White Myths, Black Futures

I wrote this piece, as a 23 year old “young fella”,  on a cold night in the winter of 1976, nearly 40 years ago, while living at Amoonguna community a few kilometres from Alice Springs. It is interesting to think about what has changed, and what hasn’t.

The Fraser government had been in power for a few months at the time. Fraser, to his personal credit, fought against the worst excesses of his Treasurer, Howard, and the appalling racism of both the NT Legislative Assembly of the day and significant sections of the Commonwealth bureaucracy, who were all still steeped in the myths of “Assimilation” and the barely less destructive “Integration”, sadly revived with the Howard/Brough “Intervention”. At best Fraser was able to preserve the gains of the Whitlam era, and Indigenous Affairs in a large measure “marked time” for nearly a decade.

It is worth remembering that the infant mortality rate for Aboriginal people in the early 1970’s (after decades of the supposed “good old days” of “Assimilation”) in the NT was around 140 per 1000 births - as bad or worse than the most impoverished parts of the third world today or then - and that Indigenous life expectancy was two decades less than for the non-Indigenous population. A decade of “self determination” reduced the infant mortality rate to less than 20 per thousand - still appalling, but a huge change for the better. Sadly the rate of improvement, rarely mentioned today,  seems to have fallen off in the “Intervention” era.

The thing that changed this was simply Whitlam’s Indigenous “empowerment” ( I’ve often sworn I’d never use that word, but it was clearly the primary, effective, factor ) The creation of independent Indigenous medical services had a huge impact on Aboriginal infant mortality rates. The arrival of Aboriginal Legal Services meant that for the first time Aboriginal people weren’t always automatically pleaded “guilty” by their bureaucratic white “mentors” in court cases: some courts even asked for interpreters for those whose first language wasn’t English,  and Land Rights gave people a real personal sense of hope for the first time in a century or more.

Simply bringing people into the broader social security system for the first time meant that far fewer people died from the effects of malnutrition , whether infant or maternal., too. 

Yes, things are still desperate today, though I didn’t see Aboriginal kids and their parents hunting through the Alice Springs rubbish tip for rusted cans of baked beans when I was there last month, as I often did in the mid 1970s. 

But what has changed, what hasn’t, and what mistakes from the past do we seem determined to repeat?

Here are my thoughts from August,  1976 as a starting point for discussion. Sadly, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”:

Rod Hagen, 1976


It’s raining outside my window. The temperature is just below freezing point. Within a five mile radius are a thousand people huddled together in humpies made of battered corrugated iron, bits of canvas and anything else that they can find.

Within three hundred miles there are ten thousand. They own little more than the clothes they stand up in; a pair of second or third or fourth hand trousers, a shirt and maybe, if they’re lucky, a jumper. If they’re women they probably have a cotton dress or a skirt and blouse. Most of them have a couple of synthetic blankets.

Tomorrow, when they wake up (if they could sleep) they will have no dry firewood, and only the wet ground to sit on. Most of them will have no jobs to go to. None of them will do the things that you or I do: have a shower, turn on a heater, or start frying the bacon and eggs. They can’t. They are too poor.

Despite the apparent recognition by whites in southern states that Aborigines still exist in Australia most seem to remain in almost total ignorance of the situation in which Aboriginal People live in the Centre. Some old myths may have been shattered, or at least become less prominent, but others have rapidly grown in their place. Undoubtedly the most pernicious of these has been the development of the idea that all Aboriginal people are living lives of relative affluence at the taxpayers’ expense through the provision of massive social security payments to all who ask for them.

This is a myth which is believed by Europeans close to the situation as well as those further away. The staggering thing is that the discrepancy between the myth and the reality is so immense. In fact a smaller percentage of Aborigines receive unemployment benefits on most settlements than you find amongst the white Australian community; in spite of the fact that unemployment on these settlements runs at over ten times the national average.

Thus at Yuendumu, a large settlement 300km north west of Alice Springs with an Aboriginal population of around 1,000 and an adult male population of 300, 108 men are employed, and 77 people receive aged, widow or invalid pensions. Over half of these are women.

Over 50% of the adult male population at Yuendumu are unemployed and not receiving pensions. Yet only 7 people on the community  ( .7% of the population) receive unemployment benefits. Presumably the remaining 140 men and their families are supposed to exist on the charity of those around them.

When one looks a little further however one finds that the others are far from a position in which they could support extra mouths.

Although Aborigines now receive award wages, those employed on settlements are almost exclusively in jobs for which the award rate is very low. The mean gross wage for those, in full time employment at Yuendemu is around $100 per week, well below the national average of $180 a week. Some of the 108 employed  referred to above work part time or on a week on, week off basis pushing the money per mouth even further down.

Per capita income at Yuendemu amongst the Aboriginal population (including all men, women and children) , including pension and unemployment benefits amounts to less than $12.00 per week, dramatically less than national average of $35.

