Sincerely sorry

The thing Australians should really feel sorry about is trashing the Aboriginal family.
Michael Cook | Feb 24 2008 | comment  

Sorry seems to be the hardest word” sang Elton John in one of his early hits. But the new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, found it easy enough. As the first official parliamentary act of his government last week, he apologised to his Aboriginal countrymen in an eloquent and passionate speech. “For the indignity and degradation... inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

Many of Australia’s 500,000 Aborigines live in Fourth World conditions in a First World country. Life expectancy for them is 17 years lower than for the rest of Australia. The statistics for health, housing, literacy, infant mortality and employment are appalling. Last year the Federal Government spent A$3.8 billion on Aboriginal affairs and had precious little to show for it. No big deal. Neither had its predecessors.

Yet the Prime Minister was not apologising for any of this. Nor was he apologising for the theft of land, the murders, the discrimination, the neglect of the past 200-odd years since European settlement. Instead, he was apologising for wrecking Aboriginal families. An estimated 50,000 of their children were removed from their families between 1910 and 1970 – the so-called “Stolen Generation”. Rudd called itone of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history”.

A thick 1997 report, Bringing Them Home, brought these stories to the attention of white Australians. As Rudd said, “There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages. The hurt, the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity.”

The Bringing Them Home report claimed that thousands of Aboriginal children were “stolen” – somewhere between one in three and one in ten. Although this is asserted “with confidence”, the margin of error is high, amazingly high, for a government report. Rubbery figures like these set off alarm bells with historian Keith Windschuttle, who has bedded himself down as one of Australia’s least liked people for arguing that the issue has been fabricated by ideologically driven academics. His counterclaim is that “Rather than being stolen from loving parents to fulfill a nationalist policy of racist eugenics, the only cases where Aboriginal children were removed involved serious parental neglect. In many of these cases, the parents were alcoholics who were not providing proper nutrition or health care and the authorities would have been culpable had they not acted.” He plans to publish a refutation of the whole “stolen generation” issue later this year.

The Prime Minister and most Australians ignored the historical controversy: “Decency, human decency, universal human decency demands that the nation now step forward to right an historical wrong.” He issued an unqualified apology.

The problem is, Aborigines have heard rhetoric like this before. Rudd’s precedessor Bob Hawke created an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1990 to deliver better social outcomes. It dissolved 15 years later in a welter of corruption. In the best speech of his life, Prime Minister Paul Keating said in 1994 that “we cannot resign ourselves to failure” and promised justice within a decade. Aborgines are still waiting. In fact, last year the Australian Army surged into Outback towns to quash an epidemic of drunkenness and sickening child sex abuse which is destroying remote Aboriginal communities.

The apology, however sincere and well deserved, diverts attention from the cluelessness of government policy. Many Aborigines live in physical and moral squalour which is unimaginable in the wealthy coastal cities. One promising solution, proposed by Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson, centres on restoring a sense of the dignity of work and personal responsibility.

But an even more fundamental issue is still being ignored: the disintegration of the Aboriginal family. Yesterday's bureaucrats tore families apart. Today's are tossing them in baths of acid. In the acres of newsprint about the Prime Minister's apology, two words were conspicuously absent: “husband” and “wife”. There was a lot of windy talk about Aboriginal families in newspapers, but they are not the families that readers are used to, the kind that include husbands and wives. The Soviet Union effectively abolished marriage as a symbol of bourgeois oppression in the 1920s. That experiment didn't work -- and there is no reason to think that leaving Aborigines in a desolate no man's land between traditional marriage and Western marriage is going to work either. 

According to 2005 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 86 percent of Aboriginal children are born out of wedlock, that is, in neither a conventional Western marriage nor in a traditional tribal marriage. And where the stories of abused children, abused women, drunkenness and pornography are most sickening, in the Northern Territory, the rate is 95 percent.

Even more unsettling is the fact that the father of 18 percent of Aboriginal births is unacknowledged. Is it any wonder that infants are raped in a culture where, as in the Northern Territory, in nearly half of all Aboriginal births the father did not sign the birth certificate?

Admittedly, these statistics might not be accurate. Many Aborigines in Outback communities speak little English. They have very sophisticated notions of kinship relations and marriage which cannot be translated into whitefella questionnaires. But clearly something is terribly amiss – and the whitefellas are turning a blind eye to whatever it is. One telltale sign is that the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey never mentions marriage or marital status. Apparently the 2008 survey will be improved – more information about hunting, fishing and gathering activities. This is not what Aboriginal people need.

There is an immense amount of research which shows that marriage is associated with substantial benefits in Western societies. Children do better on a wide range of economic, social, educational, and emotional measures. They are far less likely to be poor. They are far more likely to stay in school. Their parents are happier, healthier, wealthier, and live longer. If there is one single improvement which could be wished for the Aboriginal people, it would be stable, intact marriages. And if there were only one thing that Australian bureaucrats should be sorry for, it would be stifling ideas on how to foster this.

The difficulties cannot be underestimated. How can successful marriages be built in communities steeped in drunkenness, drug abuse, unemployment, and pornography. But you have to start somewhere. Dr Lara Wieland, a doctor who works in remote Aboriginal communities in the far northern reaches of the state of Queensland, insists that young Aboriginal parents at least need to be taught the basics of parenting:

The dysfunction has become so deep that many people do not even realise the damage that is being done to their young people. They hardly bat an eyelid at events that would make your stomach churn. A young mother in a drunken state beats her young child with a stick and screams that she is going to kill him. The next day, that same mother, sober, hugs her child and does not even think about the lasting emotional scars. Why would she, when her mother did the same to her, and her neighbours do the same, and no one has ever told her that it is wrong?

“Children who have had sexually transmitted diseases and have been raped and molested are now parents. No one ever helped them or told them that what happened to them was wrong or not normal. Today's teenage parents grew up in homes with hardly any furniture or toilet paper or soap or toothpaste. They don't know what it means to make your child wash with soap in the shower or brush their teeth at night. They eat meals that materialise -- if they're lucky -- occasionally around pay day.”

The biggest stumbling block may be the bureaucrats who are reluctant to impose Western values like marriage upon Aboriginal communities. I suspect that Dr Wieland knows a thing or two about their obtuseness. In 2003 she wrote a letter to the Federal Prime Minister and the State Premier which revealed the appalling state in which Aboriginal children were living. What happened? She was fired.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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