NACCHO health and racism:Goodes’ racism ordeal is only the tip of the health iceberg

Adam Goodes talks to the press

“In the contest of societies with dominant and minority cultures, such as Australia, the widespread and persistent suppression of minority cultural practices causes severe disruption, making our communities susceptible to trauma, collective helplessness and endemic maladaptive coping practices,”

CEO of Danila Dilba Health Service Olga Havnen (NACCHO member)

• This article first appeared on The Global Mail, part of our Guardian Comment Network

So, after this week we’re all clear: it’s not acceptable to call an Aboriginal an ape.

As the footballer Adam Goodes said, “it hurts”. Quite rightly, Eddie McGuire and a 13-year-old girl have had to hang their heads and publicly apologise for doing just that.

But who is going to apologise for Australia’s covert racism? That’s the racism that Northern Territory Aboriginal activist Olga Havnen described in her Lowitja O’Donoghue oration on Tuesday night in Adelaide.


While McGuire should have tucked himself up in bed, getting the brain-refreshing sleep which would possibly have averted his gaffe in suggesting Goodes might promote King Kong, Havnen was showing us what covert racism looks like.

She spoke of how misguided politicians and public servants have used the Ginger Bread Men, also known as Geckos, and the NINGOs and the BINGOs to wrest control from Indigenous organisations in the Northern Territory.

“Ginger Bread Men” and “Geckos” are the names Aboriginal wits gave managers sent in to communities by the government as part of the federal Intervention — a package of policing and welfare measures introduced in 2007 to deal with enduring problems of child abuse and alcoholism in Indigenous communities.

Many millions of dollars have gone into resourcing the NINGOs (non-Indigenous government organisations) and BINGOS (Big International NGOs), delivering services to Aborigines, Havnen said. Aboriginal control of these services has withered, as the NGOs’ involvement has grown, she said.

It’s been six years next month since the Intervention began and the army rolled in, sending some people fleeing into the bush. In this time, it has “had profound psychological impacts on our people,” said Havnen. These impacts have gone almost completely unnoticed by policy-makers.

Health services, land managers and art centres have survived, but “Aboriginal community-driven service delivery has, in many parts of the Northern Territory, simply disappeared,” she said.

The link between action and psychological hurt may not seem as clear as in the case of McGuire’s suggestion that Goodes be used to publicise the musical King Kong. But Havnen, a descendant of the Western Arrernte people of Central Australia, argued that the “misguided, coercive approaches” of the Intervention are causing harm because lack of control over their own lives can virtually kill and maim her people.

It’s about who makes the decisions; who’s the boss.

“In the contest of societies with dominant and minority cultures, such as Australia, the widespread and persistent suppression of minority cultural practices causes severe disruption, making our communities susceptible to trauma, collective helplessness and endemic maladaptive coping practices,” she said.

She counted the ways in which the dominant culture’s decision-makers had taken power. First the soldiers had arrived. Then, Aboriginal-run organisations and community government councils were rapidly dismantled.

The Aboriginal “work-for-the-dole” CDEP program was “allowed to wither away”. (The CDEP was criticised as being merely a “make-work” program, leading to pointless paid activities such as painting rocks. However, it did have uses, including paying artists to paint.)

“Fourth, the introduction of mandatory, universal income control and the introduction of the Basic Card, although welcomed by some welfare recipients, has nevertheless had a major impact on the ways people use and control their money,” Havnen said.

Fifth, the “emergency response” introduced in the name of child protection “universally painted men as violent drunks, paedophiles and consumers of pornography, and women as passive, helpless victims,” she said.

While the introduction of alcohol controls across all Northern Territory “prescribed areas” was welcomed in some areas, it played havoc in others.

It’s about who makes the decisions; who’s the boss.

“Many communities had voluntary alcohol restrictions in place for years prior to the Intervention. The hundred or so locally initiated ‘dry areas’ were abolished in favour of blanket restrictions that have driven drinkers into unsafe drinking behaviours in towns and drinking camps,” she said.

And when the Intervention brought doctors and nurses from interstate to provide child health checks, the message was that Aboriginal health workers and nurses, who had been struggling in tough conditions with inadequate resources, had failed.

“In effect, they were being told that their careers had been rubbish,” she said.

Havnen, who was giving her oration for the Don Dunstan Foundation in Adelaide, knows as well as McGuire how quickly a public figure’s own words can rebound on them.

Late last year, the conservative Northern Territory government sacked her as its coordinator general for Remote Services following the tabling of her comprehensive report in which she criticised its Indigenous affairs expenditure.

McGuire, in defence of the comments he made on Melbourne radio, said he was tired and that his King Kong comment was “a slip of the tongue”.

He knew you were not allowed to say that sort of stuff any more. He probably doesn’t know that the idea of Indigenous people being close to the apes is a hangover from 19th century “scientific racism”, which devised a hierarchy of races by skin colour and put those of paler hue (including to the “scientists” who devised the system) up the top, near the angels.

Some ideas hang about for an awfully long time.

The Intervention is likely to stay. Federal opposition Leader Tony Abbott has said he would consider extending it – after he has consulted with Aboriginal leaders.

But perhaps he should first read the scores of reports compiled over the past three or so decades which say that the answer to addressing Indigenous disadvantage is to hand over increased Indigenous control of decision-making and service delivery.

Havnen is asking for a fundamental change. She wants leaders to show more daring, to give up what she calls “risk intolerance” in Indigenous affairs.

It’s worth considering. But, hey, everyone has been mesmerised by McGuire’s bungle, while out in the desert, the emergency continues.