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Resetting our relationship with Aboriginal people

By Michelle Fahy - posted Monday, 29 August 2011

Two weeks ago Indigenous affairs again flashed into the headlines, this time courtesy of a strategic review of Indigenous expenditure released under FOI.

Media reports focused on the revelation that Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous-specific programs is around $3.5 billion a year; an investment said to have "yielded dismally poor returns to date."

Also widely reported was the notion that remote Indigenous communities are not economically viable. The review said priority for infrastructure support and service provision should be given to "larger and more economically sustainable communities."


In an interview, Professor Jon Altman (Australian National University) stated:

The media has picked up very quickly on the notion of the viability of remote Indigenous communities, and I think that issue is an absolute furphy because we don't ask the same questions about non-Indigenous Australian communities. There's no acknowledgement … of the national interest served by Indigenous people living in remote areas… the resource management benefits, and the role they play in developing cultural industries like the visual arts … that have spin-off benefits for tourism.

Maintaining their right to live on ancestral homelands is crucially important for Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory, as Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM explains:

…once we are moved from our place of origin, we will not only lose our identity, we will die a traumatised tragic end. The fact is our body paint cannot be put on by just anyone or just anywhere or on anybody's country. We can only do that on our land. We cannot have identity if we are put into these…'growth towns'…The country is our lifeblood; that land that might just be filled with spinifex has a depth that the majority of Australian brothers and sisters don't understand ... We need to stop the destruction of the oldest living culture in Australia.

Supporting evidence comes from the Menzies School of Health Research which identified better health and environmental outcomes for people living in their ancestral homelands.

The expansion of … programs in remote Indigenous communities has the potential to deliver a healthier environment, sustainable economic development opportunities and … significant economic savings in health care expenditure.

Yet the government has ceased funding new and replacement housing on NT homelands.

Current policy prioritises 'growth towns' even though previous governments have tried this approach and found "the policy of concentrating Aboriginal Peoples in large settlements was a failure."

The call for government to create genuine partnerships with Indigenous communities has long been made and was reiterated by Mick Dodson recently:

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About the Author

Michelle Fahy is a Canberra-based writer and editor. She also acts in a voluntary capacity as a committee member of the Cluster Munition Coalition (Australia) which represents the views of around 25 Australian NGOs on issues related to the successful implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

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