Over the winter break I was fortunate enough to visit a place called Doomadgee. Located in far north Queensland, this isolated Indigenous community was a world away from the political rush and bustle of Canberra. To give you an idea of how remote this community is, for more than 3 months of the year, the road to Doomadgee is cut off thanks to the Wet Season.
Speaking to people in the community, it was difficult to find anyone that was up to date on the latest two party-preferred polling, the penultimate preference deals, or even which hat Bob Katter had decided to don that day (this last one was especially surprising given that Doomadgee lies in Katter’s electorate of Kennedy, and many locals expressed their praise of him!). In many ways, the trip served as hibernation from what I considered to be normal day in an Australian federal election campaign. There are no political billboards in Doomadgee. No pre-polling stations. It was clear that, for many Doomadgee locals, the federal election means very little.
Why should it though? At no stage were Indigenous affairs a priority for either major party in their respective campaigns. I know I didn’t hear the word ‘Indigenous’ mentioned anywhere throughout the entire lengthy campaign. Perhaps this was because I missed many of the debates, social media barrages, TV ads and the likes that goes with large-scale election campaigns. Whilst I definitely enjoyed missing these, it is concerning that in the year 2016, improving the health, education and employment rates of our first Australians barely registered in debates concerning our nation’s future.
Perhaps another reason why many people in Doomadgee weren’t particularly captivated by the campaign was simply because they had bigger things to worry about. During our stay, we spoke to elders, teachers, police officers, nurses, employment support services and more. It quickly became clear that extremely poor literacy and numeracy rates, huge amounts of juvenile crime and even simple health problems create many barriers for young people – barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential, or even from engaging meaningfully with life outside, or indeed inside the town.
These barriers don’t hold up all young people though. A few weeks after we left Doomadgee, we were delighted to hear that Doomadgee local Elijah Douglas, a 19-year old Youth worker, had received the NAIDOC Award for Youth of the Year 2016. An outstanding role model in many ways, Elijah has worked tirelessly in Doomadgee to improve education rates whilst helping to pass on culture and language throughout the community. Earlier this year, he attended the United Nations forum in New York to discuss Indigenous people’s rights and emerging issues.
As our trip drew to a close, it became apparent that Doomadgee isn’t living in ignorance of the politics of the wider country. Community leaders like Elijah were well aware of the differences between life in Doomadgee and life elsewhere in Australia. Rather, politicians at both a state and federal level are living in blissful ignorance of the issues affecting Indigenous communities. Governments are certainly financially attentive, with the amount of government-funded services available in the community rivalling that found in a small city. Many in the community agree though that the type of attention required in Doomadgee is not the financial kind.
Governments need to do more to combat the terrible combination of poor education, poor health, high unemployment and family violence. The rates of domestic violence in particular are staggering. One police officer told us that in a one month period, in a town of 1500, over 200 charges are laid and dealt with by the visiting magistrate, with many of those offences domestic violence-related. Obviously this is a problem that the rest of Australia is grappling to deal with at the moment. Nonetheless, these alarming rates are indicative of the scale of disparity and dysfunction in Doomadgee.
Of course, it’s very easy to complain about the need for the government to act, without suggesting what specifically can be done. Many of these issues are all interlinked by cyclical family patterns that see children dropping out of school whilst still illiterate and adults unable or unwilling to find employment, along with the numerous other issues.
I’m not pretending to know how Doomadgee can navigate itself free of these problems. That these issues still plague Indigenous communities is indicative of how complex such a task would be. At least we could have more discussion though, more debate about how the government can work with these communities to wipe out these problems.
Then again, I guess watching our political leaders debate ways to negatively gear mansions on Sydney’s Northern Beaches makes for better entertainment doesn’t it?