The Productivity Commission has released a substantial report called Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2009. It is important to step away from whatever ideological frames one is accustomed to applying and read the report with great care. Though we must always remember there has been progress in some areas — and for me the February 2008 Apology was a necessary and healthy step — the overall picture brings little joy.
Last night on the 7.30 Report anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton, who “has worked and lived with Aboriginal communities since the ’60s and has assisted with more than 50 land rights cases”, had some sobering words.
…KERRY O’BRIEN: When you say pragmatist and practical, does that include Aboriginal communities themselves, Aboriginal leadership accepting that they can’t really expect to kind of enshrine Aboriginal tradition, Aboriginal culture for future generations of Aborigines and lock Indigenous Australians into living in those communities and living that cultural life.
PETER SUTTON: Well I think people are voting with their feet, and there is much more mobility out of those more remote, more ghetto-like communities than there was. There are also many more outside people coming in, so they’re changing in that sense.
But to be honest, I mean, if you want a modern 20th Century health profile of the sort that you find in an advanced country, a first world country or a modern country, you’ve gotta have modern health practices, not just the instruments and the chemicals and the staff on the hospital. You’ve also got to have a settled urban or town-based kind of approach to things like getting rid of waste, dealing with personal hygiene, giving a certain modified and low role to violence in the way you settle disputes – that sort of thing…
KERRY O’BRIEN: How have you changed your views in 40 years? How dramatically have you changed your views in 40 years?
PETER SUTTON: Quite dramatically because I was of that generation of people living in remote communities who aided and promoted and took part in things like decentralisation back to outstations in the bush, who promoted cultural traditionalism and supported it where they saw it, took on interest in it, recorded it, filmed it or whatever. And there was a sort of an army of baby boomers, really, who spread out across the outback from the late ’60s onwards who I think played a fairly significant role, among other people of course, and I was one of those, that cadre of people who were involved in that. For us, culture was absolutely central, cultural preservation and preservation of knowledge of the bush and of places was absolutely central.
Now, I really think we have to start with three-year-old children, what’s essential for them. If it works for them, that’s the way to go. If it doesn’t work for them, no matter how much it might be about keeping some cultural practice going, the practice needs to be questioned and people need to work out whether they’re going to drop it or not.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Peter Sutton, it’s a very complex issue and we could go on, but we’re stuck for time. Thanks very much for talking with us.
Read the report: Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2009.
There is a central fact we all must recognise. Most of us are the beneficiaries of a dispossession that has occurred and in many respects is ongoing. It cannot be reversed, and we would be hypocrites to think it could be. I speak as a fairly typical old Australian, a hybrid myself of Dharawal and settler. Our historians have to confront that dispossession squarely; it is a complex story and often not a pretty story, but it is the only story on offer. The point is the present and the future. What are the best ways to both cherish the often neglected wisdom our Indigenous Australians do have to offer and guarantee that this really is a country of fairness, justice and equity for all? These are not easy matters.