Rights and resources are necessary for empowerment

Opinion Article

1997 February, 4

" self empowerment varies from self determination in that it is a means to an end - ultimate social and economic equality - rather than merely an end in itself," Senator John Herron, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs

John Herron's (read Howard's) policy of self empowerment sounds half right. If it means that changes will only happen if indigenous peoples want them to happen, that we are the only people who can make a difference to our own lives, our communities and our families, then the policy is right.

If it means that solutions to our deep problems ultimately lie within our communities, then the policy is right.

It means that if we don't have the skills - we need to get them. It means that if we don't have the education - we need to get our children educated. It means that if our health is a real problem - we have to make plans and act on them. It means that if we are bogged down by constant and destructive community arguments - then we need to sort them out and start being constructive. It means that if we are always criticising each other - then we need to start supporting and encouraging each other.

It means that if grog is a big problem, we have to wake up to it and do something about it. It means that we cannot just say "it's a big problem", as if somebody else, white, is going to come in with a solution.

There is no solution that does not involve us. We have, it is true, laboured under the idea that solutions to our problems will be delivered by someone else and our job is to criticise their efforts and their lack of results. It is also true that these other people have also laboured under the idea that they had all of the solutions to our problems, they would be our saviours, all we needed was to be good mission blacks. They knew the solutions and would deliver them. We just needed to be obedient and subservient.

John Herron and the Federal government cannot deny our right to self determination. But the concept of empowerment gives a refreshing emphasis on the fact that, as bad as our situation is and as poverty - stricken and disadvantaged as the great majority of our people are, we have to engage in the solutions. We cannot just be passengers. We cannot just sit back.

The indigenous peoples of Greenland probably have the greatest autonomy within the overarching sovereignty of Denmark, of an indigenous group trapped within a colonial state, anywhere in the world. Greenland's indigenous Premier has said: "self determination is the right to take responsibility. Self determination is hard work".

We have not properly understood this. We too often have thought that self determination was going to come to us on a plate. Or in the mail.

So when John Herron talks about empowerment, he is right.

It is just a pity that the direction for this policy has not come from the Aboriginal community. We should be the ones realising that we have to do it ourselves, and promoting this idea amongst our peoples.

It's all very easy of course for white fellas to say: "pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps. Help yourselves". They can talk like that. They're all right.

And this is where John Herron's policy raises some questions.

Does he think that empowerment can occur without people having unequivocal recognition of their rights and access to resources? It is the long history of denial of rights and theft of our resources and denial of a share in those resources, that has underpinned Aboriginal disadvantage.

White people have advantage and opportunity because they have rights and resources and they have had these things for a long time. It is not only because they have worked hard. Black people have worked hard too. For most of Australia's colonial history our people worked on the cattle stations, the farms, the mines, the fishing industry, the railways - for nothing.

Only for rations. No equal pay. And what have we got in return for this work? The people who now own valuable properties, who have something, have worked no harder than our people.

What John Herron needs to understand is that in our history there has been no shortage of work. It is just that we didn't get the same rewards because of racial discrimination.

John Herron must understand that having a say over our land and resources is absolutely key to our empowerment. Mabo, Wik and our rights under the Native Title Act are key to our future economic empowerment.

My suspicion and concern is that the Federal Government is saying to us: "you have to sort out your own problems and empower yourselves through economic development, whilst we take away your rights to your land and resources". On the one hand they are saying we should develop business, while on the other they take away our Right to Negotiate development on our land.

These questions about John Herron's policy are very real. He needs to understand our concerns, if his new policy is going to invigorate action and produce outcomes in Aboriginal affairs.

Empowerment is therefore not entirely a challenge for self. It also involves assistance and resources and proper methods and relationships being established between Government and Aboriginal people. Methods and relationships that do not create a situation of welfare dependency. John Herron should consider why the perceptive prescription of the Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, when he spoke of "empowerment" rather than simply "self empowerment", is correct. He will then understand that rights and resources must also attend the determination of indigenous peoples to put an end to their disadvantage.

Rights and resources are necessary for empowerment