Self-determination is a mindset, not a gift

There’s never been a better time to be a young Indigenous Australian. This is the message we should impart to our youth, one of positivity and hope. And Indigenous leaders should model that message in our own conduct and language.

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

I’ve been involved in land rights and other Indigenous rights campaigns for most of my adult life. As a child I watched my older siblings be involved in political campaigns and movements in the 1960s. They were members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders which campaigned for greater Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal affairs and the removal of discriminatory state laws. Through this they were heavily involved in the campaign leading to the successful 1967 referendum.

Next month I turn 60. It’s given me a lot of pause to reflect on just how far Indigenous Australians have come during my lifetime.

When I was born, Aboriginal people in New South Wales were regulated under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909. Similar legislation applied in other states and territories. The Act established the Aborigines Protection Board (later called the Aborigines Welfare Board). The Act’s stated purpose was to “provide for the protection and care of aborigines”. When combined with the dependency of so many Aboriginal people on government for basic necessities, this “protection and care” was really absolute control. For most Aboriginal people in New South Wales, the Board controlled all aspects of life. It regulated our movement, banned us from going to the pub or from gathering in groups in public.

We were treated like children – not trusted to take care of themselves or make our own decisions.

Today, Indigenous people have land rights and native title. More than 20% of Australia’s land is owned by or under stewardship of Indigenous people. Indigenous controlled organisations manage hundreds of millions of dollars in government compensation for land dispossession, royalties and other income from land.

Indigenous leaders have the ear of Prime Ministers, Premiers and Chief Ministers; of CEOs and other business leaders; of industry groups, peak bodies, entrepreneurs and even billionaires. Most Indigenous leaders can pick up the phone and get in contact with any politician, business leader or media figure they wish to.

Governments have set aside 3% of their vast procurement supply chain for Indigenous owned businesses. Increasingly the private sector is doing the same.

Major employers, including Australia’s largest companies, set aside Indigenous internships and jobs.

CEOs regularly meet with Indigenous youth through various initiatives, including having Indigenous students be “CEO for a day”.

Many of Australia’s top schools and universities set aside places and scholarships for Indigenous students from all over the country where they get amongst the best education on offer in the world.

There are record numbers of Indigenous people in parliaments – including a Chief Minister, a Federal Assistant Minister, current and former state Deputy Opposition leaders and a state Shadow Treasurer.

The Federal government wants Constitutional recognition and there’s growing discussion on implementing treaties. The Victorian government is already in treaty negotiations with traditional owners.

Australia today is unrecognisable from when I was born. So much has changed. But unfortunately much has not.

I’m not just talking about the gap not closing. Nor just about problems like chronic welfare dependency which has gotten worse in my lifetime. I’m also talking about our attitudes and thinking as Indigenous people continuing to campaign and agitate.

Too often I hear activist cries that, frankly, aren’t relevant to today’s priorities. Like complaints Australia is a “racist country” or governments are racist. Seriously? How can anyone look at the steps being taken by most of the important institutions in Australia today and accuse them of racism? Or claim racism is what holds Indigenous people back?

Too often I see Indigenous leaders engaging with governments, not as equals, but as victims or as bullies with unreasonable demands. Take the demands by some in public (and others in private) that Minister Scullion be replaced as Indigenous Affairs Minister following the recent election. Why? Because some people don’t like his decisions or policies. Time to grow up. You can’t dictate who sits on the other side of the table just because you didn’t get what you want. Prime Ministers are free to choose their own team. Indigenous leaders should be able to work professionally with whoever the PM chooses.

Despite the crushing control and limitations placed on Aboriginal people and despite being dirt poor, my parents exercised self-determination. They determined to work. They determined to send their children to school. They determined to buy their own home. To them, self-determination was a mindset, not something government bestows on you. They weren’t immune from the oppressive system they lived under and they experienced bigotry in all of those pursuits. But those limitations didn’t define or discourage them..

Indigenous youth today can attend any school, study what they want, work in any job they want, live where they want. There’s never been a better time to be a young Indigenous Australian. This is the message we should impart to our youth, one of positivity and hope. And Indigenous leaders should model that message in our own conduct and language.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO chairs the Yaabubiin Institute for Disruptive Thinking, an initiative of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. This article first appeared in The Koori Mail on 27 August 2016.

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