Seeking traction in the swamp of identity politics

I was listening to a recent episode of Big Ideas featuring Steven Oliver who gave a good account of himself I think. He also recited a poem which has gone viral on YouTube. You may have read it, heard it or heard of it. I liked the poem also. I also agree with the point he’s making that there are all manner of celebratory days in the Australian calendar and yet there’s none that celebrates the indigenous people of this continent.

Yet I was also somehow saddened. If this is the most important thing to Oliver and others prosecuting the cause, well and good. But I have to say it leaves me somehow disoriented. Can you think of any liberation movement worth its salt seeking as their central ask something so easily granted – and therefore so easily ignored in its spirit – as an annual commemorative holiday. I can’t really say I have anything to put in its place. But I can say that things are most assuredly not good in so many areas of aboriginal welfare. And yet the three biggest things I can think of in aboriginal political aspiration in the last decade or two are the Apology, the Recognise campaign to remove some junk DNA from our constitution and now the agitation over Australia/Invasion Day.

John Howard held fast to his immense lack of generosity in refusing to give an apology. But if it’s an apology you’re after it seems very odd to then campaign for one from someone who, if you manage to politically browbeat him into giving you one will make you feel cheated. It certainly won’t be an act of generosity which I thought was kind of the point of an apology. Then there was a fine apology from Kevin Rudd. And what did it count for? Perhaps people who know more about it can fill me in.

There was the ‘Closing the Gap’ process if I’ve got the propaganda name correct which was delivered in the same old way and which has no doubt improved a few things, but not many and not much. (There was also ‘reconciliation’ about which I recall agreeing with Germaine Greer that it was hard to know what it was. Who was being reconciled to whom? How? It was cranked up during the tenure of John Howard who pretty obviously didn’t give too much of a hoot for any of it. But it was easy enough for him to intone the word. The whole thing was like some ad campaign.)

Meanwhile as the Rudd Government announced it was closing the gap by the time it was well and truly out of office, the ‘intervention’ rolled on, if I recall correctly rebadged as something or other – ‘Unchain my Heart’ comes to mind, but that was the theme-song behind the WorkChoices ads, or perhaps it was the GST. Since then the biggest profile thing has been the Recognise campaign which completely mystifies me and seems to be running into the same sands the Republic ran into. The whole process is built on ambiguity. Activists use the ‘hook’ of the remaining sections of the constitution that were enacted with discriminatory intent but are not being, and are highly unlikely to ever be used in such a way. An agenda starts rolling to clean up the drafting, but though the ‘hook’ was minimalist, the activists now target more substantial action. But this doesn’t really make much sense. There’s no particular consensus on what should be done. I expect there would be disagreement between those of goodwill towards aboriginal people as to whether legal changes in the constitution would do much good if enacted and of course there’s a fair bit of non-good will around to help stymie stronger ambitions in any event.

The political motive force behind all this is what I call memefication. You see it’s non-indigenous people who have the power in Australia. It’s non-indigenous people who make the rules, run the businesses, staff the media etc etc. We’ve known about the abuses – the shocking abuses – for a long time. The information is there. It was there about the children long before the report that John Howard tried to turn into Tampa II (I presume that was his central motivation, but perhaps I’m being unfair). And then there was the graphic images of Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. All the problems were well documented – indeed better documented than the 4 Corners program – well before it went to air. But the power structures that be are untroubled by it all (imagine if they were the children of some respectable sub-class in Melbourne – red-heads for instance?). It’s only when that suffering becomes memefiable that anything happens. When you show a kid being tied up and put him in a spit hood that makes for uncomfortable viewing. Just as it does for cattle being shipped live to Indonesia. So we get into Something Must Be Done mode. And in each case, tellingly, it’s a white hero who enters the fray and directs the traffic with edicts being produced and promulgated within a matter of days!

Each of the ‘symbolic’ agendas I’m mentioned above tries to use the ‘hook’ of white guilt, of white wrong doing to memefiy the aboriginal cause. And in doing so subverts it. It is no longer about aboriginal issues – which after all don’t really command that much attention. Its tedious to be told over and over again about the nitty gritty of the disadvantage and dysfunction in aboriginal communities.

