They can’t be serious?!

From the age of 10 we Parish kids were expected to do squad swimming training. Every morning from September to April we’d be driven down to the local pool at South Curl Curl beach before 6am to churn up and down for an hour and a half before school. During the early part of the season it was often so cold that we’d end sessions with our fingers and toes blue and stiff, and the whole squad would spend half an hour or more thawing out under the hot showers in the local surf club.

A small, hardy band of middle-aged swimmers also religiously swam laps at Curlie every morning, rain hail or shine. One of them was famous, our dad told us. Nugget Coombs. The Reserve Bank Governor whose signature was on every Australian banknote. You could tell he was famous from the deferential tone in which all the parents used to greet him each morning.

But there’s nothing deferential about the Centre for Independent Studies’ attitude towards Nugget. CIS Senior Fellow Professor Helen Hughes and co-author Jenness Warin seem determined to target the Ghost of Nugget as the latest casualty in the Culture Wars. Their just-published monograph, predictably lauded by Christopher Pearson in the Weekend Australian, attempts to blame Coombs as the architect of the collective land ownership model of Aboriginal land rights, which they seem to see as the root of all evil and the principal cause of Aboriginal despair and disadvantage.

Here’s how Pearson spins it:

How could a sober central banker have espoused “a philosophy that led to the creation of 1200 uneconomic remote communities and the consequent economic marginalisation of some 120,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders”? It is a question that Coombs’s army of admirers has yet to confront, and there are others.

As Hughes and Warin put it: “Nowhere in the world has communal land ownership ever led to economic development. Attempting to replicate hunter-gatherer groups in fixed locations created remote, fragmented communities that cannot support jobs and incomes.”

There’s a rather large problem with this hypothesis, however. The 1983 study by Coombs, Brandl and Snowdon, which they purport to blame for the whole policy structure of collective indigenous land rights, post-dated the implementation of that model by almost a decade. And most of the 1200 ‘uneconomic’ communities Hughes and Warin refer to already existed, having been created by missionaries, pastoralists and governments over the preceding century. They’re no more ‘uneconomic’ than hundreds if not thousands of small whitefella rural communities throughout Australia. What would Hughes and Warin suggest should have been done? Ethnically cleanse remote and rural Australia to clear out all the ‘uneconomic’ remote Aboriginal communities? In fact that’s in part what had occurred over the preceding century, with many Aboriginal people being forced off the land by pastoralists and others, and gravitating into larger urban centres where they lived as impoverished fringe dwellers. The 1967 referendum and subsequent land rights movement was in part a reaction to the misery, degradation, poverty and violence that those earlier assimilation policies engendered. The Hughes and Warin paper is remarkable in its complete absence of any of this historical context. Land rights is deemed a hopeless failure without even a passing acknowledgment that the earlier assimilation policies had been if anything even worse.

Moreover, the pioneering Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, which was squarely based on a collective ownership and control model, was enacted in 1976 by the Fraser government and based on the 1974 recommendations of the Woodward Royal Commission. That model, at least the collective land ownership aspects, also formed the basis of the legislative models adopted in other States as well, several of which also predated the 1983 paper by Coombs et al. So the claim by Hughes and Warin that Coombs was in any sense responsible for the collective ownership model of Aboriginal land rights in Australia is an outright fabrication. I can only assume it reflects the evident Culture Warrior predilection for symbols and scapegoats, however spurious, to facilitate simplistic, effective propaganda. Coombs is a suitably iconic figure, and sufficiently identified (at least in the minds of conservatives) with the Labor side to make him an eminently eligible target for retrospective vilification.

It’s certainly true that the 1983 paper by Coombs, Brandl and Snowdon (on the impact of Aboriginal affairs policies on women, children and families) reflected the accepted wisdom of the time (and arguably now as well) that self-determination required the fostering of traditional land-holding models and customary law rather than the earlier discredited assimilation policies. But that’s hardly surprising.

And it does seem, at least from the extracts Hughes and Warin reproduce, that Coombs et al were advocating a model involving the creation and funding of remote outstations surrounding the larger existing Aboriginal communities. That model was certainly adopted around the early 80s (although I doubt that Coombs et al were solely or even predominantly responsible for it), and it certainly proved to be problematic to say the least. It cost a fortune to establish outstations, most of them lacked even the most basic facilities, and many were used infrequently as little more than publicly-funded holiday shacks for the privileged few while most Aboriginal people lived in inadequate, overcrowded housing in the larger established communities. But Hughes and Warin don’t explain this, and again their paper lacks any historical or social context.

