Mutual Obligation

18n_opinion.jpg

Geoff Clark, still Chair of ATSIC, asks today with reference to a new mutual obligation plan at the forefront of the Government’s approach to Indigenous policy (aka the ‘fuel for hygeine’ plan):

“Who is going to stand at the gate and see whose kid has the cleanest face?” he said. “Who’s going to impose the penalties, if there are any?”

As Indigenous leaders (well, some of them anyway) tack rightward and engage with the Howard government’s social agenda, I’m reflecting on my earlier argument against this turn. But I see no reason to change my opinion. I agree with Geoff Clark. Such policy initiatives sacrifice liberty for benefits, and ought not to be applied only to one part of the community, based on race. No doubt I’m one of the whitefellas Noel Pearson would rather leave this debate, but I still think the tragic situation of Indigenous Australians is an issue for all of us. Anyway, I’d be interested in reading readers’ views on the philosophy behind the application of mutual obligation to Indigenous policy, and whether this approach will work.

ELSEWHERE: There are some other issues in Indigenous Australia.

DIVIDED OPINION: The Age reports Mulan people as opposing and feeling insulted by the plan, while the Australian puts a positive spin on it, but only quotes the community administrator.

Andrew Norton at Catallaxy also notes the contrast in the press coverage. And Rob Corr has some good analysis of the media coverage and the history of the Mulan community at Kick & Scream.

UPDATE: Patrick Dodson describes the Mulan agreement as “lunacy”:

Mr Dodson said the deal, which links $172,260 in Federal Government funding for petrol bowsers to a demand that children wash their faces twice daily and families keep their homes free of rubbish, belittled Aboriginal people. “It smacks so much of the old days when the superintendents of missions lined people up and checked whether they’d cleaned their teeth or put their rubbish bins out at the right angle,” he said.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
This entry was posted in Politics - national, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
42 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I think it’s basically about tackling epidemic rates of Trachoma amongst aboriginal kids, but lets not let that trouble the master narrative :)

I think part of the problem here might be about detecting “rightward drift” Mark. Is this really all about ideology? Or is it – at least in part – about searching for practical ways to effect (long overdue) better health outcomes? Anyway, what would be the ‘leftward’ approach to reducing Trachoma rates in indigenous communities. And how has it worked to date?

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

“but I still think the tragic situation of Indigenous Australians is an issue for all of us.”

True Mark, but not in equal measure, let’s face it. My obligation is to do what I can to help Indigenous Australians help themselves.

I support the proposals philosophically but acknowledge the practical difficulties, you alluded to. As a tax payer and a citizen of what is supposed to be a first world country I am impatient to do something of real and practical benefit to the living consitions of my fellow citizens who are not enjoying the benefits of our first world economy.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Maybe so, Geoff. But the presentation of the deal in terms of “washing their faces” tends to play into a number of racist stereotypes. And aren’t the solutions to endemic health problems more likely to be structural and national rather than localised?

I guess the leftward turn might be about combining rights (there are any number of studies which show that cultural recognition has material benefits – separating the two is disingenous – for instance, health outcomes where the cultural understanding of sickness is recognised are better than shiny new medical clinics with fly in doctors and nurses) with a serious attempt to address the conditions of possibility for economic sustainability and a whole of government approach (which is different to “mainstreaming”).

The other thing I think we desparately need to do is to learn from the Canadian, NZ and US examples where the social and health indicators for Indigenous people have improved at a much faster rate than ours over the last few decades. Yet this experience is almost wholly absent from the debate.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, James – but I’m not sure that the practical difficulties are easily separable from the broad approach. It seems to me that the devil is in the process and the implementation. Genuine consultation and negotiation – particularly at an intercultural level – require more than bureaucratic fiat, which is what I fear we will get from the APS.

Phil
2022 years ago

It is part of a broader philosophical approach by the Govt, the flagpoles for funding approach brought to the desert.

Yes, it is partly about achieving practical outcomes for our first peoples (a good thing) , but there is also a broader style of sternness and paternalism symbolised here. This is the ultimate danger here for the communities, as Govt gets a taste of this rerun of paternalism where will they stop.

