Double standards

Beware the intellectual trap that Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people and communities are somehow different from everybody else and the normal rules and expectations don’t apply.

By Nyunggai Warren Mundine
Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

Recently there were street riots in suburban Melbourne – 400 demonstrators from far-Right and far-Left groups descending into ideology-fuelled violence. Hundreds of police were deployed and several arrests made. Victoria Police Commander Sharon Cowden said “I understand the need and the right to protest … but what we can’t have is this violence in our community,” Acting Premier James Merlino said protesters would “feel the full force of the law” describing the behaviour as “unacceptable”.

Contrast Queensland Police’s response to street violence in the Indigenous community of Aurukun. A few weeks ago, video footage emerged of street fights with police watching on. Community leaders slammed police for failing to act. Queensland Assistant Police Commissioner Paul Taylor defended police non-action describing the situation as “very complex” and arguing police couldn’t simply break up the fights “because of the numbers of people there and because of the delicacy around making sure that they don’t have the crowd turn on them”. Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said “we can’t simply arrest our way out of trouble.” Aurukun’s school has since been closed after machete-wielding youths attacked the school and its principal.

Breakdowns in the rule of law cannot be tolerated – not in Melbourne and not in Aurukun. Police and governments must enforce the law and protect citizens. Aurukun’s community leaders are right to condemn police impotence on this issue.

But this is more than just a failure of policing. When police officials say the violence is “very complex” they’re speaking in code; they’re really saying the underlying disputes are linked to cultural rivalries which police are reluctant to get involved in. This excuse is symptomatic of an intellectual trap – that Indigenous people and communities are somehow different from everybody else and the normal rules and expectations don’t apply.

We see people fall into this same intellectual trap when it comes to economic development in remote Indigenous communities.

Australia is a vast, sparsely populated country. Small communities exist all over Australia with real economies, commerce and jobs. But it’s as if Indigenous communities are in a different universe. Then people say there are no jobs and communities should shut down; or governments should simply accept people languishing in chronic welfare dependence and never working.

Aurukun is one such place where this myth is peddled. We’ve heard it again in recent weeks.

Yet there’s work to be done in Aurukun like anywhere else. Teaching and policing (clearly); health work; construction and repairs; cleaning; waste management. Aurukun has an airstrip with daily flights, an art centre, a supermarket, houses, satellite dishes, fencing, generators, plumbing, septic systems, water tanks, air conditioners, cars, houses, roads and other infrastructure. There are also regional jobs in the mining and agriculture industries and many locations and activities attractive to tourists.

The problem is not a lack of jobs but that the jobs which do exist are mostly done by people from outside the community or not at all.
All across Australia there are remote Indigenous communities stuck in this intellectual trap. It doesn’t need to be like this.

Sometimes people can’t see what’s right in front of them. I encourage community leaders to do a simple exercise. Firstly, do a stocktake of all jobs that exist in the area and who currently does them (if anyone). It can surprise people how many jobs exist in places where there are supposedly no jobs. Then list commercial activities people would do in the community if they could – like buy coffee, or get a haircut or visit a dentist or get a takeaway meal or buy clothes. The things people currently do when out of town.

Next identify the qualifications and skills required to do those jobs and activities and how long it would take a local person to acquire them. What’s the pathway to becoming a teacher, police officer, pilot, health worker, dental hygienist, plumber, cleaning contractor, driver, shop owner, doctor. Sure, it may take time and effort for to qualify for some jobs. So what? The point of a master plan is setting out the goal and the pathway to get there. To give people something to work towards and within. And to show people there are jobs for them in their own communities they can aspire to. Actually, it’s expected of them.

Community leaders can start drawing up plans for getting locals into local jobs today. And with policies like the Employment Parity Initiative and Indigenous Procurement Policy, there’s a clear, and mandated pathway for moving local people into local work starting with government jobs and contracts.

There are genuine barriers to towns like Aurukun developing real economies, such as legal constraints preventing private home ownership. I’ve written extensively on these. But even with these restrictions, there are jobs in Aurukun. Locals can and should be doing them.

Aurukun Wetlands
This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review on 2 June 2016.

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