Aboriginal community in Northern Australia.

Aboriginal community in Northern Australia. Photo: Glenn Campbell

Journalists are nothing if not critical. We may share other characteristics with Iago, too. We focus on the bad, the Emperor's clothes, on what's not working, and what's not doing what was promised.

When we do this, some of those we have offended, or others whom we have influenced, will ask what we would have done ourselves. But the best political correspondents are by no means potential prime ministers, or even leaders of opposition. Some foodies can't cook. Some art critics can't draw. None of this necessarily makes their comments inexpert or invalid, or disqualifies them from having an opinion.

I get more ''Well, what would you do?'' questions about my criticisms of white management of Aboriginal affairs than, probably, in all of the other fields in which I write put together. Not all dispute my judgments that things are seriously awry. But they wonder what we should be doing instead.

The older I get, the less certain I am of the answer. I am increasingly cynical about the capacity of white institutions to learn anything about Aboriginal affairs, or about their capacity to bend Aboriginal minds so that they actually want the latest redemption or improvement on offer from Canberra.

A good many Aborigines do not actually want the attentions or the advice or the example of their self-appointed saviours; this is ungrateful, but, in my opinion, jolly sensible.

The right answer to the question might be ''doing nothing would be better than what we are doing now''. I'd get out of saving Aborigines, and divvy-up the billions this would save in cheques to Aboriginal families. They'd be better off in every way, even if some of the money was spent on grog or the good life.

Nearly everyone has some idea about what should be done about problematic and troublesome groups, particularly ones thought to cost the taxpayer. If only single mums, idle youths, Aborigines, members of bikie gangs, users of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, graffiti artists and girls with tattoos read the good advice from Hansard, editorials and letters to the editor all of the problems of the world would, no doubt, be solved. Alas good many people are not willingly herded into adoption of the consensus view of the world, or the view of well-meaning people about what the objects of their attention should do.

Thirty five years ago, I was with Fred Hollows as the National Trachoma Program was encountering incredible rates of infectious disease among Aboriginal children in rural Australia. In many communities virtually every child under the age of 10 had active middle ear disease, as well as trachoma, skin infections and infestations and respiratory conditions. Dr Peter Moodie famously remarked on the ''wardful'' of diseases in every Aboriginal child's body.

Hollows said that it would be possible, up to a point, to create compulsory regimens - concentration camps - for Aborigines that could transform health by treating every Aboriginal as a wayward child in need of discipline. This was not that radically different from the modern-day Jenny Macklin tough-love approach, nor from the 1960s settlement model.

One could incarcerate Aborigines within their communities, and line everyone up to take showers every day. Separate people forcibly from fights or bad ''things''. One could cook three healthy meals, and supervise everyone eating them, in communal feeding lots, of course. Policemen or their social worker sisters could collect all of the children every morning, and march them to school. Welfare workers could organise compulsory daily routines of infant breast feeding, incidentally managing to keep all of the infants safe from nits, mites and chlamydia, unwiped noses and carbonated drinks. Others could make sure everyone washed their bedding and clothing. A big fence with gates managed by Serco guards could prevent the entry of any drugs, pornography, pesky journalists and the exit of any unregistered cars.

Centrelink staff could organise compulsory group sessions to forcibly instil, by reward, punishment involving arbitrary removal of benefits, virtues such as punctuality, initiative, patriotism and careful shopping habits, and drug-free lifestyles. It could organise yet a few hundred more training programs for jobs that did not exist and make enthusiasm for the witlessness of it all a requirement for maintenance of benefits.

This could be arranged more cheaply than the current system, by which there are about two white public servants for every Aboriginal family in the Northern Territory, and the net cost to government of providing ''services'' to Aborigines averages - Australia wide - $50,000 a head.

But, as Hollows pointed out, such regimes can deal with infected ears, but cannot deal with diabetes. Or heart disease. Or depression. Or any of the so-called lifestyle diseases that are seeing a colossal toll of young Aboriginal men die by accidents, trauma, assault and suicide, as well as mental illness, alcohol and drug-induced psychosis, and despair. This incapacity is not some genetic defect of Aborigines: one should look at how skilfully (and deliberately) the Department of Immigration recreates apathy, despair, self-harm and mental illness with our refugee concentration camps, here and abroad. Such problems can be addressed only when people take charge of their own lives. Only Aboriginal people can liberate themselves. Whether all the money, facilities, ''help'', ''services'' and ''guidance'' of outsiders is well-intentioned doesn't matter or make a difference. Nor is the ''fact'' that the medicine is (in the set belief of the minister, or of the policy geniuses in Canberra) ''good'' for Aborigines. Whether programs work depends on what is in the heads of the recipients, not the ''givers''.

Belief-based policy - what we have now - has no more chance than policy based on evidence, or policy based on experience other than Macklin's. Even if the policies were good in principle, they do not work in practice. The delivery of both goods and services to Aborigines is a shambles, and that is a problem of whitefellas' incompetence, not blackfellas'. It sets an example of hopelessness, mismanagement and unaccountability that Aborigines could not even hope to imitate. In any event, most of the ideas, the goods, and the facilities dreamed up are mostly useless because they were imposed without real discussion and no one owns them, champions them, or cares much when they fall in a heap. All the more so because, as ever, no one listens, no one hears, and no one learns.

Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin are not closing the gap - in their time a whole new generation of children has fallen into a chasm of Labor's creation.

The old welfarist policy was an abject failure, but so is the present one. The present coercive management model costs about twice that of the old model. But it has not produced, or shown any promise of producing better outcomes. And not a single Canberra-based politician or policy genius has suffered in the slightest as a result. Not even their optimism or arrogance has been dented.

This is not an argument for reverting to old and discredited programs. Rather it is a signal for completely new approaches, ones that promote, rather than defeat the many hundreds of separate, different, choices that the many thousands of Aboriginal individuals must make if their lives are to be transformed and they are to live in full citizenship.

Things are terrible. ''Something'' must be done. This is something. So it must be done. So often is this the syllogism of whites in Aboriginal affairs. And the business of actually involving the people, and having them as champions of and owners of the programs is not seen as a fundamental, but as a public relations problem, by which the subjects must be cajoled into agreeing with a non-negotiable package. These days we even have well-paid white consultants writing reports explaining how black is white with ''engagement'' - the jargon word now substituting for ''consultation'' but meaning that people are ''told'' what's in the minister's mind, rather than asked what's in theirs.

Doing nothing could hardly be worse than perpetuating the disaster we have. ''Strategic withdrawal'' - which is not the same as ''mainstreaming'' - acknowledges that Aborigines have exactly the same right to schools, police, health care, dialysis and so on as other Australians elsewhere and that they get such services. But it relieves them of the burden of the hundreds of other ''public servants'' there to guide them in every way. Hell, it even allows Aborigines to succeed, as well as to fail, with carrots and consequences to match.

The overwhelming majority of Aborigines would be vastly better off if the hordes of public servants and other players in the Aboriginal industry were sacked. If the savings - literally about $40,000 per Aboriginal man, woman and child averaged out around Australia - were instead divvied up around Aboriginal families, who's to say more of it would be wasted?