Sarah Maddison says giving total autonomy to Aboriginal communities is the only way to fix Australia’s problems. Picture: Supplied
Sarah Maddison says giving total autonomy to Aboriginal communities is the only way to fix Australia’s problems. Picture: Supplied

Radical idea we need to embrace

Australia is living in a "colonial fantasy" - and unless we radically change our path, the plethora of problems plaguing indigenous communities will worsen.

That's the powerful message put forward by Sarah Maddison, a Professor of Politics at the University of Melbourne, has a game-changing idea which she believes will drastically reshape our nation for the better.

Speaking to news.com.au off the back of her new book, The Colonial Fantasy, Why White Australia Can't Solve Black Problems, Prof Maddison said efforts from both political parties to bridge the gap over the years have just made life worse in indigenous communities.

"It's hard to imagine that the situation can get any worse than it is now," she said grimly, pointing to catastrophic suicide rates and an alarming level of youth incarceration for indigenous people.

 

Incarceration rates for young indigenous people have hit worrying levels. Picture: Amnesty International
Incarceration rates for young indigenous people have hit worrying levels. Picture: Amnesty International

 

"No approach that any government has taken has made any difference, so we need to try something radically different."

In her book, Prof Maddison puts forward this bold new rethinking of Australian society and the solution, she says, is very simple - to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities the power to control and manage their own lives.

"There is now a wealth of evidence from overseas that's shows when you give indigenous communities the power to control their own affairs in areas like health, education and economic development, it makes a huge difference to their lives," she said.

She argues that abolishing Australia's current top-down approach and allowing indigenous communities to control their affairs, they can focus on the things that are important to them - rather being told what is important by the government.

In the USA, Native American communities are being empowered in a similar way, and decades of research from self-determination organisations, such as the Native Nations Institute, shows that the approach is working.

 

Professor Sarah Maddison says it’s time to hand total autonomy to indigenous communities. Picture: Supplied
Professor Sarah Maddison says it’s time to hand total autonomy to indigenous communities. Picture: Supplied

 

The argument is, that once power is handed back, decisions start to reflect local concerns and, perhaps more importantly, indigenous communities are accountable for their own lives - meaning they reap the benefit of good decisions and learn from the bad ones.

"Australia, however, is relentlessly going in the opposite direction by continuing to implement policies that are interventionist and paternalistic," Prof Maddison said.

In the title of her book, she describes the current attitude and methods used to try to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a "colonial fantasy".

And, at the heart of this, is the idea that colonialism is somehow finished.

"The current system - the settler colonial system - is not working," she wrote. "It never has worked for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

"Yet despite the incontrovertible evidence of this failure, the nation persists in governing the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in ways that are damaging and harmful, firm in its belief that with the right policy approach, the right funding arrangements, the right set of sanctions and incentives, indigenous lives will somehow improve.

"This is the colonial fantasy."

 

Yawuru people in Broome are starting to take matters into their own hands. Picture: WA Parks and Wildlife
Yawuru people in Broome are starting to take matters into their own hands. Picture: WA Parks and Wildlife

In her book, she also argues that this heavy-handed approach - whereby increasing amounts of public money is thrown at indigenous communities to no avail - is a continuation of the colonial attitude that has persisted since Captain James Cook first landed here in 1770.

She argues that since the British landed on this continent and treated it as terra nullis - or land belonging to nobody - the idea of "replacing" its indigenous people has been part of Australian life.

"I'm not saying that the current government is trying to kill all indigenous people, but the aim has always been the same, which is to eliminate indigenous difference and identity because the idea of them living independently of the state is threatening," she said.

"And, for indigenous people, this infects everything."

She said evidence of this in the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often place much greater importance on their clan name or regional identity rather than describing themselves as "Australian".

But a much more glaring example of this disconnect rears its ugly head every January.

This year's Australia Day debate played out on our television screens in spectacular fashion, when Kerri-Anne Kennerley made a point about there bigger fish to fry than changing the date of a symbolic national holiday.

The Australia Day debate has become a “psychological roadblock”. Picture: Alex Coppel
The Australia Day debate has become a “psychological roadblock”. Picture: Alex Coppel

But, while Prof Maddison said debates about statues of controversial historical settler figures and changing or abolishing Australia Day are a distraction on one level - they also matter on another.

"They matter because they become a deeply symbolic of the colonial relationship, and it shows that just can't face up to the reality of what's happened in our history," she said.

She argues that if "psychological roadblocks" like this had been resolved years ago, Australia would be a lot further down the line in terms handing back power to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

However, she added that communities around Australia are not waiting around and they are starting to take matters into their own hands - such as the Yawuru people who are the native title holders of the Western Australian town of Broome and are organising their own affairs independently of the government.

"They are the now the authors of their own destiny and that's what needs to happen right across Australia," Prof Maddison said.

"The government needs to get out of the way and stop telling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people how to live their lives."

 

The Colonial Fantasy, Why White Australia Can't Solve Black Problems by Professor Sarah Maddison is available for purchase now.


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