Indigenous Queenslanders left in the dark

BY AMY MCQUIREMARCH 12, 2012

Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh.

QUEENSLAND: There are many unique elements to the Queensland elections. But the lack of focus on black issues isn’t one of them, writes AMY MCQUIRE.

The latest opinion polls suggest time may be up for Queensland Labor.

On the surface, Premier Anna Bligh looks like she is on a losing battle against the strengthened Liberal National Party, lead by the non-parliamentary head Campbell Newman.

An LNP win would mean Labor’s dominance of the state for the past two decades (with a brief exception of the Borbidge Coalition government from 96-98) would be broken.

With all eyes directed down south at the turmoil federally, it’s not looking good for the Bligh government.

Alf Lacey is mayor of Palm Island, off Townsville in North Queensland, and believes that there is a mood for change across the state, including in Aboriginal communities.

“I’ve travelled widely across the state, and the thing that I’m picking up is that it is time for change. I think that’s reverberating across the state,” Mr Lacey told Tracker.

“… I’ve heard different comments from the black and white community, from local government circles, and it looks like it is inevitable we will have a change of government similar to what happened in New South Wales.”

His intuition is backed by the polls. The latest Galaxy poll indicates that the LNP would win 60 to Labor’s 30 on a two-party preferred basis.

But regardless of who wins the next election, will Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be, once again, the losers?

In this race, there has been very little mention of Aboriginal affairs, save for the continuing controversy over the state’s contentious Wild Rivers legislation, and a political stoush over alcohol bans.

Ms Bligh has steadfastly supported the policy and announced last month she would place Wild Rivers declarations over another eight waterways.

Meanwhile, Mr Newman says he will overturn Wild Rivers declarations on the Cape, but has yet to announce whether the same will be true for catchments in Western Queensland. While the electoral focus has been on the Cape, Mr Lacey says its time both parties realise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are not just concentrated in the far north.

“Wild Rivers only affects our people on the Cape… but Aboriginal people live the length and breadth of this state. The government needs to understand quite clearly that Wild Rivers is not about all of us. We have other important agenda items they need to look at.

“… Other pressing issues are the right to affordable housing, the right to a better health system, the right to better infrastructure in terms of gardens, parks and street lighting.

“These are all the things other shires have and take for granted… the basic human rights needs that everyone in the country, and particularly this state, take for granted.”

It’s a sentiment backed by the CEO of the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) Selwyn Button.

“Unfortunately… Aboriginal affairs is not something that wins major votes across the state, so I expect there will be little mention of Indigenous issues over the coming weeks from both Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman,” Mr Button told Tracker.

“Although we should hear from the Greens and (Bob) Katter’s Australia Party about their own Indigenous Affairs policies, as both parties have a commitment to Indigenous issues.”

Mr Lacey believes that the best result may be if Katter’s Australia Party wins seats.

“Any major party are never clear about Aboriginal issues so it’s always a challenge for us in terms of whether we’re a priority or not.

“Sometimes you see very draconian polices by all major parties which keep us in welfare. I’m not very convinced on the positions of the major parties, but I certainly have a bit of hope that if Katter’s Australia Party pulls quite a few seats, Indigenous people have a better hope for them advocating on our behalf. The party has been quite vocal and straight forward.”

He cites Mr Katter’s stance on issues like land tenure and economic development, and the fact he has been consistently outspoken on Indigenous issues. Mr Lacey believes Labor has failed to properly equip Aboriginal communities like Palm Island over its 20 years in government.

“I don’t think they’ve done anything in terms of major infrastructure or economic development in Aboriginal communities in Queensland they can hang their hats on. … It’s really important they understand that they can’t tell us what they’re going to do. We have to tell them what we want.”

Mr Lacey wants the issue of Alcohol Management Plans (AMPs), which were placed on Aboriginal communities in 2002, resolved.

He says they are discriminatory and were outside of community control. “They were slapped on us without any community consultation and input. The laws are discriminatory and they discriminate against the most marginalised people in the state.”

But Mr Lacey says communities are “never going to get any traction from a Labor government” on the issue. While the LNP are yet to release a policy on it, there have been indications that Mr Newman may re-look at the policy, Mr Lacey says.

Meanwhile, down south in Brisbane, Mr Button believes Mr Newman is well liked by the capital’s Aboriginal community.

“During (his time as Lord Mayor) he demonstrated a real commitment to Indigenous affairs, although this is not known more broadly across the state,” Mr Button says. “I have noticed since the announcement of the election he has been wearing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flag pin on his jacket to appeal to the broader community.”

Mr Button said ideally he would like to see primary healthcare for Indigenous Queenslanders discussed.

“There is always a focus upon what is going on in major hospitals in Queensland. Ironically, hospital waiting lists, outpatient blockage, lack of beds for minor surgery always features. “…We all know that commencing and maintaining focus on good comprehensive primary healthcare will reduce all these things over time.

“The unfortunate thing for our people is that these issues last longer than a government’s appointment period, so governments are reluctant to commit to something they cannot tangibly make a difference to over their three year term.”

He says that this has the “potential to make significant differences” to Indigenous Queenslanders.

“Community controlled health services take a broad social determinant approach that considers how other social services impact upon health and vice versa.

“Having a focus purely on home ownership or economic development for Indigenous people cannot work in isolation of other social service elements.”

Mr Button says a LNP government would have a “sharp learning curve”. But he believes there is potential for the LNP to make a difference for Indigenous Queenslanders.

“The most significant difference at present will be that an LNP government, who have not been in power in Queensland for some time, will not come with major pre-conceived ideas about what is best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“…The issues with governments who are in power for long periods of time is they become complacent about their decision-making and engagement with communities to know and understand the crux of the issues affecting people.

“… There has been a lack of solid policy initiatives from the Queensland government to support overall improvements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Queensland.”

As the election heats up, both leaders are expected to attract the spotlight. But it may be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders who are left in the dark.

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