Aboriginal gap prompts call for new 'paternalism'

Australia's health minister documents poor delivery of health services and questions policy of self-determination.

It's boom time in Australia's northernmost city, Darwin, fueled by gas pipelines and mining. But an hour's flight by Cessna due south, over vast wetlands and floodplains, lies the aboriginal community of Wadeye, a shantytown of about 2,500 people.

Cut off from the rest of the state during the wet season, many families here live 17 to a three-bedroom house. Half the population is under 15 years old and can't speak English. The isolation and humidity exploded this May in gang warfare involving spears and makeshift weapons.

With residents facing third-world conditions within a continent of plenty, some officials are calling into question decades-old efforts to introduce self-determination in aboriginal communities. What's needed, they argue, is a return to a form of "paternalism" that would appoint more capable administrators and instill a wider sense of responsibility for aboriginal communities.

Prior to releasing a health report on the aboriginal communities in Australia, Health Minister Tony Abbott wrote recently that self-determination was unworkable and that "someone has to be in charge." He proposed an administrator with wide-ranging powers instead of the current local councils chosen with community input. Mr. Abbot wrote that self-determination had only encouraged officials to voice concern without backing it with responsible action.

Abbott's report revealed that indigenous life spans are, on average, 17 years shorter than those of the general population. He went on to write that the problem was not a lack of government spending but the "culture of directionlessness in which so many aboriginal people live."

Frustration with aboriginal policy has been building. Earlier this year, a member of Parliament said that if the problems on Palm Island couldn't be fixed, then perhaps the aboriginal community should be evacuated to the mainland.

"As far as aboriginal affairs are concerned, this country has taken a strong stance that self-determination has led down a blind alley," says David Martin, an expert on aboriginal affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra. Slowly, the government is attempting "a more practical reconciliation focusing on roads, power lines, and housing."

This means cutting development deals with communities. In the remote west Australian aboriginal town of Bidyadanga, with a population of 800 people, the government agreed to build a new swimming pool after children pledged to go to school under the "no school, no pool" rule.

The latest policy shift, Martin argues, may be unfairly scapegoating previous efforts at self-determination. "Under self-determination, the indigenous people were lumbered with jobs they did not have adequate training for like maintaining roads so when they failed to do their work properly, self-determination was blamed," he says. "In reality, it's the entire state apparatus that has failed."

Tom Calma, commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands social justice, argues that self-determination isn't flawed, just misapplied. "Control over administration and service delivery has been handed to communities without the required training and capacity existing," said Mr. Calma in a statement after Abbott's remarks.

Aboriginal communities are wary of a policy shift that could upend their lives. Local councils, including those in Wadeye, have been appalled by Abbott's remarks, saying the message harks back to a stricter time where the Christian missions had control and people were known not by their names but by the numbers on their assigned dormitories.

Two town elders, Nolene and Geraldine, still remember their numbers. "I was 55 and Geraldine was 76," says Nolene, laughing. "In some ways, those days were better because we had to bathe, learn English, and were fed properly. Now the men just smoke ganja and no one wants to work."

But Terry Bullemor, CEO of Wadeye's local council, shakes his head at Abbott's remarks. "The people are just starting to have intellectual awareness of their situation. Self-government has not been given a chance.... We are slowly moving toward giving people control, but it's all very confusing because the governments come and go without explaining their systems."

Theodora Narndu, one of Wadeye's traditional owners, says the main problem is that residents were displaced from their homelands. "When I move away from Wadeye, I don't have confidence.... I need to be with my mob on my land to be proud. Then I can take you fishing and to the best billabongs. I am in charge, you see."

Mr. Bullemor says that the council is now considering moving the "outsiders" back to their own homelands around Wadeye.

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