I can’t say I have anything particularly salutary to offer. Obviously I think we should be tackling the worst problems which are particularly in remote communities, and what I learned with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) leads me to believe that it would be technically possible to make some serious inroads into those problems with intervention that really seriously put the people the intervention was trying to help at the centre of the process. But that’s a pipe dream. Firstly I could easily be wrong that it would work. It’s just a hunch of mine. Secondly the human centred design methods used by TACSI are a million miles from the way all the large government bureaucracies in the country work including, most depressingly agencies that have been trying to change for at least half a decade and who are led by what seem to me to be very competent and well motivated senior managers. Of course they all say they do it, but mostly just at the edges. We’re still a long way from scaling them anywhere in the country – and in my experience in the world.

As for the symbolic stuff, well I’m certainly fine with what our friend in the video calls for above. But as someone who would love to see his country rise to the occasion, rise to the potential that seemed to be there as Arthur Phillip refused to take his commission unless slavery was outlawed in Australia, who went to great lengths to try to deal with the locals but who, in the end, failed miserably I can’t say it gives me much enthusiasm.

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Know Teeth
Know Teeth
4 years ago

Thanks Nic.
No celebrations for the referendum council either. I fully agree with your comment ” the biggest profile thing has been the Recognise campaign which completely mystifies me and seems to be running into the same sands the Republic ran into.” My position after reading the manipulating submission questions [here] ended up as NO even though i want yes.
The counncil mostly white ‘elders!’ missed the forest and the gorillas as they were staring at bacteria sized forests and forgot the moon sun stars dreaming and time…
“If there is not enough support for a guarantee in the Constitution, what other things can we do to stop racial discrimination in national laws?”
Zero leadership. Bordering on dog whistles and providing get out clauses without the people it’s for being part of the process and included in a vote stacked about 200,000 to 12,000,000. Bad odds. Bad council. Vote no not because it is a bad concept because it is a baaaad process and therefore money down the drain.

And last option; this is the ‘I’m hiding clause’..
“Are you making a submission on behalf of a person (such as yourself) or organisation? *
Person / Organisation”
If ‘we’ are going to have a referendum ZERO organisations get to fill this out. No hiding in the I P A… who funds them… and any organisation submitting ANYTHING needs EVERY person, dollar and rule pertaining to that organisation to be FULLY DETAILED OR DISQUALIFIED in my toothless opinion.

What do you think?

John R Walker
John R Walker
4 years ago

Nicholas
The reason why the conversation is incomprehensible, might be because the subject is, power.

Michael Dillon
4 years ago

Nicholas I have posted a response / comment on your thought provoking post to my blog.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
4 years ago

Nick, did you read Ken’s post on treaty progress? I kinda think that answers your request for substantive action.

I suspect the reason so many people are chasing the easy, cheap options is that the anything else has proved impossible. It would be nice to have a Treaty to found the constitution on, and a court to enforce that treaty, but I struggle to see how we get there from here. The alternative, of treaties signed between state governments and local tribal groups, may be the best Australia can do. Civilisation lite, so to speak.

Michael Dillon
4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Thanks for the response Nicholas

I agree with your point about the potential downsides of symbolism; I suspect we are close to being in agreement. Perhaps we can conceive of action and symbolism as two sides of a coin; emphasis on one to the exclusion of the other will always lead to sub-optimal results.

Your inability to understand my point on embedding a prohibition against racial discrimination in the constitution is likely down to my inarticulateness. I can make the points more concrete by referring to a couple of instances in Indigenous policy contexts when governments have explicitly legislated to set aside the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act (often as a ‘belt and braces’ measure to ensure validity and not as a means of allowing overtly discriminatory actions – though this is a contentious statement for many), but nevertheless sending a highly negative signal to Indigenous citizens that they are second class citizens; namely:
– in the legislation establishing the Northern Territory Emergency Response;
– in the original legislation setting up income management.

Thus a constitutional prohibition would ensure that governments do not resort to these types of legislative actions, which can easily slide into more substantive discrimination. In turn, such a prohibition would send a clear signal to Indigenous citizens (as well as many other citizens) that they are not potential subjects of discriminatory legislation. My associated point was that mainstream Anglo-Celtic citizens such as me may not feel that this is a priority or even desirable, but many if not most Indigenous citizens see the continuing potential for institutional discrimination by government (which thus implicitly justifies discrimination by individuals and corporations) as both real and as evidence that the process of dispossession is in effect continuing.
Thus if the nation were to find the political will to set this option aside, it would potentially undercut one of the most corrosive elements in Australian society; this is the sense in which it is potentially transformative in my view.

