Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Perks, what perks?

The first question certain people ask when the 'Aboriginal Gravy Train' is mentioned, is often a defensive and demanding "Perks? What Perks? Are you talking about those imaginary free houses and cars and loans?".  They will then, almost without fail, smile smugly and cross their arms, sure they have won the debate with their all-crushing, mind-blowing statement of what they believe to be absolute fact.

The dirty secret is, there is a Train.  But the bad news is, if you're black, you're going to find it hard to get a first class ticket.

This Train stops at many destinations. 

Stop One - The Corporate World

With all the focus on Native Title, Caring For Country, Welcome to Country and all other matters Indigenous, we've created a whole raft of new jobs that need filling by Aboriginal people.  Many of them with quite generous salaries.

Let's look at a few:- (for those playing along at home, todays current Koori Mail employment pages)

If you're from the Geelong mob, why not become a 'Koorie Transition Officer'.  Pay range $76k - $90k plus.

Or, how do you like the sounds of 'Medicare Enhancement Officer' on your new business cards?  Contact VACCHO if you're interested, they're looking for one right now.

Want to shoot to the very top?  How about CEO?  You guessed it, that one is up for grabs too, and best of all, it comes with a six figure salary!

But there's one catch.  Most of them have an impressive selection criteria that tends to weed out a lot of the blacks that need jobs.  I see no entry level jobs, no apprenticeships, no nothing to help someone get that springboard step from poverty to a new and brighter future.  The Victorian Government has pledged a 1% Aboriginal target for Public Sector employment by 2015.  Already advertised is one position for a Solicitor, several for Child Protection workers, some for Prison Officers, and one single Traineeship.  But if you don't have any skills and don't want to be a Fisheries Education Officer, you'll have to keep the job hunt going a little longer.

Stop Two - Small Business Owners

A little annoyed at yourself that you went and studied that Aboriginal Archaeology course?  Well, don't be down, dust off those degrees your parents scoffed at and start your own small business!  Cultural Heritage Management Consultant has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?  You can charge a bunch for your time, doing fun stuff like taking photographs of rock scatters, sitting back and admiring said rock scatters, daydreaming about how they may have come to be here.  Write your dreams on paper, making sure to pepper it liberally with terms such as "shell midden", and "artefact" - or my personal favourite, "tribal gathering place". 

Leave space at the top of your report (for the obligatory Wikipedia copy and paste about the history of the local area and its 'tribes' ) but be sure you haven't left out several gratuitous references to the co-operative nature of the company who is going to pay your exorbitant bill (Oil companies, Mining Companies, despite all their money, they still need their egos stroked) and their genuine warm feelings of reconciliation and respect for the local Indigenous peoples.  It also helps if you mention that they are going to work hard with you to maintain and preserve any cultural sites of significance.  It helps if you don't mention that if it is in the way of a large Gold deposit, or where they want to pipe Gas through, it will have to go anyway.  Negotiation only goes so far of course.

Stop Three - The Arts World

Poor reviews getting you down?  Well, despair no more, Stop Three is where you need to be.

Instead of competing against all the other bland white artists, you need a professional edge.  You need to stop advertising yourself as a 'Struggling' or 'Urban' or 'Contemporary' Artist, and start using the words 'Aboriginal Artist'.  Enter yourself in all the major Indigenous Art Awards (don't worry, I know of one major award that doesn't ask for proof of Aboriginality along with your entry), and even if you only come away with a Shortlist or Finalist placing, it is really all you need.  You've achieved the hardest part of all, cementing your credibility.

When you engage the news media, you don't actually need to explain your heritage.  Refer to a descendant of a parent in wistful terms, using just enough suggestive prose for the impression to be clear that the descendant was 'stolen' and you now have a tactical advantage.  You see, probing further would be seen as highly offensive and no journalist who doesn't want to be hauled before court will dare challenge you, or even ask for something as silly as proof.

Stop Four - Pretend Elders and Fake Traditional Owners

Well kids, the last stop on our journey.  While the sarcasm may drip from my words, I can tell you, this is one that really breaks my heart.

The Elders were once a revered bunch.  Given a status that reflected their dedication to their community, their vast and superior wisdom, once upon a time, there were laws that governed who could, and couldn't be, an Elder.   These days, it is little more than an assumption.  If you're old enough to remember a time before mobile phones, you're old enough to demand the title.  We still have Elders in this state who fit the original criteria, those who should be revered, but when every other person is an Elder, society loses sight of what such a title really means. 

