The case for Indigenous self-determination
If we want to shift Aboriginal disadvantage, then self-determination is the only way, writes Sol Bellear.
Last week, I wrote a story for The Drum about the Bugmy High Court case. It sparked a flurry of commentary, much of it, unfortunately, quite ignorant.
The Bugmy decision reinforced the long-standing legal principle that a court must take into account a person’s background during sentencing, including any history of disadvantage.
The point that seems to have been lost on many readers – despite it appearing in the article several times – is that the High Court declined to make a finding on the basis of race. White people are just as entitled to have their background considered as people of colour. It was not a victory for Aboriginal people, it was a victory for ALL people … and common sense.
However, I argued that while I respected the High Court decision, the case I’ll celebrate is the one in which the High Court determines it has no jurisdiction over Aboriginal people. If we want to shift Aboriginal disadvantage, then self-determination is the only way to achieve that.
One reader, Mike, made a genuine attempt to engage:
Sol, I don’t agree with most of your article for various reasons, many of which have been captured in the comments above. But I do want to thank you for posting. It’s good to hear the point of view of an Indigenous man closely involved in Indigenous legal affairs. I know you won’t reply to this comment, but I, and I’m sure some other readers, would appreciate it if you followed up with an article about your suggested changes to the current system (legal or political) to address the imbalance between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians. Without making any presumptions, it sounds like you might be in favour of creating a separate and legally sovereign nation for Indigenous peoples within Australia. I’m not being facetious; I’m genuinely curious.
Mike, you hit the nail on the head. That’s precisely what I’m in favour of, and here’s why.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world, and in the process I’ve witnessed firsthand the benefits of self-determination for Indigenous peoples.
I’ve looked at the Sami Parliament in Europe, I’ve visited reservations in the US and Canada, and I’ve spent time in Maori communities.
What I found in my travels shames our nation and makes a mockery of our fear of a ‘nation within a nation’.
Dozens of treaties have been signed in the US and Canada which afford First Nations communities varying degrees of genuine self-determination, from controlling their own schooling to giving them a real capacity to generate an economic base.
In the United States today, there are more than 250 Native American tribal courts across at least 32 states, which handle everything from criminal matters to family court.
Native American corporations and individuals are exempt from a raft of state and federal taxes, including state income tax for people living on reservations.
Native Americans and First Nations people in Canada also have significant political structures which ensure a greater degree of power in their own communities. In Canada, they have the Assembly of First Nations. In the US, individual reservations act as partially autonomous bodies, providing their own law and policing, schooling, health, housing and infrastructure, and income through tax breaks and initiatives like casinos.
In New Zealand, Maori have seven seats which sit over the entire nation, in which only Maori can vote (although anyone can contest a seat).
This is real self-determination in action, yet none of these nations has imploded or been crippled by their relationships with their Aboriginal peoples.
This is real self-determination in action, yet none of these nations has imploded or been crippled by their relationships with their Aboriginal peoples. All of them have been enhanced. Of course, things aren’t perfect overseas. Treaties are regularly breached, and the life statistics of Indigenous peoples consistently lag behind those of their non-Indigenous countrymen. But here’s what Canada, the US and New Zealand don’t have.
They don’t have trachoma, a third world disease that has been eradicated in most nations.
They don’t have the world’s highest recorded rates of rheumatic heart disease, another third world condition linked to overcrowded housing.
They don’t have jailing rates of Indigenous people up to eight times greater than the jailing rates of black males in Apartheid South Africa.
They don’t have world-beating rates of suicide and self-harm.
They don’t have life-expectancy gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in the double digits.
And they don’t have third world infant mortality rates.
And in particular, they don’t have an excess mortality rate even approaching that of Indigenous people in Australia. Research by Australian Dr Gideon Polya reveals that the excess mortality rate of Aboriginal Australians is one of the worst on earth, twice that of the mandatory reporting death rate for live cattle exported on a boat from Australia, and the same rate as a sheep in an Australian paddock. It’s actually higher than Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam during their respective wars.
But can we blame all this on a lack of self-determination? Research by Dr Paul Kauffman, another Australian researcher, provides some interesting food for thought. In 2003, he completed a study called ‘Diversity and Indigenous Policy Outcomes: Comparisons between Four Nations‘.
In Australia, the rate of Indigenous over-representation in prison is 10 times greater than in the US.
