Assimilation already a reality
March 1 2004
In the 1960s, there was a long struggle for Aboriginal policy. On the one hand, Paul Hasluck, who until 1966 controlled Aboriginal affairs in the Menzies government, pursued assimilation. He declared that all Aborigines should "attain the same manner of living as other Australians and live as members of a single Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges". Hasluck decreed that special policies targeted at Aborigines in remote towns and reserves were essentially temporary measures to protect them from "ill effects of sudden change and to assist them to make the transition from one stage to another". Assimilation was a policy not to be forced on indigenous people, Hasluck insisted, but it certainly encouraged them to choose a lifestyle similar to other Australians.
On the other hand, Dr H. C. 'Nugget' Coombs, appointed head of the Australian Council of Aboriginal Affairs in 1967, rejected assimilation in favour of self-determination and self-management. Coombs emphasised the collective guilt of white Australia for the problems of indigenous life. He believed Aboriginal people would benefit most by retaining an identity of themselves that was distinct and different.
Hasluck became Governor-General in 1968 and ceased direct involvement in political affairs. Coombs went on to advise Prime Ministers Billy McMahon and Gough Whitlam and to persuade both Labor and Liberal parties to adopt his approach. By the time of the Hawke government of the 1980s, assimilationist policies were widely derided as racist and in some quarters even genocidal.
Under Hawke, the Commonwealth government actively supported the 'outstation' or 'homeland' movement under which some Aboriginal communities withdrew from larger centres of population into isolated areas. The government also increased funding to the existing remote communities located on the old missions and reserves and in largely Aboriginal-populated country towns.
The self-determination policies for which Coombs fought have now been with us for more than thirty-five years. They have been backed by Commonwealth spending that has gone from millions to billions annually and land rights legislation that in the Northern Territory goes back to 1976. Yet the most noticeable thing about this long and expensive social experiment is how many Aboriginal leaders today are in despair about its outcomes.
John Ah Kitt, the Aboriginal minister in the Northern Territory government, says it is now almost impossible to find an Aboriginal community in his jurisdiction that is not dysfunctional. "I don't mean the 10 to 15 communities that my department tells me at any one stage are managerial or financial basket cases
I am talking of dysfunction that is endemic through virtually all of our communities, both in towns and the bush." Discussing his own communities on Quensland's Cape York, Richard Ahmat wrote on this page in 2001: "Our people are mired in social dysfunction and economically we are neck-deep in dependency."
Boni Robertson's 2001 survey of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities in Queensland reported: "Violence is now overt: murders, bashings and rapes, including sexual violence against children, have reached epidemic proportions with both indigenous and non-indigenous people being perpetrators
A majority of the informants believed that the rise of violence in Aboriginal communities can be attributed to the so-called 'Aboriginal industry" in which both indigenous and non-indigenous agencies have failed in many ways to deliver critical services."
The major contrast Aboriginal critics often make today is between the periods before and after self-determination was instituted. Former Northern Territory public servant, Bob Beadman, told a conference in 2002 that in the old mission-run communities economic activities included brick making, market gardening, fishing, bakeries, tanneries, sawmills and raising of chickens, cattle and goats. But the closed-shop nature of the new remote communities meant even the normal migration of modern business activity, such as motor repair shops, hairdressers and fast-food outlets, was denied them. Small community councils, Beadman said, tried vainly to provide services that exceeded the responsibilities of entities like Brisbane City Council.
Where would we be instead, had assimilation prevailed?
The broad demographics of Aboriginal society today indicate Hasluck's approach has been vindicated. The last two censuses show more than 70 per cent of Aboriginal people now live in the cities and large country towns. There are more Aborigines now living in Sydney alone than in all of Western Australia, outside Perth. The news media, of course, prefer the bad news out of old, inner urban ghettos like Redfern's Eveleigh Street (Aboriginal population 236) and miss the real story of measurable progress in Sydney's outer suburbs (Aboriginal population 34,286).
The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows clearly that, in suburban Australia, there is now an Aboriginal middle class (population 18,000). Even at lower socio-economic levels, in urban regions the majority of Aboriginal adult males have jobs and the majority of Aboriginal children complete school. In the remote communities and towns, where Coombs's policies have prevailed, these statistics are completely reversed.
In other words, since the 1960s the great majority of Aboriginal people have voted with their feet in favour of integration with white Australia. The time for governments to abandon the Coombs paradigm and to revisit that of Hasluck is long overdue.
[The essential reference for this debate is: Geoffrey Partington, Hasluck versus Coombs: White politics and Australia's Aborigines, Quakers Hill Press, Sydney 1996]