Droughts of empathy, rivers of remorse

The long hot summer is finally over, but for Aboriginal people, my community, the heat still lingers. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recently suggested an Aboriginal voice to Parliament would have to demonstrate its value in tackling the myriad issues confronting Indigenous people across the country.

"I have got a pretty practical focus on these things,” he argued. “I want to see Indigenous families in jobs.” 

“I want to see Indigenous kids safe and I want to see them in school because that's what gives them a bright future. And we have got so much to do here. And so it's those practical things that matter most to me when it comes to Indigenous Australians."

The use of the word ‘practical’ harks back to the Howard years, when the then Prime Minister - and the ultimate culture warrior - for 11 long years refused to issue an apology to the Stolen Generations.

Instead, the Howard government focused on ‘practical reconciliation’.

In Howard’s Australia, symbolic gestures were to be discarded, history would start at Captain Cook, blame would not be apportioned, guilt not admitted. Along these lines, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (ATSIC) would have its funding cut and then itself abolished. There would be ‘bucket loads’ of extinguishment when it came to native title and Howard’s quest for practical reconciliation combined with his penchant for wedge politics would lead to the Northern Territory intervention.

We were all to be Australians, we were to be one nation.

We were to forget or misplace the nasty, unpalatable parts of our history and celebrate only the ‘glory’.

The Don’s batting average, the people’s champion Phar Lap and the uncomplicated Menzies’ Australia, the white Australia.

You’d think these quaint notions might have faded as modern Australia continued to emerge and evolve over subsequent years. But not so. Here we are in 2019, in Morrison’s Australia, a country that has been shaped just as much by his time as Immigration Minister, as by his time as Prime Minister. 

A country still celebrating ‘whiteness’, and now labelled an immigrant nation, not a multicultural nation. A nation that welcomes immigrants presumably, as long as those immigrants look like ‘us’.

It is in this context that we’re back to practical measures to fix the Aboriginal problem.

The interaction between Aboriginal and white Australia is to be transactional. The government will ‘Giveth’ and we in the Aboriginal community will ‘Taketh’.

The stymied to-and-fro will continue. Politicians and bureaucrats will continue to sit on one side of the table and Aboriginal people on the other, cap in hand, hoping our political masters will grant us what is due.

In a transactional relationship, knowing looks and wringing of hands will not relent nor resolve.

At the heart of this malaise is a lack of understanding of what constitutes intergenerational trauma; that what happened to one’s forebears or one’s community continues to have a lasting impact on subsequent generations.

Over recent years we’ve gained a firmer understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by members of the military and the emergency services. Rightfully, we talk openly about the effects of trauma, we have established organisations, set up programs and boosted mental health services.

The Healing Foundation defines intergenerational trauma as this:

Trauma is generally understood as a person’s response to a major catastrophic event that's so overwhelming it leaves that person unable to come to terms with it.

In some cases, trauma is passed down from the first generation of survivors who directly experienced or witnessed traumatic events to future generations.

This is referred to as intergenerational trauma, and can be passed on through parenting practices, behavioural problems, violence, harmful substance use and mental health issues.

Only once you embrace this concept will you stop asking Aboriginal people, “why don’t they just get over it?”.

Only then can an understanding of the hurt caused by celebrating a national day as the day that started the seemingly unending slide into despair and hopelessness be reached.

What is it that makes it so hard to understand that 230 years of oppression, exclusion, stolen lands, incarceration, lack of employment opportunities, living sick and dying young, continue to have an impact on Aboriginal people today? The songlines which once guided and sustained my people, this continent’s First Nations over millennia, have now been replaced by trauma lines. This trauma is not contrived, it is lived, the burden is normalised. Faults opened, through no fault of our own.

Sometimes there is no hope, because there is no place for us in Australia. In a land we have inhabited for 1800 generations, there exists no sense of belonging.

We now, as a nation, have a chance to address this exclusion and the impact of that trauma. But exclusion from the decisions, which impact our lives and on the kind of country we live in continues to cut us people out. Sometimes this exclusion is deliberate, sometimes it is manifested through ignorance.

Take the Closing the Gap agenda.

Following Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations in 2007, there was a groundswell of activity and momentum. It was a start, but was seen by many as the end.

Led by the Council of Australian Government’s (COAG) National Partnership, agreements were struck between the States and Territories, and the Commonwealth that would guarantee an investment. 

