Rebuilding trust with indigenous communities the first step

Larissa Behrendt

National Times, March 22, 2011

Lack of housing has also caused indigenous people to move from their communities to towns like Alice Springs. Photo: Angela Wylie

Alice Springs is a town unlike any other and to an outsider its racial tensions are noticeable. Walking through the shopping centre one sees security guards tell Aboriginal people to move on when they are window shopping. Poverty and homelessness are visible – and visibly black.

It has always been a town that has struggled dealing with this visible poverty – and the less visible disadvantage of the communities in the town camps.

Now it is in the spotlight again with a rise in social problems caused by an influx of Aboriginal people from other places. Tony Abbott has weighed in on the issue, acknowledging that a large number of problems have occurred because Aboriginal people from remote towns have moved into larger towns like Alice Springs wanting to get their hands on some grog.

To say this movement is caused by the need to access alcohol oversimplifies both the reasons for the population movement and the reasons why difficult social problems are occurring. Alcohol is a factor but it’s not the only one. Lack of housing and investment in services has also caused people to move from their communities. Lack of adequate housing and the failure of other services to meet the demands of new arrivals has exacerbated the situation in Alice Springs.

Yes, excessive alcohol consumption is making the issues associated with endemic poverty much worse, and its consumption is one of the key issues that need to be addressed. But the clear message for policy makers and politicians to come from this movement to Alice Springs is that alcohol bans have not stopped the drinking; they have only moved the problem.

The problem with these issues is that there is no robust policy analysis of whether these strategies are working. Labor opposition unquestioningly supported the intervention mechanisms, including income management and compulsory leasing, and the bipartisan approach has meant that neither party has played a true opposition role. Neither party is looking thoroughly at where policy failure is occurring and offering alternative policy approaches. Instead, the debate between the major parties becomes a match about who can be toughest with the current policies. This is unfortunate because if any area needed fresh thinking and robust analysis it is in the area of indigenous affairs.

Claims of success with the intervention are empty – and unhelpful – rhetoric. There is no evidence of improved outcomes in the governments figures. Anemia rates and malnutrition rates have increased; so too have suicide rates. The Indigenous Doctors Association have raised concerns about the psychological impact some of the policies are having on the Aboriginal people subjected to them. There have been increases in violence and school attendance rates are slightly less than what they were when the intervention was put in place.

The intervention was rushed into vulnerable communities with no consultation with indigenous people or the health, education and other experts working with them. Some of these mechanisms – like compulsory income management for anyone on a welfare payment whether their children went to school or not, whether they had children or not – were some of the harshest policies being trialled in the country. Robust analysis of the impact and consequences would seem like common sense. Any of the usual mechanisms of review of the impact of a government policy on an individual to ensure it is not unfair or illegal or discriminatory were taken away.

The shift of the problems around excessive drinking to Alice Springs gives rise to two lessons. And neither of them are new. Firstly there is a need to not just consider alcohol bans but to address the underlying causes of dysfunction that lead to alcohol abuse. Abbott’s call for better rehabilitation services needs to be emphasised rather than his calls for more police.

Abbott continues to call for tougher welfare measures on the parents of children not attending school. Apart from the fact that the current implementation of the policy has not led to increased attendance rates, he is overlooking research that shows that parental attitudes are only one reason, and not the main one, why Aboriginal children don’t attend school. Factors that contribute more to Aboriginal children skipping school include the culture of the school and the standard of teaching. Again Abbott’s call for more experienced teachers in these areas is overshadowed by his call for punitive measures against parents. This emphasis needs to be reversed.

The second lesson is the need to talk to the Aboriginal leadership within Alice Springs in order to ensure more effective action. Engaging the indigenous leadership in the Northern Territory, especially in the places subject to the intervention was not done when it was rolled out in 2007. Research continues to show that to improve their socio-economic circumstances, indigenous people need to be centrally involved in the policy making and design of services going into their communities. There needs to be partnership with government and trust. Neither the Howard or Rudd/Gillard governments have sought to give Aboriginal people a stronger, leading role in the solutions.

Discussions with people taking the lead in their communities would quickly reveal that they have a better understanding of the causes of the problems and much more effective solutions. Simple but effective ideas such as dry out shelters and breakfast or homework programs were not thought up in Canberra and imposed. They were the thoughtful initiatives of Aboriginal people facing problems in their communities that they wanted to solve.

Start rebuilding a relationship with the people in communities like Alice Springs who may be able to assert some moral authority and leadership amongst their community and more effective and innovative solutions may start to occur. Continue to intervene on the assumption that everyone is part of the problem and the big old mess will continue.

Larissa Behrendt holds the Chair of Indigenous Research at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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