White Myths, Black Futures

I wrote this piece 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, however, 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.

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 died from the effects of malnutrition , whether infant or maternal.