Monday, 16 March 2015
What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.
Tony Abbott being insensitive 10 March 2015
Maybe the word ‘closure’, which I did use, wasn’t the right word, but the reality is there are 282 remote communities in WA, a number of them have less than 10 people, they are not viable communities. People can still go and visit their traditional lands, there is no barrier to people going out there and living if they wish to.
Colin Barnett being sensitive 5 March 2015
The services will cease. I would say therefore the communities will close.
Colin Barnett being less sensitive five minutes later
When people say a remark is insensitive, they usually mean it’s true, but shouldn’t have been said. In the case of Abbott’s lifestyle comments it alludes to a real shift in policy on remote communities, and Abbott has not only spelt it out, but put a blunt finger on the weakness of those opposing it.
The idea of shutting down remote communities because they are economically unviable is, of course, rubbish.
It runs completely counter to long-standing development policy in Australia that has looked to populate the remote regions and offset the vagaries of the market. It is especially important in Australia given that vast swathes of the country have an economic viability that is fragile at best. It is well recognised that without such government subsidy, most of the country would be either empty or inhabited by transient labour camps.
And expensive ones at that. It has long been an economic goal in Australia to create a stable employment pool in remote areas that could withstand the swings of the commodity cycle. The challenge to make those communities sustainable has meant billions is spent to keep people there. Yet here we have communities of people that want to stay there and they are being shut down.
Just how little economic rationale to the policy was highlighted by a piece in the Guardian that focussed on the West Kimberly region with three remote communities, but only the two indigenous ones under threat of being shut down. The non-indigenous community is not under threat, with its signs proudly displaying its share of the $6.5bn of regional royalties pumped in to prop up the region. It is true that indigenous unemployment is high in the region with only 44% in employment and participation rates of 48%. But non-indigenous employment is hardly any better at 49% and 50% respectively. Nor would shifting indigenous people from remote regions necessarily reduce the cost of unemployment benefit. In fact it would probably increase given that indigenous unemployment rates in outer regional areas are higher at 20% versus 18% in very remote regions (and a not exactly sparkling 15% in inner city areas).
So there is little real economic rationale to the move. It is more a political agenda than anything else. It should be easily opposed without even the need to resort to economic reductionism, but simply by being against unequal treatment.
Unfortunately it is being opposed by another political agenda that rather than highlight inequality, appeals to it, and in a way that is now seriously backfiring and allowing Liberals like Barnett and Abbott to take advantage of it.
Warren Mundine summed up the weakness of the counter-argument against Abbott’s “lifestyle choice” when he appealed to the strength of indigenous culture and its relationship to the land as to why they should stay.
Leaving aside the point as to why indigenous people need to give any reason not to get thrown out when non-indigenous people in remote areas do not, there are several major problems to the culture argument. The obvious one is that to most of the planet, culture is a choice and, for want of a better word, something rather approaching a lifestyle one at that.
The immediate retort is that indigenous culture is different and special to the way culture is normally viewed. This is true, but only in as much it is not really indigenous culture we are talking about here, but something more unpleasant underneath. Race.
One of the ways we know that something odd is going on with discussions of indigenous culture is its exclusivity. Indigenous culture is not open to all in the way that culture is normally acquired, learnt, mastered. It is widely accepted that it is not possible for, say, someone from an Anglo Saxon heritage to master, or even understand, indigenous culture, and there is outrage at cases where they have tried.
This sounds all very sensitive until it is applied in the opposite direction, as by that logic it should. For example, it would be interesting to know the reaction of cultural exclusivists if a piano teacher told an indigenous child prodigy that there’s no point her learning white fella’s music like Mozart because she’d never “get it” and master it like, er, Mitsuko Uchida.
This curious exclusivity of indigenous culture comes from the fact that really when we’re talking culture, we are also talking race. Mixing up race and culture has been a disastrous way to pose indigenous issues because it has turned the exclusion of indigenous people from Australian society from an imposed condition of racial discrimination to a cultural choice.
It has led to one of the abiding myths of the history of indigenous policy, that the biggest problem indigenous people have faced is that of assimilation. Actually the opposite is true. The policy of the last century has been overwhelmingly one of exclusion and segregation.
Any “assimilationist” policies have usually been aimed at those who crossed the strict racial divide. When assimilationist policies were at their most brutal and that notorious West Australian Chief Protector A. O. Neville was taking “half-caste” and “quadroon” children from indigenous parents, it was in the context of a strict segregation in that state that banned indigenous people from the boundaries of Perth, from other country towns after nightfall, and forced them to live in restricted reserves miles away from white settlements.