Cleaning dirty and dark faces does go hand in hand with whitewashing history. Surely the symbolism cannot be missed.

Robert
2022 years ago

The difficulty I have with the Mulan agreement is how it is going to be enforced. The WA government has agreed to provide health checks — doesn’t it already have an obligation to provide them? And if the community doesn’t meet its end of the bargain, how will the WA government respond — by ending health tests in the Mulan community?

dan
dan
2022 years ago

I don’t have a philosophical objection to mutual obligation in this context, but something about tying it to daily baths, facewashing and cleaning the garden really irks me. Perhaps because it is a different standard than what we require for other recipients of “passive” welfare, and indeed for people who aren’t welfare recipients.

Perhaps I would feel more comfortable if incentives were tied to measurable improvements in childrens health in the area with an appropriate education and support campaign. Mutual obligation should be tied to the desired outcome, not a particular way of acheiving this outcome.

Arguably, this is no better than “passive” welfare – how much is a situation really changed by forcing people to do certain things. And what happens when the health situation is improved, are they free to parent how they wish? Or does the obligation just incorporate the next rung of obligation to address some other concern?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“I guess the leftward turn might be about combining rights (there are any number of studies which show that cultural recognition has material benefits – separating the two is disingenous – for instance, health outcomes where the cultural understanding of sickness is recognised are better than shiny new medical clinics with fly in doctors and nurses) with a serious attempt to address the conditions of possibility for economic sustainability and a whole of government approach (which is different to “mainstreaming”).”

I don’t disagree Mark but action is required now to tackle Trachoma. It’s worth considering that this proposal was reportedly initiated by the Mulan aboriginal community – not the government. It’s arguable that the Mulan people felt that their rights were best addressed in this way.
We might be envisaging a Rights-based health context that differs significantly from their own perceptions of same.

niqueline
niqueline
2022 years ago

You are all talking about “aboriginal culture” and I bet you never been in contact with the aboriginal “way of life…” How can you teach people to clean their face twice a day, to have a shower every day, to clean their yard of rubish, to send their kids to school, to stop going to the bottleshop at 10.00 am, to sit in the dirt and drink alcohol all day, to spend a lot of money on taxi’s fares to buy a Kentucky Fried Chicken because they do not want to walk…I am not talking about long grassers here, I am talking about people living in housing commission houses, in my street. There are others races living there, chineses, timoreses, thais, sudaneses… they are working, cleaning their yard, sending their kids to school, even buying their house…Can you tell me why the aborigines cannot do the same thing ? Because they still live like 40000 years ago…You cannot do anything about it. The only aborigines who have adapted to our western way of life are the “stolen generation !” They must be thankful for that…
ps. I’m not a racist australian, I live in Darwin since 1975 and I know what I see…

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Quite the opposite, niqueline, I’ve known, worked with and been friends with lots of Murris. I’m sure you could spot a few whitefellas who live in the way that you describe if you had a look around.

You may not believe yourself to be a racist but this is how it works. If I go and get pissed, and behave badly, as a middle class white Australian, nobody is going to cite my behaviour as representative of my ethnicity. But if I were a Murri or a Koori…

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

No Mark, you’re once again throwing the word “racist” around as you see fit.

Niqueline quite clearly stated that this is not a problem that comes genetically with being of aboriginal descent – as she says, those of the “stolen generation” inherited white culture and don’t exhibit such behaviours.

It’s aboriginal culture that’s being criticised, not the aboriginal race.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

“Cleaning dirty and dark faces does go hand in hand with whitewashing history. Surely the symbolism cannot be missed.”

I don’t miss it, Phil and I wouldn’t miss it if it was not raised again. I just want them healthier and happier and talk of symbolism just depresses the hell out of me which, I might add, would be OK if it was helping them, it doesn’t.