The low blow for me, came the day I realised that you don't even have to be Aboriginal, to be an Aboriginal Elder.  Yes, in one Aboriginal Co-op here in Victoria, we have at least one woman who demands the title of 'Aunty' from her staff and visitors, despite her only connection to Aboriginal ancestry being admittedly by marriage (i.e not a blood relative) and workplace osmosis .  Perhaps working in an Aboriginal Corporation has a funny effect on people from time to time, including altering your genetic make-up.

Traditional Owner is also a pretty neat title to whack in front of your name.  It's got a nactivist kind of feel to it, tempered with the mystical affectation we give to the word Elder.  Either way, it's not a bad job to have.  If you're looking for a late start to this race though, forget about it.  The boat left a little ways back.  The early bird catches the worm as they say, and if you weren't jumping into bed with NTSV years ago, you may find yourself left out in the cold.

I'm not saying the Heritage Council are making bad decisions.  What I will say, is that the current legislation leaves a lot of loopholes.  The onus is on those who oppose any application, when it comes to the burden of proof.  Having lodged opposition myself to one such application (which went on to be declined in 2011), I am thankful that the party in question made a fatal error of judgement when deciding to flout regulations and write member profits into their rule book.  It probably wasn't also a good idea to have a membership consisting of just one family group either.  I'm sure the information I provided was helpful, but when the other side is stupid AND greedy, I won't gloat and chalk it up as a victory for me. 

If you're wondering about what happened to the poor guy whose application is now left in tatters, and how he is going to feed his starving, disadvantaged family - I have good news.  Fake Traditional Owners are a resilient bunch.  Already a successful Indigenous business owner with many Government funded subsidies to help out along the way, I'm sure he'll be positively 'buzzy' with what his future holds.  He may not have a Monsanto like grip on all matters Indigenous where he lives as was hoped, but I'm sure in time, he'll learn to be happy somewhere between the middle and upper classes with his various income streams.  Best of all, he's white, so his Aboriginality isn't going to hold him back at all.  Just open a few more doors that the rest of society aren't allowed to open, and allow him access to a niche market that asks few questions, and goes along with whatever you say.

I hope you've enjoyed your trip on the Gravy Train with me.  As you can see, the Train is not for everyone.  Few seats are ever given to blacks, but that is not to say, that some have not ridden.  Whilst I do not forgive a black brother or sister lightly who steals from their own people, society shames them far worse than I could.  We've had some corrupt blackfellas over the years.  I won't deny it.  We have honest people among us, and, dishonest ones.  Greedy and benevolent. When you create entire systems (like ATSIC) that are open to exploitation, you make monsters.  When you're given a job - not because you're the best person for the job, but, because you wield the most power or have more influence and wealth than your peers - then the likelihood that you will be productive, meet your targets and make life for all those poor saps counting on you better, it is, well,  pretty low.  

To all my black brothers and sisters out there, this is why you should be asking questions.  This is why you should be getting angry. 

How has your life been made better by the Billions in funding that has been spent in YOUR NAME? 

Have you been helped or hindered when you've asked for help from an Aboriginal organisation?

Does your local Aboriginal organisation scrutinise itself with regular audits? 

Do they allow you to attend meetings and be a part of the democratic process that is supposed to give us all a voice, as the very people they are supposed to represent,  to provide services to - that our Government funds them well to do?

Are they working to provide jobs for the local people, or just friends and family?

If you wanted to change your life tomorrow, study and train for a career or vocation, could you reasonably expect that help and assistance would be available for you to attain such a goal?

What makes me sit up and worry at night, is a whole bunch of people who are being denied all of this and more.  What makes me angry, is that those who are denying it to them, claim to represent them.

Every socially accepted, urban living, middle-class, white aboriginal person who has used their heritage to further themselves, contributes to the problem.  It creates inequity in the market.  Twenty years ago, we started making real leaps forward in planning our Indigenous future.  Big talks resulted in great aspirations, our kids would go to college, we'd have Aboriginal Doctors, Aboriginal Lawyers, and all our kids would be just as smart as the white kids.

What happened after the talks? 

Committees were formed, Key Initiatives were set, Funding was given, Scholarships and Indigenous University places grew.

But very few black, disadvantaged kids were graduating.  Instead, the first wave of graduates were overwhelmingly pale skinned, and often two or three generations removed from a single Indigenous ancestor.

Hang on a minute, I hear you say.  How are you to know that these people didn't go on to do wonderful things in remote communities and spend their life dedicated to helping Aboriginal people?

