Future of aboriginal Australians

Problems such as alcoholism and drugs are proportionately higher among Aboriginal youth. The health problems of Aboriginal communities are worse

Future of aboriginal Australians


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for this over-representation of Catholics in the prisons was exactly the same as the current over-representation of Aboriginals. At that stage Irish Catholics were the poorest of the population, at the bottom of the social heap. In Paul Sheehan's book, he also makes great chauvinist mileage from the proposition that Vietnamese, Arabs, Turks and Maoris (Sheehan's codeword for Maoris is "New Zealanders"), recent immigrants from poor countries or poor circumstances, are somewhat over-represented in the prison system. So what's new?)

The widespread presence of an often physically obvious indigenous Australasian community, in the poorest sections of Australian society, gives rise to very sharp and quite human conflicts of interest. In some country towns a heavy concentration of mainly unemployed youth, a fair percentage of them black or brown, is a prominent feature of life. In some towns it is difficult to run a small business because of the desperate behaviour of unemployed youth. Such problems don't lend themselves to easy or short-term solutions, and it is not useful or intelligent to treat the sometimes racist responses of poorer white Australians to these circumstances as racism of the same sort that Pauline Hanson expresses. Such conflicts of interest are to some extent conflicts among the people, and should be treated as such and approached as realistically and humanely as possible, trying to take account of the real interests of all concerned.

Such conflicts aren't so acute in major urban centres such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, but they exist there, too. In some areas of Sydney, for instance, quite a lot of house burglaries are committed by unemployed indigenous youth, and a fair percentage of the current wave of minor hold-ups in newsagencies and convenience stores, with knives or syringes, are committed by brown or black youth, often driven by narcotics habits, as are their fellow white armed robbers. While the human tendency to urban myth often exagerates the proportion of burglaries and hold-ups performed by Aboriginals or Pacific Islanders, nevertheless, in my patch, the inner west of Sydney, these conflicts of interest between ordinary Australians are quite real. I have been a retailer, with a large, late-opening, seven-day-a-week shop in King Street, Newtown, for the past 12 years.

We have been burgled three times, and we have been robbed or held up half a dozen times in those 10 years. One of the burglars was caught, and he was white. Four of the hold-up men or robbers were brown or black. Luckily no one was ever injured, and we never lost too much, because, as a matter of routine, we don't keep much money in the till. Many other small businesses in the inner west have had similar experiences, as have many householders. There is no doubt that these experiences inflame a certain amount of racism directed at indigenous people, who are perceived by many to be the main perpetrators. It's a mistake to put this response of ordinary Australians to real problems in the same category as the Pauline Hanson response.

In my experience, this kind of problem comes in waves, to do with the constantly changing demographics of the inner-city. In my 10 years on King Street, I have seen several generations of very young Aboriginal kids "working the strip", so to speak, and finding outlets for their frustrations in thieving and vandalism. Like any other shopkeeper, when a new bunch of young kids, white or black, starts appearing full of the obvious unemployed adolescent testosterone, I go on a bit of a war footing until they pass on to other things. I've outlasted quite a few groups like this. On one occasion, seeing the telltale signs, with a couple of young kids causing a disturbance, while another one tried to get behind the till, I confronted the group, and told them to leave because I knew what they were up to. One of them said to me, "Oh, are you a racist?" To which my response was, "This is my bit of turf. I don't give a fuck whether you're a Koori or an Eskimo, I know what you are up to, so piss off." On that occasion they all burst out laughing, and did leave and never came back.

On another occasion, a few years ago, I was sitting outside the shop on the bus seat for 10 minutes, on a muggy Saturday afternoon in spring, drinking a Coke before I went back inside to get on with my work, watching the world go by, when I saw the following fascinating tableau. A very well-built, gleaming, tough-looking young black bloke about 17, stripped to the waist, wandered along the other side of the street, rather out of it, high on something, talking to himself in a loud voice, carrying a short iron bar, which he was banging on the walls and doors as he passed, much to the consternation of the people, for instance, inside the cafe opposite.

When he reached the houses opposite, after the cafe, which are inhabited by students from Moore Theological College, he disappeared down the path of one of them, with what appeared to me malicious intent. As the Moore College students are my neighbours, I quickly adopted a kind of Neighbourhood Watch approach, crossed the road, and gingerly followed him down the path, where he had already commenced trying to make entry through a door with his iron bar. I yelled out to him: "Stop that mate!" until he stopped. Then I hastily retreated, as he groggily came back down the path and wandered further off down the street.

He then stopped, turned around and started throwing stones at me, one of which hit me hard, from quite a distance. He was a pretty good stone-thrower, that bloke. He then wandered off down King Street, towards his own patch, still grumbling to himself, still waving his iron bar. I felt a certain satisfaction that I'd protected the neighbours from robbery without too much fuss or any real danger to myself, and I hoped he wouldn't inflict too much harm on anybody else, or himself.

Other small robberies have been more threatening and less amusing, and I and other staff members have been several times threatened with knives or clubs. On these occasions I've had no compunction in calling the coppers. I only call the police if there's any physical threat to my staff or myself. If the poor bugger who has tried to hold us up, driven by his addiction, ends up inside, whether he's black or white, that can't be avoided.

This unfortunate choice is despite the fact that I know that the prison system doesn't solve anything, except that it gets the immediate threat off the street, if and when the bloke is caught and convicted. I try to handle these matters realistically, without contributing further to the race prejudice in our society. I know a number of other small business people in this area, for instance, the newsagent in Chippendale, the next suburb, who shares my non-racist views, but has nevertheless been held up on a number of occasions, and takes a similar matter-of-fact approach to these problems.

However, my experience in these matters has given me a bit of insight into all sides of these problems. The racist form of the response of victims to some of these urban problems is by no means the same thing as the belligerent, deliberate racist scape-goating of Pauline Hanson, and one of the real tasks in relation to Aboriginal-white relations is to address these kind of current problems in a very concrete way, without either pandering to racism, or lightly shrugging off the real concerns of the working class and middle class victims of urban crime.

One of the most dangerous but poignant incidents close to me happened several years ago. A planning meeting for the Campaign against the Third Runway was being held in the house of my daughter, who also lives in Newtown. At the end of the meeting, walking up to King Street, a bloke from the International Socialists who had been at the meeting, a bloke I know quite well, a serious-minded, quiet individual, also the trade union delegate for his fellow workers on a university campus, was assaulted from behind and robbed. He woke up a few days later in hospital, in intensive care, and he was three months off work. Eyewitnesses to the incident identified his assailant as brown or black, and the motive appears to have been robbery. (The assailant was actually picked up by the coppers a few hours later.) The bloke assaulted is back at work and once again engaged in his intense trade union, political and anti-racist activity, and more power to his elbow. He is, however, probably a bit careful about dark streets at night.

All of this leads me to my major conclusion. The problems of Aboriginal society in Australia are, historically speaking, products of the imperialist British conquest of this continent. The rights and interests of Aboriginal and other coloured Australians have to be vigorously defended by all other Australians, as well as Aboriginals. All attacks on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the Wik and Mabo decisions, and on funding for Aboriginal welfare, and the repellant phenomenon of mandatory sentencing, which bears down so heavily on Aboriginal youth, should be vigorously opposed and defeated. Considerable funds and resources should be devoted to getting at the sources of the problems in Aboriginal society, as they should at the problems in Australian society as a whole, particularly youth unemployment. All racism should be defeated and condemned. However, real conflicts among ordinary people that derive from these historic oppressions, should be treated with realism, sensitivity and care, taking into account the real interests of all Australians, pink, yellow or black, working class and middle class.

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