“Perhaps I would feel more comfortable if incentives were tied to measurable improvements in childrens health in the area with an appropriate education and support campaign. Mutual obligation should be tied to the desired outcome, not a particular way of acheiving this outcome”

Good point and the logic is compelling but I wonder if we are somehow missing the real point. If the initiative is coming from the community as Geoff suggests and they want to take the approach then we should let them have a go. I mean we can agree it lacks certain finesse and raises unsavoury symbols but the faces need to be washed.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Well, Yobbo, I think the problems Niqueline outlines do not stem from aboriginal culture per se, more likely the clash of the culture with ours. But it would be great if we could be as useful solving the problems on the ground as we are about splitting hairs.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James, I agree with your comment to yobbo. I suppose yobbo is running the “culturalist does not mean racist” line. It’s never been a convincing one. For some reason, culturalists never seem to feel the need to criticise Latvian culture, or whatever.

yobbo
2022 years ago

Mark: If the poverty and living standards of ethnic Latvians in Australia was a big issue, you might have a point.

Interesting though that you said “Latvian” instead of “Irish”.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Gee, do I think I can make a contribution to this debate? Not on your nelly. I can see a banana skin a mile off.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

You must be mixing with a very limp crowd of culturalists, Mark.

I cannot recall dissing Latvians recently, my culturalism comes via a broader brush adopted by characters like Nancy Mitford’s Uncle Matthew (eg “Wogs start at Calais”).

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yobbo, maybe you can write a “culturalism for beginners” post at your shop and we could talk about it there. But I’d prefer to focus on what can actually be done about Indigenous issues in a productive and forward moving fashion rather than get into yet another tired debate about the significance of the term “racism” etc.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

ps – James, I mainly hang out with Estonian culturalists…

David Tiley
2022 years ago

This is being represented in the papers as “Aborigines agree to clean kids if they get a petrol bowser.”

Geoff says: “There is a really good reason for this – trachoma.”

Remembering my own trachoma inspections as a kid in a Darwin school, that really rings a bell for me.

But it leaves me with this feeling that the local people cannot be expected to clean their kids because it is good for them, but because they want petrol.

That surely is a grotesque idea. And a demeaning image to put about. Or have I got the wrong end of the stick from the meedja?

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

what’s with this culturalism bizzo? my heritage is english and portuguese and I’ve lived in the states and germany for periods of time which has enriched and changed my own little contribution to multicultural oz. is this some new right wing pc thing where you get to make rude comments about other people without being called rude names (starting with ‘r’) in return?

wbb
wbb
2022 years ago

a face-based initiative

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

I’ve been noticing that too, yellowvinyl.

In some, but not all cases, “culturalist, not racist” does seem to be emerging as the “intelligent design, not evolution” approach in this particular debate.

Back OT, I tend to lean towards James and Geoff’s view that if it works, do it.

However, whether yer into symbolism or not, others are and will be looking for a message here.

It is noteworthy that the community itself suggested it.

However, I may be wrong but trachoma does seem to be overwhelmingly prevelent in remote communities.

I’ve seen (sorry) almost nothing of it in the SW Vic and FNQ Koorie and Murri communities I’ve spent time in.

Could it be healthcare and heath education programs are not being properly funded or delivered because of distances, costs and lack of electoral clout?

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

trachoma and other diseases are tackled very well by putting in swimming pools. keeps eyes and rest of body clean,lowers illness rates of all kinds, keeps kids fit, brings community together, and requires no coercion.

yobbo
2022 years ago

“But I’d prefer to focus on what can actually be done about Indigenous issues in a productive and forward moving fashion rather than get into yet another tired debate about the significance of the term “racism” etc.”

As long as it doesn’t involve criticism of Aboriginal culture, right? That couldn’t possibly be the problem…

yobbo
2022 years ago

I don’t know why I even entered this discussion expecting anything other than hand-wringing.

I’m sure glad you aren’t the people looking out for me, that’s all I can say.

Nic White
2022 years ago

According to SBS TV news, the community leaders actually asked for the agreement to be put in place as it is. Whether this is just the opinion of one of them I dont know.

Also Vanstone said something to effect of “we wont be pulling the pumps out if they dont keep their side of the bargin, but we will think twice about doing anything for them in the future.” So basically there will be no penalties, it will just be a black mark on their record. I dont really like this attitude much either.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Much ado about nothing.
If the local community agreed to it them I am happy if they didn’t then I am not.