Turning to your arguments for ‘enlightened action’ (my terminology, not yours) to address, or assist Indigenous communities to address, dysfunction and violence, I find it difficult to disagree that what you are proposing is worth attempting. It would require a high level of cultural empathy in its implementation, would be very expensive (especially as the quality of the people involved would be crucial), and would require a high degree of depoliticisation (or what is often referred to as bipartisanship). There are probably other pre-requisites which escape me just now. All of these elements are in short supply in public policy generally, and Indigenous affairs in particular. My only caveat is that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that much of anomie in remote communities in particular can be traced to powerlessness. In these circumstances, solutions must be found in greater empowerment, along with the injection of ‘enlightened action’.

Whether our political system can find a way to establish such a framework is an extremely moot point.

Michael Dillon
4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas

It is interesting how dialogue can work to both persuade, but perhaps more powerfully to identify and clarify the misunderstandings, slight differences in assumptions, difficulties in expressing complex thoughts and so on. And also to open up the fact that different people think in slightly divergent ways, using distinct mindsets and conceptual frameworks to explore what we assume to be a shared and objective reality….

My point about the expense of your proposal was directed more to the need for it to be rolled out on a fairly broad scale, and I see now that I had overlooked your suggestion that it start reasonably small and gradually expand. I certainly agree that a massive injection of external expertise is likely to be counter-productive.

There has been a history in Indigenous affairs of attempts to utilise so called ‘community development’ approaches which I have supported and still support; and though I am not familiar with your notion of human centered design, I suspect that the two concepts are not dissimilar, or at least not inconsistent. However, community development approaches have arguably never been fully supported by governments (and even been undermined), are inherently difficult in that they require sustained and conscious focus and attention, and where successful, have tended to fail at the point of turnover of key individuals. Nevertheless, I do not raise these as insurmountable obstacles, just issues to be addressed on the way through.

I do however disagree with your penultimate sentence, in particular the assumption that traditional societies had acceptable mechanisms to control violence which can be revivified. There certainly were mechanisms, one of which was the adoption of quite small family based bands as the basic unit of society. The post-contact incentives on Indigenous groups to come together in larger community groups arguably weakened these controls. This is one of the arguments in favor of supporting small homeland centers. However it is arguable that the levels of violence within pre-contact Indigenous society was high, and there is a need to move beyond those cultural norms which implicitly accept violence, particularly against women. Writers such as Marcia Langton and Peter Sutton have emphasized these arguments. But with that caveat, I strongly support your last sentence, and its focus on the need for ‘positive imagination focused on the future’.

WR1202
WR1202
4 years ago

Nick, what a huge amount of unadulterated crap ! Your argument is so convoluted it has disappeared up its own arse.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
4 years ago

why this is “the single most transformative …

Native title. It’s a land title that comes without right of access, right to transfer ownership, or any control over what happens to the land. It is, in short, bullshit.

The ability to challenge that “title” would transform Australia. It would mean all the triple-titled land would become at the very least subject to legal challenge, and quite likely would result in decades of litigation as government tried to avoid the obvious: once you recognise that “native title” means the “natives” own the land, it’s their bloody land. You can’t finesse that by talking about “indigenous connection to the songlines” or other chants of white denial, the step from “we legally recognise that this is aboriginal land”, through “you can’t have a special, inferior class of land title just for aboriginal australians” to “they own it” is very hard to fight. I mean, Australia spends a fucton of money and energy fighting it, but we don’t *have* to fight it.

I know a tiny bit about tribal land administration in Canada, have talked to some Hawai’ian activists about land ownership and other issues there, and have spent a little time in the madness that in Aotearoa’s “native title” negotiations. And I’ve yet to talk about it with an aboriginal australian who doesn’t want to take the “native” out of “native title”. Lots of despair, lots of “they won’t ever give us control, they just come in like a drunk angry parent and yell at us or set us up to fail”. But a lot of desire for substantive action, formalised by a treaty. Actual tino rangatiratanga will take time to get to, because to have self-determination you need a self capable of that. Mana motuhake and kotahitanga(and music video!) … the mere fact that NZ has so many different ways to express this reflects a huge difference in worldview between the two countries. I’m giving links so strayns can read a little about the different approaches within Maoridom to the issues.

