The whitewashing of Aboriginal manhood
May 23 2006
Get to the root causes. That was the advice from any number of commentators after the latest revelations about Aboriginal communities. Very few, though, spelt out what they meant.
When pressed, adherents of the root causes argument normally fling a familiar list of historical allegations at white Australia — invasion, dispossession, stolen children — but exonerate Aboriginal culture. Even some of the more courageous authors like Boni Robertson, who first quantified the extent of domestic violence against Aboriginal women, played this historical card.
But to explain these latest disclosures, that clearly won't wash any more. The truth is that neither side is wholly innocent.
Traditional Aboriginal society was always harsh on women. From the First Fleet onwards, white settlers saw Aboriginal men routinely heaping blows on their women, while customary law permitted old men to marry girls at puberty.
Nonetheless, there are no reports of traditional culture ever sanctioning the horrific behaviour described last week by Alice Springs Crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers. Only recently has anyone heard of such deplorable sexual acts against little children. Their frequency today suggests something else has gone deeply awry.
The root cause is that white Australia has deprived Aboriginal men in remote communities of their manhood. The instrument we used was social welfare, giving handouts that did not require them to work. The social policy of the last thirty years is the principal culprit.
The human male is a creature biologically programmed, communally socialized and psychologically motivated to be a provider for women and children. In outback Aboriginal communities, however, that role has been usurped by the state.
The social consequences of this should have been entirely predictable. No matter what their race or where they live, men who do not work have no social status, no sense of self-worth and little meaning in their lives.
Others think badly of them and they think badly of themselves.
Sociological studies have long shown that in all cultures many men respond to unemployment with alcoholism and domestic violence, one problem feeding the other.
The loss of manhood has direct consequences for Aboriginal boys. They have no incentive to go to school. When they reach adolescence, their most attractive and adventurous options are the subcultures of crime and substance abuse. As Robertson showed, some consume vast quantities of pornography.
Few people today are aware of how recent a phenomenon the remote communities are.
Most are products of the 1980s. In that decade, the Hawke government increased spending on fringe settlements and actively encouraged the ‘outstation' or ‘homeland' movement under which many Aboriginal communities withdrew from larger centres of population into isolated areas, ostensibly to revive Aboriginal culture and practice self-determination.
The brainchild of the policy was Labor's long-term advisor, Dr H. G. ‘Nugget' Coombs, whose manifesto was the book Aboriginal Autonomy .
He wanted Aborigines to have a separate economy based not on capitalist notions of industry, agriculture and mineral development, which he regarded as exploitive and environmentally degrading, but on “sustainable development … stable populations, limited growth economies and an emphasis on small scale and self-reliance”.
Today, his legacy is the more than 1200 remote Aboriginal communities spread across northern Australia .
But without capitalist institutions such as consumer markets and private property, both of which the homeland movement actively discouraged, sustainable development was always a pipe dream.
The result is that, although more than half the land in the Northern Territory now belongs to Aboriginal communities, their economic participation is abysmal.
Only 15 per cent of NT Aborigines of working age are employed in real jobs, and many of these are in specially-reserved public sector positions. Another 16 per cent are engaged in the make-work welfare scheme Community Development Employment Project. The other 69 per cent of working-age Aborigines are either unemployed or not in the labour force. This is at a time of economic boom in the NT when the non-indigenous workforce participation rate is more than 90 per cent.
The remote Aborigines are thus loaded with twin economic burdens: they inhabit regions that have no jobs or business opportunities, and the state gives them an income with no effort on their part.
The only solution is to stop funding and thus close down all those settlements where unemployment is chronic and where there are no economic prospects, which is most of them.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough does not need a talk-fest with state government leaders to tell him this. It is a decision he should take himself. He should set a timetable with enforceable deadlines. Obviously, such a choice is fraught with difficulty. No one in this country can be forcibly removed anywhere. The Commonwealth has power over welfare payments but would need state and territory cooperation to provide housing and education services for a civilized relocation process.
Brough could potentially entice major roles from those church and charitable bodies who now recognize that a new start is necessary. Indeed, some of the latter have recently begun providing boarding school places for children from remote communities.
Little would be gained by simply shifting the culture of violence from one location to another.
The Aboriginal ghettoes of Redfern in Sydney and the Gordon Estate in Dubbo are as dysfunctional as any in Central Australia . Nonetheless, that Sydney and Brisbane now house Aboriginal populations of 35,000 and 28,000 respectively, most of whom enjoy suburban lives indistinguishable from other Australians, shows none of this is insurmountable.
If he seriously threatens the present regime, Brough will generate resistance from those academics, Aboriginal activists and bureaucrats who created it. They will mount a propaganda campaign to argue they were right all along.
Some will even revive the furphy that assimilation equals genocide. But there are now enough Aborigines who have made the complete transition to modern, urban life, while retaining a pride in their identity and ancestry, to give the lie to that charge.
Last week's revelations confirm a growing public awareness of the terrible truth among us. Most people will see that the opponents of change are defending the indefensible.