Ordinarily, this would drive activity across the country. Investment as never seen before, policy development on a scale not matched and all implemented at a feverish pace. Flourishes of activity here, policy pronouncements there, clichés everywhere.

But the COAG reform agenda cemented a ‘top down’ approach, which became embedded in the way governments conducted business with Aboriginal people and its communities. In large, this resulted in a stagnation across the seven close-the-gap targets, with only two priority areas on track to meet their goals.

There is no target for dealing with grief, trauma and abandonment.

Those in the Aboriginal community working with the Aboriginal community know this. They don’t work in flourishes, they don’t make sweeping statements, they simply get on with what they have.

Sometimes, all we have is love.

Why would Australia not listen to them as the Uluru Statement from the Heart suggests. An articulation of what those of us in the Aboriginal community have been pleading for, for generations. A voice at the heart of our democracy. We can’t leave it to the major parties, minor parties and independents to shape an inclusive future for Aboriginal people at a time when 24-hour news cycles, ideologues and vested interests have a slapdash approach to nation building.

Inclusion isn’t a meaningless, impractical act just as symbolism isn’t merely figurative. It is empowering, it enables the misplaced to take their rightful place in the nation’s psyche. It is only a meaningless gesture if one side decides what is symbolic and what isn’t.

Being listened to and being heard isn’t a want for a symbolic gesture. It is a want for understanding, for the cries of the young to be heard, the anguished sobs of entire communities to not be lost in the wind or digitised and buried in the never-ending cycle of trivial outrage.

Where was the outrage when it was clear that there was an unfolding tragedy in the Kimberly?

Recently, the West Australian coroner released the inquest report into the thirteen deaths of children and young persons in the Kimberly region. The report concluded 12 of the deaths were from suicide, the youngest, a child of 10 years old. In what has been one of the most comprehensive inquests in West Australian history, the coroner, Ros Fogilani said the deaths had been impacted by "the crushing effects of intergenerational trauma".

Bundjalung woman, Professor Judy Atkinson explained to the inquest what those crushing effects mean in a community setting, “does trauma represent a problem for the continuity of a First Nations culture? Yes. Absolutely, because we wouldn’t be fighting like we are, we wouldn’t be harming our children like we are.

And if we’re traumatised, we don’t care about the little baby that has just been born. We don’t care about the kid that can’t go to school, because the kid is too stressed. We just let them run riot, and we see the pathway into prison and juvenile detention centre as okay. So yes, it’s an absolute, at every level, threat to the future of our people.”

The inquest report was met with cries of ‘how sad’, ‘this is tragic’ and ‘how can this happen’, before slowly, but surely finding its way out of the 24-hour news cycle. One can only imagine if those 12 deaths had occurred in suburban Melbourne or Sydney. There would be a royal commission.

Once the pageantry of the inquest heads down the road and becomes a faint murmur, communities and families are once again alone in their grief. 

A voice in the heart of our democracy would not allow this nation to forget. To produce the paperwork, but then forget to action it.

The broader community’s apathetic response to Aboriginal affairs pressed the mute button again to historical sexual abuse allegations in Ballarat.

The ABC’s 7:30 aired a program detailing a number of allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent Victorian Aboriginal leader Wayne Muir, who has strenuously denied impropriety. There are no plans to explore those allegations here, but what was noted was the comparatively mute response from social media, the commentariat and the glitterati.

This was a ‘Me Too’ story. Instead of the usual response to a report dedicated to the stories of five brave women that came forward, this program barely raised a slapped down wine glass in response.

The language of outrage and the outpouring of solidarity that had accompanied earlier ‘Me Too’ reports on the same program had been replaced by the language of resignation and sorrow.

What we got in response was a collective sigh; a ‘sad’ acceptance that ‘this is the way it is’ in Aboriginal communities. 

The sigh and the following silence were symbolic of Australia’s attitude towards First Nations people.

A comparison of the response from those in the media following allegations aired against other high-profile men on the same program and you can’t be mistaken that political apathy bleeds into the broader community. 

There is a double standard, an expectation that this is what Aboriginal men do in their communities and there’s not much we can do about.

“It’s sad, it’s tragic, but what can you do”? Is the refrain of a divided Australia.

The onus of proof is not on Aboriginal people to find solutions. It’s up to Australia to prove whether it is big enough to accept and acknowledge the truth about the damage done and partner with us to find the solution both practical and symbolic.