The government doesn’t understand

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Sunday, 3 August 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff

For those who have followed my comments on TPS, you will probably know by now that my working life was spent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs — and I still prefer that nomenclature even though the government changed it to indigenous affairs some time ago. This piece is about a basic problem faced by government in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, although couched in a more personal account of those years.

The main problem most governments have had in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs is that they just don’t get where the people are coming from; they fail to understand what it is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people really care about. Or, if they do understand, it certainly does not seem to the people that it is reflected in government policy.

I will focus on Aboriginal people because there is a slightly different set of issues, although related, regarding Torres Strait Islander people.

I worked in this area for thirty years and like to think that I did develop a reasonably good understanding. Perhaps some of my old Aboriginal friends will tell me otherwise, but I was at times recognised as a whitefella that people could come to for assistance even if it was for matters that weren’t technically my responsibility within the public service structure. But I knew the importance of personal relationships to the people and I would chase up the issue and get back to them, or make sure the person responsible did. In some cases I was picked out as the go-between in negotiations between communities and government officials who were senior to me. I understood the importance of a go-between in Aboriginal culture: a person often used to avoid any sort of embarrassment for important people in the community (for example, to avoid having a senior elder speak only to have his ideas rejected by a young government official — I could take the views back and forth and save face for everyone). And they trusted me to present their views in the way they wished.

Too often governments and public servants have not understood.

One of the first examples I came across, and partly where my learning began, was the written minutes of a meeting between a community and government officials in the mid-1970s which referred to an elder of the community making a speech for his land. An Aboriginal officer, who had attended the meeting, pointed out that this was actually a significant and heartfelt speech in the best Aboriginal oratorical tradition but it had been dismissed in a single short sentence by the white official recording it.

On a later occasion I was accompanying a local departmental officer on a visit to a community in WA when we got word that the elders wished to speak to us. (I should point out that elders are not necessarily old. I have personally known of instances where men in their 20s and early 30s have become elders owing to deaths within the family.) We were led to the edge of the community where the elders were sitting in a circle in the red dust. We joined the circle and sat. One by one the men rose to speak. I recognised this as a traditional formal meeting. Each person would rise and state their view, often (at least in English) interspersed with phrases like ‘this is only what I think’ or ‘I might be wrong’. In such meetings, the most senior person is usually the last to speak. When he rises, he does not get up and say I agree with what has already been said, he, just like everyone else, makes a speech stating his view: if that view is the same as the others then an agreement has been reached but, if it is different, the meeting will break up and will come together again in a few days, or even a few weeks, and that will continue until such time as everyone expresses the same view. That traditional way does not contain the cut and thrust, and questioning and clarification that we are used to in meetings. I knew this, but I was surprised when the local officer, who supposedly knew these people, began interrupting those speeches and asking questions.

Another example arose after viewing artworks by a community in the east of WA. We were having tea and coffee afterwards and I was at a table with two of the old men and a young white woman who worked with a local Aboriginal organisation. She began asking one of the men about his painting — a painting about Aboriginal knowledge of Lasseter (of lost gold reef fame) — about its track and where it went. I could see both of the men avoided giving a clear answer and as the young woman persisted, I thought they looked uncomfortable while still not answering her. When she left the table, I continued talking with them and discovered, as I had suspected, that they could not talk about the other end of the track because that belonged to the ‘Docker River mob’. Traditional people can only talk about their own country — if the young woman wanted to learn more she would need to speak to people at Docker River (now Kaltukatjarar). I did mention the situation to the chairman of the organisation the woman worked for and he said: ‘She should know that.’

That capacity to only speak for one’s own country has been a problem for government in creating Aboriginal representative organisations, whether elected or appointed. Although a person may be chosen to represent all of Cape York, they cannot speak with authority or make decisions for people on other country, even within Cape York. I have witnessed situations where, like the old artists, the representative avoids giving a straight answer because he knows he must go back and pass the information to the right people and wait for their decision before he can give an answer. In some ways he is still like a go-between, although the government and many public servants think he is a representative in the political sense we use the word and are surprised that he will not make a decision.

I used to remind my colleagues that, as public servants, we go into meetings with other public servants not expecting firm answers immediately (that is, we don’t expect other public servants to have plenipotentiary powers) but expect that they will go away and consider the issues and come back with an answer when they have spoken to the right people and received approval for their answer. Yet, for some strange reason, we often expected Aboriginal people to give us an answer straight away and did not extend to them the same courtesy of needing time to discuss and confirm the decision they might need to make. Traditional decision making can take time, which was something the people were rarely granted. Government invariably wanted a quick decision so it could announce the next grand scheme.

Related to that is the issue that governments seem to want Aboriginal people to speak with ‘one voice’. Ministers have become frustrated that they can’t get a single decision, or even position, on an issue. I do not understand why that is so. After all, they are politicians and operate in a world of competing interests and yet, when it comes to Aboriginal people, they often seem to think there should be no competing interests.

The idea of ‘one voice’ seems to spill over into a ‘one size fits all’ approach to much of the delivery of services, which becomes almost integration by stealth. The emphasis on education, jobs and housing may not be as relevant to some of the more traditional communities as it is to urban Aboriginal communities. I recall a small group in the Kimberley who were allowed to design their own houses. What they came up with was a large concrete slab covered by a corrugated iron roof, with one or two small lockable rooms at the centre. The living and sleeping areas were the large verandah created by the design. It was what the people wanted at the time but not the sort of dwelling the politicians could show the media as a sign of ‘improvement’.

