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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 February, 2005, 14:36 GMT
Australia's Aboriginal debate
Improving the lives of Australia's Aboriginals is an important challenge, with no easy answers.

The BBC News website asked two prominent members of the Aboriginal community to debate the issues by email. This is the conversation they had over the last few weeks.

Warren Mundine is national senior vice-president of Australia's opposition Labor Party and a member of the newly-formed National Indigenous Council.

Rob Welsh is chairman of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council, which was set up to acquire and manage land for Aboriginal people and protect Aboriginal culture in metropolitan Sydney. He is based in the suburb of Redfern.


As Aborigines, we need to move beyond the symbolism of the "Sorry" debate to tackle the real issues of poverty, bad health and lack of education within our communities.

Warren Mundine (AAP)
A more radical approach is needed whereby we move away from communal land ownership and non-profit community-based businesses and take up home ownership, economic land development and private, profit-making businesses.

We need to take responsibility for our behaviour and build safe communities where families can prosper without the threat of domestic and communal violence, and sexual and substance abuse.

ROB WELSH, 7 December

There's an old saying that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. You can't separate the disadvantage suffered by our people from its causes.

Rob Welsh
For some time now, Aboriginal people have been working hard across Australia to tackle poverty, poor health and lack of education by doing many of the things you suggest. But we need to do this in partnership with a government that understands the causes of these problems and genuinely wants to work with us to overcome them.

I agree that boosting home ownership and private business opportunities for our people is the way forward. However, these programs should be in addition to, not instead of community based land rights, business ventures and services.

Where communal land ownership has been replaced by individual land ownership overseas, indigenous people have ended up losing their land. That would be a poor legacy to leave our children and grandchildren.


Many of our people are locked in poverty on communal lands with a breakdown in law and order becoming the norm. We can only break the poverty cycle and the lawlessness by building safe communities with a strong economy.

This can only be done by taking responsibility for our actions and changing our behaviour. If the criminals don't change, then we need to drive them out by strong law enforcement.

We need to develop entrepreneurship through self-employment, small business and real employment.

ROB WELSH, 20 January

These views are similar to those of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, and there's an element of truth to them. Yes, of course we Aboriginal people need to take action. Aboriginal communities right around Australia are currently putting in place many successful programs to do this.
I won't give up until the world knows the truth and we receive justice. To do that would be to give up on my father and all the other Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and sent to places like Kinchela
Rob Welsh

The problem with these arguments, however, is that they only tell half the story. We hear a lot about personal responsibility for Aboriginal people, but what about the responsibility of government to provide decent levels of health care, education and policing for all of its citizens - including the most disadvantaged?


This is the rhetoric of the past 40 years and doesn't answer the question of how do we get out of the dilemma we're in.

The statistics are bad, with not much improvement over the years. Yes, governments have a role and a very important role and we have never let them off the hook no matter what level of government. But what if governments do nothing?

There seems to be a belief that without government Aborigines can't do it. I don't subscribe to that. I believe Aborigines can do it, and that we have the tools to build a better future for ourselves.

ROB WELSH, 4 February

This is not about what governments will or won't do, it's about justice for our people. When my father was nine years old he broke his leg and was taken to hospital in Sydney. After his leg healed, instead of being returned to his family he was sent to the Kinchela Boys Home in northern New South Wales. He wasn't allowed to see his parents again until after he turned 18.
By having a strong economy and a healthy, educated and safe society, we are better able to fight for our rights and social justice
Warren Mundine

More than 400 young Aboriginal boys between five and 15 were taken from their families and sent to Kinchela between 1924 and 1971. The boys received poor education, an inadequate diet and many suffered beatings and sexual abuse.

We will also never forget how our people were shot and poisoned and our women raped during the invasion of our country and the theft of our land.

Although our fight for a treaty, an apology and compensation is not fashionable right now in Australia, I won't give up until the world knows the truth and we receive justice. To do that would be to give up on my father and all the other Aboriginal children who were sent to places like Kinchela.


Making the lives of Aboriginal people better by building a strong economy and a safe community from drugs and alcohol abuse, physical and sexual violence, improving education and health standards and having good governance within our organisations doesn't mean we've abandoned the "stolen generation" or any other Aboriginal person.

Nor does it mean we've given up on a treaty, an apology and any compensation due to us.

What it does mean is that by having a strong economy and a healthy, educated and safe society, we are better able to fight for our rights and social justice. Because at the end of the day we'll need all these things in order to achieve a strong proud Aboriginal community.

ROB WELSH, 15 February

I don't agree with everything you say, but on this I'm with you 100%. There is nothing more important than ensuring our people are healthy, safe, economically independent and have access to proper housing and education.

At the Metropolitan Land Council we are engaging in joint ventures with sensible developers on parts of our land, in order to raise capital to provide homes for our people. We are introducing a home ownership scheme with interest-free loans for our members, and providing job and training opportunities.

We have also introduced Blackout Violence - an award winning program that uses sport to combat violence against women and families.

Aboriginal communities in Australia are diverse. What works for your community may not work for mine and vice versa. But none of us should ever lose the vision of what we're fighting for.

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