In fact, ongoing funding of the outstation movement was mostly abandoned by ATSIC some 8 or 9 years ago, mostly because of the unsustainable waste of money it involved. But you wouldn’t get a hint of any of that from Hughes and Warin.

Despite its evident failure, much of the motivation for the outstation movement stemmed from the fact that the larger existing Aboriginal communities were in most cases highly artificial creations, often with several tribal or clan groups shoved together in a manner which clashed seriously with traditional social groupings and customary law. The result was (and still is) endemic social tensions with frequent outbreaks of serious inter-clan violence. The outstation movement was a good faith attempt to redress this appalling situation, which was after all itself a result of a century of (mostly) equally well-motivated and equally misguided policies by governments and church missionaries. Moreover, it’s a problem which remains unsolved and as serious as ever. Generally speaking, the most violent and dysfunctional Aboriginal communities are the ones where several incompatible clan groups were arbitrarily shoved together by missionaries and governments. Communities like Wadeye (Port Keats) and Maningrida that regularly figure in the media for all the wrong reasons.

I’m not suggesting that the Hughes and Warin paper is entirely devoid of merit. It at least conveniently collects all the appalling statistics on Aboriginal health, housing, education and employment outcomes, and it makes the following telling observation about government funding:

Lack of funding is not the problem. Household incomes in remote communities, largely consisting of welfare payments, average $14,000 a year to which must be added expenditure on education, health and housing. But Commonwealth funding alone is some $70,000 per household, and there is additional State and Northern Territory funding. A very considerable share of public expenditure clearly does not reach its targets. Notionally, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in remote communities would be better off if they were paid the amounts spent by the Commonwealth, States and Northern Territory in
cash and were free to buy their own education, health, housing and other services.

The deprivation resulting from welfare dependence has been hidden by policies that prevented contact between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘living museums’ and all other Australians, except for their ‘curators’, until courageous Aborigines, led by Noel Pearson, began to speak out for an end to welfare dependence.

The deprivation and misery of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can no longer be tolerated. ‘Mutual obligation’ cannot reduce dependence on welfare while failing education denies Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders jobs. A new deal must replace the utopian experiment with policies that ensure that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have equal opportunities to other Australians.

It would be difficult if not impossible to argue persuasively that existing indigenous affairs policies have been successful in view of the stark figures Hughes and Warin reprise. Not that they come as a surprise to anyone with a policy or practical interest in the area. I also agree with them that many of Noel Pearson’s ideas seem to have great promise in breaking the cycle of welfare dependency and fostering a more productive culture of independent self-reliance (and therefore true self-determination).

But the policy ideas that Hughes and Warin themselves propose seeem almost without exception to be simplistic, impractical and ideologically-driven to every bit as great an extent as the welfarist ones they aspire to replace.

Hughes and Warin propose that a private land ownership model be implemented for housing blocks in Aboriginal communities, by creating 99 year leases. They hope this would enable Aboriginal people to build their own houses with bank finance, just like landowners in Australian urban areas. It sounds like a good idea, until you actually consider the practical and legal situations. In a practical sense, it’s highly unlikely that the market value of any block of land in a remote Aboriginal community could ever be anywhere near enough to secure commercial borrowing to build a house. You would need to have substantial government guarantees, which largely defeats the purpose. Moreover, banks don’t only want mortgage security for a housing loan, they also need to be satisfied that the borrower can service the debt. Given the endemic unemployment in most Aboriginal communities, the chances of most people being able to satisfy normal bank borrowing requirements are minimal.

The legal problems are also formidable. Creation by governments of 99 year residential leases over communally-owned Aboriginal land without the unanimous consent of those owners would probably constitute an unconstitutional acquisition of property rights on the part of the Commonwealth. There may be some value in considering a private ownership housing model such as Hughes and Warin suggest in some communities, but probably only when they are already a fair way along the track towards an enterprise and employment-based culture, and only with community consent.

