Kicking sacred cows

Melbourne historian John Hirst has an excellent article in today’s Australian newspaper about aspects of Aboriginal self-determination in a post-ATSIC era. Hirst argues that local community co-operative control of service delivery has been a failure for reasons flowing in part from the nature of Aboriginal society itself. After almost 20 years’ experience working as a lawyer for various Aboriginal communities, I agree wholeheartedly:

In traditional Aboriginal society, goods were shared, but in a highly structured and ritualistic way. A kangaroo would be divided by unvarying rule, a certain portion going to a certain relative. The sharing was among kin. There was no generalised ethic of sharing.

This is the practice still in Aboriginal society. An Aboriginal girl in a community store is expected to let her aunts pass through the checkout without paying. An Aboriginal man who becomes a store manager will be expected to pass out goods through the loading bay to his relatives and to employ only them in the store, whatever their suitability or commitment. These attachments make Aboriginal society particularly unsuited to community government in which each member is meant to have the same entitlements and obligations.

The difficulties in the way of community government exist when the people are of one tribe. They become even worse when, as is often the case, the communities consist of people from different tribes. They were gathered together in one spot by pastoralists and missionaries and, when their control ended, the government declared these groups to be communities that should henceforth manage themselves. …

As Hirst observes, we whitefellas don’t yearn to sit on local committees making decisions about garbage collection, water supply, street sweeping and the like. Aboriginal people are no different in that respect. Anyone who has worked in/with Aboriginal communities knows that usually the only way of getting committee members to attend meetings at all (however tardily and infrequently) is by paying generous attendance/sitting fees.

Even then, control of most community associations and enterprises tends to rotate between extended family groups, with the group currently in control invariably making maximum use of patronage, nepotism and outright corruption. This sort of gross inefficiency and corruption commonly also results in the employment of non-Aboriginal managers and other employees who are prepared to condone or at least tolerate that behaviour (they don’t have much choice). Not infrequently, however, that tolerance converts into corruption on the manager’s part as well. In some places, it almost seems as if the local Aboriginal community and its employed white managers have agreed to take it in turns to rape and pillage the community’s associations and enterprises, sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars.

These problems are too seldom discussed. Few people “down south” even know about them, and many of those who do are reluctant to highlight them for fear that they’ll be seized on by latter-day Hansonites for short-term political advantage. Although I haven’t focussed on Noel Pearson’s work in this regard, he must be well aware of the problem. Hopefully his Indigenous Enterprise Partnership concept takes into account the factors discussed by Hirst and builds business structures that accommodate them. One obvious way to do so would be to vest permanent control of each individual enterprise in an extended family group owing kinship obligations to each other, and make it clear that it’s up to that family to work out how to generate and share the profits in a sustainable way without any expectation of ongoing government largesse if initial working capital is squandered.

There’s an urgent need to focus on these sorts of issues honestly and constructively in the wake of ATSIC’s downfall. Whether it will actually occur in a federal election year is much more doubtful.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Paul Watson
Paul Watson
2021 years ago

Ken,

I’m puzzled by John Hirst’s and your apparent anthropological omniscience. If, as Hirst says, Indigenous communities are particularly *unsuited* to the self-government model for service delivery, then the policies of the last three decades seem to have been a failure for the beliefs/culture of settler Australians, more than anyone else.

Accordingly, wouldn’t you and Hirst be best shining the spotlight of inquiry (and blame) into yours (and mine) own culture?

Paul Watson
Paul Watson
2021 years ago

Ken,

I’m puzzled by John Hirst’s and your apparent anthropological omniscience. If, as Hirst says, Indigenous communities are particularly *unsuited* to the self-government model for service delivery, then the policies of the last three decades seem to have been a failure for the beliefs/culture of settler Australians, more than anyone else.

Accordingly, wouldn’t you and Hirst be best shining the spotlight of inquiry (and blame) into yours (and mine) own culture?

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Some of the attitudes to which you refer, Ken, aren’t all that different from those found in sections of the “white” community too. The relevant difference is that members of these sections of the general community don’t manage their community’s infrastructure and/or finances. If they did, similar problems of nepotism and corruption would be rife.

Another problem which concerns me [although we’re not supposed to mention it] is the manner in which people who are indigenous in any meaningful sense of that word, are being led by caucasians who happen to have a token element of indigenous background in their ancestry. For more than a century, aboriginal and part aboriginal women were raped and abused by the worst elements of “white” society. The descendants of those violators may have a trace of aboriginal descent; but the overwhelming majority of their ancestors were numbered among indigenes’ vilest enemies.

I’m grateful that no-one decided my education needed to be destroyed via delivery by my local community. I’d have led a far less productive, not to mention satisfactory, life had this been the policy.

Thomas the Tout
Thomas the Tout
2021 years ago

Ken, – Thank you for that insight. I had family in the outback when Kirby of the Industrial Court decided that Aborigines should get equal pay. Logical, but a recipe for more problems, even if only because the employers stopped paying with goods. IMHO the white man’s model does not fit indigineous society ( score one for Paul Watson’s insight ), and the only way to get a system that works is to discard the rose tinted glasses, be objective, and caring, then implement a model that does work.
I am amazed that anyone can be puzzled that the policies of the last 3 decades are a failure

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Paul,

I don’t subscribe to Hirst’s position in its totality. I certainly agree with the observations I quoted, but I don’t accept that holus bolus “mainstreaming” (i.e. centralisation of bureaucratic control of decision-making) is desirable. Local government should remain under local control, as it does in non-Aboriginal communities. However, health and education should be delivered from state government level, albeit with substantial local involvement/consultation. Decision-making for services like water, sewerage, power etc might remain localised, depending on how efficient and honest the local community has proven to be in handling those areas. They might be reasonably be regarded as aspects of an expanded local government sphere (as they are in some areas). However, to the extent that decision-making and day-to-day control are in local community hands, central governments need to give much greater attention to developing models and accountability structures to overcome the sorts of problems Hirst identifies. Otherwise it’s far too often just a recipe for corruption and massive waste of resources.