Another myth suggests that Aboriginal people receive other benefits which Europeans are not eligible for. This assertion takes several forms. Some suggest that Aborigines merely have to walk into D.A.A. to receive money. Others say that people receive free food and grog money for the asking. Some believe that there are social security benefits to which only Aboriginal people are entitled. Others believe that organisations such as Aboriginal Legal Aid, or the Central Land Council hand out money to those behind with the rent or unable to meet hire purchase commitments.

Each one of these myths is completely false. Where they originate, from goodness knows! Yet they are beliefs which are held by perhaps ninety per cent of the population of Alice Springs, and a substantial proportion of people in other states.

The only benefits which Aboriginal people have access to which are not universally available are allowances for children attending high schools and other educational institutions. Less than 1% of Aboriginal people receive these benefits. The payments take the place of others which are available to the remainder of the community.

Another variety of the myth suggests that Aboriginal people receive free housing on settlements. Anybody who has visited a Central Australian settlement should know otherwise. There are indeed quite large numbers of usable European style houses on some settlements, almost all of which are occupied by whites. Over the last two years at Papunya, 15 miles west of Alice Springs, twenty eight houses have been completed for European staff members compared with seven for Aboriginal families.

At Yuendumu, of the forty five occupied houses, thirty four are occupied by European families compared with eleven by aboriginals. The vast majority of Aboriginal people on settlements live in humpies which make the shanties of Soweto look luxurious.

They have no running water, hot or cold.  I know of hundreds of Aboriginal families living on settlements who have to walk over two hundred metres to reach the nearest water. Of course they have no electricity, earth floors and walls made of second hand corrugated iron or bits and pieces of canvas picked from the rubbish dumps of the affluent white community. Without electricity and with very little firewood or clothing people have to survive winters during which temperatures can fall to as low as minus 8ºC and during which frosts occur nightly for months at a time.

When confronted with these facts some people ask why they stay. Most people forget how hard they tried to leave when the settlements were new. Thus, soon after Hooker Creek settlement was set up in 1949, men, women and children who had been trucked there by the old Native Welfare Branch walked over 200 miles to escape. They were picked up and taken back only to walk off again. Even after such obvious signs of rejection of government policy they were taken back to the place which many whites people believed they should be grateful for.

After twenty years of almost compulsory residence many people do now wish to stay. If they left where could they go to? Poverty is perhaps a little less destructive and humiliating when you are with friends rather than strangers.

Some whites ask why people don’t move into town if they have so much difficulty getting work on settlements.

The reason is simple. The situation there is worse. There are already over a thousand Aboriginal people in the twenty six fringe camps of Alice Springs. Most of them are unemployed. Again we find the same problems of poverty which we see in the settlements. Figures are not available for the number of Aboriginal people on unemployment benefits in Alice Springs itself. It is worth noting however that on 15.7.1976 there were 585 registered unemployed people in the Alice Springs pastoral region, 374 of whom were Aborigines. This figure grossly understates the seriousness of the situation. Most estimates suggest a figure of between 2 and 3 thousand unemployed, the vast majority of whom are Aboriginal.

There were 35 registered job vacancies. What would be the point of moving to a town to look for work under these circumstances. There are a total five water taps in Alice Springs to service 26 fringe camps containing 1,000 people.

300 of the town camp dwellers have no running water available at all. Some survive by digging holes in the bed of the Todd River (which usually flows only once or twice a year).

Not surprisingly in the middle of a town of 13,000 people, this water is heavily polluted. A fortunate few have been supplied with water tankers by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Others have water provided to them in 44 gallon drums once or twice a week. One camp of roughly 50 people receives four drums a week – 176 gallons of water. Another, of the 40 people, receives two drums a week.

The average Australian household consumes over 60 gallons of water per day. At another camp people fill their own drums  at the local abattoirs and then roll them a quarter of a mile to their humpies.  When these sources run out people are forced to beg or steal from their affluent white neighbours.

In many cases this appalling situation could be overcome (and could have been overcome for many years) by the installation of 50 metres of GI water pipe. When confronted with situations like these the usual reaction of Government departments and municipal councils is that nothing can be done because the land on which people are squatting is vacant crown land to which the Aborigines possess no title.

Yet in the heart of Alice Springs is another area of vacant crown land known as Colacag Park on which these same authorities have been able to produce, for the tourists, a lush green lawn with taps for a sprinkler system, lighting and power points and a toilet block, not to mention benches, well-cared-for shrubs and notice boards. This little park possesses more facilities than 24 of the 26 fringe camps combined. Yet it too is on vacant crown land which supposedly prevents its development.

To resolve this apparent impasse the Woodward Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights recommended the granting of leases for land in town. Woodward made it quite clear that for a change the needs of Aboriginal people should not be pushed to the end of the queue.

For this reason his report required that Aborigines should be involved at all stages of the procedure. He argued that it was “quite unacceptable that Aborigines should be pushed further and further away from the centre of towns by the apparently inevitable urban sprawl”. He said that by the end of 1976 no Aboriginal groups should be “living on sufferance on Crown Lands.  By that time they should all be living on places they have chosen, where they have a recognised right to be, and plans should be well advanced for permanent camping facilities or community housing projects.”

