But if I work all day at the blue sky mine / There’ll be food on the table tonight

Two pieces of (potential) interest (I should probably have broken this up, but I didn’t).

One is asbestos – that long-running soap opera which I had thought concluded. Apparently, not so much.

The important point there is Aboriginal.

When James Hardie Industries was mining asbestos in Baryulgil, times were in some ways the best they ever were.

The Aboriginal community in northeast NSW, then numbering about 350, was almost totally employed, families had money, and about 50 children were in the school.

Kathy Smith’s father, Gordon, worked at the mine. Like the other children, she used to visit her father at work and play in the huge piles of asbestos tailings, riding down them on pieces of cardboard.

It gets better:

When in 2004 it agreed to a $1.5billion compensation package, Hardie left out the people of Baryulgil until a chorus of outrage made the company include them.

It was not just the miners who were exposed to asbestos. Tailings were used to fill road holes and the school play pit. “It was just like sand to us,” Ms Smith said.

Baryulgil is actually described as a “tiny settlement created to remove Aborigines from asbestos poisoning.” It doesn’t looked like that worked too well:

A group representing the victims of asbestos-related disease says more research needs to be done into the effects the material has had on a small community on the north coast of New South Wales.

Barry Robson, from the Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia, says a recent report which found about 20 per cent of Baryulgil residents had or would contract a related illness, may have overlooked some cases.

Mr Robson says there are only about 300 people living in the former mining community, but the rate of disease is high.

“There’s high incidence of this cancer of the eye, the high incidence of leukemia, and all the other things associated,” he said.

“No one really knows and that’s why we keep asking for somebody to do research into this.”

The key to these things, of course, is keeping a case going as long as possible, to minimise the survivors. Given that diseases related to asbestos exposure take 30 to 40 years to show themselves, James Hardie almost made it. Given the life expectancy of Indigenous Australia, it’s no surprise the company left Baryulgil out of the compensation package altogether. Although they still picked up a 6% increase in profit, so there was probably some slack they could have allowed.

Non-Australians: I’m not an expert along these lines, particularly, but this is pretty much par for the Indigenous course, as a recent report by the Productivity Commission showed:

There have been improvements in some indicators, although in some cases outcomes for non-Indigenous people have also improved, meaning a gap in outcomes persists. The clearest improvements have come in some of the economic indicators. From 1994 to 2004-05, there were large falls in the unemployment rate for Indigenous women and men (although these unemployment rates were influenced by participation in the CDEP program). Over the same period, the proportion of Indigenous adults living in homes owned or being purchased by a member of the household increased, and the proportion of Indigenous adults with a qualification of certificate level 3 or above increased from 8 per cent to 21 per cent. From 2002 to 2004-05, median (mid point) incomes for Indigenous people rose 10 per cent.

There have been increases in native title determinations (from almost 5 per cent of the total area of Australia in 2004 to over 8 per cent in 2006) and in land subject to registered Indigenous Land Use Agreements (from 2 per cent of the total area of Australia in 2003 to over 10 per cent in 2006). However, the proportion of Indigenous adults living in non-remote areas who did not recognise an area as their homelands increased between 1994 and 2004-05.

There have been improvements in child health, perhaps reflecting an emphasis on early intervention. Infant mortality rates have improved in recent years but are still two to three times as high as those for the total population of infants, and hospitalisation rates for 0–14 year olds decreased for a range of diseases associated with poor environmental health.

Other outcomes for children have not improved in the period covered by the Report. The proportion of low birthweight babies to Indigenous mothers did not change between 1998–2000 and 2002–2004, and there was no change in the prevalence of hearing problems among Indigenous children between 2001 and 2004-05. From 1999-2000 to 2005-06, the rates of substantiated notifications for child abuse or neglect and children on care and protection orders increased for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

Other health outcomes deteriorated. From 2001 to 2004-05, there was an increase in the number of long term health conditions for which Indigenous people reported significantly higher rates than non-Indigenous people. The Indigenous rate for kidney disease was 5 times as high as the non-Indigenous rate in 2001. In 2004-05 it was 10 times as high. Between 2001-02 and 2004-05, older Indigenous people (65 years and over) had increased hospitalisation rates for diseases associated with poor environmental health. Better reporting or improved access to health care may have contributed to these trends, but the negative outcomes are concerning.

Many environmental and behavioural risk factors that contribute to poor health outcomes have not improved. There was no change in the rate of housing overcrowding between 2002 and 2004-05. There was little change in reported ‘risky to high risk’ alcohol consumption by Indigenous men between 1995 and 2004-05, and the reported rate increased for Indigenous women. Over the same period, the reported rate of smoking among Indigenous women and men remained constant, and the proportion of Indigenous people engaging in moderate or high levels of exercise decreased.

Indigenous people’s involvement with the criminal justice system continued to deteriorate. Between 2002 and 2006, the imprisonment rate for Indigenous women increased by 34 per cent and the imprisonment rate for Indigenous men increased by over 20 per cent. The difference between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous juvenile detention rates increased between 2001 and 2005.

That ‘involvement’ with the criminal justice system, by the by, also relates to the asbestos story – drink and smoke being a much more likely explanation given and accepted (to White Australia) for the decline of a small indigenous community.

It also appears that apportioning blame still takes up valuable school-and-hospital-building time.

Queensland’s state budget will be picking up that state’s pace, at least:

The Queensland Government said it will pour more money into making indigenous communities and their children safer, in tomorrow’s state budget.

After a fashion, anyway:

Premier Peter Beattie today said the Government would honour its commitment to install or upgrade security cameras in all public areas of watchhouses in indigenous communities.

Mr Beattie said $1.5 million would be allocated in the budget to deliver the promise by February next year.

The Queensland Police Union lobbied for the security measures following the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004.

The first CCTVs in public areas of police stations will be in Woorabinda, Palm Island and Aurukun.

Premier Beattie is also increasing funding for housing, although:

Mr Schwarten said part of the extra funding would also be directed towards delivering new properties in urban, rural and regional areas, to provide “pathways out of remote communities” for those who chose to leave.

He said those people would receive assistance to establish homes in other centres.

Not exactly a boon to indigenous health or education, but I suppose it’s a start? To be fair, Beattie does have a flood of angry coal customers to placate. Plus, we only colonised them a little over 220 years ago. We only stopped massacring them in the 1930s, and we only stopped stealing indigenous children in 1969 (you read that correctly). Surely reliable water and electricity alone is an improvement?

I’m probably being unfair to the government. But it doesn’t bother me.

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1 comment so far

  1. Anonymous on

    I worked in the mine in the late 1950,s and was very good friends with bill hindle ,his wife andyoung daughter. A mr milsom was manager.Iwent with bill to sydney whenb he took the model for the new mill to hardie bros . Just found out he died in 1984. Does anyone know of contact details for his wife & daughter? regards pat lambert, 17 barry st. gracemere,qld. 4702. katesilk_39@hotmail.com———thank you.


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