From assimilation to Black Power to Gordon Gekko to where? (I)

Noel Pearson delivers the Greatest Australian Political Speech in Recorded History

Noel Pearson delivers the Greatest Australian Political Speech in Recorded History

It didn’t take long for the Aboriginal knockers to start tearing into Noel Pearson in the wake of his delivery of the Greatest Australian Political Speech in Recorded History at Gough Whitlam’s funeral.

And Helen Razer (although not Aboriginal to the best of my knowledge) took the opportunity of tweeting a link to an old article about Pearson by 60s-70s wannabe Black Power activist Gary Foley.  It’s a fairly spiteful and juvenile effort in many ways  (I didn’t, for example, need to know that Pearson is allegedly known by “many in Aboriginal communities around Australia as the ‘Cape York Cane Toad'”), but nevertheless makes some points that are worthy of serious reflection and discussion:

 Noel’s speech launching Prof. Langton’s Boyer book was in part a reiteration of his assertions about what is the way forward for Aboriginal people. The familiar Pearson themes of the importance of individual home ownership and entrepreneurialism were there, as well as the tiresome chastising of those who don’t support these contentions as being ones who are tolerant of domestic violence and child abuse. This latter accusation is particularly disingenuous because it implies that the solitary way one can combat social dysfunction is through the path of individualism, materialism and free-enterprise entrepreneurialism. If that is the case, then it is clear that what Pearson’s ideas are ultimately about is pure and simple assimilationism.

Assimilation, both as an idea and government policy, was discredited and dispensed with almost fifty years ago along with the equally discredited White Australia Policy. Yet we see today a resurgence of these old assimilation ideas, largely through the pronouncements of this dominant Aboriginal political personality. It should come as no real surprise that Noel Pearson is an advocate of ideas designed to recreate Aboriginal people as brown, middle class Australians. In his speech launching Prof. Langton’s book, he solemnly declared, “…I myself am bourgeois..”. This is not news, though interesting in the sense that my dictionary defines Bourgeois as, “a person whose political, economic, and social opinions are believed to be determined mainly by concern for property values and conventional respectability.” His own self-description then places Pearson at odds with the ideas and values of most Aboriginal Australians, yet he is avidly promoted by his powerful friends in the media as the most admirable Aboriginal spokesperson around. …

Furthermore, somehow in the process Pearson then manages to largely ignore 200 years of such official duplicity and blame the Aboriginal people, especially the men, for the situation that confronts them today. And as with all people of bourgeois, aspirational tastes, he advocates that the solution to the problem is to force Aboriginal people to aspire to home ownership and lots of private property. A sort of latter-day black Gordon Gecko preaching “Greed is Good”. Liberation through acquisition. A revolutionary new idea to transform Aboriginal Australia.

Aboriginal_Self_Determination3Despite its vitriolic tone, Foley’s article contains a germ of truth. Certainly Pearson’s vision of Aboriginal advancement is very much a middle class one, based on individual responsibility, home ownership and the nuclear family. It echoes (or perhaps presages) similar prescriptions by Helen Hughes, Gary Johns and assorted other right-wing pundits associated with the Institute of Public Affairs. They advocate, among other things, conversion of Aboriginal land tenure to freehold or 99 year lease so that Aboriginal people can borrow money from banks to achieve home ownership, and budding entrepreneurs can also borrow money to start small businesses and generate employment in remote communities.

At least in remote Northern Territory communities, these ideas have some rather fundamental flaws to which I will return in due course. Nevertheless, they have a historical provenance, and need to be understood in that context.

First, it is fairly universally accepted that the old assimilation policies which prevailed with varying degrees of intensity until the late 1960s were a failure, although at least some Aboriginal children managed to obtain a reasonable education at Mission schools (those who weren’t too traumatised by being bashed or sexually abused).

However, there is also a fairly wide though contested view that the subsequent era of Aboriginal self-determination was also a failure. At least in remote communities, Aboriginal people went backwards by most measures of health, social and economic well-being over the period of 30 years from Northern Territory self-government through until the Howard Intervention at the end of 2007.

However, activists like Foley from the self-determination era argue that self-determination was never really given a fair go. Certainly Aboriginal rights to their own culture, language and customary law were never formally recognised. And ATSIC, although touted by many as a key achievement of self-determination, was primarily a “top down” creation of the Hawke Labor government. It operated at policy level under a national body elected by Aboriginal people, but organisationally it was merely an amalgamation of the old Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Aboriginal Development Commission bureaucracies.

The development and gradual empowerment of ATSIC Regional Councils certainly helped to foster a growing sense of “empowerment” among local Aboriginal people, but nevertheless ATSIC cannot really be seen as the crowning glory of self-determination. Nor did it have power over key practical areas like health, education and social security, while land management issues at least in the Northern Territory were always under the control of the large Land Councils rather than ATSIC. Accordingly, the perceived failure and ultimate demise of ATSIC cannot of itself be seen as disproof of the efficacy of the sort of self-determination espoused by people like Foley.

Nevertheless, there was another entire dimension of the self-determination era played out on remote Aboriginal communities, especially in the Northern Territory. The triumph of statutory land rights resulted in Aboriginal people owning something like 50% of the land mass of the Territory, with many people moving “back to country” and/or gaining control of their own land for the first time. Many groups joined the so-called Homelands movement and were funded to develop their own remote outstations away from the main bush communities,. Many of the latter were former Mission settlements, where numerous disparate clans remained crammed together in uncomfortable and sometimes violent proximity.