I don't.  And frankly, it matters little.  Whether our imaginary graduate goes on to be the Mother Teresa of the outback or not, post graduation, the end does not justify the means.  If our graduate was that dedicated, she'd be there.  Ask any of the hundreds of average people who have given of their time and hearts to any one of our many impoverished remote settlements.  Ask some of the dedicated non-Indigenous staff who take a shitty wage to stay in a job they love to make a difference in the lives of kids who have so little to smile about.  They aren't doing it because they're Aboriginal, they're doing it because they want to help.

Instead, what I see, is a growing trend of those who focus on their career, their speaking engagements, their own achievements - and when they need to, using the Aboriginal name to help themselves along and in some cases, form the foundation for their whole identity and life focus.  In their giddy indulgence of self-identity, they are robbing us of ours.  We are asked to accept the face of the white man as the face also, of the black man.  He is both our enemy and our brother.  And although my white brother may move about the world freely, accepted as normal to others and blending in with the majority, we are told we must remember his suffering is akin to ours, and never mention the difference.  His white skin is a shield, however, in order not to offend, we must readily make generous concessions that allow far less racism to be equal to or greater than, deeply ingrained and generational racism.  We must never admit that a pervasive racism exists, nor ever reveal that the blacker your skin, the greater your chance is of experiencing such a phenomenon.

We have one section of the Aboriginal race (as defined by any means) doing well, and another, as if in a third world country.  I will never apologise for believing this must change. I refuse to pretend I didn't notice that those doing well are overwhelmingly pale-skinned, and those enduring the suffering are overwhelmingly black.  I will think you are missing the mark when you make comments such as 'but, the criteria doesn't say you have to be disadvantaged, you just have to be of Aboriginal descent' to justify you making a commodity of your thin strands of heritage and taking that opportunity. 

Did you stop and think that if all those who really shouldn't be eligible made a moral decision and opted out, that maybe, just maybe, we'd get an accurate picture of how things really are? 

Imagine if in 2013, we only had disadvantaged, remote Indigenous Australians eligible for every Aboriginal Art Award, Scholarship, Traineeship, IBA loan, Identified job position etc .  As a nation we would be embarassed into a state of action when we saw how few of these roles were able to be filled.  Instead of congratulating our ever growing army of pale skinned High Achievers, we would be shamed into taking real action to address what should be a national disgrace.  What happened to the days when we looked at a child who, through the lottery of birth and not choice, is dealt a crappy hand in the Game of Life and said 'how can we help?'.  When did we change to a society that instead only asked of itself 'What's in this for ME?'.


  1. You need to give more details about yourself. It is a good article.

  2. This is a great article and restores my faith in indigenous humanity. I feel you will cop a lot of flack from this but I applaud your courage. I am european but have a very large indigenous family, many of whom live in remote, traditional communities, and the rest have connections and frequent contact with those communities.
    Like you I am saddened by the lack of actual black skinned people filling indigenous positions with the exception of remote communities. And there is a huge problem with that practice as we have people receiving large salaries for duties they do not have the ability to fulfill. Not only does this ensure that the service is of poor quality, but also discourages remote aboriginals from striving to better their education,as who would make that effort if the end result can be achieved by doing nothing. Quite frankly it is a practice that insults traditional people as it assumes they are incapable of performing at a highter level. Indigenous shouldn't be synonymous with second rate and we need to raise our expectations for remote disadvantaged people.
    With regard the more priviledged indigenous you are absolutely spot on. Under what criteria do they require separate health services, or training schemes or colleges. They currently have parity with non indigenous as regards access to all services and anything else is just duplication, eletism and a waste of money.
    In response to your observation regarding indigenous committees it has been my experience (admittedlly all remote) that very few indigenous actually understand their rights under the constitution of their organisation, in fact most don't even know what a constitution is, and the more educated take advantage of that ignorance. And, as you say, nepotism is rampant.
    Fortunately more traditional people are receiving better education these days, many at private schools and I am hopeful that in the non too distant future some of these issues are addressed.

    1. Thank you Big Nana. If this is the same Big Nana from the ABC and other forum posts, I just want to say I've often read your opinion on indigenous matters and found myself nodding along in complete agreeance.

    2. Great to get a civil response and not have to trot out my credentials to validate anything I say. Yes I am that Big Nana. I only got into blogging last year when I retired but in that time have been appalled by the number of so called experts with opinions on indigenous affairs when it is obvious they have had no real life experience of the issues. All of my experience has been with remote communities or small towns in the Kimberly or finally here in Darwin.However, the gravy train runs regularly through the stations here as well. Up here we call it Toyota Dreaming, the time of year when royalties come through and certain families roll into town in new 4wd's and visit the casino, amongst other places. And then there are the programs and committees that the locals somehow never get to hear about until all the places are filled and it's still a case of who you know, not what you know, or how great your need is. I have no answers to the problems. There are so many vested interests involved and no-one wants to change the status quo. I am an old lady who has witnessed appalling abuse and neglect of aboriginal children and my heart breaks for them. For 30 years I nursed these children as well as lived amongst them. All I can do these days is put my observations in writing, both on the blogosphere and to government departments in the hope that perhaps someone is listening. Cheers.

