COMMENT by TED EGAN
I guess Alice Springs News readers share the same adverb – “appalled” – as we overview the present state of disarray in specific regions that we know intimately. Let’s not mince words: it’s largely brought about by the presence of alcohol and drugs in the lives of the Aboriginal people.
The purists say: “It’s not just the blackfellas” but statistics are undeniable and getting worse.
I often say: “I’ve never met a single Aboriginal person whose life has been enhanced by alcohol”.
Even the most sophisticated person of mixed descent is prone to being confronted with: “You are my cousin / sister / brother. Our culture is based on sharing. Give me money.”
Followed by: “I used your money to buy this grog and I demand that you share it with me”. The kinship system was once their greatest attribute, today it is their greatest point of vulnerability.
I remember September 1964. The attitude was: “We now have the right to drink this powerful stuff. We have been watching the white fellas show us how to go about things. Grog is to make you aggressive, otherwise you have wasted your money. If you have money, don’t waste it on food, otherwise you’ll run out of money for more grog.”
And, assertively: “We are are not responsible for our behaviour after drinking alcohol. It is the white man’s fault for introducing it into our lives.”
“Citizen right” meant little beyond “the right to drink”.
Regrettably, that mindset still prevails today and the drugs are even more dangerous than the grog. As a consequence the physical and mental deterioration is acute and we are now into about the third generation of people whose parents are/were addicted.
Foetal alcohol and drug status is becoming the norm, so today’s 10 year old thugs are mindless and the established standards (and laws) of society make them bullet proof. For one thing, they can easily outrun the police, who are encumbered by heavy gear, revolvers, handcuffs, big heavy boots, various sprays.
Filling the gaols is not the real solution. What a pity that, at the outset in September 1964 there was not the wisdom to somehow educate the publicans and club managers to the fact that orderly behaviour is a pre-requisite of civilised drinking.
Sadly publicans by and large saw Aboriginal drinking as the means of making enormous profit, with no thoughts of running happy places like the wonderful UK pubs, or seeking to create friends within the clientele.
No, The “Zoo Bar”, “The Colosseum” and “Madison Square Garden” became the names of the “blackfella bars”. It was like the old 6 o’clock swill days, except that in the days of 6 o’clock closing there were still a few prescribed behavioural standards.
We should have introduced things like female bar staff and mandatory food – dispensed as in Spain where a tray of cheese, olives and biscuits is mandatorily placed in front of drinkers, with the cost tacked onto the next round of drinks, whether the customer likes it or not.
There should have been immediate refusal to serve any customer deemed to be behaving inappropriately, followed by “naming and shaming” bans, including large photos in Rogues Gallery and local newspapers.
The problem is, that from Day One post 1788 in Australia, it was promulgated that Aboriginals were a sub-species, deemed to be in need of “protection” on their path to extermination. Policies were introduced as a very sinister component of their exploitation, dispossession and demoralisation.
Coming to terms with today’s disasters, respectable families (even high-achieving Aboriginal families) are leaving Alice Springs. Similar law and order issues are ruining places like Palmerston, Katherine, Cairns, Townsville, Broome, Derby, Fitzroy Crossing, Hall’s Creek.
I am aware that the youth of the entire Western World is under scrutiny, but it’s up to the citizens of our Australian regions to support police in meaningful campaigns to seek something resembling the “good old days”. Alice Springs was once perhaps the best town in the world in which to live. Not today: most residents are reluctant to go into town after sunset.
Here I go, starting to sound like a dictator. I blame mainly the Federal government for losing the way in Aboriginal Affairs in the last 50 years. I can speak with authority only re the NT, but what I say here will have national implication in the very near future.
In the 1960s many people justifiably demonstrated for Aboriginal “land rights”. People including me, wrote songs like “Gurindji Blues”, sales of which helped finance the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in its meaningful first days.
Eventually the principle of “land rights” was established via the Woodward Royal Commission, Mabo, Wik, bark petitions etc. That was supposed to mean that Aboriginals, where possible, would be assisted to rehabilitate themselves, their languages, culture etc and lead meaningful, indeed prosperous lives in their own country.
