The hill our people have to climb

Opinion Article

2001 May, 18

Social justice and a fair place for the indigenous people of Cape York will require more than laws and political achievements can deliver.

We could have the best laws. We could pursue the most vigorous political programs, but this does not seem to deliver economic participation. So I have been urging the importance of taking responsibility for the struggle for our rights. The right to a fair place in the economy is what government and laws can't deliver. That seems to be something that you have to take. It's a hill we have to climb.

After many years of civil rights guarantees in the United States for blacks, the great majority of them still languish in the ghettos. If we're focused on the fight for constitutional and political guarantees of our place in society, we're going to be left down the track still not participating substantively in the social and economic rights of the country.

I think that the debate needs to recognise that our people will choose modernisation quite legitimately. Even if we weren't indigenous people with the disadvantages we face, we live in a very difficult region where economic opportunities are so few and far between. We have unskilled and uneducated people, we have incredibly poor standards of health. I think we're going to make our own choices about modernising our culture and our society and we've got to make those choices, in Cape York, in ways that retain our identity and our traditions and those things we hold dear to us, our kin and our country. We make those decisions about taking our place in the economy by our own choice. And we won't return to the old policy of assimilation.

We've got to engage in new orbits -- career orbits and education orbits. We're going to have to learn to engage with Cairns, with Sydney, with London, with Perth and with New York. And we'll be engaged with all of the necessary facility and flair and creativity that our young people will make in the future, given the opportunity to do so. So we're not going to vote with our feet, to abandon our ways and supposedly outback ghettos.

These outback ghettos are our homes that people desperately don't want to sever their ties with. I'm going back to Cape York and I'm saying the possibilities for our young Cape York people are endless. My father died with 10 bucks in his pocket in our little fibro house but, thanks to Gough Whitlam's education system, all of the privileges of the world opened up to me. If our people on Cape York are going to succeed in securing a better place, where young people live according to their own choice and their own talents, between their world and the global world, we're going to need a sustained commitment to the educational guarantees given to us in the 1970s.

I think there is also the need to understand that with a sharpening of education in our culture and traditions, and a sharpening of our education in the global world, our young people are in a position of enormous privilege. On the frontiers of those sharp edges we will have a creativity and we will have an opportunity that is mostly denied to people who don't have the privilege of the backgrounds that Cape York people have. We have to make some severe cultural adjustments if we're going to realise this vision because our culture has been significantly affected by the inactivity of passive welfare.

Our culture has been significantly affected by our inability to come to terms with the explosion of grog and drugs. I think that if we succeed in our agenda to firstly move on the drug and grog people among our people, I think there will be enormous opportunities. But, in the wider culture, I detect a sort of latent fatalism about the position of our people, and this latent fatalism infects the ideological debates and the response of the progressive people as well as the conservatives in relation to our predicament.

There's this resignation to the little compatibility of the traditional culture and the requirements of the global culture in which we are inexorably, inevitably and inescapably entrenched. I think what we've got to do is transform passive welfare. This is our biggest challenge, and the inter-relationship between grog and drugs and passive welfare is profound.

But we are on the horns of a very difficult dilemma because government, in the sense that it is the provider of all of this passive welfare, is so bad for us but it is all that we have. So we have to transform the role of government in our communities. We have to turn the Government from the deliverer of passive welfare to the enabler, to the deliverer of opportunities and endeavours that enable our people to live beyond this permanent state of dependency that we, for so long, have reconciled ourselves to, and the social disaster that we witness on Cape York.

If we placed Leichardt (an inner Sydney suburb) in a permanent state of welfare dependency -- 98 per cent of the population for 30 years -- then you would have similar results that we have on Cape York Peninsula.

Service delivery, in itself, is a form of passive welfare, where government takes the initiative and government takes the responsibility and we're all supposed to sit back under the mango trees and receive this service. That we have reached the dead end of this kind of policy should now be clearly evident given that the Queensland Health Department runs a program called ``A Life Promotion Program'' -- the next program after that will be a``Breathing Promotion Program''.

But the challenge to transform the role of government in the lives of Aboriginal people is no small challenge. There are huge ideological barriers and barriers of vested interest to reforming the role of government. We need a retreat of the initiative of government but not the resources.

Peter Botsman's role at the Brisbane Institute was very valuable because it triggered a debate about the need to transform the role of government. I have been very pleased and honoured to work with Mark Latham in promoting a new role for government in the lives of disadvantaged and marginalised people. It takes huge courage and it takes huge intellectual energy to press the kind of agenda that Mark and Peter have been advocating and it has been my honour to have participated peripherally.

If we really want progressive change, and if we want social progress, then we're going to have to face up to the limitations of our previous thinking and the sheer incorrectness of some of the nostrums we held to be correct in the past. We're going to have to challenge those ideologies that we've grown comfortable with and that appeased us and made us feel good and we're going to have to get rid of our liberal prejudices because they don't seem to work out in terms of solutions for people on the margins.

I urge those who favour social progress to understand that the situation for indigenous people on Cape York has not improved.

Huge opportunities have been wasted. Lots of young people who could have overcome the predicaments that we suffer have fallen by the wayside and I hope that the ideas in The Enabling State provide some signposts for what government needs to do, what the community needs to do to move towards genuine social progress.

The hill our people have to climb