Family Matters No. 29 - August 1991

Self-determination: Helping Aboriginal families to realise the ideal

Barry Smith

Abstract

Policies of 'benevolent protection' and assimilation have left deep and lasting scars on Aboriginal culture and tradition. Existing policies of self-determination and self-management are also fraught with difficulties as the ideals do not always translate well into practice. The North Australia Development Unit (NADU) is one way the Federal Government is trying to ensure that social security payments and programs are provided to Aboriginal families in remote areas in a way appropriate to their traditions and culture, and the changes occurring in the face of European influence. The author discusses the origins and work of NADU in the process of remote area Aboriginal family change.

Policies of 'benevolent protection' and assimilation have left deep and lasting scars on Aboriginal culture and tradition. Existing policies of self-determination and self-management are also fraught with difficulties as the ideals do not always translate well into practice. The North Australia Development Unit (NADU) is one way the Federal Government is trying to ensure that social security payments and programs are provided to Aboriginal families in remote areas in a way appropriate to their traditions and culture, and the changes occurring in the face of European influence.

Barry Smith, a Senior Project Officer with NADU, spent three months at the Institute collaborating with staff on the Australian Living Standards Study, part of which will be conducted in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Here he discusses the origins and work of NADU in the process of remote area Aboriginal family change.

From the late 1890s, state governments in Australia concluded that Aboriginal families, particularly in rural and remote areas, needed to be protected from the brutality of some of the pastoralists, native police and pioneers who were responsible for opening up the country and keeping law and order.

The policy of 'benevolent protection' was public recognition that Aboriginal families might otherwise be hounded and hunted to extinction. Many rural and remote Aboriginal families had already been torn apart by shooting, incarceration and enslavement in pastoral, domestic and sexual service.

For more than 50 years, the policy of 'benevolent protection' enabled Aboriginal families to survive and slowly grow in numbers. However, this policy and the 30 years of 'assimilation' that began in the 1950s did little to preserve and develop traditional Aboriginal culture and practices while enabling Aboriginal families to incorporate European culture and practices into their lives.

Under assimilation, many Aboriginal children from remote areas were separated from their families and placed in mission and settlement dormitories, in special training institutions and in European foster homes to ensure that these children would break from their parents' way of life.

Until the early 1970s, it was expected that Aboriginal families should make a gradual and full transition into the mainstream lifestyle of the Australian family. Even the granting of citizenship rights through the 1967 Referendum was more an invitation for Aboriginal families to adopt the prevailing non-Aboriginal lifestyle than a recognition of traditional Aboriginal family practices, or the changing forms of family life and roles as families assimilated European culture or were assimilated into Australian (European) society. The latter implies that we did not and still do not have a clear general definition of the concept Aboriginal family as 'the family' is in a state of transition.

Hope/Promise of Self-Determination

Policies of self-determination and land rights in the early 1970s held the promise of a totally new deal for Aboriginal families in remote areas. Self-determination appeared to promise families and the communities in which they lived the freedom and resources to decide if and how they would revive and retain traditional culture and practices and/or incorporate European culture and practices.

However, the last 20 years have demonstrated that either the policy of self-determination never meant to offer unconditional self-determination or that the ideal has had to succumb to the practicalities of inter- departmental administration, politics, economics and the fluctuating feelings and attitudes of the wider, non-Aboriginal Australian society.

The Department of Social Security (DSS), like many state and federal departments, has played a role in the complex and often confusing attempt to put the ideals of self- determination into practice. From the early 1940s until 1966, DSS benefits and pensions were available, in a limited way, to Aboriginal families on the basis of assimilation and institutionalisation. Payments were made to an organisation on the family member's behalf on the same basis as for people living in aged or mental institutions.

In the final official years of assimilation (1966--72) and the early years of self-determination (1972--late 1970s), access to the full range of DSS payments and programs, a citizenship right after 1967, was often characterised in remote areas by benevolent, institutional methods of payment and service delivery.

For example, remote Aboriginal families still had many of the payments and programs administered on their behalf by settlement, mission and pastoral intermediaries. Many such families were dependent on support programs which were based on European family structures and lifestyles. Social costs borne by Aboriginal family members included having to remain tied to certain localities (settlements, missions) which were often overcrowded and on 'foreign' land. They were often passive recipients of payments.

Many family members did not understand the aims or purpose of the support payments but accepted that somehow they were, in part, supposed to replace many of the goods and services they had obtained through traditional hunting and gathering or the underpaid work that they had done in the pastoral industry or on the missions and settlements.