In contrast to Aboriginal people in urban areas of Australia, and indeed in many country areas interstate, Aboriginal people living on their own communal freehold lands in the Northern Territory really did have genuine self-determination on any reasonable definition. Nevertheless, and rather like the assimilation era before it, the situation of Aboriginal people in the Territory went backwards on most measures of health, social and economic well-being. Accordingly, and despite Foley’s assertions, it is reasonable to assert that self-determination policies did not prove to be the panacea for Aboriginal people. In some ways quite the reverse.

The picture was similar in North Queensland where Noel Pearson has developed and implemented his ideas for reforming Aboriginal society. He argues that “return to country”, at least without more, has led to poverty, idleness, despair and welfare dependency. It is difficult to argue against that proposition if you have actually spent any significant amounts of time in remote Aboriginal communities. That is the context in which Pearson became “an advocate of ideas designed to recreate Aboriginal people as brown, middle class Australians”, as Foley puts it. If you accept that both assimilation and self-determination policies have failed, at least in the forms implemented to date, then clearly something else is needed. That is where Pearson’s prescription of family, individual responsibility, hard work and mutual obligation comes in.

In my view Pearson’s diagnosis of the poisonous effects of welfare dependency is unarguably correct, and many parts of his prescription for reform should also be persevered with, despite the fact that their partial implementation in and subsequent to the Howard Intervention has resulted in at best modest and patchy progress. Nevertheless, I think Pearson’s reform agenda is seriously incomplete and needs rethinking. However, those ideas will have to be left for a subsequent post because this one has gone on long enough.

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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3 Responses to From assimilation to Black Power to Gordon Gekko to where? (I)

  1. conrad says:

    A lot of these issues are always framed in terms of being specifically Aboriginal problems, and no doubt some part of the problems are related to that. But the reality is that many wealthy countries have groups that are more or less as poorly off as Australian Aboriginals, they’re just less obvious. I don’t have the exact data off-hand, but low SES whites males in many of the bad cities in the UK die earlier on average than Australian Aboriginals (as an alternative source, this shows the average male in Glasgow city, with 600K people, dies at 72.6, only about 3.5 years above the average Australian Aboriginal) and white females in the US that don’t complete high school are equally as doomed as female Australian Aboriginals in terms of life expectancy (e.g., here), and they’re still going backwards.

    Now if I went around saying low SES whites in the UK and the US need to aspire to home ownership and to assimilate by marrying someone rich, no one sensible would take this seriously as a solution, as it is clear that even if these happened to be the aspirations of these groups, actually how they would go about getting them is unsolved. But if you say this about Australian Aboriginals, somehow or other it’s thought of as a solution. So it seems to me the set of problems facing Australian Aboriginals is really overlapped with the set facing many poor groups (poor education, drug abuse, intergenerational poverty etc.) and it’s not clear to me how you can solve Aboriginal problems without solving these more general problems first.

  2. derrida derider says:

    Geez, here you going creating a stylised “fact” again – one that has become conventional wisdom but actually has amazingly little empiric support.

    This created “fact” is that Aboriginal people went backwards during the era of self-determination – whether because the “poison of welfare” replaced honest work as stockhands for massa on the cattle stations, or because it allowed the demon drink in areas where it hadn’t been previously. Both of these are at best gross distortions.

    The blunt fact is that it was hardly possible for many Aboriginals to go backwards from where they were in the 1960s; I’m old enough to have seen that. Yes, a couple of decades of more enlightened policy failed to close the gap, and we see the still terrible results – but my point is that it was ALWAYS terrible. On welfare, in particular, there is a lot of that classic inverted reasoning; deprived people get welfare, therefore welfare causes deprivation – take it away and the deprivation disappears. That is flatly false – before welfare, children starved (people miss that a lot of the Stolen Generation was horrible but it did literally save some lives). And their parents drank and fought then too.

  3. Ken Parish says:

    As I’m sure you are aware, I am not pushing anything even remotely resembling a neoliberal line here, although I certainly agree with Pearson that almost universal dependence on passive welfare is socially destructive and one of the primary causes of consistently appalling outcomes across the board in remote Aboriginal communities. In general terms I agree that it is a fair characterisation that the self-determination era (say from about 1970 until the Howard Intervention in 2007) resulted overall in there being no closing of the gap. On that basis my observation that there was a general perception that self-determination failed is clearly correct (to the extent that there was such an era – to some extent I agree with Gary Foley in that respect).

    My claim that many figures, at least in remote communities in the Northern Territory, actually went backwards during that period, is also correct. You need to be careful to distinguish figures for remote communities from figures for the Aboriginal population of Australia generally, because the figures for remote communities on many things are substantially worse than the Aboriginal population generally. I will set out observations about trends on important measures below, along with links to sources, and let people judge for themselves.

    Health – very slight improving trend for adult males (probably because of alcohol and drug abuse and violence). Quite respectable improving trend for children and adult females. See source.

    Crime and imprisonment – worsening trend in imprisonment rate. No statistically significant change from appallingly high crime rate. See source.

    Child sexual abuse – indicative but not certain worsening trend. See source (“Little Children Are Sacred”) from page 234.

    Education – worsening trend in attendance. Indicative worsening educational outcomes. See source (“Learning Lessons” a.k.a. the Collins report) from page 143.

    Alcohol and cannabis abuse – worsening trend. See source pages 31, 36.

    Housing overcrowding – worsening trend. See source.

    Unemployment and economic outcomes generally – small improving trend. See source page 14.

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