They were entitled to live anywhere they liked, but would only receive financial and other assistance in their own – defined by them and accepted in law – tribal lands. They were given tokenistic but meaningless pieces of paper and called TOs.
At the same time, again justifiably, Social Service payments were introduced. That was fair enough, but the same Federal government that was making social welfare payments discontinued the training processes necessary if the tribal lands were to become satisfactory places where people could live, work, bring up their children in the “standard Australian manner”.
In discussions in those more positive times I often mentioned the town where my parents are buried – Edenhope, Victoria – as “the typical Australian country town”, with schools, hospital, Old Timers Home, motels, banks, shopping centre, sporting facilities, library, museum, pubs, bitumen roads, reticulated water and electricity, local government, post office.
Harry Giese is the most maligned man in NT history but the above was uppermost in his thinking for NT Aboriginals. Giese had as many faults as he had strengths, but if he was still in charge today he would quickly demand the means of getting traditional Aboriginals back into their own homelands.
The Giese ideas were later known as the Bob Beadman towns, but despite Bob’s determined efforts the immense government funding was invariably used for more popular projects.
Life is sterile in bush communities today; no medical centres, no meaningful employment, certainly no training in any capacity. Most traditional Aboriginal adults (probably 90% if the truth was known) are today in receipt of welfare payments that are only payable in town.
If Grandpa gets sick the entire family accompanies him to town. They must.
Once in town families live in sordid, foreign town camps, with minimal money and inevitable involvement in dangerous alcohol and drugs situations.
Their kids don’t go to school – why would they? – and the kids form into sinister and increasingly violent gangs, armed with things like bolt cutters, hammers, knives and machetes and systematically violating the various towns.
Two things could be introduced tomorrow:
• Payment of unemployment benefits only within the “nation” that people are identified with.
• Any recalcitrant Aboriginal person / child held in custody for nightime misdemeanours is placed on a bus at 9 am, under police supervision and returned to their home “nation”. See you later. Elders, over to you.
The reader will quickly say: Hang on Ted, you can’t do that. Everybody has the right to be in town. What if the recalcitrants are children and their parents are still in town?
Yes reader, of course you are right. But it is “they” who are demanding a different recognition as First Nations people. I endorse that aim: way to go.
But if the parents are in town and not looking after their kids, it is the parents who are blameworthy; it is the parents who should be held responsible; it is the parents who should be given bills for damages etc. If the parents are unemployed, a job should be found for them in their country, not somebody else’s.
It is Aboriginals who are talking about “traditional ownership” and I support that. Once upon a time, if you misbehaved in someone else’s country they killed you.
Crucially, Australia is about to be hit with a compensation claim the likes of which we have never contemplated, let alone discussed.
All the Voice and Treaty talks are forerunners to the First Nations representatives claiming compensation for dispossession, genocide, 200+ years of rent, lack of fiduciary care, you name it.
There will be about 200 “nations” each claiming something like $10m. Incidentally, I am amazed that nobody is talking about prospects like this. People are too busy talking arrant nonsense about Voices and referenda, leading to treaties where nobody has the slightest idea of what is involved. But wait for it.
I support REAL justice for First Australians, as long as it is a two way process, not – as activists insist – a program designed by “us” and administered by “us” on “our terms”.
In the two-way process there must be civilised bargaining. The First Australian position must include preparedness to be responsible for the behaviour of the members of their nations.
It is achievable, but it borders on madness: is a Wiradjuri person, alleged to have committed an offence in Perth, to be extradited to Wagga Wagga?
IMAGE AT TOP: Ted Egan’s book published in 2019. He came to the Territory from Coburg, Victoria, in 1949 at the age of 16 “in search of work and adventure”. His career has ranged from working with remote Aboriginal communities to songwriter, historian, entertainer and the Northern Territory’s top job of Administrator. He published more than 10 books, 30 albums and several TV documentaries, often reflecting on his “adventurous life in remote settlements, the inequalities between black and white Australians, the dilemmas of holding power over the communities in which he worked”. He lives in Alice Springs.