    3. Toyota Dreaming, how very apt Big Nana. Down here in Victoria, we have the same problem of the locals only hearing about opportunities after the fact, and a constant stream of funding to benefit a few, at a cost to the many.

      You remind me of my foster mother (now deceased), a white woman with the biggest heart for those less fortunate, who devoted her life to caring for Aboriginal children. I watched her struggle with government departments and aboriginal organisations for years, rarely being given so much as a thank you. I would like to take this opportunity to say a Thank You to you Big Nana. Every life you've touched is a life you've made better. Every time you go into bat, you're speaking out for someone who is unable to do so themselves. Please, keep up the good work! We need more Big Nanas in this world.

    4. I really appreciate those kind words. All my indigenous grandchildren (23 0f them) love me, but they have to,I'm their grandmother! By the way, the big in my name is to denote my status, not size! As I am a great grandmother it is to differentiate between the grannies. Don't worry, as long as I have the strength I will continue to advocate for the children who are the ignored pawns in the midst of all this political ugliness. Cheers

  3. Visited because of Bolt's blog.

    Interesting to read your views. I'll bookmark and visit again.

    The issue of the intertwining of aboriginality and free speech interests me mostly because of the free speech aspect. I'm vanilla white and have never experienced racism directed at me. So far, I've mainly read the white side and the black side that looks pretty white.

    I grew up in Sydney suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s. Primary school was all vanilla; though most adults spoke disparagingly of "abos" on the rare occasions they were mentioned - usually on a day outing to La Perouse to watch the snake handler.

    High school (public) in the sixties was less vanilla. I had about 3 or 4 mates that were part aborigine. They weren't much different (in looks) to some of my greek and italian mates. They never made a big deal about it. Probably because you didn't get any points for it in those days - maybe minus points.

    I think I'm like lots of whites who feel reluctant to express their views on these issues (not because I'll be sued) but because I feel I don't want to kick some poor bastard when he's down nor do I want to kick him when he looks like he's getting up.

    I pretty much agree with what you write. Better expressed by a "blackfella" who knows then a "whitefella" who only thinks he knows.

    best wishes,


    1. Thanks for your comments Phillipe. I understand that you don't want to feel as though you are kicking someone while they are down, but at the same time, I speak up because of another line of thought - evil can only flourish while good men stand by and do (or in this case, say) nothing. I have the luxury of no gag or ban on my words, and live in no fear of those lighter skinned than myself daring to silence me, a priviledge that I seem lucky to have in this country.

    2. Dallas, if I may call you that, after reading your reply and considering your Burkeian appeal about good men saying nothing I went back and read Caroline Overington's Weekend Australian piece in which you featured.

      It must have been galling to be told you weren't an aborigine, given your family history and obviously aboriginal face. No wonder you are pretty pissed off at the present system.

      In the same piece Doug Maynard was quoted as saying: "As for you Lehman, you're not an Aborigine at all. You're a f..king white man." I liked his frankness so much that I googled his name.

      I found a fascinating interview he gave to Four Corners on 26 August 2002 (nearly ten years ago) which is well worth reading today if you havent already read it (link)

      It's interesting that you can speak the truth, and that Doug Maynard can speak the truth and no doubt many other blackfellas can, yet the media seems to give them little coverage compared to the white/black urbanites

      I wonder what the media and Mordy would have said if Andrew Bolt had referred to Lehman in the same way that Doug Maynard did.



    3. Please feel free to call me Dallas if you prefer. Black Steam Train is the persona I adopted in honour of my late brother. His death prompted me to start to speak up, as I just cannot reconcile myself with him passing so young being an acceptable part of Aboriginality. We joke that we don't have family reunions, we have funerals, but having just buried my father last week, any humour is long gone from such a cliche for me.

      It was a difficult article to get published, in no small part I imagine because of the Bolt verdict, and I thought at several points it might never see the light of day. I am grateful that it did, as the question of identity vs need is one we should all be discussing. Even if it makes some of us a little uncomfortable, or upset.

      I had a read of the Doug Maynard interview you linked to, and he is spot on with his comments re ATSIC, even moreso with regard to a lot of the Aboriginal organisations. Hard to believe that story is so old, yet the issues so current. ATSIC may be disbanded, but so many of the old guard live on and have prospered in their new roles.

