This story highlights the divide that exists within Australia, it is perhaps a demonstration of the conflict that occurs on the frontier between indigenous and non-indigenous traditions and practices. There is a need for sensitivity and respect to indigenous issues as well as an understanding of the history that has formed the generations of oppression. It is for this reason young Australians both indigenous and non indigenous need to be taught about the history and hardships experienced by indigenous people. Such an education would perhaps facilitate new attitudes among non-indigenous people and prevent further discrimination as well as creating young activists within indigenous communities.
The attitudes reflected by the PM’s statements about indigenous people living ‘in country’ are tied to the historical lack of recognition of Indigenous people in Australia that has persisted throughout government policy approaches over the last century. One example of this was the 1993 the Native Title Act. Passed by the Australian parliament the act allows indigenous people to bring land claims before the courts, however for rights and interests to be recognised they must demonstrate the practice of laws and customs that existed prior to or at the time of European contact. This view of ‘tradition’ precludes taking post contact history into and account. This effects indigenous people from maintaining connection with the land and also fails to encompass contemporary traditions and cultural change.
The words of Abbott also reflect the ideology behind assimilation policies that to bring indigenous people into mainstream Australia through including them in employment and education to ‘close the gap’. The vision behind this approach is based on the practical economic constraints of welfare provision however it again fails to take into account the importance of contemporary traditions and cultural practices of indigenous people:
“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.”
Abbott defended the remarks on Wednesday, saying he was being realistic.
“If you or I chose to live in a very remote place, to what extent is the taxpayer obliged to subsidise our services?” he said.
“It is incredibly difficult for the kids to go to school if there’s only half a dozen of them and getting teachers there is all but impossible.
“Similarly it’s very difficult for adults to get a proper job if there’s no employment within hundreds of miles. And this is where we have to be a little bit realistic.”
Dockery argues that there should not be a pursuit of employment at any cost, even if one does believe that getting indigenous people through school and into jobs is the ultimate solution, cultural maintenance should not be seen as a barrier but as a potential part of the strategy to enhance mainstream economic outcomes. Furthermore there is evidence that removal from indigenous land and traditions results in reduction in wellbeing and health indicators (see Biddle and Swee and other posts) suggesting that such policies put forward by Abbot are likely to result in greater issues for welfare interventions in the long run.
Jackman’s sentiments are a good example of using celebrity to raise awareness about indigenous wellbeing however there are those that might argue that such comments are bordering on a form of Occidentalism or even constructed with positive Orientalism, something that Attwood and Arnold (1992) have called ‘Aboriginalism’, in the way he depicts western society as in some ways spiritually and morally corrupt compared to the ideal of the indigenous Australians traditional ways of life (Kowal 2008). However is evidence that indigenous people’s way of life, separate from consumerism and globalisation is key to increased wellbeing and happiness, that being with the land and in nature, the things Jackman speaks of in his interview, are actually evidenced as having an effect on indigenous people, suggesting that this belief is not unfounded.