Closing the gap

Now the apology has been made the hard work continues to bridge the wide divide between living and education standards in white and black Australia, writes Tony Koch

FOR Aboriginal academic Jacki Huggins who recently retired as the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, yesterday was a starting point.
Huggins applauded Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations as one of the most significant days of her life. But she was more impressed by Rudd's proposal to establish a bipartisan policy unit to handle indigenous issues to close the gap that exists in life expectancy, health, education and employment between black and white Australians.
``I have not the slightest doubt about the sincerity of Mr Rudd's apology, and it was so heartening,'' Huggins says. ``What is needed now is for the Prime Minister, state premiers and the bureaucracy together with indigenous people to devise a national strategy to overcome our people's disadvantage.
``The bipartisan commission he announced is the venue at which to start. We have to decide what is achievable and then strive for it. It just should not be difficult to ensure that young Aboriginal babies have health, proper education and a safe upbringing. I stepped down from Reconciliation Australia last year after 11 years: perhaps it was a year too early.''
In his reply speech yesterday Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson invited Australians to stand in the shoes of their black brothers and sisters. ``With good intentions, perhaps like earlier generations, we have under successive governments created lives, in many cases, of misery for which we might apologise,'' Nelson told parliament. ``I certainly do. The best way we can show it is to act, and to act now. I challenge anyone who thinks Aboriginal people get a good deal to come to any of these communities and tell me you wish you had been born there.''
The way previous governments tried to bridge the gap and solve Aboriginal disadvantage was detailed by Australian National University historian Peter Read in a report titled The Stolen Generations -- the Removal of Aboriginal Children in NSW 1883-1969.
Read reported that in the interests of Aboriginal child welfare, the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board (which was abolished in 1969) had the power to remove any children from their parents, with or without their consent.
The same powers existed in Queensland and were used in thousands of cases. He quoted from the relevant legislation: ``That any Aboriginal child might be removed without parental consent if the Welfare Board considered it to be in the interest of the child's moral or physical welfare.''
It was up to the parents to show the government that they had a right to keep their child, not the other way round. No court hearings were necessary; the manager of an Aboriginal station or a police officer on a reserve or in a town might simply order them removed. On most documentation of the era, the reason provided for the removals was simply ``for being Aboriginal''.
The Cootamundra Girls Home was established in 1911 to take very young girls straight into ``domestic service'' and the Kinchela Boys Home at Kempsey was set up in 1924 ``for boys to be sent out as apprentice farm labourers''. The records show that 800 children were removed under the 1915 amendment according to the Register of Wards kept in the NSW Archives.
Read wrote: ``White children too were charged with neglect and removed from their parents but the Act under which white children were charged was a good deal more generous in the alternatives it offered to permanent separation. White single mothers could apply for a pension to look after their own children. Children could be committed to a suitable relative and they could be returned to their parents after a period of good behaviour. No such provisions existed under the Aborigines Protection Act for its intention was to separate children from their parents and their race permanently.''
Read wrote about the list of 1500 names of children who were removed up until 1936, but of whom no details were added.
In a 1933 government inquiry into the forced removal of children, the report noted that the manager of Kinchela was warned he must not be drunk on duty, must no longer use a stockwhip on the boys, nor tie them up.
He was not to use dietary punishments and had to keep a punishment register, and was no longer allowed to send the boys out as labour on local farms.
It is intellectually absurd to claim, as some still do, that all children were taken from their parents for their own good. Some would have been, but the vast majority were separated, stolen or kidnapped in accordance with government policy of the day designed to ``breed out'' Aboriginality.
Howard's former Indigenous Affairs minister Mal Brough, who lost his Queensland seat at the November election won by Labor, said yesterday's apology in the parliament gave ``a sense of relief to those affected''.
``The words of the apology were carefully crafted to give comfort to those people who were removed from their parents.''
Brough was the architect of the Howard government's plan to improve the life of Aborigines, the 2007 intervention into Northern Territory indigenous communities.
He maintains nothing can be achieved until substance abuse, violence against women and children, and welfare dependency in remote communities are eradicated.
``We have to deal with some of the sacred cows, the untouchables,'' Brough said yesterday after watching the apology on television at his home north of Brisbane. ``Until we answer the questions about why we are allowing children to live in places not fit for animals, for the children not to be attending school, and the same children being physically and sexually assaulted we cannot, as Mr Rudd put it, close the gap.
``We have to answer those questions and acknowledge that there is parental responsibility, community and government responsibility; and the solution will require all those parties to deal with the issue.
``The substance abuse and welfare dependency have to be tackled. Welfare strips people of dignity and purpose in life. There is no easy way round this. There has to be an acceptance that it was government policy that got us into this situation and undermined social order.
``We now have a generation of kids suffering fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol-fuelled domestic violence and all the rest of it.''
The last Aboriginal leader to chair the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Geoff Clark, said from his home at Warnambool in Victoria that the apology would allow affected families to ``move on''.
``The Government and Aboriginal people now have to take a lead in ensuring that Aborigines get to share in the nation's wealth,'' Clark says. ``For one, the mining companies should be participating in providing opportunities for indigenous people. The fact is that there is no excuse for anybody to be out of work in Australia at the present time, there are so many jobs around. My view is that Aboriginal people have been held back because of land title issues.
``That has to be sorted out and quickly, with the clear understanding that the bogy man -- the blackfellow -- is not going to steal anything.
``Government needs to hand back to Aboriginal people the capacity to forge their own way.''
North Queensland doctor Lara Wieland, who has spent years working with indigenous people in remote Cape York communities, says the lives of locals had not improved in the past decade and advocates ``intervention on a large scale''. ``There does need to be a massive intervention into the lives of this generation of children otherwise nothing will change and indeed will only get worse,'' Wieland says. ``But unlike other interventions, this must include the Aboriginal people themselves and the parents in particular. They need to understand that the shame is not in having the problems, but in hiding them. They are not Aboriginal-specific problems, but that hiding and ignoring them has allowed a situation where everything their grandparents built up on the ruins of dispossession has been torn down and it is destroying the very souls of their children.''
Wieland says communities need to be educated about ``what is normal and what is not''. ``There can be no action or agreement or co-operation on solutions from communities until they can understand the nature and seriousness of the problem.''
Australians who have not visited remote communities can't envisage how appalling living conditions are. On a community with 1000 residents living in 100 houses, there is unlikely to be more than five of six with fridges.
All will have large-screen television sets, stereos and huge speakers, DVD players, but no fridge.
There would not be half a dozen computers in all of Cape York's indigenous homes.
Children live in overcrowded houses, with nobody to assist with homework or even encourage them to attend school. Very few would get more than one meal a day, and in all likelihood, it would comprise Coca-Cola and a packet of chips or takeaway fried food.
Alcohol, introduced in the communities in the past couple of decades, has so devastated the population that many communities are lawless. The dedicated public servants -- nurses, teachers, welfare workers and police -- have to live behind 2m-high fences for their own protection. They, like the children, have to put up with the all-night parties.
The communities are hovels. Houses are wrecked, car bodies lie rusting in yards, and litter covers the streets patrolled by starving, mange-infected dogs.
What Rudd, Nelson, and every Aboriginal leader attending yesterday's historic event in Canberra will admit privately is that absolutely nothing will be achieved until alcohol is banned totally from communities and policing is at such a level that law and order can be restored. No agreements can be reached or progressed in communities where the majority of people are drunk, hungover or are unreconstructable alcoholics.
It is only when people are able to deal with sober communities that sense can be talked and local residents convinced that welfare dependency is a means to a mindless death.