listening to what people tell me.
At right: Alison Anderson, then an Independent after resigning from the Labour Government, joining an Action for Alice rally in March 2011. Her message then was about the welfare of children hanging around on the streets of town at night. “We don’t want to continue to bury our children,” she said. “We want our children to go home.”
“I am honoured to head the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Regional Affairs which will crisscross the Territory over the next few years to ensure this government remains closely in touch with what is happening on the ground. I am sure the knowledge is out there to help us make all our lives better, but I am also sure this knowledge lies not in any one person’s head; it is dispersed among every one of us in Papunya, Baniyala, Katherine and Darwin.
“I am here because I see myself as a leader. To be a leader is to be a listener, and to listen you have to move around. I invite everyone to approach us with ideas, including ideas for local business opportunities in the regions. If you want a hand up, come and talk to us. If you can create a job for yourself, that is good. If you can create jobs for a few other people too, that is even better. There is no reason Indigenous people cannot excel in schools and the workplace.
“We are struggling with our history and, in some cases, with obstacles in our own hearts and minds. Much of what has happened to us is deeply unfair. Much we have witnessed and suffered has been terrible, but it is a struggle we must embark on and a struggle we can win.
“I said I would listen, but that is not the same as saying I will always agree. I have been listening for a long time now to people in remote communities and I like to describe two types of conversations that are common, but dangerous. Common, perhaps even understandable, but I have come to realise, dangerous. The first is the conversation of endless complaint. They are the conversations where a person offers to do nothing for themselves and demands everything be done for them.
The rest of the world is wondering why
“In the rest of Australia, people pick up the rubbish in their yards, they fix their own blocked toilets, when they turn on their TVs and see remote communities covered in litter and able-bodied men complaining about lack of maintenance on the houses they live in, they wonder why Indigenous people in these communities will not do things themselves. Of course, in many places they do, but in many places they do not – in far too many. The rest of the world is looking and wondering why. …
“I say to these people, to those in the communities and those watching, that everything will not be done by government, everything cannot be done; there are not the resources and everything should not be done by government because adults are not children. Adults are capable human beings who need to be strong so they can care for the real children, all those kids I mentioned in the start of this speech who should be safe and warm and in school.
“I will be travelling and I will be listening, but I will not be accepting everything I am told. My friends will be glad to hear that, sometimes, I will still be arguing, especially with adults who refuse to grow up. …
“I finish on a personal note about real children. I spoke of them earlier; of how Indigenous children have far fewer adults in their lives compared with our Australian children. We owe our children everything, Mr Deputy Speaker, and if we keep them at the centre of the picture we cannot go far wrong. Children need education and they need parents – dads as well as mums. Dads need jobs, not gaols, and for jobs they need education. That is why, in my mind, so much comes back to our schools. I believe if we get them right, much else will follow – not everything but a lot. That is my plan. It is a journey I intend taking over the next year as I visit as many of those 527 homelands and outstations as possible. I promise to do everything I can to make it a journey into a better future for all Indigenous people.”
By KIERAN FINNANE