It is up to them to make the decision.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yeah, Nic, it’s a bit reminiscent of Joh’s pitch to the voters in Mt Isa in 1977 – “If you don’t vote National, expect nothing from my government”. They elected a Labor MP. Not to mention Sen. Sandy Macdonald’s recent comments about Tony Windsor’s constitutents. Presumably the good burghers of Tamworth should all vote Nat as well if they want more equine centres.

And Homer – this was in the article I linked to in the Age:

“Last night, as dusk fell gently across the edge of the Great Sandy Desert and the night winds blew the Mulan church band’s “Hallelujahs” intermittently past her front porch, May Stundi’s expression suddenly turned serious.

“This is unfair. We are a proud people,” she said. “Everyone is well looked after.”

Two of the community’s elders, Bessie and Bill Doonsday, sat beside her and nodded.

“Look around,” Ms Stundi continued, “this is a clean place, a proud place”.

In Mulan, she said, kids didn’t sniff petrol like they did in Balgo, 44 kilometres east.

And the rate of trachoma in the community’s children was less than a third of what it was a year ago. Which makes the conditions attached to a $172,260 Federal Government grant – the subject of a growing political storm – hard for the community to understand.”

The only person who’s been quoted in either the Age or the Oz saying the community “asked for it” is the administrator, Mark Sewell. But it’s worth reading his full comments in the Age:

“Mulan Aboriginal Corporation administrator Mark Sewell said requests for funding for a new bowser had come to nothing. The subsequent deal with the Government evolved when the community approached it about implementing new measures for the health of residents.

“I don’t feel the Government is standing over us saying that if we don’t improve we are not going to get the fuel bowser,” he said. “We don’t feel we have to make sure there is some sort of progress.

“Personally, I feel a bit bothered that that stuff is being said. We were doing a lot of these things already. We just wanted to lift our game.”

Despite the conditions attached to the funds, no one appeared in charge of policing them. Indeed, most of the measures imposed on the community were already well in place.”

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Like Nabakov and yellowvinyl, I’m curious about ‘culturalism’.

Is it in fact an established doctrine in some circles, that amounts to what is being implied here, i.e., depending on your point of view, watered-down racism, or something that unsubtle and prejudiced minds might infuriatingly confuse with racism?

My first encounter with it was only the other day when Observa, chez JQ, said here

http://www.johnquiggin.com/archives/002132.html#comments

‘My own view is that ordinary Australians are culturalist, rather than overtly racist… KW may really be saying, is the debate should be about the degree of practical emphasis on culturalist vs multiculturalist ideology, as racist may have outlived its usefulness as a derogatory term for both sides.’

Here it means anti-multiculturist, which I guess means integrationist.

But when you google for culturalism or culturalist you get all sort of things, most of them idiosyncratic, the common feature being some emphasis on culture. The only substantial instance of cultuiralism as a doctrine about social policy was in a paper by a New Zealander, where the term referred to a fetishising of ethnicity leading to extreme multiculturalism – indeed the opposite of what Observa meant.

What about insubstantial? Yes, but there was only one, namely this two-year old post from David Carr at Samizdata

http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/000443.html

who says ‘..[so-called ‘far-right’ politicians] are all perceived as racists is due to the fact that the current political-media establishment is unable to grasp the difference between “racist” and “culturalist”.’

So has this term achieved greater currency than I’ve managed to discover? If so, could someone tell me where I can learn more? Would anyone like to defend it as a useful concept?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It’s a mystery to me, as well, James. I think I also first came across it at John Quiggin’s thread on Windschuttle. If anyone wants to email me a reasoned defence of what it’s all about, I’ll consider putting it up as a guest post and we can chat about it.

My initial inclination would be to back up yellowvinyl’s and Nabakov’s suspicions, but I remain curious.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

seems to mean an intranational version of xenophobia.

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

“And the rate of trachoma in the community’s children was less than a third of what it was a year ago. Which makes the conditions attached to a $172,260 Federal Government grant – the subject of a growing political storm – hard for the community to understand.”

The Age article suggests that the government might simply be looking to validate the new approach in a few “show trials”. That’d be dissapointing, although unsurprising.

