As the dust starts to settle and Australia reflects on the outcomes of the recent federal election many Aboriginal people have growing concerns over Tony Abbotts new Indigenous Advisory Council and the agenda behind its plans for ‘real action for Indigenous Australians’.
The Council appears to be on the road from idea to institution, with scant consultation or consent from Aboriginal and Islander people. In the style that has marked so much of successive governments approaches to our issues the proposed Council is top down and unrepresentative with Tony Abbott and Nigel Scullion being joined at the table by Warren Mundine, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton.
There may be more Aboriginal ‘leaders’ involved, but who knows – and that is the whole point. Unlike ATSIC or the newly re-elected National Congress – with all their limitations and flaws – the Indigenous Advisory Council is hand-picked by the politicians, not promoted by our people.
This is not to say that these three individuals do not have things to offer and positive contributions to make. But they do not have a mandate to represent all our views and they hold views about Aboriginal ‘development’ that are far removed from the lived experience and deeply held aspirations of many Aboriginal people. Particularly in relation to the role of the State and of the resource sector in the Coalitions new ‘open for business’ Australia.
In 2012 Marcia Langton outlined her views through the Boyer lecture series titled ‘The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom’. Her view that mining is helping to pull Aboriginal people out of poverty was widely promoted through the ABC and Fairfax media. What was less advanced was her connection to the resource sector through the Rio Tinto group and her involvement with the Australian Uranium Associations ‘Indigenous Dialogue Group’.
Warren Mundine is not only the co-convenor of the Uranium Association’s Indigenous Dialogue Group but is also a Director of the Australian Uranium Association. His views on the nuclear industry are in conflict with those of many in Aboriginal Australia living with the legacy of nuclear testing or actively resisting uranium mining and radioactive waste dumping on their country.
We all want to make things better for our people but there is a real danger in talking about the interests of mining and the need for change in Aboriginal Australia as though they are the same thing. They are not. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We three and many people – do not believe that mining is in the best interest for our families, the long term health of our country or will stop the suicides, alcohol abuse, violence, or raise the level of education and access to health services.
If mining meant these things then the Aboriginal communities of the Pilbara would have a very different set of social indicators than the current ones.
Mining is not a panacea for addressing the social, cultural and economic disadvantage of Aboriginal people. The resource sector does have a role and a responsibility to address issues and improve outcomes in areas where it operates but governments must be held to account to meet their responsibility to provide the roads, schools, housing, health services and other infrastructure that people in cities and towns take for granted.
Basic citizenship entitlements – hard won by our predecessors following the historic 1967 referendum – should never be tied to or traded around proximity and access to a mineral deposit.
Mining is neither a new development nor a new answer to old problems. Mining has been around for hundreds of years. Look at Aboriginal life in Australia’s mining regions around Roeborne, Port Hedland and Port Augusta. Spend a couple of days out at Laverton, go talk to the folks at the missions in Kalgoorlie and tell us mining is pulling Aboriginal people out of poverty or reducing the rates of kidney disease and cancers. Look at the youth suicide rates, our people’s lack of representation in Parliaments and over representation in prisons. It’s not as simple as saying mining will pull us out of poverty, stop the welfare dependence and ‘save us’. It hasn’t done it in the last 200 years of occupation and excavation.
Even in 2013 community development is at the front end of mining, particularly during approvals and heritage clearance. But as soon as the commodity price drops or costs increase it is the community development budget that is cut. After the first round of flash cars and payments once the digging begins life too often becomes reduced to footy carnivals, training programs, a couple of cleaning jobs – and high profile pictures in the company’s annual report.
The establishment of the Indigenous Advisory Council, two thirds of who are directly aligned with the controversial uranium industry does not bode well for advancing a mature conversation around and action on the problems of Aboriginal inequality and disadvantage. At the very least the NIC should include community representatives with diverse backgrounds and views.
You can’t have your yellowcake and eat it too: the members of the Indigenous Advisory Council should declare their interests and stand down from their involvement with either the Council or the Australian Uranium Association.