Some years ago I was driving with my father and some of my kids in the Northern Rivers district where my father grew up. We drove past a huge paddock on one of the farms. My father told the kids he remembered when the paddock was covered in trees and that in the 1930s a Russian couple who owned the land cleared all of the trees by hand to create a paddock for their farm.
Absent mindedly I asked my Dad how they managed to remove all those trees and clear the paddock. He looked at me like I was daft and he answered “They cut down the first tree”.
The problems affecting Indigenous people and communities in Australia are huge, complex and interconnected. Solving them can seem like trying to find the way out of a labrynth.
Some people despair that it’s all too hard and focus on something else entirely. They ignore the problem. Others call for “someone” (usually government) to do “something” (usually provide more money and unspecified “resources”). But after 40 years of this approach we have not yet seen a material change.
I prefer the Russian couple’s approach. Cut down the first tree. And then the next. And then the next. Until the forest is cleared. Because if you can’t even cut down one tree, you have no hope of clearing the whole forest.
My biggest priority for this year is that all Indigenous kids go to school every school day. I get mocked on Twitter all the time for this, as if I’m unaware of the other complex problems facing Indigenous people. “Is that all?” “Don’t you have something more than that?” Of course there’s more. But if we can’t even manage to get our kids to school then we have no hope of solving any of the other problems; even the quality and resourcing of the schools themselves.
Indigenous people talk all the time of “empowerment” and “self-determination” but we forget that there are some things we already have the power to change, without needing “someone” to do “something” . School attendance is one. Smoking is another.
We could make big gains in closing the gap in health and life expectancy if Indigenous people did not smoke at 2 to 3 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. So I was pleased last year to read that the Indigenous smoking rate is going down and that there has been large reduction in smoking uptake by young Indigenous people.
Similarly, some people grow tired of my other mantra – jobs. But the only way to end the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is if all Indigenous people get off welfare and into a real job. Right now, governments and the private sector are bending over backwards to help get unemployed Indigenous people into work. There are many challenges and barriers I know, particularly for long term unemployed. That’s why the new approach to training people for a guaranteed job and case managing individuals to address all the barriers is the best way to go.
I also have just one primary focus area in relation to Indigenous incarceration rates – seeing all juvenile offenders sent to mandatory diversionary programs where they go into jobs and education. I believe this one initiative will make a big difference.
Imagine for one moment that these 4 things happened - every Indigenous child started going to school every school day and finished school; every unemployed Indigenous person got into a real job and stayed in the workforce; Indigenous people stopped smoking; and every young offender is sent into a mandatory diversionary program into a job and education.
Really imagine it.
Imagine what our Indigenous communities would be like if we made these 4 changes. Imagine the difference after 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. Even if they were the only changes we managed to achieve, we would still make a huge difference.
So rather than thinking about how we clear the forest, let’s start by cutting down some trees.