Self help not part of the welfare mantra


p2234-rally-1By ERWIN CHLANDA
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “lifestyle choices” remark has focussed the debate about who should be doing what for Aboriginal people.
Among the many examples defining the current mantra are these two: Last week’s rally in Alice Springs (at right), protesting the proposed de-funding of some outstations in WA, and a media statement by ANTaR about its campaign on Indigenous imprisonment rates – up nearly 90% over the last 10 years.
From those perspectives the concept of self-help rates no mention. The exception is that the governments must be guided by Aborigines about where public money, in increasing quantities, needs to be spent, on most aspects of daily life ranging from food, housing, childcare, transport to education, health and so on.
ANTaR says Indigenous people “are now 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people, and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence”.
But ANTaR does not suggest in what way the elders, traditional owners, custodians, law men and women ought to intervene, in their own right, to stem that mayhem, by applying their own much celebrated authority.
A speaker at the rally suggested that Mr Abbott’s remark ought to be seen in the context of allocating government money for car racing facilities, an allusion to NT Budget allocations for drags, dirt kart and speedway racing facilities.
She did not mention that these are not cradle to grave handouts, but subsidies for recreational facilities for people who are – at least in the main –  taxpayers and the commercial backbone of the community.
The Alice Springs News Online spoke with ANTaR National Director, Andrew Meehan.
NEWS: Your release does not state what you think is the reason for the high imprisonment rate. Obviously the Territory doesn’t lock up people for the fun of it.
MEEHAN: The people who are in contact with the legal system are highly likely to have experienced extreme social and economic disadvantage, poor education outcomes, high rate of unemployment, high levels of drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. To address the root causes of crime is what is needed, preventing crime before it happens.
NEWS: These objectives have been pursued for decades, without notable success. As you point out, crime reflected in the imprisonment rate is going through the roof. There is enormous alcohol abuse, reluctance to work, to take employment, children are not getting the care they need, the truancy rate is huge, domestic violence is rampant. Are these not things people themselves can change, without help from the government? Is it time to discuss self-help as part of the solution?
MEEHAN: If you can’t access support services you can’t apply self-help. Any approach by the government needs to be done in partnership with whichever community they are working with. One size fits all isn’t the approach that is needed. Government needs to sit down with communities, have a look at what the range of services are and what the drivers are of some of the crime.
NEWS: You and I don’t get government help with the way we conduct our lives, look after our families and receive assistance with the issues I have put to you.
MEEHAN: I have not experienced extreme social and economic advantage. I have different life opportunities to other people. Tough on crime approaches across all state and Territories for a decade have not worked. We have seen a 90% increase of crime over the past 10 years, and an increase in the rate of family violence as well. We need to have in place the types of services that go to the root causes of social and economic disadvantage.
NEWS: Is there nothing that the people who are in the justice system, their families, their communities, councils and elders can do to deal with the high rate of crime?
MEEHAN: Any intervention must be done in partnership with communities. In Burke, in NSW, the community, in partnership with government, has pulled together a group to have a look at the full range of services, where are the gaps, where are the overlaps, where is the best use of investment.
NEWS: In Central Australia we have had for decades a dozen or more NGOs operating in this field, including some very highly funded ones – up to $40m a year. Are they getting it wrong?
MEEHAN: The key is to be working with communities rather than imposing solutions, from the top down.
NEWS: These NGOs are run by members of the community who are on their boards. And the governments are working with them by funding them.
MEEHAN: [In some cases throughout the country] the governments haven’t been engaging with them in real partnerships. That needs to be improved.
NEWS: What needs to be done?
MEEHAN: We need to see a shift away from tough on crime approaches where prison is the answer, to early intervention, prevention and diversion programs, [dealing with] the root causes of offending, identified by the communities, providing the right support services so people don’t offend in the first place.
NEWS: Could it be that it’s not just the governments that are at fault, but also the NGOs which are Aboriginal controlled and some of which are lavishly funded?
MEEHAN: I don’t agree with you that they are lavishly funded. In fact what we saw last year was $500m of cuts to Indigenous Affairs. Community controlled organisations right around the country are kicking goals. We know they are accounting for the bulk of the health improvements towards closing the gap and we know that they provide the right kind of services in the legal space to address both law reform and also to represent clients.
NEWS: In Central Australia there is a broad view that while some government measures are needed, there also must be self-help, by the individuals and their communities. Do you agree with that?
MEEHAN: What we are saying is that government needs to invest in approaches that address the root causes of crime rather than building more prisons. Prisoners are highly likely to re-offend so prison doesn’t actually address the root causes of crime. It often leads to more crime.
FOOTNOTE: ANTaR stands for Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation whose Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Reference Group includes Central Land Council Director David Ross.


  1. I have never read so much crap in all my life. It’s time the Indigenous start taking some responsibility for themselves.

  2. Wasted conversation this bloke, Erwin. Thought you would’ve seen that! Ex Oxfam crusader a la John Pilger. With all the answers. No solutions, but all the answers.