From the mid to late 1970s, as the policy of self- determination settled into its more limited and pragmatic form (self-management), some remote Aboriginal families and larger family and language groups began the process of preserving and revitalising residual traditional culture and practices and making choices about how best to assimilate the dominant, developed, post-industrial, Eurocentric, Australian structures and practices.

Mainstreaming Versus Self-Determination and Family Change

During this later period, the DSS has continued to grapple with the dilemma of how to provide income support for Aboriginal families in remote areas in a manner that accommodates the principles of both mainstreaming and self- determination. If the national income support programs are not delivered in their legislated form, then remote Aboriginal families might be denied citizenship rights. However if the programs do not accommodate preferred traditional and transitional family structures and practices, they could exacerbate the cultural destruction imposed by the frontier, protection and assimilation policies of the past.

During the last ten years, the DSS has attempted to solve this dilemma with a number of service delivery experiments, including Aboriginal liaison officers, remote visiting teams and support networks for Aboriginal families, and internal and key informant (community and Aboriginal organisations) reviews. In 1988 the department established the North Australia Development Unit (NADU) to investigate and propose ways to improve programs and the delivery of services to residents in remote parts of north Australia.

Members of Aboriginal families make up 20 per cent of the population in the 70--80 Statistical Local Areas in NADU's remote north Australia. It is recognised that these people are the most disadvantaged group in the defined area. It is therefore no surprise that much of NADU's work focuses on the needs of remote Aboriginal families. The research work endeavours to find ways to promote, explain, deliver and adapt DSS income support programs to remote Aboriginal families in a way that accommodates not only geographical, infrastructural and technological factors but also the changing cultural and lifestyle preferences of the members of Aboriginal families.

Challenge of Family Change

The decisions and changes the families have to make are extremely difficult as they have to deal with the damage of past policies and administrative practices. They also must deal with changing family values which are influenced by the increased exposure of young people in particular to mainstream goods, services, values and aspirations, and cope with the complicated administrative practices of the multiplicity of government and non-government departments and agencies.

A review of NADU reports and discussion papers demonstrates how NADU is seeking ways to support the new, diverse and developing Aboriginal family roles, cultures and practices in remote areas.

Research on 43 remote geographic communities, published as 'Where To Now?', sought to discover or confirm the DSS-related issues faced by Aboriginal family members as they confront the complex issue of change.

The findings indicated that many of the old family roles had been partially eroded and that families were coping with a mix of traditional and legislative responsibilities. Many remote Aboriginal family members said they wanted the system of DSS services and programs explained to them 'face to face' so that they could understand not only what was expected of them but also the cultural costs they would pay if they accepted certain types of income support.

They asked that government departments be willing to meet families half- way when certain family groups expressed the desire to preserve practices such as traditional adoptions, traditional marriages, polygamy, traditional widows, the status of initiated young men, the status of young female spouses, absences for ceremonies, shared child raising practices and so on.

Many of these members of remote Aboriginal families also said they realised that future generations would assimilate more and more non- Aboriginal practices into their lives. They said that their struggle to make choices and change would only be successful if the many government administrative structures were responsive to their needs.

Other NADU reports and discussion papers have all attempted to address the changing and diverse needs of Aboriginal families and individual family members in remote areas while at the same time giving these family members full access to programs that are their right as citizens. Current and future NADU research focuses more specifically on aspects of family change identified by members of remote Aboriginal families.

Dealing with changing family roles and values in the context of the broader Australian society is particularly complex and onerous for many remote Aboriginal families and individual family members. Supporting these families, who are in different stages of transition and in a variety of locations, will continue to challenge national and mainstream programs. Recognising the challenge is the starting point in assisting remote Aboriginal families to resolve the issues raised by changing family values and structures.

NADU reports and discussion papers include: 'Remote Area Allowance', B. Pennington, August 1989; 'The Concept ''Community'' in Aboriginal Policy and Service Delivery', B. Smith, November 1989; 'Polygamy in Transition', B. Pennington, February 1990; 'Invalid Pensions and Child Disability Allowance: Remote Area Problems with Determination,' K. Ross, April 1990; 'Has Policy and Legislation Guaranteed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Equal Access to Social Security Benefits and Services?', B. Smith, 1990; 'Where to Now? Department of Social Security Payments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities in North Australia', B. Smith, M. Adams, D. Burgen, 1990; 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in North Australia's Remote Area: Population Trends and Their Policy Implications', B. Smith and T. Barker, October 1990; 'Active Employment Strategy, Industries and Employment: Remote North Australia', B. Smith, February 1991.