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We never never seem to learn

By Rollo Manning - posted Thursday, 9 July 2009

Why does the Government think that putting healthy food on the shelves of remote community stores means that the people will buy and eat it? Evidently the Rudd Government thinks they will and that this is one answer to "closing the gap", demonstrating how out of touch it is with reality.

Any marketer knows that you don't just put product on the shelf of a store and expect it to sell. The benefits have to be made known to the potential buyer through advertising. If the market is a competitive one then the advertising has to be aggressive and achieve high impact. The marketing of foodstuffs is a highly competitive business dominated by multinational companies which spend billions of dollars convincing consumers their maybe not so healthy product is good. One only has to observe the shopping and eating habits of Aboriginal people in Darwin to see that even the "fresh food people" are struggling to sell healthy products in place of ready-to-use processed foods, high carbohydrate foods and foods with high sugar content.

There are other contradictions and inadequacies in today's approach to Indigenous Disadvantage and "closing the gap":

  • Just putting police in communities to stop violence is not going to remove the reasons why violence happens
  • Just announcing that $670 million is going to be spent on building houses and committing to employing Aboriginal people in the process does not mean it is going to happen. Even if it does, that does not mean people are going to live in them - nothing over the past thirty years has shown that remote-living Aboriginal people are at all interested in building houses
  • Just announcing that $750 million is going to be spent on training and mentoring will not help create the jobs once training is finished. If money is to be spent in training make sure the jobs are in place first. Training for no jobs is money down the drain and the only people to benefit are those in the training and employment networks that are raking in squillions for no apparent outcome. Create the jobs the local people want to see happen and don't expect them to fit neatly into our paradigm of employment
  • Just getting kids to go to school does not mean they are going to learn anything. The desire to learn has to be there and this will only happen when they see their parents or family members actively involved in building better communities through employment and enterprise development

The Productivity Commission report on Indigenous Disadvantage points to the very fact that governments cannot fix the problems until they work with Aboriginal people in remote communities - not for them.

In any society if you put six or more clans together with conflicting heritage and a mistrust of each other there will be trouble. And if these disparate groups have no education, a lack of understanding about a work ethic and a seemingly limitless supply of money with no attached responsibility, the relationships between these groups will become fragile. This is the exact situation in which Aboriginal people find themselves, especially in the larger community towns. Social skills were never a priority when the scattered clans came together in one place with food, water and a roof over their heads which was never big enough for the number of people that wanted to live under it. The rules that now apply when living in a township or village environment are vastly different from the rules that operated in the bush. If not understood in the first place, no wonder these new rules are broken. It is matter of learning to live together through a sequence of shared activities that will gain mutual trust, and respect for the value of this new way of living. Unfortunately, what prevails is a perfect setting for strained relationships and the ensuing violence - which has such a devastating effect on the outlook of children.

In his apology speech on 13th February 2008 Mr. Rudd said:

We need a new beginning. A new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy failure. A new beginning, a new partnership, on closing the gap with sufficient flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional Indigenous communities across the country but instead allows flexible, tailored, local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership. And a new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings across the nation.

The new beginning does not lie in the quantum of money being spent, or the words uttered. If resolving Aboriginal disadvantage was put in the hands of the private sector with incentives for success it may be solved in a far more efficient manner than is possible through a bureaucratic process.


For example, there is a mammoth program to be embarked on with Aboriginal Peoples that sells the product called Good Health. Who better than those already in the game to harness the power of marketing and media to do so?

So long as people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are supported by welfare without any real incentive to exercise their brains or body, poor health and all the associated flow-ons will occur. Poor eating, alcohol abuse, drug taking, violence and crime, are the symptoms of a sick society that needs to understand that good health is a joy to experience and a pleasure that can be shared with those Australians who have had the opportunity to be educated, loved, nurtured and mentored into meaningful employment of their own choice. The gap is growing simply because a third generation of people are coming into the world not knowing what good health is, or why jobs are important, or how proud a person can feel when they are allowed to make their own choices and be self-dependant.

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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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