Indigenous policy: be compassionate, be brave

Taken from ‘THE CONVERSATION’ 06/10/2011

Why do we keep spending billions of dollars in Indigenous communities with so few results? It’s because we don’t have a high expectations relationship between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Setting up this relationship isn’t as hard as you might think.

There are some profoundly fundamental aspects of such a relationship which are easily understood by many decent Australians.

Ask not what you would do to them
How do you start a high expectations relationship? Acknowledge and honour the humanity of others. This fundamental first step in a relationship does two things.

It shows you think the other person is worthy of that “fair go” that we hold dearly as Australian rhetoric. It also shows you think the person is capable of lifting themselves, given the right opportunities to do so.

It defies human logic to imagine we can achieve positive outcomes if we dishonour the humanity of others by doing things “to them” not “with them”; by dishonouring Indigenous men by casting them all as paedophiles, drunks and wife bashers; by dishonouring Indigenous women and men by suggesting we are “empowering” them by making the decisions for them about which shops they can spend their money in.

Honouring the humanity of others by showing we believe in their sense of capacity and worth is the very basis of a productive relationship. Positive outcomes can almost be guaranteed.

Reach out; connect
As a school principal I always set out to connect with the humanity of Aboriginal children and parents. This was regardless of the complexities of their situation, and even if they were coming to the relationship somewhat hostile. Clearly I was paid to be in the relationship and it was incumbent upon me to reach out positively.

As we keep reaching out in an effort to connect with others’ humanity, eventually they reach to us. Together a positive partnership is possible.

As we connect at such a level we take our work more seriously and more personally. In a school, when we make our work personal the question shifts from “What do we do with this child?” to “What would I want done if this was my child?”

This should be no different at a community level. In a high expectations relationship where we take our work seriously and make it personal, the question shifts from “What do we do with these people?” to “What would I want done if these were my people?”

If we can connect with each others’ humanity we come to understand that Aboriginal people are Australia’s people. At this point a high expectations relationship can emerge.

Be fair, but firm
A high expectations relationship requires policies and processes that are both fair and firm.

Being fair in a relationship means taking time to observe and acknowledge the strengths of an individual or community. This enables us to contemplate ways of supporting, developing and embracing existing capacity, as opposed to assuming it is not there in the first place.

Being firm in a relationship means being prepared to challenge and intervene at times when individuals or communities are clearly not exercising their responsibilities appropriately.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when we only set about supporting and developing, without the courage to challenge and intervene.

This approach is marked by politicians great at issuing media releases to say how much money they are spending, but hopeless at saying what tangible outcomes are achieved, apart from a few anecdotes here and there.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when the only strategy we deploy is intervention, without a belief in individual and community strengths worth enabling and investing in. You’ll see politicians whipping uninformed electorates into frenzy, enabling gross amounts of expenditure on clumsy policies and programs that deliver little or no return, and ultimately exacerbating ill feeling toward Indigenous Australians.

A relationship is anchored by high expectations when we have the compassion to be fair, to acknowledge strengths and enable them when we can. But we must also have the courage to be firm, by challenging and intervening when we need to.


One Response

  1. chris, i been looking for you, dean and les. hope this finds you.
    we go right back to the beginings of paddy’s island. the relationship and bonds between the european people and the aboriginals in that area in the 1920’s was very much different to what it is today. it is all but forgotten, but back then, all looked after all and great life long freindships were struck up. that would be hard for children of today. my dad and his sisters walked to north bundy state school with the klotz girls. it is true that my father saved bertha’s life after a snake bit her.
    sarah was short of a shilling, grandmar always loaned her the shilling. sarah always returned the shilling. when grandmar died, violet smith wrote this lovely letter to the family talking about her days as a child at paddy’s with all the other children. sarah used to baby sit, so did grandmar when it had to be done to help each other. probably why sarah become the area granny for all children.

    who taught my father bush craft. the old man that lived under the blue gum. he was well cared for, but it was probably him who took all the children under his arm and taught bush skills. dad used to talk about his snake catching ability, not to eat, but for their skins

    now they never needed some government to tell them they had to do this. so what has happened to the societies of today. i remember joey walker at west state and avril, david rouse, and a few more probably more so than others.

    when erik olsen died long long ago, natives is amongst the names in his obituary.
    so why did captain erik olsen have this affilliation. it is all lost for some reason.

    jonathon richards did say in a message to me one day that a project on the good thigs should be undertaken as in history it is forgotten. people listen too much to writings of arthur laurrie and miss the point he tries to make.

    you can come back to me should you choose.

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