Hughes and Warin also propose a private sector model (predictably for CIS ideologues) for health care provision in remote communities:

But clinical health services can be improved immediately. Egregious bureaucratic waste and entanglements can be cut by privatising the health care system. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in remote communities want to take responsibility for their own and their families’ health. This requires developing the same direct relationships with general practitioners, specialist physicians, chemists, pathology labs and other health care providers that other Australians enjoy. Patients want to hold their own Medicare and Health Care cards and have access to information about the state of their own health. With modern technology, Medicare cards should mediate access to an individual or family’s health care information, either directly or in clinical practice. Funding should be shifted to subsidise private health providers such as group practice clinics with adequate equipment in regional centres to provide competition for health associations so that the latter improve their services.

This is egregious, ideologically-driven nonsense. Does Hughes seriously believe it could ever be viable to set up chemists and pathology labs in remote Aboriginal communities, let alone encourage specialist physicians to live and work there?? How would any of them ever make enough money to survive, even with huge government subsidies? For God’s sake, we can’t even get many specialists to live and work in Darwin even with large subsidies!!! Even if it had any chance of working, the cost of a private sector-based system for health care delivery to remote Aboriginal communities would be enormous.

Hughes and Warin’s suggestion for remote area literacy education is even sillier, and insulting to boot:

A volunteer corps of high school and University students should bring literacy and numeracy to remote communities that choose this literacy option during school vacations. Such literacy corps proved to be effective in societies as different as Cuba and Iran. Only students who perform well in class and examinations would qualify. Working one-to-one or with small groups would allow for a quick start, eliminating the need for teacher training. Literacy and numeracy would focus on everyday life issues such as form filling and household accounts. Immediate use of computers for communication and accessing information on the internet greatly facilitates literacy and numeracy. Student volunteers would have to commit themselves to norms of behaviour including dress codes and bans on smoking, drugs, alcohol and sex.

You’d have to wonder whether Professor Hughes herself needs to take an oath of abstinence from drugs and alcohol, because only someone under the influence of an intoxicating substance (or seriously deficient in basic commonsense) could come up with a suggestion quite as silly as this. Quite apart from the fact that it’s highly unlikely you could ever find enough students prepared to make the substantial commitment of travelling to a remote community for a long enough time to make any difference at all to literacy, teaching literacy and numeracy is a highy skilled task. Even in the unlikely event that you could find enough students, the cost of training them to a useful level to be able to teach literacy and numeracy to kids with usually poor command of spoken English, and then to transport and accommodate them in remote communities for long enough to make any substantial difference to literacy levels, would be enormous. Not to mention insurance and other on-costs. This is one of the craziest suggestions I’ve ever read in a document purporting to be a serious contribution to political debate.

If the Centre for Independent Studies expects to be taken seriously by anyone other than Tory sycophant flacks like Christopher Pearson, it will need to do a lot better than this piece of ideologically-driven drivel. Of course, that may not prevent the Howard government adopting it once it gains control of the Senate. These are strange times indeed.

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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Ken Miles
2022 years ago

Ken,

A letter in today’s Australian by Prof. Jon Altman touched on some of the points you made.

I’d post it here, but I’m not sure about copyright.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Great post, Ken!

A couple of quick points:

What you say about Indigenous people from different clans being forced together is very true. That’s a problem in North Queensland where Pearson comes from – as a result of the policies of the Lutheran Church and later the Joh B-P regime. This factor also makes it difficult to establish the “continuing connection” required Native Title Law, which is also a very problematic pseudo-anthropological notion – as if Indigenous customs and culture could have been frozen in time despite dispossession.

Secondly, presumably for their to be any vale in individual land titles, they would have to be alienable. If the land is worth anything, wouldn’t the temptation be to sell up to a developer or speculator, thus seeing the land pass out of Indigenous ownership? The effects could be something like those of demutualisation – sacrificing long term benefit for a quick windfall.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

I don’t object to a private ownership model on the basis you outline. It strikes me as a bit paternalistic. There would no doubt need to be some process of education, but there’s no reason to think that Aboriginal people would be less capable than any other adults of deciding whether to buy or sell their land and make an evaluation of price. Of course, that assumes that alcoholism problems would be in the proces of being overcome, because alcoholics will do just about anythig to get money for grog. That’s one of the reasons why I said I didn’t think a private ownership model would be viable until communities were a fair way along the track towards a work and enterprise-based model.

