Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Should paternalism replace Aboriginal self-determination in Australia?

Mark Metherell:

A "NEW paternalism" to replace Aboriginal self-determination is needed to lift communities out of the dysfunction, disease and hopelessness that afflicts them, says the Health Minister, Tony Abbott.

He is expected to use the release today of the latest report on Australia's health, again showing the much higher prevalence of disease among Aboriginal people, to make his controversial call.

Mr Abbott proposes giving administrators wide-ranging powers to run communities, saying that "a form of paternalism … based on competence rather than race is really unavoidable if these places are to be well run".

In a speech today, launching the report, he will argue that a "sense of guilt about the past and naive idealisation of communal life may now be the biggest single obstacle to the betterment of Aboriginal people … Having rejected the paternalism of the past, we now insist on forms of self-management for Aboriginal people that would be totally unworkable even in places where people are much more used to them."

The basic problem of Aboriginal disadvantage "is not the lack of spending, although it could always be higher, but the culture of directionlessness in which so many Aboriginal people live", Mr Abbott says. The "appalling living conditions" had been known for years but little had changed because of "misplaced tact and fear" of imposing what should be seen as universal standards.

Yesterday, a Senate committee criticised the Government over its response to petrol sniffing and poor housing in remote communities. It said the odourless Opal fuel needed to be available across Central Australia and called for penalties against people who bring regular petrol into remote communities. "The cost of the roll-out of Opal would be offset by savings in health care," the committee said.

It also criticised the lack of action on recommendations made in previous reports and called for more public housing, something the Federal Government has made contingent on better law and order in remote settlements.

Mr Abbott will argue that an evaluation last year of five Aboriginal townships in Queensland shows the need for a kind of paternalism given that attempts to give communities input into government agencies had failed.

"Vesting authority in an administrator makes sense but only when combined with the power to take decisions and make them stick. Someone has to be in charge." In Aboriginal-dominated townships, there was often an authority vacuum filled by "big men" in conflict with each other and by white managers usually dependent on unstable alliances in the local council.

Mr Abbott cites the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Clare Martin, who has been reported as saying "the heart of the failure" is telling small communities to manage their own affairs.

"The challenge faced by all levels of government is to go beyond acknowledging that a decades-old policy has largely failed and to build workable governance structure against the pressure of vested interests and the inevitable cries of racism."

He cites a Kimberley health bulletin that reported 44 sexually transmissible infections in children under 14 in the previous 18 months - compared with an Australia-wide total of 185 children in that age group in 2004.

Mr Abbott says there is much evidence that the extremes of indigenous ill health result "from social conditions that no amount of improvement in health services can ever really deal with".

Few Aboriginal communities can govern themselves

Abbott in call for new paternalism

Aboriginal violence noted in rape cases


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