Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Debating Indigenous Issues: More Continuity Than Change

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Debating Indigenous Issues: More Continuity Than Change

Article excerpt

Of over 900 articles published in AJSI in its first thirty-nine volumes, about seven per cent, or slightly over 60, were on Indigenous issues. This is a significant proportion and reflects the fact that Indigenous issues are among the most important, and intractable, facing Australian society. Dealing with Indigenous people is a litmus test of Australian nationhood, by which the larger world will judge us.

In a number of issues of AJSI, we find several articles on Indigenous topics published together, for instance volume 3, number 4 in 1968. This contained an 'epilogue' to the famous 1967 constitutional alteration referendum in which Ian Mitchell of the University of New England noted that, while this was indeed 'the most overwhelming referendum victory in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia', voting patterns at electorate level showed that 'the greater the proportion of Aborigines resident in an electorate, the lower the vote recorded in favour of the proposal'. On the basis of this observation Mitchell foresaw 'not the resolving of a problem but its persistence' (Mitchell 1968: 9).

In an adjacent article to Mitchell's and in a related vein, Henry Schapper of the University of Western Australia argued that the 'administration of Aboriginal policy' through 'a single government department' at the State/Territory level of Australian government was a 'threat' to achieving the accepted policy goal of the time, 'assimilation'. The 'most effective organization of administration for Aboriginal advancement', Schapper argued:

   is likely to be that in which the various State and Commonwealth
   government departments are expressly required and staffed to
   extend all of their services to all citizens, including Aborigines
   and part-Aborigines (Schapper 1968: 5)

The other threat to achieving Aboriginal assimilation, or advancement, as Schapper saw it, was 'welfare', which he saw as a 'policy of containment of the present Aboriginal situation'. Advancement, he argued:

   includes all provisions for welfare, and goes beyond them to
   include measures for enabling Aborigines to narrow the
   socio-economic gap between themselves and the rest of society
   (Schapper 1968: 4).

There are some interesting resonances between Schapper's 1968 analysis and current debates about the 'new mainstreaming' at the Commonwealth level of Australian Indigenous affairs administration (Altman 2004). We will return to this later. Suffice to say at this stage, that while the policy context is different, many of the arguments are familiar and surprisingly similar.

Alongside these 1968 articles by Mitchell and Schapper were two on Aboriginal education. Indeed Aboriginal education accounted for seven articles in AJSI between 1965 and 1974, making it the Indigenous issue of the decade. The first, in 1965, by A G Maclaine of the University of Sydney, provided a brief history of Aboriginal education, including the debarring of Aborigines from public schools and the establishment by missions and native welfare authorities of Aboriginal schools. Maclaine also provided a survey of post-war developments that had brought many Aborigines into public schools, though his conclusion was that the 'educational status of young Aborigines' was still 'low in comparison with white children of comparable ages'. He identified the 'main causes of educational retardation among Aboriginal children' as 'factors operating in their home backgrounds and the school system and environment provided for these children' (Maclaine 1965: 44). A list of suggestions for 'improving the education of Aborigines' followed, which included 'better living conditions' in homes and communities, 'help from social workers to develop worthwhile leisure-time interests', a 'special syllabus' related to the 'environmental background' of Aborigines, 'specially trained teachers' and, finally, 'pre-school facilities' so that Aboriginal primary school entrants were 'more familiar with European cultural concepts' and had enlarged 'their limited English vocabulary' (Maclaine 1965: 46). …

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