  3. Well said Fred. 30 years I have lived in Alice and nothing has changed.
    It’s always someone else’s fault and the only thing to fix it is more money.
    Responsibility starts at home.

  4. Racism is the root cause of all the problems.
    ANTaR and Commonwealth claim victim support requires their racism continue.
    Their addiction to racism corrupts their actions, their concentration on racial tagging ignores the core problems.
    While Commonwealth supports, promotes and practices racism the problems shall remain, not be resolved.
    Commonwealth ignores true purpose of 1967 Referenda – to eliminate, to extinguish all legislation within Australia which qualifies our rights and responsibilities as Australians.
    Ending Commonwealth racism is essential to resolve the problems.

  5. @ Steve and Fred the Philistine.
    In my opinion, from what I see, solutions to some of the underlying social problems in the NT are way past asking people to take personal responsibility.
    For a start, there are way too many who can’t and those who won’t, or don’t see the need.
    Surely, this is evidence for some sort of intervention, particularly when it comes to vulnerable women and children.
    Mr Meehan says, “We need to see a shift away from tough on crime approaches where prison is the answer, to early intervention, prevention and diversion programs, [dealing with] the root causes of offending, identified by the communities, providing the right support services so people don’t offend in the first place.”
    I agree on intervention and prevention. I see alcohol abuse to be one of the major NT social issues.
    The increase in alcohol outlets over the past forty years has ruined the NT, to the point where we are now faced with an almost intractable situation and the government continues punitive measures on the demand side.
    The only measure that can be said to effect supply of the drug is TBLs, which are now considered permanent, at least for the mid-term, at a huge cost to the taxpayer (police are only stationed in the towns, not at roadhouses, where it has been publicly acknowledged, at least by the Wycliffe Well Roadhouse, that they could not remain profitable without their seven days a week takeaway licence).
    Statistics should be published on hospital admissions for pathology related to alcohol abuse in the past twelve months. The cost of those not inconsiderable number of patients should then be factored in to the cost of the TBLs, Alcohol Mandatory Treatment and all other costs connected with alcohol abuse in the NT.
    Those who say that the NT lives high on the welfare budget, and it certainly does, could do their sums and come away with a little sociology to back up their outrage.
    It is common knowledge that tourists visit European cities for their ancient monuments and culture, but when it comes to the NT, liberal alcohol supply and abuse has been irreparably destroying Aboriginal cultures for generations.
    It amazes me that the government keeps pasting nice pictures of tourists enjoying themselves over this sordid situation. It would be amusing if it wasn’t tragic.
    Lack of employment opportunities feature large in the indigenous tragedy. What good is uncontaminated water from a fracking moratorium, presuming one was legislated, to those who are in hospital with early-onset alcohol-related diseases – strokes, renal failure, diabetes, respiratory ailments, dementia?
    “Closing the Gap” is a nice statement, but there are a lot of loopholes to be closed and not just temporary ones.
    Let’s start with some action on reducing the supply of alcohol or do we all have to keep sucking it up until lights out? I speak from the perspective of seeing good friends whose lights and chances are fading.

  6. It is a life choice, if people want to live on the community or live in town, town camps, accommodation places and in the river bed.
    No one must stay in one place in Australia, so no excuses for no work. This covers all unemployed persons.
    Bludging off the tax payers is wearing thin, now that the baby boomers are being targeted for their hard earned retirement money.

  7. As an observer living in a capital city, knowing fully the devastation colonisation has done to original inhabitants the world over, I propose;
    1. There is Big dollars in keeping vulnerable populations unhealthy. (both black and white)
    2. Paternalism under the guise of protection is key to reoccurring failures.
    These two easily rectified solution can only occur if the invention of race is eliminated. Should all you “Alice Spring” loving citizens agree that you are all equally loving of your home, then it shall become a sweet home.
    Engagement (not marriage) with those who first occupied your home (Alice) is fundamental to “closing any gap” physical or metaphysical! Attempt to understand what value systems of governance are from both sides of the polarities and start there to construct dual respect for each other.
    Through equal collaborations, roll out projects and programs that can positively contribute to holistic and more permanent changes for the betterment of every life and style of your beloved place. If this does not occur then as @ Steve says nothing will change for another 30 years, because the rivers of funding will continually roll out professional rorting.
    Both Government and NGOs (Aboriginal or otherwise) will continue to pretend that they have the best interest of your community at heart. When in actual fact, it is their job which is of more concern to most of them. The frontline service providers normally are genuine and good people.
    Most are normally bound by bureaucratic mayhem, shackling them to unattainable outcome – due to policy developed to keep the most vulnerable people in the community at risk!
    This is so the bureaucrats (Aboriginal or otherwise) can remain allegedly protectors. On the other hand they maintain status quo by sleight of hand and deals done behind closed doors.
    We know this too well, don’t we, @ Arthur.


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