One size fits all policies condemn bush mob to misery



The Australian Government has been heavily criticised by the Chinese Government for its hypocrisy with respect to human rights and in particular, the manner in which the Federal Government has administered programs relating to Aboriginal people in Australia.

Until the Whitlam government was elected in 1972 remote Aboriginal communities were managed in a number of cases by the Churches in co-operation with the Federal Government.

The Catholic, Lutheran, Uniting and Anglican Churches were particularly active and involved in the management and administration of a number of communities throughout the Northern Territory.

While it has been fashionable by the “woke left” to be critical of the role of Christian churches in managing Aboriginal remote communities and cases of exploitation existed, the descent into hell that has occurred over the last 50 years was largely prevented.

Aboriginal people were gainfully employed in a wide range of occupations and community industries including horticulture, forestry, fishing, administration and trade and technical occupations – for example.

Promising students were often sent to top schools in other states or to institutions to learn trades and technical skills. There was little difficulty having children attend school and Aboriginal people understood the value and relevance of education and skills training for the benefit of their communities. Cases of assault and violence were rare.

At the same time remote Aboriginal people continued to practice their traditional skills and customs and this was often encouraged by the church, who saw the need for a “two way” rather than “one way” form of engagement with Aboriginal people.

On Bathurst Island for example, the local Catholic Church was complete with large numbers of Tiwi carvings and fabrics, while Tiwi paintings and designs covered the ceilings and walls.

Following the decision by the Whitlam Labor government to significantly reduce the influence of Christian churches and to introduce the policies of self-management and self-determination, largely as a reaction to the naïve and ill-informed pressure from the left wing of the party, the results have been disastrous.

Widespread cases of the rape of children, severe domestic violence and assault, vicious fights over the distribution of royalties, children that Aboriginal parents are unable to control, or get to school – is as far as the Chinese and others are concerned, substantial and on-going evidence of the manner in which Australian governments have attempted to manage Aboriginal issues.

Things have been left to drift to disaster. Politicians who should be responsible and accountable have been prepared to “let things happen”, rather than strive to “make things happen”.

Rather than attempt to take responsibility for the impact of such disastrous government decision making, politicians at the Federal, State and Territory levels have largely refused to be accountable for such decision making.

As a result the problems have spiralled out of control and are now spilling over into major Territory urban centres such as Alice Springs. No amount of police resources are likely to be able to control the escalating violence and crime.

Before the Whitlam government introduced the ability of Aboriginal people to self-identify and prior to the sharp increase in funding made available in Commonwealth budgets for Aboriginal people, there had been little incentive for those with some Aboriginal heritage to identify as Aboriginal Australians.

The sudden appearance of a number of important government funding programs directed at Aboriginal people rapidly changed this tendency. Those with some Aboriginal heritage now saw it increasingly relevant to identify with the original Australians.

This tendency has gathered pace and has important implications for more traditional Aboriginal people living within remote communities. In particular, there is an increasing danger that funding will be diverted from areas of real need to those who identify as Aboriginal, living in the relative comfort of urban communities and cities.

As with other areas of policy relating to Aboriginal people in remote regions the response of government has been to remain mute.   

Over the last 10 years, the number of Australians identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander has increased sharply, by 43%. Growth in major cities and inner regional areas (29% and 28% respectively) was higher than the growth in remote and very remote areas (1% and 2% respectively).

This has had a major skewing effect on the delivery of government policy and expenditure on Aboriginal programs. 

As pointed out by the Centre of Independent Studies, of the Indigenous people in Australia identified in the 2011 Census, approximately 65% were in employment and living lives not noticeably different from the rest of Australia. 22% were welfare dependent and living in urban and regional areas with other welfare dependent Australians.

However, 70,000 were welfare dependent and living on Indigenous land in remote regions, where education was limited, infrastructure poor and where there were very few employment opportunities.

Without doubt it is this group who experience the most disadvantage and who require the most government support.

Yet most Indigenous government programs continue to treat Indigenous people as one, very similar group and fail to take into account the fundamental differences between Indigenous peoples, according to level of need.