Even when indigenous people have been pushed off reserves and into towns, as was the case in the 1960s, and some fear will happen now, it can hardly be called “assimilation”. Indigenous people have still been excluded on the fringe of society, which is why unemployment is high or even higher than in remote communities as a greater availability of jobs is offset by less access to them.
It would be wrong, however, to draw a straight line from the strict segregation of early last century to now, as indigenous activists often try to do. The political framework that we are operating in now and which explains both what Abbott is up to, and his breach with those like Mundine and Pearson, is the settlement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, best known as the Whitlam Settlement of regionalism, multiculturalism and a new indigenous settlement.
The Whitlam Settlement has been the fault-line of Australian politics over the last forty years. Essentially the right want to roll it back, the left want to defend it, and this has underpinned the “culture wars” between the left and right that has bored the rest of us for years. It has assumed an especially important “branding” role for the major parties since the primary battleground of unions and state spending has largely fallen away.
One of the awkward features of the Whitlam Settlement is the way that notions of race prevalent when it was set up are still embedded in it today. This is clearest on the indigenous settlement where the panoply of subsequent legislation on land rights and native title rested on the extension of the “race powers” in the 1967 Referendum to include indigenous people for the first time.
That the land rights framework relies on constitutional powers based on the colour of one’s skin is an embarrassment that has given added impetus to those that support it to disguise “race” as “culture”. It has been an awkwardness that the well-meaning but rather disingenuous Recognition campaign has wriggled and slipped around on, especially on the meaning of the 1967 Referendum. They recognise that removing the essence of the race powers would result in the entire indigenous legislative framework tumbling down – and instead of perhaps forging a new settlement lack the confidence to believe that they could.
This lack of confidence is related to the renewed vigour with which the incoming Abbott government resumed the culture war to roll back the Whitlam Settlement. It was not only based on the efforts Gillard and Rudd Mark II had taken to make the right’s culture war seem electorally viable, but also because in the dying months of the previous Coalition government, the Whitlam Settlement was dealt its biggest blow, the NT intervention.
To be more accurate it was not the intervention that dealt the blow, but the report Little Children Are Sacred that preceded it. The report claimed widespread sexual abuse of children in indigenous communities but offered no proof, but rather called for more funding and resources to monitor it.
It proved a spectacular own goal. By making such a claim of widespread degeneracy, it portrayed the communities as deeply dysfunctional and turned the cultural justification for separate development viciously back on itself. The widespread acceptance of the claims by both left and right, despite the lack of proof indicated the dangers of a politics of cultural separatism that implied that different standards might apply, an assumption that also ran through the legal system as in the notorious Aurukun case in that same year.
Howard’s over-riding of the communities’ land “rights” by sending the troops in was a logical extension of the political justification of cultural separatism having collapsed. It is no surprise that in justifying the closure of communities, Barnett is not using economic arguments as much as again the spectre of child sex abuse.
The response by the indigenous politicos was either obliviousness to the damage caused by the sex abuse claims, like Dodson, or a speedy shift by some like Langton, Pearson and Mundine to support the intervention. Their support came under the banner of “responsibility”, which was highly contradictory given that the intervention involved taking responsibility away from indigenous people through measures like basic income management. This was the “responsibility” of the child to clean up its room.
The defensiveness and contradictory response of indigenous politicos has given Abbott room to manoeuvre. Earlier this year, with barely any protest, the federal government did what would prove a highly significant move, handing provision of services to indigenous communities back to the states. This federal government responsibility, for functions normally handled by the states, had been assumed when it took on indigenous affairs after 1967. Handing back these services to the state reverses that process and carries on the hollowing out of the Native Title and Land Rights legislation, now taken to its grim conclusion in WA with the closure of those services.
The initial drive to roll back the Whitlam Settlement faded over last year as measures like the repeal of 18C went down like a lead balloon with a bemused electorate. By the Martin Place siege, Abbott was toning down the cultural warrior rhetoric, which he could while his main threat was Turnbull. Now in attempting to cling on to right support against a more serious rising threat from Morrison, he has speeded up again. He dropped the shenanigans over recognition and sped up the roll-back of the land rights framework and left his “friends” in indigenous politics high and dry. Clearly by his recent interview, Barnett would like this roll-back of the communities handled a little more delicately, but Abbott doesn’t have time for that.
So here we are again, indigenous communities facing uncertainty and insecurity as they become target of measures that make little sense for either themselves or the rest of the country but because they are the favourite political football in games played in Canberra and Perth. It has led to a political agenda that makes little social sense, especially in the Australian context and could be dismissed out of hand simply by asserting that very basic social concept, equality. Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 16 March 2015.Filed under The Australian state