Good intentions, flawed policies

The circumstances
of the half-million indigenous people of Australia are quite varied, from
integration in capital cities to isolated outback townships where people barely
speak English. But they are united in being disadvantaged. Life expectancy for
Aboriginal men and women is about 10 years less than non-indigenous
Australians. Other indices of social welfare – employment, education, housing, infant
mortality – are appalling. It would paint a rosy picture to describe some
Aboriginal settlements as Third World. They are Fourth World camps with unimaginable levels of squalor, domestic violence, child sex abuse, drunkenness, and drug abuse.

Everyone in
Australia knows this. Every bureaucrat can recite the heart-rending statistics.
Every politician chokes up during speeches redolent with remorse and good

But over the past
40 years, the conditions of indigenous people, relative to the rest of
Australia, have hardly changed. Not that the government has been sitting on its
hands. In fact, as a scathing review of the effectiveness of its programmes showed
this week, it has been busy spending money hand over fist -- A$3.5 billion a
year for many years. And, says the report, these billions have “yielded
dismally poor returns to date”.

“The history of
Commonwealth policy for Indigenous Australians over the past 40 years is
largely a story of good intentions, flawed policies, unrealistic assumptions,
poor implementation, unintended consequences and dashed hopes. Strong policy
commitments and large investments of government funding have too often produced
outcomes which have been disappointing at best and appalling at worst.”

The Finance
Department report, “Strategic Review of Indigenous Expenditure”, was written
last year. But apparently it was so embarrassing that it was filed away as
“cabinet in confidence”. The Government only released it after a freedom of
information request from Channel 7.

How to raise the
standard of living of indigenous people is bitterly disputed. This vast and
intractable morass has defeated generations of government bureaucrats, both
white and indigenous. Unhappily, as the report acknowledges, “good intentions
in Indigenous affairs do not translate easily into good policy, and … the risk
of unintended consequences in this domain is often extremely high.”

There is one
promising approach on the table – to abandon the welfare mentality to which so many
Aborigines are addicted. Some Aboriginal leaders, like Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy
Yunupingu are trying to
convince their people and the Federal and state governments that less sit-down
money is needed, not more. They argue forcefully that welfare is a poison which
is killing their people.

Pearson says, “My point is not that nothing should be
done about social ills and needs; my point is to challenge the idea that a
service program delivered by government is the best response.” He endorses
Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yu and America’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s views on the
destructive and demoralising power of the welfare state. Work and home
ownership are his antidotes to the poison.

But both
governments and these impressive leaders have failed to address a central
issue– the state of the Aboriginal family. For decades, the government has
tried to give its indigenous citizens everything they needed to access the
benefits of a developed economy: education, housing, health care and so on. But
it withholds the pincode, which is the traditional Western family.

All the indices
for Aboriginal families are dire. About 70 percent of indigenous mothers have
never been married. The vast majority of children are born out of wedlock. If
Aboriginal families are dysfunctional, is it any wonder that literacy levels
are in the basement and drug and alcohol abuse is sky-high?

For the
bureaucrats, the figures for indigenous marriage are far less important than those
for literacy or health. There are probably two reasons for this. For one, they
are loath to criticise customary marriage -- even though it includes polygamy
and child brides – lest they appear paternalistic and patronising. But the main
reason must surely be that marriage is not important for them either. The high
rates of divorce, co-habitation, and single-motherhood in white Australia do
not trouble them.

Now its
uncertainties about the value of traditional marriage have been crystalised in
the fierce controversy over same-sex marriage. Debating whether homosexuals should
be allowed to marry is really just another way of asking whether marriage
itself is worthwhile. In the inner city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, this
is just an academic question. In dusty, unhealthy, dysfunctional outback
communities it is literally a matter of life and death. If Aborigines had
strong families, their child mortality rates and maternal mortality rates would
not be the same as East Timor or the Solomon Islands.

What is happening,
effectively, is we are shutting Aboriginals out of Australian society by refusing
to promote the most powerful social technology of all: the traditional nuclear
family. Families teach orderliness, self-restraint, industriousness, ambition,
respect for others’ rights – all the virtues that children need to be healthy,
to take advantage of their education and to succeed in working life.

Is it cultural
imperialism to promote “family values” in indigenous communities? It isn’t,
because they are fundamentally universal human values which are compatible with
all cultures. But even if bureaucrats are loath to admit this, they work. In a
culture with strong family values, you don’t get as sick, you live longer, you can
read, you don’t sniff petrol.

In traditional
Aboriginal culture, marriage was a highly structured institution which created a complex
web of rights and obligations linking three generations. In the harsh
conditions of Australia, it worked well enough. But after contact with Western
culture, the old forms have largely disintegrated and can never be revived.
What remains is a strong sense of kinship obligation to relatives. But this
simply isn’t enough to create an environment in which young people can get the
education and self-discipline to allow them to take advantage of the benefits
of a developed economy. Unless they are taught how to have robust family lives,
Australian Aborigines are always going to have appalling social statistics.

As Wesley Aird, another indigenous leader fed
up with waste and ineffectiveness, commented, “the old ideology has failed. Without a doubt the present beneficiaries
of the indigenous industry will fight hard to defend the status quo, but $35bn
and 10 years of the same are indefensible.” It’s time to go back to basics if
Australians really want to help indigenous citizens. Get off welfare. Start
working. Promote traditional marriage. Support the traditional family.

Michael Cook is editor of


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