ROGER STEELE was a founding member of the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory. He held a number of key Ministerial portfolios in government in the Territory. He was instrumental in establishing the Gregory National Park in close consultation with station owners and Aboriginal people. Prior to politics Roger managed a number of cattle stations in remote regions of the Territory. He has had extensive experience across a number of tasks and skill areas, working with Aboriginal people in remote regions.

DON FULLER grew up in Darwin. He formed wide relationships while growing up with the Tiwi and Aboriginal people of the Territory. He holds a Doctorate in Economics from the University of Adelaide. Later, Don became Professor and Head of Business and Law at Charles Darwin University with a key research and teaching focus on Aboriginal people living within remote regions of the Northern Territory. He also worked as an economic and policy adviser to Country Liberal Party governments in the Northern Territory.

NEXT: Most Indigenous government programs continue to treat Indigenous people as one, very similar group and fail to take into account the fundamental differences between Indigenous peoples according to their level of need.

AT TOP: The Sorry Business Of Harold by Alice Springs artist Rod Moss, the author of the award winning Hard Light of Day as well as other titles.


  1. The appealing argument here is that when church and other authority structures were removed, remote Aboriginal society disintegrated and chaos soon followed.
    But it was only under policies of self-management and determination that many Aboriginal groups were finally able to return to their own country.
    The Pintupi/Luritja exodus from Papunya to start their own community on their own country at Kintore in 1981 is one example.
    While communities didn’t always self-manage as mainstream society wanted them to, problems were dealt with internally with the application of traditional law. Few remote Aboriginal people ended up in prison in those days.
    It was the imposition of a new era of authority under the Federal Intervention that had a far more negative long-term effect on remote Aboriginal society.
    Building a police station in every remote community and applying mainstream law was always going to produce some of the world’s highest rates of imprisonment.
    There are many moral versus criminal law conflicts on an Aboriginal community that often result in a prison sentence.
    Can an Aboriginal man tell his relatives that he is not allowed to drive an unregistered vehicle to his grandfather’s funeral because he has no driver’s licence?
    Much violence has been created by the outlawing of traditional punishment which still continues, but with a knife when intoxicated, rather than under the old traditions where families controlled the violence.
    The authors complain that governments refuse to be accountable for the withdrawal of authority structures under self-management, but where is the accountability for the imposition of the Federal Intervention and our overflowing prisons?

  2. Good on ya Ralph. I’m with you, and you have only scratched the surface of how the disempowerment of remote Aboriginal society by ethnocentric authority, greatly accelerated by the Intervention, has resulted in the current situation.
    A classic example of blame the victim.
    This from Kevin Rudd’s Apology: “Not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional Indigenous communities across the country.”

  3. @ Frank Baarda: Ralph and yourself have given a solid counterpunch to a political spin on Aboriginal history.
    The authors complain about the lack of authority after the Welfare / Church era as if all is needed is a new era of ethnocentric authority.
    Well, we did that with the Federal Intervention and look at the results.
    By the way, I hear that you have a memoir on the way.
    If correct I look forward to reading it.

  4. The authors are not supporting the intervention as good policy. What they are clearly saying is that government policy failures occurred far earlier – and mainly with the Whitlam government in the 1970s.
    Self-determination and self-management have clearly been a complete failure.
    How can it not have been when the people could not be expected to acquire the complex business and organisational skills overnight?
    It is far from clear how the authors are blaming the victim, unless governments can somehow be referred to as victims?
    What is clear is that such Aboriginal politics has done very, very little for those living within remote communities.

  5. @ Susan Sidler: Indeed, it is with the printers. I hope it goes some way of telling how self-determination was set up to fail, and how it isn’t so much about what remote Aborigines did or failed to do, but what was done to them. Makes me think about Monty Python’s Black Knight.

  6. A question on my mind. Are tribal people on communities like Santa Teresa and Hermannsburg now happier in 2021 since the introduction of self determination policies than when these were Christian missions? As a guide to the success or otherwise of government policies.


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