Sunday, 13 May 2012


Looking at the statistics that detail health outcomes and work participation and other kinds of benchmarks as they apply to the Indigenous population of Australia, it is easy to draw the conclusion that this is a nation jam packed with thoughtless racists. However, if you set aside the usual percentage of ignorant bigots, that is actually far from the case. The relationship between the bulk of the population and the original inhabitants of this country is complex, but the goodwill that is felt by most Australians towards Aborigines is real and deeply felt. It is possibly best exemplified by the reaction of most of us to Cathy Freeman's win at the Sydney Olympics, an event that even now I can't think about without getting a lump in my throat:


Peculiarly, it was a visit to a rural supply shop the other day that set me pondering these things. Because my mum's not been well, I've been helping her out a bit and this week she needed some salt for her cattle. As I didn't know what I was doing really, I asked a man at the shop for help. He soon found a heap of what mum wanted - bags labelled Himalayan rock salt, sold in 25 kilogramme lumps.

After checking that the bags contained decent-sized single lumps and not a whole lot of 5 kilogramme pebbles, the bloke heaved several of the best onto a trolley, which he pushed out to my car. As he hefted a couple of the sacks into the boot, I noticed that there was an address printed on the side of them. It proved that they really were from the Himalayas; they were not, as I had imagined called 'Himalayan' purely from whimsy or to create a romantic impression, (and, indeed, now I come to think of it, I realise trying to endow cow salt with romance would be an unlikely marketing ploy).

Anyway, I was so surprised that I made a comment. 'They really are Himalayan', I said. The bloke from the shop dumped the second bag into the back of the car and straightened up before turning for the next one. 'Yeah', he said, pushing back his hat and wiping his forehead. 'I suppose there's some poor little bugger up there on the top of Mount Everest, pick, pick, picking away.' He bent over and grabbed hold of the corners of the next bag. 'It'd be a long hard way down with 25 kilo', he grunted, as he hurled it after the others.

It seemed to me that in that comment you got all the nuance of Australian attitudes towards people less fortunate than ourselves. The phrase 'poor little bugger' encompassed an affectionate if somewhat Olympian sympathy. The man recognised the salt miner in the Himalayas might be having a tough a time of it and he also recognised that that wasn't really fair. All the same, there was in his words an implied acceptance that, looked at practically, that was how things were. Just because he didn't have any ideas about how to improve that situation, it didn't mean he didn't recognise it was far from ideal.

In the same way, our governments - state and federal - willingly hurl money at the disaster that is Indigenous education and welfare, and we are happy that they keep on doing so, because we are all aware that the situation is dire. None of us wants people to feel driven to extremes such as petrol-sniffing, but equally none of us has a clue about how to solve the myriad problems that lead to such activities. Thus, while we may appear to be uncaring, really we just don't have a clue about what to do.


  1. I've been to the Himalayas but had not the faintest idea they mined salt there. It makes sense though, geologically.

    We have the idea that because 'we' created the problems for Aboriginal people, it's up to 'us' to impose a solution because 'we' know best. Maybe that's where 'we' go wrong every time.

    1. But sitting by while lives are ruined when it is a problem you triggered is difficult

  2. The salt is a rather lovely pale pink, by the way

  3. Like Murray River salt ... it's a lovely pink too.

    But you've captured this very well zmkc. We feel so helpless ... the most important thing we can do is engage indigenous people in the solution. I know it's easier said than done - as with any group (including our white majority for heaven's sake), there's no single view among indigenous people about the way to go, but their voices do need to be heard. We need to enable that to happen and listen. It's starting to occur in bits and pieces and fits and starts, but it is the only real and effective way to make real progress I think.