When I started thinking about writing this article, all of a sudden I felt very tired.
The more I learn about Indigenous affairs in our country, the more I realise how little I know and how complicated the issues. I’ve been working in this space for just over a year and a half now, and already I can feel an immense weight, and the fatigue of over 300 years of fighting has started to seep into me. I can only begin to imagine how people who have been working for decades must feel. When you look at some of the facts, it’s easy to understand why.
The life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is about 10 years on average. And this is not the only one. There are gaps between non-Indigenous Australians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in education, employment, justice and housing. And despite an estimated $30.3 billion being spent by the Australian Government, and State and Territory Governments on services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in 2012-13, key indicators on overcoming Indigenous disadvantage have shown little to no improvement in many areas. In fact, in some areas, we’re actually going backwards. Literacy and numeracy rates have not improved, rates of hospitalisation for self-harm have increased and justice outcomes continue to decline. The imprisonment rates for Indigenous Australians have worsened and there’s been no change to juvenile detention rates as well as family and community violence.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the ‘issues’. And indeed there are so many of them that they can at some times become overwhelming. It’s often difficult to peel back the layers of politics to see clearly what we’re all trying to work towards.
How can we remain positive when all the conversations seem to be geared negatively?
I suppose you could say this relates back to the conversation around working with purpose. What is our purpose? What’s our reason for doing all this? We try so hard and we care so much. When nothing seems to be working, what’s the point?
It’s at times like these that I try to look at how far we’ve come to get a clear picture of where we are and where we’re going. When my parents were my age, they were the first generation expected to finish high school. In my family, my sisters and I are the first generation expected to continue on to tertiary education; that we would all complete a bachelor’s degree was almost a given. It’s hard to image that one hundred years ago, the prospect of completing at least 15 years of formal education before moving into full time employment would have seemed absolutely ludicrous. Well, for many families, expectations have changed.
Noel Pearson recently said that Indigenous people need to ‘get over’ the injustices of the past, which invited a lot of comment from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. But I think we need to change the conversation. Rather than just dismiss the past, we need to properly process historical events and absorb the reality that we can’t go back in time and change what has already happened, but learn to work together in the situations presented to us to affect positive change. This goes for non-Indigenous Australian’s too – ignorance has never been and will never be a good excuse.
We need to change the conversation towards positive, productive outcomes for everyone, because in the end celebrating and protecting Indigenous people and culture enriches the lives of all Australians.
Even as I’m writing about this now, I can feel my energy returning.
I think what we’re really trying to achieve is providing choice for the next generation. The more choices we’re able to provide, the more possibilities are open to us. And I truly believe education is the key.
Many organisations are already doing this. The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) offer opportunities for Indigenous high school students to be educated at some of Australia’s best private schools around the country. AIEF believe they’ll produce the first Aboriginal Prime Minster and we’re backing them 100 percent. KPMG’s most recent national community partner, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, provides mentors to high school students to support them through the process of discerning their life ambitions. Their vision statement, ‘Indigenous = success’, is exactly the kind of positive message we need to be promoting. KPMG has also joined forces with the Podmore Foundation as well as many other non-Indigenous-specific education programs that empower young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their dreams.
I’m often asked how people can get involved.
We always suggest that people start a conversation, but I rarely hear the outcomes from conversations people have had. So what’s stopping you? I think that expanding your knowledge of the people around you is the first step to affecting change in any organisation. It reminds me of the old saying “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then I realised, I am somebody”. We all have the power, the motivation and the resources to do something. But we can’t do it alone. We need to help each other find a way to tap into our inner potential. It may well stem from that first conversation with your colleagues.
So, here’s one questions that I put to you to start the ball rolling: what can we expect of the next generation? The first Indigenous Prime Minister perhaps? I sincerely hope so.
This week is NAIDOC week, where all Australians are encouraged to celebrate the achievements and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
More from Shellee Murphy Oates. Identity: more than the colour of your skin