However, as long as private individual titles were confined to township areas, it would be unlikely that miners and developers would be all that interested anyway.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Rosemary Neill, in her 2002 book White Out – a book largely ignored by public commentators for some reason – made some trenchant criticisms of Coombs in the chapter entitled The Return of the Noble Savage. She is particularly critical of his approach to education of indigenous Australians, characterising his approach as ‘a strange stir-fry of outdated Marxism and a naive cultural determinism’ (p. 256).

Elsewhere she wonders at ‘the extent of Coombs’ self-delusion and self-censorship’, particularly his belief that truancy from school constistuted some kind of ‘act of resistance’ to western intrusion. He seemed to think that both education and employment were inimical to indigenous culture and values. 20 years later the results are less than pretty, though obviously not what Coombs intended.

Neill’s critique has particular traction because she is expert in indigenous issues, her sincerity and conviction are undoubted – and because she writes from the left.

It certainly sounds as though there is some silliness in the CIS paper but that’s not to say that a hard-nosed re-evaluation of the largely Coombs-originated consensus on indigenous policy is not well overdue. The other Pearson – Noel – would agree.

This does not ‘reflects the evident Culture Warrior predilection for symbols and scapegoats, however spurious, to facilitate simplistic, effective propaganda’, as Ken charges. Rather, it reflects a growing recognition that, once again, a grand exercise in social engineering implemented by government for best of the reasons and out of the most idealistic aspirations, has largely failed, and it’s time for a re-think. Noel Pearson has argued this line over and over again, to my mind most persuasively.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rob

It’s explicit in my post that I agree with many of Noel Pearson’s ideas, that I agree existing policies have failed badly, and that I think fostering self-reliance and an enterprise and work-based culture is a considerable part of the key to successful reform. And Coombs may well have had feet of clay. I’m anything but an apologist for the left on this stuff. But Coombs wasn’t the architect of land rights, and Hughes and Warin’s policy proposals are mostly ill-considered and hopelessly impractical. Those were my points.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I think you’ve missed my point, Ken. My concern really is that land to which title has been given to Indigenous people collectively could potentially pass out of Indigenous hands entirely in theory, if title was alienable. I’m not making any assumptions about alcoholism or anything else. My point is that it makes a nonsense of Native Title and land rights for Indigenous people, and I have no doubt this is part of the intention of those promoting the idea under the guise of economic empowerment. The point’s already been strongly made to Mr Mundine and other members of Howard’s Indigenous Advisory Council or whatever it’s called.

C.L.
2022 years ago

Solid and definitive slap down of the CIS paper Ken. Should be published somewhere in the MSM op ed world.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

You’re quite right that land could potentially pass out of Aboriginal hands if it was alienable. That’s the whole point. It wouldn’t have a market value if that weren’t the case. And one wouldn;t make that point in respect of urban land owned by non-Aboriginal people, so why make it for Aborigines? I don’t think there’s a strong cultural argument against individual alienable titles in town areas, as long as the local community consents, and to the extent that it really could contribute to economic empowerment (which I doubt for reasons I explained). It’s mostly the broad acres of Aboriginal land that are critically important in terms of dreamings, sacred sites etc. Aboriginal townships rarely contain sacred sites for obvious reasons.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Mark
Agree with Ken on this and many other points.
This is patronising authoritarian nonsense coming from you. How would you and your fellow white lefties like it if you were only allowed to keep your land on condition you retained the superstititous beliefs of your ancestors and weren’t allowed to alienate it? Aborigines are not museum pieces for your delectation to be preserved in some idealised state of Rousseian tranquility. They are individuals. This is the first time I’ve ever been pissed off by anything Mark has said. I am all for land rights and Mabo was a good first step – if they have proven property interest they should have full rights not some second class darkies’ dispensation from white lefties.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Jason, you’re rather irascible lately. I’m not trying to suggest that Indigenous people are “museum pieces for your delectation to be preserved in some idealised state of Rousseian tranquility.” In fact in my comment I argued against the contention that Indigenous culture is a pristine essence unaffected by dispossesion and the complex interplays with the dominant culture over the past two centuries, and that failure to recognise this – by the High Court – has caused problems in Native Title law.

I know you probably regard individual property rights as some sort of inalienable right that everyone has, but I don’t share your philosophical premises on this one, and nor do a lot of cultures around the world (as can be documented for instance in the extreme difficulty that the State has in introducing Western style alienable title over various forms of customary title which exist presently – and also in the fact that alienable title in the West only became the norm after feudalism – on some measures (for instance with regard to serfdom) – not until the 19th century).

