In Living Color

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Spend time in an Aboriginal community and you'll notice that while there are plenty of children, there aren't many elderly people around. They are missing because Aborigines die, on average, 20 years earlier than their fellow Australians-a gap three times larger than that between Maori and other New Zealanders, and six times greater than that between Native and other Americans. The statistic starkly illustrates the crisis engulfing indigenous Australia, says journalist Rosemary Neill--a crisis that persists despite decades of effort, rhetoric and money. For, as Neill says, "There is no more telling an indicator of a people's well-being than longevity."

Convinced that Australians were largely ignorant about the catastrophe and its causes, the award-winning journalist with the Australian newspaper resolved to write a book. One publisher, she says, liked her ideas but told Neill "she would only print them if I was Aboriginal." The knock-back confirmed Neill's suspicion that Australia's debate about indigenous issues is being strangled by dogma, guilt and finger-pointing. It reflected, she says, "that fear that if you are white and middle-class, and are seen to say anything that could be construed as less than positive about indigenous people or institutions, then you might be called a racist." In White Out (Allen & Unwin; 311 pages), Neill argues that the struggle to improve indigenous living standards depends as much on open debate as on funding. The book is a first step toward such a debate--a compelling look at why the 30-year-old policy of self-determination has so signally failed to achieve its ideals.

Discussion of indigenous affairs in Australia is pervaded by a depressing sense of dj vu. The same social and economic problems are documented year after year. Almost every week, a new program is announced, with bold predictions of success. Rhetorical promises and calls for action seem endlessly recycled. Billions of dollars have been spent-$400 million simply to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Yet, despite some progress in areas such as infant mortality rates and university admissions, life for many of Australia's 427,000 Aboriginal people remains grim.

What happened? That "great unanswered question," writes Neill, "languishes uninterrogated in a kind of ideological no-man's-land." The reasons are many and complex-and far more nuanced than today's debates suggest. Neill argues that both sides of politics are stuck in a groove-the Left blames all of indigenous Australia's problems on past injustices and racism; the Right blames them on the policies of self-determination set in train by Labor governments. Though her characterizations of the Left and the Right as immutable camps sometimes risk being too sweeping, Neill puts her broader point neatly in the case of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report, which examined the removal of indigenous children from their families between 1910 and 1970-and sparked a bitter verbal brawl. Neill challenges both sides: the report's supporters for arguing that the practice amounted to genocide; and its critics, including the current conservative government, for denying the very existence of a stolen generation. In such a polemical standoff, Neill argues, the case for both acknowledging the suffering caused by child removal and carefully examining its social and historical context had little chance.

Squabbling over the past, Neill says, has sidelined present troubles: "We have been far more willing to explore and attack the mistakes of the recent past than our own mistakes, but some of those mistakes could prove as ruinous as those of the assimilationist era." The increasing number of Aboriginal children removed from their parents' custody today is rarely discussed; the reasons for children's high illiteracy rates and poor performance in English are not on the public agenda. Neill argues that there has been too little evaluation of the results of programs designed to better Aboriginal people's lot. Sometimes, she says, that's because of a reluctance to crack down on poorly performing Aboriginal organizations or projects out of "a fear of being seen as too punitive, too judgmental and of then being accused of racism."

Though she touches on it too briefly, Neill raises the crucial problem of the lack of contact between black and white Australians. Even though most indigenous people live in capital cities or regional centers, how many have contact with non-indigenous people in social or work circles? Intermarriage????!!! Too often public discussion is led by the same commentators, black and white, while the voices of ordinary Aboriginal people are ignored. And as Neill points out, their minority status denies them political clout. At the same time, some anthropologists, journalists, doctors and healthcare workers have abandoned professional impartiality and taken sides in the debate. Neill shows how the unwillingness to publicize issues such as suicide and child abuse for fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes of Aboriginal people, has further diminished the quality of debate. When conservatives use these issues to argue that self-determination policies are failing, liberas' self-censorship only deepens, and "a never-ending cycle of distortion and denial is set up."

Neill doesn't pretend to offer any solutions-she believes neither more money nor the abandonment of self-determination is the answer-but she argues that few will be found in today's simplistic and stifled debate. There are signs of a shift, she says, in the public comments of people such as Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson. But a radical new agenda must be found that's based on truth, however uncomfortable or complex, rather than political dogma: "It's more important that we have the debate than seek to cover up things that many people would find unpalatable." Without that, she warns, the average indigenous man in Australia will continue to die before he reaches pension age.

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