"B" today
"B" today
2021 years ago

we whitefellas don’t yearn to sit on local committees making decisions about garbage collection, water supply, street sweeping and the like. Aboriginal people are no different in that respect.

The decentralised nature of ‘community’ living is obviously problematic regarding the delivery of basic services. I don’t know the extent to which mainstream society can opt in and or out of the provision of services that are taken for granted in more densely populated areas. And to what extent the responsibility for services resides in those people who choose to live outside the ‘mainstream’.

One obvious way to do so would be to vest permanent control of each individual enterprise in an extended family group owing kinship obligations to each other, and make it clear that it’s up to that family to work out how to generate and share the profits in a sustainable way

A mine field! I’m not sure whether this can be a basis for seed funding policy. Perhaps merit and a business plan outlining viability may include working in kinship groups, but I would think that is a matter to be decided on a case by case basis – however tedious that might be – each case on it’s own particular merits.

It seems sweeping prescriptive policies have proved to be unworkable in remote communities and that the mainstream bureaucratic mindset that tends toward uniformity for efficiency’s sake has failed. Changing that culture as the previous post has pointed out is gonna be slow at best.

woodsy
woodsy
2021 years ago

As discussed in my blog ‘The Mystery of Capital’, I believe the solution to many of the problems in Aboriginal communities lies with the recognition and registration of land title. Now, after the dismemberment of ATSIC, which BTW highlights the difficulties experienced by different skin groups trying to act collectively at the regional level, except in a much larger way, we have an opportunity to establish another system of feeding nepotism and corruption, or introducing some new ideas based upon mistakes learnt from the processes of the last 14 years.

The first thing the ‘new ATSIC’ bureauocrats should do is interview all the former departmental officers (or at least those who are retired) in an attempt to find out from them, now that they are unshackled from the retraints of making ‘career challenging’ comments, what NOT to do.

I’m of the opinion that Local Government can also act as a model for individual business creation, providing a suitable standard is maintained. I’m not so sure a ‘proconsul’ can be adequately protected from the ‘power corrupts’ problem. Not even Bob Collins will be able to resist if he is exposed for long enough.

Jim
Jim
2021 years ago

Having worked as a volunteer in an indigenous community in the Territory (albeit many years ago) I couldn’t agree more Ken.
Complex, traditional Aboriginal family obligations and loyalties ( I could never work them out) are just not compatible with western governance traditions.
PLEASE NOTE ; I didn’t say better or worse,just incompatible.
The choice then is to persist with the attempt to fit a round peg in a square hole (and ignore the horrific social consequences I witnessed) or accept the alternative in the hope for healthier,safer and better educated Aboriginal Australians with the same opportunities as the rest of us.Focus on integration with mainstream Australia and ultimately assimilation – not separatism. This may lead to the end of some Aboriginal customs and beliefs – but there weren’t many left anyway that I saw.These people were caught between two very different traditions and hastening the inevitable transition will hopefully spare some suffering.
Feel good symbolism is less important than basic practical improvements in people’s lives.

Paul Watson
Paul Watson
2021 years ago

I think my above comments may have been misinterpreted by “Thomas the Tout”

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

When the North Australian Workers Union [almost entirely through the work of its Sydney based Federal Union office] won equal pay, they were embarrassed by some aspects of the Award victory. Many pastoralists previously employed far more workers than were really needed, but once the higher wage structure came in, they decided, not surprisingly, to reduce the number of employees, with significant disruption and bitterness for not only those who were dismissed but also for many who retained their employment.

It’s postmodernist fairy tale talk to suggest now that concern over “land rights” was the cause. It might, of course, prove useful for helping some union officials of that period feel even better about themselves, or add to the ever growing mythologies on which we create a past which never existed; but that’s all it can do.

Thomas the Tout
Thomas the Tout
2021 years ago

Apologies for tardy reply to Paul’s query.
Norman’s answers covers much of it.
Before equal pay, the station owners paid aboriginal stockmen with food, clothing, provisions, tobacco, and a little cash. Post equal-pay, the cash component was multiplied, and the provision component mostly came to an end. Many/most of the stockmen had little concept of the value of paper money. Riding boots would be gambled away (or won)! and if lost, the stockman waits for his next pay to buy a pair from the station store – if the store still kept them. High cash prices were paid for tobacco.Sly grog dealers got underway, and did a trade with the now cashed-up stockmen. Booze came with all its problems. The new wages also helped buy and run vehicles – good for family gatherings, and good for going to the store to buy grog and whatever. Equal pay put an end to the paternalism of the station owners. It was probably a benevolent paternalism.
With vehicles and booze came ad hoc ‘walkabouts’. Many stockmen were not around when needed.
So, rather than pay full rates to a surplus of stockmen whose ability to report for work was erratic, the preference was to employ fewer men, usually less prone to the grog, and usually reliable workers: -which usually meant white fellas.
Simple economics of running a business. Nothing to do with pre-emptive action against the (then over the horizon) push for land rights.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Even in less remote situations in NSW where part aboriginal workers were receiving equal pay 40 years ago, and doing well, the situation isn’t good. Recently I attended a reunion at a timber camp in the Pilliga. When I left there in 1958, they were in steady employment, and one was earning more than most employees.
This time I didn’t come across one indigenous employee in anything but “manufactured” positions in the nearby township. The well intentioned middle class north Shore “do-gooders” and their equivalents, however, continue to remain oblivious to the harm they have done, and continue to cause to be done.

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