I am sure that some readers will have formed the view that I have a completely one-sided and romantic view about the situation of the indigenous people: everything is OK, things are going well, we just need time, and so on. To some degree, that is indeed my position. Many people want change NOW, and love to chant it (‘What do we want? Lolly! When do we want it? Now!’), but major social change does not occur quickly. Look back fifty years, and consider how bad things were for Aboriginal people then. You still don’t like it? Look forward fifty years. My guess is that a lot more will have changed by 2062.
You may not think things will be OK even then, and one reason could be that indigenous people, despite all the successes I have mentioned, have some real strikes against them. Here are a few.
First, in general indigenous people have a lower life expectancy than the rest of the community – about twenty years less.
Second, they are notably less healthy, and are about twice as likely than the rest to suffer death through injury, assault and motor vehicle crashes being the principal causes.
Third, they are prone to ill-health through addiction to alcohol, to a greater degree than is characteristic for the non-indigenous.
Fourth, they are much less likely to have a job, and are much more likely to be on welfare. If they have a job, it is unlikely to be a highly paid one. About three quarters of all indigenous workers fall into the bottom forty per cent of income earners.
Fifth, and most important of all, Aboriginal people represent twenty per cent of those in prison, though they are only 2.5 per cent of the whole population. Any inspection of the National Prisoner Census will tell you that something is very wrong in our system of incarceration. Young indigenous men are hugely more likely to be in prison than any other group in Australian society.
These statistics are bad, and there is no quick fix. Yet both the positives and the negatives tell us that the situation of Aboriginal people is in transition. Changing the negatives will not be easy, but it is already happening. Only ten years ago incarceration rates were even worse in Western Australia, but the government there simply altered practice: instead of young Aboriginal men being sent to prison, much greater reliance was placed on community service orders, some charges were dismissed, more young men were acquitted, fewer breached their early-release orders.
It is probably the case that, just as the great body of Australian society sees Aboriginal people as a ‘problem’, so do many Aboriginal people see us as the problem. Good societies work, and offer their members the possibility of a fulfilling life, because the great majority feel that they belong and that they have a stake in the society’s future success. Those who do not feel that they belong have much less respect for the society’s rules and codes of behaviour.
We can see this truth exemplified at the moment in the case of Muslims protesting at the mocking of their religion. But I think it is at the heart of the squalid lives seen in some of the remote settlements, as well. To change a sense of hopelessness and of resulting anger is not easy, and it must come from within. All the rest of us can do is facilitate, be helpful.
And as I argued in earlier essays on this matter, it is happening, as the positive statistics demonstrate. People who have interesting lives don’t need alcohol as a crutch. I think that the key to an enjoyable life is enjoyable work, and that Professors Dodson and Langton are right to claim that real work for indigenous people, not ‘sit down money’, is the way to go.
What the rest of us can do is to provide that work when it is up to us, to provide a sense of acceptance of Aboriginal people as equals, as people like ourselves, and to welcome Aboriginal children as playmates for our own children. Again, I think this is widely happening in contemporary Australia, and it simply wasn’t when I was a boy.
In another fifty years I expect that things will have improved a great deal, but that is the real time scale. The Australian Government’s determination to set targets for real change in a short time may be admirable, but failure to achieve those targets may convince people that it is all too hard. It isn’t.
In another fifty years my expectation is that the indigenous people will be just like us. But the ‘us’ of the 2060s will be a rather different ‘us’ to that of 2012, and very different to the ‘us’ of 1962.