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.