I was listening to a recent episode of Big Ideas featuring Steven Oliver who gave a good account of himself I think. He also recited a poem which has gone viral on YouTube. You may have read it, heard it or heard of it. I liked the poem also. I also agree with the point he’s making that there are all manner of celebratory days in the Australian calendar and yet there’s none that celebrates the indigenous people of this continent.
Yet I was also somehow saddened. If this is the most important thing to Oliver and others prosecuting the cause, well and good. But I have to say it leaves me somehow disoriented. Can you think of any liberation movement worth its salt seeking as their central ask something so easily granted – and therefore so easily ignored in its spirit – as an annual commemorative holiday. I can’t really say I have anything to put in its place. But I can say that things are most assuredly not good in so many areas of aboriginal welfare. And yet the three biggest things I can think of in aboriginal political aspiration in the last decade or two are the Apology, the Recognise campaign to remove some junk DNA from our constitution and now the agitation over Australia/Invasion Day.
John Howard held fast to his immense lack of generosity in refusing to give an apology. But if it’s an apology you’re after it seems very odd to then campaign for one from someone who, if you manage to politically browbeat him into giving you one will make you feel cheated. It certainly won’t be an act of generosity which I thought was kind of the point of an apology. Then there was a fine apology from Kevin Rudd. And what did it count for? Perhaps people who know more about it can fill me in.
There was the ‘Closing the Gap’ process if I’ve got the propaganda name correct which was delivered in the same old way and which has no doubt improved a few things, but not many and not much. (There was also ‘reconciliation’ about which I recall agreeing with Germaine Greer that it was hard to know what it was. Who was being reconciled to whom? How? It was cranked up during the tenure of John Howard who pretty obviously didn’t give too much of a hoot for any of it. But it was easy enough for him to intone the word. The whole thing was like some ad campaign.)
Meanwhile as the Rudd Government announced it was closing the gap by the time it was well and truly out of office, the ‘intervention’ rolled on, if I recall correctly rebadged as something or other – ‘Unchain my Heart’ comes to mind, but that was the theme-song behind the WorkChoices ads, or perhaps it was the GST. Since then the biggest profile thing has been the Recognise campaign which completely mystifies me and seems to be running into the same sands the Republic ran into. The whole process is built on ambiguity. Activists use the ‘hook’ of the remaining sections of the constitution that were enacted with discriminatory intent but are not being, and are highly unlikely to ever be used in such a way. An agenda starts rolling to clean up the drafting, but though the ‘hook’ was minimalist, the activists now target more substantial action. But this doesn’t really make much sense. There’s no particular consensus on what should be done. I expect there would be disagreement between those of goodwill towards aboriginal people as to whether legal changes in the constitution would do much good if enacted and of course there’s a fair bit of non-good will around to help stymie stronger ambitions in any event.
The political motive force behind all this is what I call memefication. You see it’s non-indigenous people who have the power in Australia. It’s non-indigenous people who make the rules, run the businesses, staff the media etc etc. We’ve known about the abuses – the shocking abuses – for a long time. The information is there. It was there about the children long before the report that John Howard tried to turn into Tampa II (I presume that was his central motivation, but perhaps I’m being unfair). And then there was the graphic images of Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. All the problems were well documented – indeed better documented than the 4 Corners program – well before it went to air. But the power structures that be are untroubled by it all (imagine if they were the children of some respectable sub-class in Melbourne – red-heads for instance?). It’s only when that suffering becomes memefiable that anything happens. When you show a kid being tied up and put him in a spit hood that makes for uncomfortable viewing. Just as it does for cattle being shipped live to Indonesia. So we get into Something Must Be Done mode. And in each case, tellingly, it’s a white hero who enters the fray and directs the traffic with edicts being produced and promulgated within a matter of days!
Each of the ‘symbolic’ agendas I’m mentioned above tries to use the ‘hook’ of white guilt, of white wrong doing to memefiy the aboriginal cause. And in doing so subverts it. It is no longer about aboriginal issues – which after all don’t really command that much attention. Its tedious to be told over and over again about the nitty gritty of the disadvantage and dysfunction in aboriginal communities.
I can’t say I have anything particularly salutary to offer. Obviously I think we should be tackling the worst problems which are particularly in remote communities, and what I learned with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) leads me to believe that it would be technically possible to make some serious inroads into those problems with intervention that really seriously put the people the intervention was trying to help at the centre of the process. But that’s a pipe dream. Firstly I could easily be wrong that it would work. It’s just a hunch of mine. Secondly the human centred design methods used by TACSI are a million miles from the way all the large government bureaucracies in the country work including, most depressingly agencies that have been trying to change for at least half a decade and who are led by what seem to me to be very competent and well motivated senior managers. Of course they all say they do it, but mostly just at the edges. We’re still a long way from scaling them anywhere in the country – and in my experience in the world.
As for the symbolic stuff, well I’m certainly fine with what our friend in the video calls for above. But as someone who would love to see his country rise to the occasion, rise to the potential that seemed to be there as Arthur Phillip refused to take his commission unless slavery was outlawed in Australia, who went to great lengths to try to deal with the locals but who, in the end, failed miserably I can’t say it gives me much enthusiasm.