My point is that the premise of Native Title was to recognise communal title to land based on Indigenous customary law. It seems to me that to argue that it ought to be alienable is to invalidate the principles on which Mabo was decided.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

To be more clear:

“I am all for land rights and Mabo was a good first step – if they have proven property interest they should have full rights not some second class darkies’ dispensation from white lefties.”

If Indigenous people gained collective property rights under Mabo and they were alienable to non-Indigenous owners, then it would potentially be only the first generation who would benefit. And people would only benefit as individuals.

I’m not out on a limb here as a whitefella Jason – the exact same argument has been made by many Indigenous leaders – as I pointed out, in response to the NIC discussion paper before the CIS bought into the debate.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

In addition, Jason, I think your comment betrays some confusion about the nature of Native Title rights. These are conditional property rights which exist in conjunction with other property rights (often themselves conditional – for instance pastoral and mining leases) and as rights to go onto the property, derive certain financial benefits from it, and perform traditional ceremonies etc. are by definition collective and thus inalienable by individuals. I can see Ken grasps the difference when he refers to Indigenous townships where title is normally vested in the community council or other corporate body. There would be less objection to making this title alienable, and I think that’s what the NIC were talking about. I don’t know if the distinction is clear in the CIS study.

If I’m wrong on the legal situation, no doubt Ken will correct me.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

I don’t have a problem with your last comment. I thin we understand each other. You’re right that the CIS paper (it would be dignifying it unduly to call it a study) doesn’t make a clear distinction between housing blocks in township areas and Aboriginal land broadacres. I’m assuming (perhaps over-charitably to Helen Hughes) that they were thinking only of privatising townlands. Privatising non-urban traditional lands would raise a range of serious conceptual and cultural difficulties, as you suggest.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Similarly, Ken, I was arguing against primarily against privatising native title rights. I’d be willing to bet the CIS have this in their sites and perhaps the vagueness of the paper on this issue is not unintentional. I do also agree with you that alienating title in townships, though perhaps a good idea in principle, raises a host of practical problems. It’s similar to a lot of the “economic empowerment” solutions to Indigenous issues – they sound great but when there’s bugger all economic activity in remote areas without mineral deposits, it’s difficult indeed to create it ex nihilo.

The oft-suggested “cultural tourism” angle only works sometimes – just like in remote areas generally there’s only so many stockmen’s halls of fame etc etc that people want to go see. Having been to places like Longreach and Barcaldine as a tourist once, I have no desire ever to go back.

There’s also the perennial issue of getting professional services in remote areas – as you point out, a problem even in Darwin and in many regional towns in the East much closer to cities, and the economics of delivering all sorts of other services to very remote locations.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

I’ll definitely read the rest of this little pearler. I must admit and have already that it was with glee I perceived the Nugget had been stripped of reverential status. I think that resources are wasted in remote communities, and there must be a better way, but what? Well certainly not the far fetched proposals regarding health and education or even land ownwership in the towns. Why would people want to buy the land and then learn how to go into debt in those infested, filthy, depressing places? It would be a lot more than the grog issue that would need to be addressed to create any real demand. Not that it would be impossible. I’ve seen evidence of pleasantness in community townships, but then there is the wet, and the floods and the dry and no hoses and then everybody come to visit and etc, etc,etc. Too simplistic I know but germs of reality here.

david tiley
2022 years ago

No need to headkick Nugget. It may reflect the fact that some of us are not as young as we used to be, but he is now a historical figure, to be seen as part of his times, and re-evaluated according to subsequent information.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

I ‘d take David’s point a step further and say that uttering “Nugget Coombs” and “Christopher Pearson” in the same sentence is a category mistake. One built, the other bitched.

Ron
Ron
2022 years ago

Only “from September to April we’d be driven down to the local pool at South Curl Curl”, Ken?

Yours truly and his brothers from age 7, 364 days a year squad training in Clovelly Bay with coach Tom Caddy. And just to ensure we enjoyed ourselves, there was the added attraction of the Clovelly Eskimos Winter Swimming Club. We were also members of the surf club and three swimming clubs.

I guess it wasn’t so bad though because I continued this regimen until I was 35 or so.

Now, if I swim 50m I can’t move for days…..