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Filling the idle hours of a day ...

By Rollo Manning - posted Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Family violence is an indicator of an underlying problem of disharmony in remote Aboriginal communities. It is a big adjustment for people who led a nomadic existence (in some cases only 50 years ago) and are now expected to live in harmony in a community urban-like setting.

Older people in the community are unable to counsel the young on how to deal with this new world because they themselves have not lived through it. The world the 50 to 60-year-old person was brought up in was totally different to the one today that the 15 to 30-year-olds are facing. Alcohol was not available then and ganja (marijuana) was a far cry away.

When these two dangerous chemicals are added to a community smoldering with unrest from confused relationships an explosion occurs. This is what has been highlighted recently at places like Alice Springs town camps and Port Keats.


On top of the drunk and stoned people warring with each other come the tribal differences between groups (clans or tribes). These groups were not living together in their traditional way but are now being expected to live happily in a community that was never part of their world view. Back in the “old days” they would walk away from each other and avoid contact.

Community or urban living carries with it new values, laws and customs that have to be developed. The western world is molded by experiences of thousands of years with the learning of the growing child framed by its parents. Customs and practices are passed on from one generation to the next. This is taken for granted and it is assumed that Indigenous cultures will do likewise.

The Aboriginal person cannot pass on their culture and customs because they are not appropriate to a developed world. Simple things like personal hygiene, eating behaviour, dress sense and the value of property are all things which white children learnt from their parents. The Aboriginal child has no such help from parents or grandparents who may not have had a house, or knives and forks, or a toilet and certainly not the range of choice in what to wear for clothes. Personal property was kept to a minimum as it all had to be carried by hand.

In 1976 the government decided to give Aboriginal people money to sit down and not work. This notional wage, supplemented with other benefits such as shelter, food and clothing, provided the resources to buy utility and luxury goods never before possible.

Colour television opened a whole new world, artificial as it might have been, and new money gave the opportunity to move ahead and meet the challenges of a world not before explored by this race of people. The Aboriginal culture was more attuned to wandering the deserts and beaches of unspoiled Australia rather that the fast moving, disease ridden and temptation begging lifestyle of urban living.

Up until the “sit down” money came in Aboriginal people were remunerated in cash or kind from the people who employed them. Missions, schools, local councils and other services provided a remuneration package that seemed to suit the needs of the people. There was full employment and 95 per cent of the jobs in communities were done by local people. Today the reverse applies and the white workforce in communities has expanded to take over the jobs previously done by locals.


To the 30 to 40-year-old the introduction of welfare payments meant a steady decline in health and life expectancy and an increase in confusion and boredom. The parents of growing children have struggled with their own life in a strange developed world and have been unable to assist their offspring.

The future does not augur well for babies born tomorrow.

Governments have to realise they have disempowered these people by taking away their traditional culture and replaced it with a way of life for which there is no awareness of how to manage it. It will take generations to achieve full harmony through a staged approach of treating each generation as another step forward, and not as now - a step backwards.

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About the Author

Rollo Manning is a consultant in Darwin to Aboriginal communities and organisations in health and social development.

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