RE “culturalism”: I mentioned something about this in a previous thread…

=============================================

…Keith Windshuttle precipitates the point:

“Australian identity was based on a civic patriotism, which encouraged loyalty not to race or ethnicity but to Australia’s liberal democratic political institutions.”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, that makes sense, Red Peter. Yellowvinyl might have been on to something above then (although she didn’t fully spell out her point) – the “culture” of a country or a “civilisation” is equated with one “ethnicity” for which read “race”.

Am I construing your argument correctly?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I think I’ve found an example of culturalism.

Frank Devine today writes about Windschuttle.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,11642221%255E31501,00.html

He claims:

“Windschuttle scorns this idea. Racists had their say. But essentially Australia based its exclusionist immigration laws – inappropriate as they may now appear – not on fantasies of white supremacy but on principled political aspiration. They sought wage justice and wished, in reaction to the class oppressions of Europe, to create an egalitarian society. Windschuttle boldly equates these objectives with the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century and the opposition here to convict transportation.”

(The absurdity as a number of people have pointed out is separating racial and other motivations which a reading of the parliamentary debates makes clear, were normally intermixed.)

But he seems a bit troubled by a class motivation. So he goes on:

The target of the 1901 immigration bill was not non-whites generally but Chinese particularly. They had first come in large numbers to Australia as indentured labourers, enduring extortionately low pay and dire living conditions. They were resented as stealers of other men’s jobs.

“However, identifying the Chinese as an underclass obstructing the path to egalitarianism was as much a cultural as an economic perception. In China, the state had been supreme for thousands of years. Rights of individuals meant nothing.

As Windschuttle writes: “A community freeing itself from hereditary status and privilege met a community steeped in the servility of Oriental despotism.” Notions of white supremacy did not enter into the consideration of most Australians.”

Obviously, Devine’s never heard of the entrepreneurial qualities of the Chinese diaspora.

(And Windschuttle is happy to use a term, “Oriental Despotism” invented by… gasp!… Karl Marx and one of the most criticised things in his writing.)

So I guess it was culturalism behind the White Australia policy. That’s alright then. I feel a lot better now.

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

Trachoma is spread by direct contact with eye, nose, and throat secretions from affected individuals or by contact with objects that may have been in contact with these secretions.

Improved sanitation and not sharing toilet articles such as towels are important measures for limiting the spread/acquisition of trachoma.

see http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001486.htm

I guess washing your face twice a day counts as “improved sanitation” but, if you then go on to dry yourself on a towel you share with a trachoma sufferer the effort could well be wasted.

It would be ironic, and not in any amusing way, if the Government’s insulting/patronising little imposition on the Mulum community actually made the trachoma problem worse.

Robert
2022 years ago

Gummo, they dry their eyes on paper towels. The program has reduced the rate of infection among kids aged under 16 from about 80% to 16% in about eighteen months. (Yes, the program’s been running for that long, without a “mutual obligation” contract.)

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’d recommend readers of this thread go and read Rob Corr’s two posts (one linked above) for an excellent take on the Mulan community and what’s involved in the negotiations with the community, the issue of informed consent, and the media spin:

http://www.robertcorr.net/blog/2004/12/11/no-prior-informed-consent/#comments

http://www.robertcorr.net/blog/2004/12/11/ideological-inflexibility/#comments

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

it really does strike me as significant that the first of these ‘agreements’ to get publicity was one that lent itself to stereotyping about ‘dirty blackfellas’. with the gov’t having a history of sending bells and whistles about Indigenous people almost from the word go (a few days after Howard won the 96 election I think), is this a coincidence or a particularly calculating and evil piece of spin-meistering????

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

“it really does strike me as significant that the first of these ‘agreements’ to get publicity was one that lent itself to stereotyping about ‘dirty blackfellas’. [snip] …is this a coincidence or a particularly calculating and evil piece of spin-meistering????”

Oh, please. This is too 8 October to be taken seriously now.

Letters to the Editor in The Australian today; dickheads; and they can get stuffed too.

trackback
2022 years ago

mutual obligation

Mutual obligation is back. The background context to the current round is described by this editorial in The Age: “Last

trackback
2022 years ago

deliberative democracy, Foucault, mutual obligation

The emergence of deliberative democracy in Australia will come out opf the political spheres that consist of political association and interaction separated rom and in opposition to the liberal state, now controlled by the conservatives. The insight he…