Criticisms have often been levelled at the N.T. emergency response, commonly called the Intervention. Critics have claimed that if the government intervenes, this sends the wrong message, namely, that “Aboriginal people are incapable of solving their own problems”. Criticisms are fine and should be offered, along with better and more workable alternatives. However, the criticisms themselves need to be closely examined to ensure that they are not simply knee-jerk reactions based on long cherished but failing ideologies.
It is undeniable that many Aboriginal people are facing serious problems (such as those for which the Intervention was set up), that the people themselves have been unable to solve without special help. When there are major problems in the areas of health and social well-being for a particular group of people (whether they be Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal), and where those problems contribute to their inability to solve, or sometimes even have the will or ability to seek out a solution for themselves, it becomes rather obvious that some “outside” assistance will need to be initiated and undertaken on their behalf. This is all rather self-evident.
In a country like Australia, it is good to see that other Australians are helping other Australians. Unfortunately however, often this is not the message that gets broadcast. If those initiating and offering the assistance happen to be non-Aboriginal, and those being helped happen to be Aboriginal, then the help provided, no matter how much good will is involved, is often labelled as being “paternalistic” or just another expression of “assimilation”.
Use of such emotive language stems from the “us-them” mentality which only serves to promote the polarising interpretation of problems facing Aboriginal people as arising primarily from racial or cultural differences, hence further eroding reconciliation between the two groups. Many activists seem to get a kick out of shouting those words (“paternalistic” and “assimilation”) but rarely do they ever offer any justification for their use. The use of such words are typically done to invoke an emotive response amongst people, and rarely to promote meaningful discussion.
Further, it is not uncommon for some who use this language when discussing Aboriginal affairs to have a job within the “Indigenous industry” with a vested interest in keeping the sub-cultures separated. On this point, Pollard (1988, p.10) in his book Give & take: The losing partnership in Aboriginal poverty aptly notes:
The interest of the political parties in maintaining an Aboriginal problem is compounded by the existence of a small group of Aboriginal activists whose vocation is confrontation, who generally derive their own income from governmental sources, either directly or indirectly and who must have poor Aborigines to point to in order to have a raison d’etre themselves.
While the news that Aboriginal people in some remote communities are not able to solve the problems they currently face may be an uncomfortable message for some, it is one that needs to be spoken. I agree that the message should be communicated in a sensitive manner, but to not speak about it and deny that problems exist, only allows the underlying problems to fester. When problems are spoken about, it is also sensible to provide a broader context and give examples of Aboriginal communities, which are healthy vibrant communities. Successful communities are typically those where there are employment opportunities.
That Aboriginal people in these communities require assistance does not mean that the people will forever be in this state of needing assistance. Ideally, any assistance offered should be done with the aim of addressing underlying problems so that the people can be actively involved in managing the secondary problems themselves. Once addressed, assistance is no longer needed beyond the normal assistance provided to all Australians necessary for preventing problems and maintaining healthy lifestyles.
A closer look at the dysfunction in remote NT communities would suggest that the underlying problem is related to current ideologies that portray Aboriginal people living in remote communities as not needing education and employment like the rest of the country, but rather that they operate from a paradigm different to other Australians, thus requiring different rules to live by. There is a belief that a combination of traditional culture combined with welfare payments will produce happy communities.
For the secondary problems (such as poverty, sickness, poor diet, substandard education, alcohol abuse, etc.), would the activists who accuse the government of sending the wrong message, prefer the government to sit back and do nothing? I think we all know the likely response would be if this happened – “this government does nothing for us!”
At this stage, I would like to hear from those advocating that Aboriginal people solve their own problems (which is incorrectly called “self-determination”), to offer a plan or strategy. One that describes how Aborigines living in the remote communities where there are very few businesses, and little opportunity for meaningful employment would solve them.
Activists state that one race of people relying on only members of their race to solve problems, provide services, etc., is an expression of self-determination. It is not. It is an expression of separatism. Self-determination is something that operates at the level of the individual. Individuals experience self-determination when they, as individuals, make decisions that have direct benefits for them personally within the limits imposed by their environment. When living in an environment where there are very few opportunities for meaningful employment, a lack of fresh food, etc., then it is very difficult for individuals to exercise self-determination. And this state of poverty and dysfunction existed long before the Intervention.
Resolving the problems targeted by the Intervention will mean recognising that the people affected by the problems are Australian citizens, and therefore entitled to the same rights as you and I. People who identify as Aboriginal can still retain that sense of identity without acting as if they need to reject their Australian citizen responsibilities in order to do so. Let’s focus on need, and not race.