THIS HAS BEEN a big year for Australia’s 300,000 Aborigines— it could be the one in which the tide turned after running against them for nearly two centuries.
In June and July white Australians squirmed — political leaders in Queensland and Western Australia simply put their heads in the sand — as a World Council of Churches team toured the continent. The job was not to discover the sorry facts about the lot of Australia’s Aborigines but to confirm the mountain of evidence from the Australian Council of Churches which had been working hand in hand with Aboriginal organisations.
In late September and early October heads of more than 40 Commonwealth countries visited Melbourne for their biennial meeting. Despite many official obstacles placed between the visitors and the Aboriginal activists, there is no doubt that Commonwealth nations are now much more familiar with Australia’s sorry race record.
Underpinning these two major developments was the groundwork done by Aboriginal organisations. These have, over the past decade, come together in a way which should convince even the most reactionary of Australian governments that the time has at last come to face squarely the responsibilities flowing from a 1967 national referendum in which white voters demanded overwhelmingly that Aborigines be elevated to a position of equality in Australian society.
Among those organisations, three stand out in particular — the National Federation of Land Councils, the Aboriginal Legal Service and the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO). Each, in its own way, is transforming Australia’s Aboriginal population into what is beginning to look like a continental community success story.
A common interest among Aborigines across Australia is to achieve rights to their traditional lands, to ensure that they are not disadvantaged by laws enacted primarily with the interests of whites in mind and to seek a healthier life for themselves and their children has generated a sense of unity from Darwin to Adelaide, from Brisbane to Perth.
No longer is the Australian government faced with isolated pockets of black resentment. Now it is confronted by a black movement capable of organising itself across the entire continent.
Possibly central to this new cohesion is the growing success of NAIHO which has its origins in the ineptitude of the federal and state governments’ approach to Aboriginal health problems.
Aborigines rejected government approaches — white-orientated hospitals and clinics, government- employed doctors and nurses — no matter how many millions of dollars were lavished on them, millions which grew enormously under Australia’s 1972-75 Labour Party government.
At first without government support — later with hesitant, patchy official financing — the network got going. Three years ago it had only three community health services, run either entirely by Aboriginal staff or with the help of whites working under black supervision.
By October this year they had 30 community health centres operating and were forcing the pace in negotiations with the government to divert more of its funding to Aboriginal-run medical services. The World Council of Churches report, among its recommendations, urged the federal government to increase its funding to NAIHO.
The network believes that 'the health problems of any community are inter-related with the economic, political and cultural problems of society’. And Aborigine health, in relation to that of white Australians, is a horrifying indictment of a white government’s incompetence in dealing with the problems of people of another culture.
There’s still a long way to go. But as a direct consequence of this do-it-yourself medical care — Aborigines treating and counselling Aborigines in a non-alien environment — health standards are showing signs of improvement.
The NAIHO philosophy argues against the emphasis on sophisticated medical skills and wants people to see ‘that their health problems are related to food production problems, nutrition, water supply, housing, education, income and its distribution...’
As Australian Aborigines are being nursed back to health they are simultaneously being politicised. This new political awareness is seen as an ‘affront’ by older white Australians — particularly politicians — who had been all too comfortable with the traditionally passive stance of Aborigines. They regard the activities of a group like NAIHO as politically very dangerous.
Once, when there was a dispute between government or a big company and Aborigines, that was as far as it would go. Soon all would be quiet again. A morsel or two may have been thrown their way but government or big business was always the winner.
Now, when an incident occurs, word goes out — by telex, telephone, bush radio — until, soon, Aboriginal communities across this island continent are fully informed of what is happening to their brothers and sisters in the latest flash point in black-white confrontation.
‘If we were just a health service’, said one doctor, ‘we’d be offering no more than a band-aid.’ NAIHO, in Australia 1981, is now a password for political action.