Running to stand still

If the Czech Republic and China can transform from isolated impoverished backwaters into thriving economies in less than three decades, why can’t Indigenous communities?

By Warren Mundine
Executive Chairman, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

In 1973 as a teenage student I was living on the cusp of a new era for Aboriginal people. It was five years since the Liberal Government had initiated the 1967 Referendum which allowed the Commonwealth to override discriminatory policies of the States. It was also first decade of my life that I had not been under the supervision of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board which could control “all matters” affecting the interests and welfare of Aboriginal people, including me.

Back then I was told it could take generations to fix all the problems for Indigenous people. That these things take time.

Clockwise from L: 1967 Referendum campaign; Editorial on the passing of the Native Title Act; National Apology, Canberra

Fast forward forty years to 2013. Some of the changes since then I would never have imagined: the Mabo decision, anti-discrimination laws, the National Apology, the campaign for Recognition and, most strikingly for me, the overwhelming change in Australia’s attitude to Indigenous people to one of respect and goodwill.

But I would also never have imagined that Indigenous communities whose adults used to work as stockmen, labourers and domestics in regional and remote areas would now be experiencing intergenerational welfare dependence. That communities who then learned to read and write would now comprise several illiterate generations. That incarceration rates, violence and alcohol & substance abuse amongst Indigenous people would go through the roof. That indigenous health and life expectancy would languish while for the rest of Australia it would improve year on year.

One thing that has not changed since 1973 is that I am still being told it could take generations to fix all the problems for Indigenous people. That these things take time.

I am tired of hearing that.

Forty years ago the Czech Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, a communist dictatorship, isolated behind the Iron Curtain under a Soviet stranglehold and with a centralised, socialist economy. Now it is a free-market, independent state with a liberal democracy. This change impacted 10.5 million people and occurred in around 15 years – from the fall of communism in 1989 to joining the EU in 2004.

Forty years ago China was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution during which millions were persecuted. It was a communist dictatorship in political turmoil, with a stagnant, centralised economy, high poverty and almost non-existent private enterprise and foreign investment. From the late 1970s it embraced capitalism and is now the second largest economy in the world. Although not yet a democracy and not corruption-free, there have been improvements in basic freedoms and a public acknowledgement by its leaders that more reform is required. This change impacted a billion people and occurred in less than 30 years.

Forty years ago computers were non-existent in my classroom and most homes had one fixed phone line. Today school children have smart-boards, laptops, tablets and smartphones and in many households the ratio is more like one phone per person. These changes impacted billions of people and occurred in less than 40 years.

I visited the Czech Republic in 2006 and observed a thriving economy and a free and open society. I have visited China on numerous occasions and I can’t help but marvel at the continuing changes and reforms. If the Czech Republic and China can transform from isolated impoverished backwaters into thriving economies in less than three decades, why can’t Indigenous communities? If a few billion people can experience a technology revolution in less than four decades, why is it so hard to close the gap for half a million people?

These transformations were driven by two things. A determined leadership that was willing to challenge conventional “wisdom” and ideology. And a people hungry for change and ready to embrace a new way.

Time is not the determinant. With leadership and appetite, it will not take generations to fix the problems for Indigenous people. Without them, there will never be meaningful change, no matter how many generations we wait.

The 1967 Referendum succeeded because of the leadership of the then Liberal Government and the overwhelming support of the Australian people. The Mabo decision might have been overruled by parliament but for the leadership of the then Labor Government, Noel Pearson and Rick Farley who led a nervous Australian people to accept native title. The National Apology was finally delivered under the leadership of a new Labor Government with support from both sides of politics and after a groundswell of support within the Australian community.

I know there is a hunger in the Australian community, especially amongst Indigenous people, to close the gap; to get people off welfare into real jobs; for private home ownership on traditional lands; for commerce and economic development to blossom for Indigenous people through their land and native title rights.

And if we are honest we all know what needs to be done.

It is time for our leadership to show determination, be willing to challenge conventional wisdom and ideology and close the gap in this generation. This need not take time.


A version of this article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 23 August 2013 under the headline “Transforming Indigenous Lives need not take generations”

For further reading see also Warren Mundine’s Speech to Garma Festival on 10 August 2013.

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