Speaker by Various Artists

This whispering in our hearts

by Che Tibby

One of the topics the revisionist historian Henry Reynolds discusses throughout his numerous books is the unwillingness of the Australian nation to confront its genocidal history in relation to Aboriginal people. Much like the old bogeyman of the 'the stain', Australians just don't seem to want to acknowledge the kinds of injustices levelled against the Aboriginal after the first settlers and convicts arrived. Why this is the case is something too big to deal with in the few words I can offer here, but lets hope that somebody works out something soon, because the situation of Aboriginal people can only be described as dire.

I remember as a kid hearing people compare New Zealand and Australia with statements like 'at least we don't treat our Maoris the way the Aussies treat their Aborigines'. That type of thinking always puzzled me though. How in the hell can you have relativity in the mistreatment of an entire people? And who says they're 'our' Maori? This type of proprietary bullshit pervades conventional wisdoms among colonial-minded nationals in most of the former Empire.

I always feel a slight cross-Tasman pride then when I talk to anyone about the Treaty or Treaty-settlement policy though, I have to admit. At least I know that Maori aren't getting the same kind of raw deal that Aboriginal people are. But, I should specify that its mostly a case of getting shafted by the Howard Coalition Government, Keating set in train a series of reforms that were supposed to get the ball rolling for Aboriginal people, but they were stymied by Howard in the usual favouritism towards the 'big end of town' boys.

The subject is being broached by my good self because last week I went to a seminar expecting to be informed about the proposals to scrap the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). The Commission has existed since the 1990s as the peak representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and was charged with managing a number of programmes, while also providing a consultative role through elected commissioners. It never really worked.

Part of the problem is that ATSIC has always been labelled as handling 'black money', meaning that every time someone wanted to make Hanson-style political points out of the race card they could indicate the 'ghettoisation' of the funding being allocated to Aboriginal people. The usual calls were that it was wasted cash, one billion a year being allocated without any real improvement in the lives of Aboriginal people etc.

The truth of the matter is that ATSIC were lumped with an albatross from the outset. One of the remote communities here in Victoria is a good example. The former mission station is in Gippsland, which is about four and a half hours from Melbourne. Now, although the community there pays rates to the local shire they receive no services. And that means none at all. Nada. Instead, ATSIC provides the cash that keeps the water system flowing, rubbish collected, sewerage removed and that type of thing. This happens in numerous Aboriginal communities and was a substantial outlay from the ATSIC budget.

Second, most of the people residing there are effectively on the dole. But, in a tricky bit of political manoeuvring, instead of being registered with the dole office, they are supplied through ATSIC and a separate programme. This means that less Aboriginal people are formally 'unemployed' in official statistics. Tricky. And these two spending examples are common to all the regions of Australia.

In effect then, ATSIC money is money that could or should already be spent by the mainstream, but it gets used to both hide both local government indifference or racism, and state or federal inaction in Aboriginal policy. And meanwhile, Aboriginal people are experiencing 'third world' levels of poor health and mortality.

So, I figure that I'll attend this seminar and get some more facts to supplement what I've heard in the media. But little did I know I was being bushwhacked.

It turns out that the ATSIC topic was an entrée to a party political drive by a bloke called Richard Frankland for a party he is trying to establish called 'Your Voice'. It's still in the early stages, but it was really interesting to be there when something like this is just getting off the ground, especially considering that he is an Aboriginal man trying to get an Aboriginal political party moving. So if you're living in Australia and want to get involved, join the party, it costs very little and you might be able to put an Aboriginal Senator in place to hold that balance of power. He only needs 500 members to start trying to make a difference

One of the things Frankland pointed out that is very is very true is that the Wik Amendments to the Native Title Act scraped through the Senate because one independent Senator, Brian Harradine, supported the Coalition. This isn't the place to talk about the inequities of the Wik Amendments, designed as they were to make it impossible for Aboriginal people living anywhere near the bigger cities to try and claim back their traditional lands. Maybe another day.

So, after a brief talk about ATSIC and a mention that Howard is scrapping the Commission instead of following the recommendations of this report, the first speaker sits and Frankland gets up to speak. Now, as soon as I realise what's going on the 'cynic bells' are ringing, and I'm getting a little worried about wasting half a day and travelling an hour by tram to see this stuff.

I needn't have worried.

At first Frankland comes across with some angry words about the state of Aboriginal society and the way in which it is impossible to find support to prevent the further erosion of Aboriginal culture, in what is the 'usual' talk, but then the mood changed. It seems that he was a Field Officer during the investigations surrounding the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and he related some of the things he saw and heard to us in the audience.

Now, my bullshit detector is pretty finely tuned after years of hearing people describe the situation in Aboriginal Australia, and I've travelled to a few remote places were Aboriginal people are doing it tough, so none of this was a surprise to me. But what really hit me, what was really a punch in the gut, was watching tears well up in his eyes while he spoke of the way the fieldwork had affected him.

Any bloke who can confess to an audience of complete strangers, without apparent insincerity, that he spent eight years identifying 'hanging places' in his home, his workplace, in public, and had to tell himself every single day to not take up the rope himself and rid the world of one more Aboriginal gains my respect, and deserves the standing ovation the audience gave him.

Like I say, a punch in the gut.

As a final note, I want to talk about the democracy problem. A lot of the time the marginalisation of Aboriginal people is excused because they total a mere 2% of the Australian population. Hence, it's difficult to explain how and why so much time and effort should be expended helping them reach the living standards of the majority. But my answer to this is that you're still talking about 350,000 people. THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND people. That's bigger than the population of most Australian cities, and is not the insignificant number that "2%" sounds. So like I say, if you're reading this in Aussie, check out the website and maybe give a little hand, if not only because getting involved in a party is better than donating money in a do-gooder fashion, and the more articulate Aboriginal people out their taking the fight to government themselves, the better.