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Smoke, mirrors and practical reconciliation

By Chas Savage - posted Thursday, 6 January 2005

In 2000, John Howard signalled the symbolic reconciliation of Australian black with Australian white was dead, that he was burying it, and practical reconciliation was to become the order of the day.

This was a decision borne of necessity. Unwilling to adopt the symbolic trappings of the Keating government - unconvinced of their usefulness - Howard determined to shift the ground. Arrayed against apologies and gestures and incense were “practical and effective measures”, which were to address the disadvantage of Indigenous peoples. In this new climate, aspirations were to be made more moderate: according to the Prime Minister, we were not to “make demands on each other which cannot be realised”.

Well, it is almost nine years since the Prime Minister was elected to government and about five years since he decided that we should not mention the war. Given this, now is the time to test the effectiveness of the Prime Minister’s preferred approach.


Our starting point should be this: Aboriginal and Islander Australians die younger than the citizens of China and the fact they live longer than the average Zimbabwean is no comfort. The rate of trachoma and rheumatic fever infection is comparable to the world’s worst. Pneumonia, sexually transmitted infections and suppurative skin disease are prevalent in too many communities. According to Dr Richard Murray, from the Kimberley Area Medical Services Council, in many Indigenous communities the incidence of end-stage renal failure is 20 times greater than that in the general population - and has been doubling every 5 years in northern and central Australia.

In education, some general improvement has been made. Nationally, 38 per cent of Indigenous students now complete year 12 - which compares to the national overall average of 85 per cent. In some areas, however, even the notion that students will complete year 12 remains a fantastical dream. In Cape York, for example, only 6 per cent of Indigenous students complete the final year of high school.

Housing stock remains of poor quality and in short supply and 80 per cent of houses that are home to 10 or more people are occupied by Indigenous Australians. In the Kimberley area population growth is outstripping housing supply:iIn 1999, the University of Western Australia estimated the cost of meeting this shortfall to be $175 million. As authorities realised in 1900, when bubonic plague ripped through Sydney slums, over-crowding and sub-standard housing causes serious and barely containable health problems.

Because of research done by John Gardiner-Garden of the Australian Parliamentary Library, we know that Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous affairs has increased to $2.9 billion in 2004-2005. The result has been some improvement in some aspects of Indigenous life.

Since 2000-2001, the time when the Prime Minister invented practical reconciliation, the Indigenous budget increased by 26 per cent. Over the same time, total expenditure by the Commonwealth increased by 23 per cent. Far from indicating a ruthless desire to fund effective and practical measures, total Indigenous expenditure has been held with its head just above water. In the last two years, however, the Indigenous budget has increased at a lesser rate than total expenditure.

When we look at functional expenditures the picture is even more revealing. The total Commonwealth education budget has increased by 42 per cent since 2000-2001, much of which has been channelled to private schools. The Indigenous education budget has increased by 9 per cent. As far as reading, writing and arithmetic goes, an increasing share of the cake is being handed to those whose appetite is great and whose need is less.


Now it is true that the government is making steps to correct this unfairness. Dr Nelson, the Education Minister, just announced that expenditure on Indigenous education would increase by 23 per cent from 2005 to 2008. This is welcome, but it also needs to be put into context. After the Coalition’s election promises are taken into account, total education expenditure will increase by around 20 per cent over the same period. Far from representing an infinite largesse, the increase in Indigenous expenditure is on par with total planned expenditure on education.

In Indigenous health, the government has increased funding by 72 per cent since 2000-2001. This seems a great deal but because the need is so dire it is not yet enough. It is almost impossible to find a practitioner who believes in remote areas primary health needs are being met and comprehensive care is being provided. For example, in the Kimberley area, Commonwealth expenditure on primary health care is less than the national average. As well, in remote areas, diseconomies of scale make the cheap delivery of services impossible. To provide trained staff, doctors, nurses, is high cost; so is the cost of building and maintaining vital infrastructure.

The Prime Minister has said that the solution to these problems “is not just a question of money”. As with so many things said by prime ministers, this is a true, half-true statement. Cash is not the only ingredient in the mix: However more cash does fund better medicines and clinics, staff on the ground, more houses and better schools. As sugar growers and Australians living in marginal electorates well understand, money grants from the Commonwealth can make a practical and effective difference.

Now is the time for the Prime Minister to substitute our hard-earned money for his hard-blown rhetoric. Practical reconciliation? It is a struggle that still has to be fought. And which still has to be won.

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First published in The Age on December 20, 2004.

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About the Author

Chas Savage is a freelance writer and speechwriter based in Canberra. He has worked as an economics adviser to past federal governments.

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