In New Zealand they have quite a lot of experience with building tribal groups into organisations capable of managing millions of dollars of assets, because they have actually done that. Repeatedly. Australia is not some special cousin, we could do the same thing here if we wanted to. There are Maori activist- bureaucrats who would love to come over here and put on their shit-kicking boots on behalf of the whanau. I mean “help”. White Australia would not necessarily enjoy that, but I reckon that if you can survive Joh you can survive Hone Harawira.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
4 years ago

Also, this type of reflection in national media: http://thewireless.co.nz/articles/waitangi-day-protest-is-better-than-a-propaganda-holiday

and international (article about a Maori woman who grew up in Far North Queensland): https://www.vice.com/en_nz/article/why-im-protesting-on-waitangi-day-for-the-first-time

There are two separate documents; Te Tiriti, that was debated, discussed, signed by rangatira and given international authority by contra proferentum (against the drafter where ambiguous), and the Treaty; not read to or debated or signed by rangatira, that is in no way a translation of the former.

Worth reading to get a bit of a handle on the issues that Australia could aspire to have, and things that we could do better than they did.

John R Walker
John R Walker
4 years ago

Hope this is not too off topic.
Identity can be a bit tricky.

In the mid seventies a number of indigenous people were encouraged to use acrylic paint and canvas to make ‘artwork’s’ that had a relationship ( of kinds) to the sacred designs that were previously done in sand or as body painting for important ceremonies. As best as I know all of the symbols actually used in these pictures were symbols for ,secret stuff that was only for the initiated.
Before long a market for these paintings took off , people in Sydney etc started collecting these paintings.

And it wasn’t long before debates started to develop in the Australian art world as to ‘ authenticity : for example some of those indigenous painters started to use colors made by synthetic industrial processes (such as phthalo blue ) as not authentically indigenous.
And that did influence what was purchased and what was painted.

paul frijters
paul frijters
4 years ago

a swamp indeed. No boats in sight that I can see.

John R Walker
John R Walker
4 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

Hi Paul
Faith teaches that identity is ” at best a temporary vehicle for the working of the great spirit and at worse a ,mere projection of ego” -identity is no basis for anything that’s worth the candle.

WR1202
WR1202
4 years ago

I have an objection to Aboriginals “owning” Uluru. I have no objection to them having a spiritual connection to Uluru, and it may well be sacred to them. But there are many sacred places. A church/ synagogue/ chapel in a town or city may well be a sacred place, as the adherents of the church built it !! (many with their own blood, sweat and tears).

But the aborigines did not build Uluru – Nature did !!

Most sacred places are also public places, and a person can enter a place of worship, can sit there or walk around admiring (or not) the place, but on condition of good behaviour and conduct. Fundamentally, don’t touch anything and be quiet. The Rector of a church will pop his head out of his office just to ensure your conduct. He is, after all, the manager, and may take you for a guided tour of the place.

I would like to climb Uluru, but cannot doff my cap in “recognition” of the “owners”. I am happy for Aboriginals to be managers of the rock and surrounds, and would expect that walkers be restricted to the walking track on the rock. But that is the limit. Managers do not own things, they manage !

I, like the other 7.5 billion people on the planet, own 1/7.5 billionth of the rock.

But if rock walkers find some spiritual connection to the rock, that is their business, and not everyone else’s business.

Paul F is right. The IDENTITY BUSINESS is a indeed a swamp, with some people deliberately allowing a large hose into the swamp to keep it very boggy. There should be a good trade in Wellington Boots come out of this.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
4 years ago
Reply to  WR1202

the aborigines did not build Uluru

You didn’t build the land your home occupies, and it’s very likely that you didn’t build the home either. Should people be allowed to own their homes? “you didn’t build that” would be a radical reshaping of the entire notion of property law, even if you limit it to Australian Aborigines.

You need to explain *why* aboriginal landowners should not have the same rights as non-aboriginal ones, not just feel it. Even if you feel very entitled to traipse through other people’s property, that’s not enough. Should I have the right to tour your home over your objections, just because you didn’t build the land it sits on? What about the grounds of Parliament House? Should I have the right to tour those at a time of my own choosing, over the objections of the managers? If not, why?

Note that in many cases the various grievances being complained about are only historical in the Howard sense – they happened earlier today, or last week. They’re still happening right now, but necessarily for us to talk about them we’re discussing the past. Aboriginal deaths in custody, for example, are hard to discuss in any detail before they happen, but afterwards “that’s in the past and it happened to someone who’s dead now”. Why should it be quite legitimate for Lindy Chaimberlain to fight for 30 years to have her innocence recognised but aborigines should just give up as soon as a white man tells them to?

John Walker
John Walker
4 years ago
Reply to  WR1202

Visitors to our local church are very welcome, but that dosnt mean they are welcome to climb up onto the altar and have a picnic.

And sacred places don’t really have ‘owners’ they have people who ‘curate’ – care for the place and the people who go there.

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