Monday, 1 September 2008

Black Australia's doing fine, says G-G

The Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson said the head of state's remarks were superficial and suggested that all that was needed was to "force these [remote] people out of their communal ways …

ABORIGINAL leaders have sharply rejected the outgoing Governor-General Michael Jeffery's claim that the vast majority of indigenous Australians are living "integrated, normal" lives, and that disadvantage is confined mostly to remote areas.

Major General Jeffery, who leaves office after five years on Wednesday, said there were about 520,000 people with "indigenous blood" in Australia.

"I suspect that about 350-400,000 of those are already integrated satisfactorily into the country," General Jeffery said in a farewell interview. "Integrated to such an extent that you don't hear about them, they're doing what we w look upon as normal jobs, living normal Australian lives."

About 100,000 Aborigines mostly living in the remote north had been "doing it hard for many years".

The Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson said the head of state's remarks were superficial and suggested that all that was needed was to "force these [remote] people out of their communal ways … It really denies the uniqueness of who the indigenous people are and what their contribution to this country can be in their own right, as if they having nothing to contribute except the absorption of the culture that the West has offered to us. It's a pretty damnable statement if that's the case."

Mr Dodson, a fierce critic of the Howard government, which appointed General Jeffery to the position, also scoffed at the suggestion that disadvantage was concentrated in remote areas.

"We're not living normal lives - we're totally over-represented in the social indicators, we're dying a lot younger, we don't have the education opportunities … [people are living] below the poverty line in many parts of Australia. It is not just those in northern Australia who are battling to make ends meet."

Earlier this year, General Jeffery supported the apology to Aborigines removed from their families as children and he has spoken often of the need to teach more indigenous history in schools. But his remarks are sensitive because of the debate sparked by the intervention in the Northern Territory about whether integration should be actively pursued to help overcome Aboriginal poverty and despair. General Jeffery said that indigenous leaders such as Cape York's Noel Pearson and the 2007 Young Australian of the Year, Tania Major, were starting to find solutions to entrenched disadvantage.

Australian Bureau of Statistic figures show that of 517,000 Aborigines, 32 per cent live in cities, 43 per cent in regional areas and a quarter in remote areas. While health, employment and education levels are worse for all Aborigines compared with non-indigenous Australians, those living in the cities fared better than those in the bush.

For instance, in 2006, almost a third of Aborigines living in cities had completed year 12, compared with 22 per cent in regional centres and 14 per cent in remote areas.

In comparison, 49 per cent of non-indigenous Australians had finished year 12.

Governors-general have often used their position to speak out on Aboriginal issues. Sir William Deane promoted reconciliation and the incoming Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, has said one of her priorities would be Aboriginal affairs.

General Jeffery, a career military officer before his appointment, also said in the interview that he had sympathy for his predecessor, Dr Peter Hollingworth, who stood down in 2003 after criticism of his handling of child abuse allegations while he was Archbishop of Brisbane.

"I feel comfortable in my own skin that the ship of state is on course and people are very nice to us wherever we go," General Jeffery said.


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