Similarly when one community was given local council powers to manage its own affairs, it was thought that this would create opportunities for local people to fill the management positions for council services. A few years later it was found that all those positions were filled by white people. Why? — because the local people saw that as ‘whitefella business’, while they were busy with important ‘blackfella business’.

Education, health, housing, economic development and so on are important but, unless government comes to grips with the differences between, and even within, communities, many programs will continue to fail.

Over the years the government has tried at times to bring an Aboriginal perspective to government policy and service delivery. It could be argued that the appointment of an Aboriginal man, Mr Perkins, as Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was one such attempt.

ATSIC was another: although there were rumours that ATSIC was also a means of depoliticising Aboriginal affairs by allowing the minister to rise in parliament and say issue ‘x’ or ‘y’ has ‘nothing to do with me’, it is a matter for ATSIC.

ATSIC was heavily criticised but often for the wrong reasons. It had no control of Aboriginal health or education funding — they rested with mainstream government departments. Much of the funding it did receive was locked into programs determined by the government: so even if ATSIC thought the priorities for funding should change, it had little scope to do that without prolonged argument with the government. The government, in my view, was more often concerned about how things would appear to the wider electorate, rather than what the Aboriginal people actually wanted — such as the difference between a conventional three-bedroom house and the type of house I described above.

Despite that, ATSIC did bring a greater understanding (for the most part) to Aboriginal issues, and a large number of Aboriginal staff also helped. Even with ATSIC in operation, some traditional communities were still critical of its approach.

How to deal with the more traditional communities is a problem that has never been solved by the politicians or public servants.

When ATSIC was abolished in 2005 it was not only the Aboriginal commissioners who disappeared from the scene. What many may not know, is that there was also a purge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. It was claimed that many were not good enough public servants, ignoring the understanding they brought to dealings with Aboriginal people. For me, the attitude of some of the new staff who came into Aboriginal affairs was frightening: they knew almost nothing about Aboriginal people, their thinking or their values.

Now I come to the politicians themselves.

Politicians regularly visit Aboriginal communities, sometimes too often. One community I visited had had five fly-in-fly-out visits by federal and state politicians, and senior public servants, in the space of two to three weeks. Each visit disrupted normal community activities and it wanted the visits to stop or, at least, be limited.

Communities do view visits by prime ministers as significant but I don’t think the prime ministers understand the experience in the way they should.

The community acknowledges the high office of the prime minister but I think it is rare that prime ministers acknowledge the high office of the elders to whom they may speak. And our prime ministers fail to understand the significance of some of the gifts bestowed on them because they do not understand the depth of feeling behind them.

In 1998, John Howard visited Galiwinku in Arnhem Land and was given the great honour of having the group’s Dhulmi-mulka Bathi hung around his neck. These were the equivalent of their traditional ‘title deeds’. ‘By doing this the leaders hoped to impress upon him the inherent depth of Yolngu law.’ In my view, it was tantamount to making him an honorary member of the clan, giving him a responsibility to maintain those ‘title deeds’.

I recall thinking at the time that Howard had completely failed to understand the significance and value of what he had been offered: that he had been allowed to meet the leaders of a nation who also had their own parliament (the Ngärra), on their own land, and they had granted him access to their country and effectively welcomed him into their clan.

Once on a visit to a community in the Kimberley I had been taken by the old men and shown important objects. I understood the honour and trust that this bestowed and I did feel a sense of obligation to that community afterwards. Politicians should understand this. After all, they receive donations and then have a sense of obligation to the donors, but they are blind to the value of what Aboriginal people offer them.

Abbott is now promising he will, in September, fulfil his promise to spend a week in Arnhem Land. I have no doubt that he will be the same as previous prime ministers and completely fail to understand the experience.

I will finish with a couple of quotes from Galarrwuy Yunupingu who, although he has moved in the highest political circles, remains a traditional man and these quotes give a glimpse of what the politicians and many public servants are missing:

The clans of east Arnhem Land join me in acknowledging no king, no queen, no church and no state. Our allegiance is to each other, to our land and to the ceremonies that define us. It is through ceremonies that our lives are created. These ceremonies record and pass on the laws that give us ownership of the land and of the seas, and the rules by which we live. Our ceremonial grounds are our universities, where we gain the knowledge that we need. The universities work to a moon cycle, with many different levels of learning and different ‘inside’ ceremonies for men and women: from the new moon to the full moon, we travel the song cycles that guide the life and the essence of the clan — keeping all in balance, giving our people their meaning. It is the only cycle of events that can ever give a Yolngu person … the full energy that he or she requires for life. Without this learning, Yolngu can achieve nothing; they are nobody.

My inner life is that of the Yolngu song cycles, the ceremonies, the knowledge, the law and the land. This is yothu yindi. Balance. Wholeness. Completeness. A world designed in perfection, founded on the beautiful simplicity of a mother and her newborn child; as vibrant and dynamic as the estuary where the saltwaters meet the freshwaters, able to give you everything you need.

What do you think?