Rob Corr continues his excellent coverage of Indigenous issues at Kick & Scream. Rob picks up on Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson’s critique of the concerned about the implications for liberty and racial equality in this approach, but I’m also interested in what exactly ‘mutual obligation’ entails as a political and philosophical concept. Rob writes:
There are two points I’d like to make here. The first is that there is nothing inherently wrong with the principle of “mutual obligation”. As Dodson and Pearson put it, “mutual obligation is a natural principle of human society, where people give and take, where they enjoy rights and exercise responsibilities in a more-or-less balanced way.” The second is that the Howard Government’s version of “mutual obligation,” as embodied in the Mulan contract, is patronising and degrading.
Gary Sauer-Thompson also has some thoughts on the matter. He makes the good point that agreements such as Mulan impute some sort of responsibility to Indigenous people for their deprivation and dispossession, which surely should be avoided for a number of reasons. Gary is also rightly concerned about the mutuality of negotations, or in other words, the power imbalance between the parties – which is something Pearson and Dodson clearly flag as well.
In search of an understanding of the concept, I went to the work of one of the progenitors of ‘Third Way Politics’, the British sociologist, Blair advisor, and Director of the LSE, Tony Giddens.
GOOD NEWS: Rob notes the creation of an Indigenous thinktank, the Coalition for the Future. Rob and Tim Dunlop at Road to Surfdom also welcome an Indigenous voice to the blogosphere, DreamOnBlackGirl. I like her take on RWDBs!
UPDATE: Gary Sauer-Thompson at Public Opinion has some further thoughts and espies a policy consensus emerging…
Giddens’ book The Third Way: the renewal of social democracy contains an interesting passage on the Welfare State (which he sees as needing to be replaced by the ‘Social Investment State’):
Recognising the problematic history of the welfare state, third way politics should accept some of the criticisms the right makes of that state. It is essentially undemocratic, depending as it does upon a top-down distribution of benefits. Its motive force is protection and care, but it does not give enough space to personal liberty. Some forms of welfare institution are bureaucratic, alienating and inefficient, and welfare benefits can create perverse consequences that undermine what they were designed to achieve. However, third way politics sees these problems not as a signal to dismantle the welfare state, but as part of the reason to reconstruct it.
I’d agree with all that, except the claim that these criticisms derive only from the right. The 1960s saw the beginning of frustration with the welfare state from the left as well, largely because of its (potential or real) paternalism, its lack of democracy and its deprivation of citizens’ autonomy.
So, I doubt that mutual obligation is one of those concepts that ‘transcends left and right’ in the now usual catchphrase. That claim is seductive, in much the same way that notions of ‘evidence-based policy’ are. But there are clear differences, as Rob argues, both in how mutual obligation is conceived and how it is implemented.
Giddens calls for a ‘Social Investment State’. It makes a big difference whether mutual obligation is a piecemeal approach applied in paternalistic and bureaucratic fashion, or whether it is actually directed towards empowering Indigenous people and creating genuine economic opportunities and recognising cultural dignity and specificity.
Giddens is clear that there is also a macro component to welfare policy. That is to say, investment to improve education, health and economic opportunity is broader than localised agreements. I strongly suspect this macro component is not something that appeals to the right about mutual obligation, and that the debate over mutual obligation has obscured the lack of commitment on both sides of parliamentary politics to making investments to improve all Indigenous Australians’ lives. Which is a pity…