Briefly, it compared the progress in Canada, the United States and New Zealand against the appalling state of affairs in Australia. And it looked specifically at what sort of institutions each nation had which could be classed as self-determination in action. The results are startling.
In Australia, the rate of Indigenous over-representation in prison is 10 times greater than in the US.
Australia’s Indigenous youth suicide rate is twice that of New Zealand and three times that of the US.
In New Zealand, 85 per cent of Maori have a post-school qualification. In the US the figure is 65 per cent. In Australia, it’s fewer than 14 per cent.
To round out the study, Dr Kauffman noted that Canada, the US and New Zealand all have treaties, constitutional recognition and extensive employment diversity programs. Australia does not.
Dr Kaufmann’s study may not be conclusive proof that self-determination is the difference, but it’s pretty compelling. Either Australian Aboriginal people have a knack for death and destruction, or something else is going on.
That’s not to suggest Australia doesn’t pretend to support self-determination, because we certainly do when the rest of the world is watching. In 2008, the Australian Government endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document which was crafted specifically to set out the rights of First Peoples to govern their own lives and communities.
Yet virtually every Australian government policy announced since flies in the face of our stated international position. The Northern Territory intervention and its bastard son, the Strong Futures laws, for example, breach almost half the articles of the UN Declaration.
Dr Kauffman’s study was completed in 2003, a decade ago, but today my people are further from self-determination than we’ve ever been.
In the coming weeks, the Abbott Government will unveil its signature Indigenous affairs policy – a hand-picked board of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who will advise the government on the best ways forward for Indigenous peoples in this country.
It is the precise opposite of self-determination, light years from the only policies that have been shown to impact positively in other nations in a similar position.
It also happens to be a recycled policy that failed under the Howard government. It will fail under the Abbott government too because as history shows, the new National Indigenous Council will spend its time telling the government what it wants to hear, not what it needs to know.
And that’s one of the key problems in this country – we don’t learn the lessons of our history.
The great lie of 100-plus years of Australian Indigenous Affairs policies has always been that Aboriginal people are so backward that we need to be saved from ourselves.
After socially engineering our communities into world class poverty, governments blamed us for circumstances, and declared themselves the only ones capable of fixing it.
So they took our children away. They forced us from our ancestral lands. They held our wages and savings in trust, and then found better ways to spend the money. We were forced into slavery, denied equal wages and prevented from ever building generational wealth.
That great lie still underpins thinking in Indigenous affairs policy today. So it’s time to do something different, and time to acknowledge that the case for self-determination for Aboriginal people in Australia isn’t just compelling – it’s overwhelming.
Of course, we’re not debating HOW it should occur. We’re still debating WHETHER it should occur. And most Australians think it shouldn’t.
That speaks some volumes not just about our maturity as a nation, but also about our capacity to stare down the racism and paternalism that infects our national character, and the truthfulness of our claimed national identity as ‘the land of the fair go’.
The solution, obviously, is for the Australian Government to practice what it preaches, step back and let us make decisions for ourselves. On that front, I can offer you a couple of guarantees.
The life circumstances of Aboriginal people will not improve overnight. There is no silver bullet. Over the course of that journey, there will be corruption and nepotism. There will be wasted funds, political in-fighting, and examples where well-meaning programs cause more harm than good.
Put simply, we will make many of the same mistakes that have been made – and continue to be made every single day – by mainstream Australian political and governance structures.
On occasions, our ‘parliament’ will be as toxic as yours. On occasions, our leaders will embezzle funds and abuse their travel entitlements, just like yours do. On occasions, our leaders will make bad decisions that favour themselves and their families, just like yours do. On occasions, our communities will erupt into crime and violence, just like yours do.
But I can also guarantee you this: over time, the advances we make will be far greater than those under a system of colonial occupation.
How do I make this guarantee? Because we could hardly do any worse, and because decades of international experience, research and outcomes tell us so.
We are the only first world nation on earth that thinks self-determination is a dirty word, and yet Australians are in the worst position of all to lecture.
The fact is, my people will not simply surrender anymore than you or your children would if Australia was invaded tomorrow. So you can talk till the cows come home about wanting to help Aboriginal Australians, but until the conversation shifts to how non-Aboriginal Australians can stand aside and permit Aboriginal Australians to help themselves, then we’re just marking time.
While we wait, many more of my people – people like William Bugmy – will die, having lived tragically short lives marked by violence, dispossession and misery.
Sol Bellear is the Chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern, and a long-time Aboriginal activist. View his full profile here.