Monday, 16 March 2015 

Happier days.   Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

Happier days. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

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

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10 responses to “Lifestyle”

  1. Dianne on 16th March 2015 11:44 am

    Shrike what you have written here is very sobering.

    I am puzzled though why aboriginal leaders and the ALP did not speak out when the federal government shifted the provision of services to the state government in WA.

    Surely it would have been evident then that it would lead to the inevitable closure of isolated settlements.

    Only the ‘lifestyle’ remark promoted criticism from aboriginal leaders. I may have missed something of course but if there had been criticism it must have been provided at a very low volume. I am unaware too of any comments from the ALP which predate the ‘lifestyle’ furore.

  2. Florence nee Fed up on 16th March 2015 12:23 pm

    Diane, the answer could be, there are so many hidden nasties within that budget, many still emerging, that most have been overlooked.

  3. David on 16th March 2015 4:28 pm

    Great stuff as usual, Shrike.
    A question. Where you write,

    “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.”

    there seems to be some ambivalence here. Is it a case of mixing up two seperate things – race and culture – which ought not and do not have to be mixed up? Or, as your first sentence more implies, is there sort of an inexorability, due to how culture itself identifies subjects (“communities”) to whom it belongs, that something like race, in the context of Indigenous culture’s flourishing, emerges?

    Under the heading of “assimilation” in Australia, there has never really been anything like real “integration” policies, where integration would be understood as difference subsidised and supported as a basic obligation of collective life together, but only a strategy of obliteration and erasure through kinds of incorporation and amalgamation that has been “the other arm” of segregation and exclusion. I think you basically note this yourself, and I definitely agree that it has actually been separation which has been the prime animating principle of settler governance toward the Indigenous, even through the “assimilation” era. But the legitimacy of the paradigm of “separate development” amongst the Indigenous – and I do think it has had legitimacy amongst them, if perhaps this is increasingly in crisis – has arisen, I think, precisely because, even though it is the modality through which racism adopts a “progressive” face, it nonetheless hooks into itself a very real and enduring problem facing ATSI people: how to ensure that Indigenous culture isn’t crushed through the poisoned logics of “standardised development” which also inform the very basis, tucked inside the “economic” arguments for closure of remote communities, as to why these communities should not exist. Whenever Indigenous culture is held up to these ostensibly universal standards, it’s found wanting or lacking. Thus, for example, an Indigenous child music prodigy being denied a chance to learn Mozart on grounds of their cultural capacity would garner outrage because, alongside the logics of separate development, it’s also implied through the paradigm of standardised development that something like Mozart forms the standard of culture at its most advanced. By contrast, the very reason Aboriginal musicality is starkly absent from general Australian (and world) music curricula and canons is not purely because of a logic which argues that only authentic practitioners (i.e. racially Indigenous) persons can practice Indigenous culture but exactly because standardised development relentlessly promotes the notion that it’s “just Indigenous”, extrinsic to “real” learning. And, in that context, Indigenous culture finds itself confined to the same sphere of “special interest” demands that “multiculturalism” restricts subsectional groups too(i.e. it is seen as an inherently “political” agenda, not as something that can be parsed from the political, since it is treated (not just by politicos but by a good deal of society too) as intrinsically vestibular to the social, and as being indulged only by society’s (always overgenerous) largesse). In that sense, there’s a pincer movement here that needs to be taken into account, I think, between “standard” and “seperate” as dual modes of destruction when it comes to the Indigenous and their social freedom.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 16th March 2015 6:06 pm

    Race and culture in themselves are totally separate. Race is a biological attribute that one is born with, culture is acquired. Even at an early age, such as language, it is still acquired. Where they might come together is when segregation on racial grounds generates a cultural response such as in this case. But it still an acquired response, and not the only one.

    Mixing the two up for political purposes is disastrous because in this case it confuses what has been imposed on indigenous people as a result of racial discrimination with what is a cultural response chosen by them. It is especially a problem when it is posed as a political strategy since the key political question here is equality. Equal treatment before the law, equal access to services.

    None of this requires cultural assimilation. One of the myths going around is that modern society cannot cope with different cultures. This is nonsense. Of course it can. Even differences in that most utilitarian cultural attribute, language, can be handled. A country like, say, Switzerland, can have four official languages quite happily. It is also quite possible to manage different cultural/spiritual needs even when it affects property rights, again the status of the Church in some European countries shows that.

    The ability to handle different cultures is not being tested here. The ability to treat equally on the grounds of race is.

  5. db on 16th March 2015 11:44 pm

    Shrike, as my favourite guide to the movements of the political classes in Canberra I feel you have not pursued the same enthusiasm for making sense of the actual debates in indigenous communities about the issues you discuss in the post, instead resorting to a modernist distinction between race and culture that you bizarrely accuse Aboriginal people of blurring.

