Paternalism is not the answer

I was concerned by Tony Abbott’s call for a “new paternalism” in Aboriginal affairs. Mr Abbott probably thinks that he is doing the right thing. However, paternalism is not the answer. Paternalism suggests a parent-child relationship: the parent comes along and tells the child what to do. That is a very patronising way of looking at the relations between government and indigenous Australia. I know that I would not appreciate it if I were an indigenous person. It’s another case of someone with the best intentions potentially committing a wrong because he is sure he is morally right.

Obviously, something radical has to be done to address the problems which are occurring in some indigenous communities. However, while measures do need to be taken, I do not think it is appropriate for another set of people just deciding what’s best for indigenous people without consulting them. As I have said in a previous post, the motivation for change has to come from indigenous people themselves. It’s no good trying to forcing people to change – because they won’t. Have you ever had a friend who is depressed, or has an eating disorder? There’s no way you can fix the problem for them until they recognise that there is a problem. Then it’s up to them deal with it in their own way – all you can do is offer support and be there for them if they need you. The same principle applies with indigenous affairs, but on a larger scale.

Governments and indigenous people need to work together in an equal partnership to try and achieve change. There needs to be consultation and understanding on both sides. It is not just about throwing money at the problem (or adding another layer of government bureaucracy). Nor is reinvigorating ATSIC an appropriate response. Professor Mick Dodson commented in The Age on Friday that:

The administrative responsibilities in the hands of indigenous communities have not been self-determined, but imposed, by organisations including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. ATSIC was not an indigenous creation, nor did it have genuine decision-making power.

I know that some of the Aboriginal students I taught many years ago were very cynical about ATSIC and its decision-making process. From what they said to me, they regarded ATSIC as yet another level of useless self-serving bureaucracy rather than a body with a desire and the power to make real change.

If the government is serious about trying to help indigenous communities, instead of trying to patronise indigenous people, it should listen to the suggestion by Noel Pearson, Patrick Dodson and Marcia Langton that a body such as the Productivity Commission be set up, which would hold government departments, ministers and non-government bodies accountable. Mr Pearson noted that at present, Federal, State and local governments could not coordinate the delivery of services in seven nominated Aboriginal communities, let alone 200. If such a commission were set up, it could work in a cooperative manner with indigenous communities and government and ensure that services were being delivered and funding was going to the areas which most need it. Noel Pearson said:

“You need the equivalent of the Productivity Commission that supervises this whole transition from a kind of we-need-to-take-responsibility-for-hopeless -people approach, to one of making sure everything we do is aimed at letting Aboriginal people stand on their own two feet.”

You can’t fix problems for people with paternalism. Even if paternalism did produce some short-term benefits, if paternalism was then withdrawn, the problems would recur again. It is much better to offer as much support as possible for people to stand proudly on their own two feet and fix their own problems.

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