We are little closer today to achieving the objective than we were over two years ago when Woodward’s report was published, despite prolonged hearings by the Land Commission headed by Justice Ward, and lengthy discussions between Land Councils and the Aboriginal residents of the camps.

A network of thirteen interrelated claims had been established for Alice Springs by the Aboriginal community. These took into account such factors as the traditional orientation of camp sites in the direction of peoples own “country”, the need to separate groups between which tension existed and even the feelings of the European community.

At first it looked as if these claims would be successful. Now however we find that the whole basis for them is being rethought, not by the Aboriginal people themselves but by the Departments of the Northern Territory and Aboriginal Affairs. The Land Councils, set up by Woodward, which have achieved more in this regard in 8 months than government departments had in forty years, are to be bypassed and the two Departments are working out arrangements which suit them, rather than the people directly involved.

Though this process of “consultation between Departments” the needs of one group of Aboriginal people are being played off against those of another without any prior discussions with the people concerned.

Thus the Department of the Northern Territory, which has successfully outplayed the Department of Aboriginal Affairs on every significant issue since the change in government, will make a concession in one case if the Department of Aboriginal Affairs is prepared to peacefully accept defeat on another.

Objections to claims by the Department of the Northern Territory, which would never have survived the glare of public scrutiny if they had been forced to present them to the Land Commissioner, will be acceded to quietly in Canberra by a department which knows that it lacks not only the economic and political power but also any real sense of commitment to the people which it was created to serve.

Thus half of one small area claimed will be sacrificed because the Department of Northern Territory feels that it may require the land for a road in 1980. One of the largest claims will disappear altogether because Department of Northern Territory might want the land for a subdivision in 1985, despite the fact that the land involved is of substantial religious mythical significance to the Aboriginal claimants.

The attitude of the D.A.A. is that “a little is better than nothing.” They seem to be blissfully ignorant of the fact that Aboriginal people may reject the new boundaries which they seem prepared to negotiate before consultation.

They are also ignoring the tensions they will be producing between Aboriginal people in Alice Springs. If only some of the claims are granted the delicate scheme which had been devised by the Aboriginal people themselves to cater for tribal and other divisions which only they can adequately comprehend, will collapse into dust. If the size of claims is reduced the pressures of over-crowding will force people off the claims onto other areas of land and so the cycle of depression and dependency will continue.

It is pure humbug to suggest, as the present Government does, that people living in abject poverty should be required to bear the brunt of the white community’s battle against inflation. The cuts in the Aboriginal Affairs budget will not have the slightest effect on the well being of the white community. For Aboriginals however they mean the extinguishing of a glimmer of hope which they were almost starting to believe in. They mean even greater poverty for one of the most destitute people on earth. They mean more unnecessary deaths, more misery, more co-dependence, all in the midst of white affluence.

I know children who have stolen food from the refrigerators of unknowing Europeans because they haven’t eaten for two days. I know a woman who is supporting ten children on an old age pension for one. I know children who take a brick to school wrapped in brown paper because they are ashamed about being too poor to afford lunch. Do you think these people should be made to suffer because the newspapers and the economists say you are a little worse off this year than you were last?

Today we heard that Aboriginal Housing Associations in the Territory are to be closed down while the government undertakes a period of “consultation and review”. This will throw a further five per cent of the Aboriginal work force on settlements out of a job and increase still further the rate at which the need for houses accelerates away from the supply.

We also heard that even for those land claims that are successful no money will be available to provide any of the facilities which you and I regard as necessities of life. The budget of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has been cut by 46% this year because of the “grave financial situation”. How do you imagine Aboriginal people feel when they hear that they won’t have a tap, or a job, or a house because white people are too poor?

The cutbacks in Aboriginal affairs will have an infinitesimally small effect upon the national economy. They will have a massive effect upon the welfare of the Aboriginal community. It means the shattering of belief that, after a century of neglect and apprehension things were starting, slowly, to improve. It means a shattering of the belief that governments might occasionally be a little more on their side.

Can we really be surprised if Aborigines are intensely cynical about the agencies of government when governments repudiate their promises as rapidly and as drastically as the present one has.

Before the last election the Liberal Country Party promised “no cut backs in Aboriginal Affairs budget or in programs” and that “Aborigines would be better, not worse off under a Liberal Country Party Government”. What more damning indictment can there be of their flagrant dishonesty than the 46% cut back in the Aboriginal Affairs budget and its associated programs barely six months later. What would you then say to the thousand people with five taps.

In the words of Wenten Rubuntja, President of the Land Council, “What are we going to do? No shelter, under pepper tree, under gum tree and under grass. Rain for four or five months and very cold…Nobody goes to hear how people live out bush, on settlements or on stations. In town people are dying form sickness. No wood for fires. Who can get that? White people are coming up all the time. Aboriginal people are going down. Who can stop that?”

Obviously not the government, if a 46% cut back in the D.A.A. budget is the best they can do. Obviously not the media if their silence on the issue is anything to go by. Aborigines will presumably have to keep on waiting, in dire poverty, with all of its consequences.

Rod Hagen

Central Land Council

Alice Springs