It didn’t take long for the Aboriginal knockers to start tearing into Noel Pearson in the wake of his delivery of the Greatest Australian Political Speech in Recorded History at Gough Whitlam’s funeral.
And Helen Razer (although not Aboriginal to the best of my knowledge) took the opportunity of tweeting a link to an old article about Pearson by 60s-70s wannabe Black Power activist Gary Foley. It’s a fairly spiteful and juvenile effort in many ways (I didn’t, for example, need to know that Pearson is allegedly known by “many in Aboriginal communities around Australia as the ‘Cape York Cane Toad'”), but nevertheless makes some points that are worthy of serious reflection and discussion:
Noel’s speech launching Prof. Langton’s Boyer book was in part a reiteration of his assertions about what is the way forward for Aboriginal people. The familiar Pearson themes of the importance of individual home ownership and entrepreneurialism were there, as well as the tiresome chastising of those who don’t support these contentions as being ones who are tolerant of domestic violence and child abuse. This latter accusation is particularly disingenuous because it implies that the solitary way one can combat social dysfunction is through the path of individualism, materialism and free-enterprise entrepreneurialism. If that is the case, then it is clear that what Pearson’s ideas are ultimately about is pure and simple assimilationism.
Assimilation, both as an idea and government policy, was discredited and dispensed with almost fifty years ago along with the equally discredited White Australia Policy. Yet we see today a resurgence of these old assimilation ideas, largely through the pronouncements of this dominant Aboriginal political personality. It should come as no real surprise that Noel Pearson is an advocate of ideas designed to recreate Aboriginal people as brown, middle class Australians. In his speech launching Prof. Langton’s book, he solemnly declared, “…I myself am bourgeois..”. This is not news, though interesting in the sense that my dictionary defines Bourgeois as, “a person whose political, economic, and social opinions are believed to be determined mainly by concern for property values and conventional respectability.” His own self-description then places Pearson at odds with the ideas and values of most Aboriginal Australians, yet he is avidly promoted by his powerful friends in the media as the most admirable Aboriginal spokesperson around. …
Furthermore, somehow in the process Pearson then manages to largely ignore 200 years of such official duplicity and blame the Aboriginal people, especially the men, for the situation that confronts them today. And as with all people of bourgeois, aspirational tastes, he advocates that the solution to the problem is to force Aboriginal people to aspire to home ownership and lots of private property. A sort of latter-day black Gordon Gecko preaching “Greed is Good”. Liberation through acquisition. A revolutionary new idea to transform Aboriginal Australia.
Despite its vitriolic tone, Foley’s article contains a germ of truth. Certainly Pearson’s vision of Aboriginal advancement is very much a middle class one, based on individual responsibility, home ownership and the nuclear family. It echoes (or perhaps presages) similar prescriptions by Helen Hughes, Gary Johns and assorted other right-wing pundits associated with the Institute of Public Affairs. They advocate, among other things, conversion of Aboriginal land tenure to freehold or 99 year lease so that Aboriginal people can borrow money from banks to achieve home ownership, and budding entrepreneurs can also borrow money to start small businesses and generate employment in remote communities.
At least in remote Northern Territory communities, these ideas have some rather fundamental flaws to which I will return in due course. Nevertheless, they have a historical provenance, and need to be understood in that context.
First, it is fairly universally accepted that the old assimilation policies which prevailed with varying degrees of intensity until the late 1960s were a failure, although at least some Aboriginal children managed to obtain a reasonable education at Mission schools (those who weren’t too traumatised by being bashed or sexually abused).
However, there is also a fairly wide though contested view that the subsequent era of Aboriginal self-determination was also a failure. At least in remote communities, Aboriginal people went backwards by most measures of health, social and economic well-being over the period of 30 years from Northern Territory self-government through until the Howard Intervention at the end of 2007.
However, activists like Foley from the self-determination era argue that self-determination was never really given a fair go. Certainly Aboriginal rights to their own culture, language and customary law were never formally recognised. And ATSIC, although touted by many as a key achievement of self-determination, was primarily a “top down” creation of the Hawke Labor government. It operated at policy level under a national body elected by Aboriginal people, but organisationally it was merely an amalgamation of the old Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Aboriginal Development Commission bureaucracies.
The development and gradual empowerment of ATSIC Regional Councils certainly helped to foster a growing sense of “empowerment” among local Aboriginal people, but nevertheless ATSIC cannot really be seen as the crowning glory of self-determination. Nor did it have power over key practical areas like health, education and social security, while land management issues at least in the Northern Territory were always under the control of the large Land Councils rather than ATSIC. Accordingly, the perceived failure and ultimate demise of ATSIC cannot of itself be seen as disproof of the efficacy of the sort of self-determination espoused by people like Foley.
Nevertheless, there was another entire dimension of the self-determination era played out on remote Aboriginal communities, especially in the Northern Territory. The triumph of statutory land rights resulted in Aboriginal people owning something like 50% of the land mass of the Territory, with many people moving “back to country” and/or gaining control of their own land for the first time. Many groups joined the so-called Homelands movement and were funded to develop their own remote outstations away from the main bush communities,. Many of the latter were former Mission settlements, where numerous disparate clans remained crammed together in uncomfortable and sometimes violent proximity.
In contrast to Aboriginal people in urban areas of Australia, and indeed in many country areas interstate, Aboriginal people living on their own communal freehold lands in the Northern Territory really did have genuine self-determination on any reasonable definition. Nevertheless, and rather like the assimilation era before it, the situation of Aboriginal people in the Territory went backwards on most measures of health, social and economic well-being. Accordingly, and despite Foley’s assertions, it is reasonable to assert that self-determination policies did not prove to be the panacea for Aboriginal people. In some ways quite the reverse.
The picture was similar in North Queensland where Noel Pearson has developed and implemented his ideas for reforming Aboriginal society. He argues that “return to country”, at least without more, has led to poverty, idleness, despair and welfare dependency. It is difficult to argue against that proposition if you have actually spent any significant amounts of time in remote Aboriginal communities. That is the context in which Pearson became “an advocate of ideas designed to recreate Aboriginal people as brown, middle class Australians”, as Foley puts it. If you accept that both assimilation and self-determination policies have failed, at least in the forms implemented to date, then clearly something else is needed. That is where Pearson’s prescription of family, individual responsibility, hard work and mutual obligation comes in.
In my view Pearson’s diagnosis of the poisonous effects of welfare dependency is unarguably correct, and many parts of his prescription for reform should also be persevered with, despite the fact that their partial implementation in and subsequent to the Howard Intervention has resulted in at best modest and patchy progress. Nevertheless, I think Pearson’s reform agenda is seriously incomplete and needs rethinking. However, those ideas will have to be left for a subsequent post because this one has gone on long enough.