      As for the media and Mordy, if Andrew Bolt said even half of what I am saying, or agreed with Maynards view, I imagine we'd have a law passed where every family would have to attend a Bolt burning effigy. Logic counts for nothing when you can scream 'racism' louder than the next man.

  4. Hi, Mr Black Steam Train,

    I take your points on education. Certainly it is important to success and will become more so until the reality of the laws of diminishing return become apparent to those who put forward "more training" as the solution to all problems and demand formal qualifications for the most mundane jobs. (a fool who gets a degree generally becomes a fool with a degree)

    Aboriginal people in this country have had two terrible systems of governance imposed on them simultaneoulsy - one is socialism - collective ownership of property, particularly realestate with centralised resource allocation.

    The other is tribalism, where those qualifing as traditional owners decide who comes and goes and who gets what.

    Education is important, but we should take comfort that 100 years ago education was the exception in white/yellow/brown societies everywhere in the world; and economic, political and cultural development has still happened. For example the Japanese governance system demanded and organised for economic development of which education was just a part. In contrast Cuba has a great education system, but poor governance leaves the people in poverty.

    I think it is as important to focus on giving aboriginal communities better governance systems as are evident in successful communities. The features are - real elections (or at least selection on merit) for positions of responsibility, real and fearless scrutiny of the decisons of leaders.

    Economic development will only occur where people have freedom to buy/rent/lease/sell/improve/invent/scrap personal property of all kinds, freedom to associate, freedom to move away, freedom to bring in new ideas and for new residents to enter an community to start new businesses.

    The models of success are the open small towns in Australian rural areas with freehold titles for sale, not closed gate collectives.

    Good luck and may your boiler pressure stay high.

    1. Bazza, I echo your call for real and fearless scrutiny of our leaders. Transparency will go a long way to making things better. If we fail, hide our mistakes and learn nothing from them, how are we to better ourselves in the long run?

      I agree also with your points on Economic Development. After the spectacular failure of the Home Ownership on Indigenous Land program, one wonders why our Government has not also reached this conclusion. You cannot force value into an initiative, no matter how well intentioned. Nobody stopped to question the logic of owning a home, spending decades paying down a mortgage, when you can only sell that asset to a small pool of financially disadvantaged people when the time comes. Where is the value in those homes? It is discretionary, not related to market forces, and therefore even more of a gamble than privately owned property, on privately owned land.

  5. I'm another whitefella who's come from Bolt's blog.

    I grew up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and my best mate in Primary was a fullblood. His name was Cormack and I vividly remember our fly-catching competitions outside the public pool, waiting for the bus to take us back to school. We had great fun and respected each other for what was inside. I haven't seen Cormack for 25 years or more but I often think back in quiet times. I hope he's well.

    It's refreshing to read your raw opinions. In all societies of mixed races there is and will always be elements of racism towards the indigenous peoples because (I believe in most situations) of envy and ignorance, but I also believe that it can be minimised when decisions are made inclusively, locally and assistance provided is needs-based.

    I believe your views of white blacks is widely held, however I'd like to hear more about your thoughts on how to overcome the disadvantage of remoteness. Is it as simple as setting criteria of Aboriginality and redirecting the funds to where the need resides? Do you believe in a proof-based assistance package? If you do, what is your opinion on criteria?



    1. Thank you for your comments Craig, and agree most wholeheartedly with providing assistance based on need. If we set Aboriginality aside, and tackled issues like poor education, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, poverty where they exist, we would be a much richer society. All of us.

      As to your question of tackling the disadvantage of remoteness, there are no easy answers, but the first place to start, is good governance. When you have local leaders who actively agitate for better and more appropriate services (I mean the kind who doesn't worry about purchasing new vehicles for themselves and their staff to drive as their first priority, instead begins campaigning for new homes to ease the chronic overcrowding perhaps or arranges for the construction of a sewerage system that is very much needed) for their people, you're off to a roaring start.

      Once a good structure for governance is in place, it of course becomes much more difficult. You can visit five different remote communities and see five very different groups of people, with very different needs from one another. A one size fits all approach will not work, and this is where the hard yards need to be put in on the ground. Each community must be addressed as an individual issue, worthy of specific focus. This would be where a proof based assistance package would definitely have merit. Some communities have facilities that others don't, others have more complex issues with regard to disputes between family groups and entrenched violence. Different needs, in different communities, will need different solutions. If we tackle each need based on urgency and merit, there does not need to be a debate on identity to follow alongside.

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