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.