    To me, as an outsider, one of the most distinctive aspects of indigenous communities the world over (perhaps also their shared basis for cooperation at the international level) is a much less fragile mechanism for determining who participates in community management than the NW European culture we inherit, with its methodological individualism and constant hierarchical sorting of people into this group or that, which is indeed also behind the “racism” that should be decried.

    But nothing in your spiel recognises that the instantiaion of the Australian nation state was always “cultural” (and thus racial), and not somehow ready to receive Aboriginal communities if the state just did a better job of clarifying its terms. To bring European nations like Switzerland into this debate only further suppresses the spiritual adventure of colonisation that brought the nation into bloody being. The “rights” of the citizen were distributed according to logic alien to those who actually existed here and to this day those who do not adhere to white middle class norms do not find any ground in the “political” world in which you have for a long time rightly diagnosed a widespread disaffection.

    There is, in my view, no empirical evidence recognised in most indigenous communities that the efforts of their best to “manage the game” have had lasting benefits for their people. Their only future is self-determination, as always existed before “Australia” and that is a struggle fundamentally incompatible with the logic of the neoliberal state that seeks to place all capital inflows and outflows on a shared ratio of value (in international relations this goes under the oxymoronic label “democracy”)

    As far as I can tell, for a generation of non-indigenous Australian activists under 30, there is widespread interest in and acceptance of the self-determination agenda as the precondition for actually bridging the colonial cultural gap. Culture and race are both bad words, it is true, but in non-European languages there are different ways of accounting for host and visitor, for those classed as kin and those classed as other. I’m not saying any of those “other” frameworks needs to be adopted (obviously impossible for a nation on the European model) but those fluent in them should at least be listened to and cited by those of us making explanations and claims for “culture”. In 2015 pretending they do not exist is not just “insensitive” but also wilfully evading the strongest political forces around these issue IMO.

  6. Simeon on 17th March 2015 11:01 am

    thank you for this thoughtful paper. As a relatively new arrival in Australia from the UK, I am amazed at some of the ways this issue is discussed in contemporary Australian society. From outright racism to well intentioned but impotent ‘well what can we do?’ type statements the average Australian would prefer the issue to just go away in the tidiest manner possible.

    I take a different view when I look at the wealth of this country and the curmudgeonly way that we treat a sovereign people that have never ceded ownership of the land. Everyone in this country should be happy to subsidise the cost of delivering the basic requirements that we all expect as citizens to any damn place in the country. Is it expensive? Hell yes. Is it a full compensation for the many years of repression, segregation and general malarkey? No it isn’t.

    What is needed is a treaty that is combined with a bill of rights (for everyone). Once this is established we then need to seek genuine consultation with the communities as to how these rights may be best delivered with Aboriginal people taking the lead in their own self-determination. If this seems expensive and beyond our means then compare it with a proper compensation for all of the capital city real estate taken from the first peoples by ‘extinguished’ land rights.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 19th March 2015 10:01 pm

    I don’t think the solution to indigenous people being forced to leave their homes is for the thousands of indigenous people not in remote areas to be required to leave theirs. The idea of a separate state (where?) doesn’t make any practical sense other than to take cultural separatism to its (il)logical conclusion.

    This is a problem of race discrimination not cultural difference. An indigenous male who has not the slightest cultural interest will face as much discrimination as one that does. This is not a cultural problem, even if it’s understandable that some may give up on equality and just dream of opting out in a separate state, especially given the lousy tradition of progressives in Australia on countering discrimination.

    In this case it’s not complicated. It has long been Australian development policy to subsidise the habitation of remote regions and there is no reason why indigenous people cannot be part of it and any cultural differences accommodated. No one’s interested whether non-indigenous people are living in remote areas out of lifestyle choice or a cultural one. Why should it matter for indigenous people?

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  9. DM on 23rd March 2015 2:17 am

    Absolutely right Shrike! This is a problem of discrimination and inequality, which are deeply embedded in the policy of ‘self-determination’ and seperate development.

    Progressives in this country need to understand that self-determination never was about justice and equality, it’s only a strategy to cut the white nation free from its “Indigenous issue”.

  10. Riccardo on 26th March 2015 10:45 am

    As I said on the other thread, Australia itself is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and no wonder cashed up Chinese are following waves of others who also make the same choice.

    Australia is not ‘viable’ in any real sense – it doesn’t take 23 million people to dig up rocks to sell overseas, nor even grow wheat to sell. There is no moral highground to stand on when accusing others of making lifestyle choices.

    Particularly British people who choose to claim Australianness for the purposes of becoming Prime Minister without formally disowning their Britishness under the law.

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