I have just returned from a few days on Palm Island having begun a process of meeting and consulting with the community regarding community and cultural development gaps and support needs.
Firstly, what a beautiful place. The natural environment is truly stunning. I was also struck by a number of other things…
The generosity, resilience and depth of knowledge of the Palm Island people that I met; and, the harsh realities of life in that community.
Over 90% unemployment.
Living on Crown land, no-one can own their home.
Serious issues of violence, petty crime and substance abuse.
The life expectancy of a man on Palm Island is 42.
People are angry, disenfranchised, grieving and divided.
Yet… they live in a tropical paradise.
This is not to make light of the situation. It’s the reality. It’s also not suprising that life for Palm Islanders is like it is. Once a proud, self-determined, spiritual, innovative, creative and resourceful people they have been forced to become dependant on hand-outs and “white” governance. It is a cycle that is very difficult to break.
My concern for the people of Palm Island and my comments are not about pity – I have much more respect for them than that. But I do have a deep sense of compassion and conviction for their cause. And they certainly need vocal, strategic and informed advocates for their cause.
There is so much activity on the island, often generated by well-meaning outsiders, but with limited outcomes. Maybe I’m no better?
There also many outsiders – teachers, health workers, community workers, tradesmen – working with and for the community to build capacity and self-determination. Not imposing, but supporting and equipping – this is where I’d hope to sit.
Our Premier (and Prime Minister) would argue that it’s nothing to do with racism, that Australians are not racist – I’m not sure I agree. It is initially because of racism that the Palm Islanders are facing these issues. If they weren’t Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander they wouldn’t have been treated with such disregard for basic human rights. And much of it is perpetuated or ignored because of racism.
For many “Australians” the life of an Aboriginal man is clearly worth less than that of a “white” man. If the life expectancy of “white” Australian men in communities throughout Australia was 42, there would be national campaigns running around the clock and public, political and media outcry.
Currently there is, at best, an occasional dull roar.