Sunday, 27 March 2011

White Men Dreaming

This weekend's edition of The Australian included an lengthy extract from Gary Johns' new book Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman's Dream.  Johns was a minister in the Keating Government and since leaving parliament has researched and written extensively on Aboriginal issues as an associate professor at the Institute of Public Policy.

Johns is addressing a very real and urgent problem of public policy: why are so many Aboriginal people, particularly those in remote areas, living in such dire poverty?  However, on the strength of this extract (perhaps the whole book is better) his analysis of this problem is stale and deeply flawed.

What Johns has done is work out who's to blame.  It's the leftist intellectuals (white men, in his telling of the tale) who pushed and championed the policy of Aboriginal self-determination.  The Australian loves this stuff.  At least a couple of times a year they trot out another white man to say something similar.  Not to mention the Aboriginal man, Noel Pearson, who writes along these lines for them every week.

Self-determination, he says, has left Aboriginal people living in poverty in remote areas.  It is the cause of them being excluded from the mainstream economy and is a recipe for them to remain for ever backward.  Along the way he takes swipes at Aboriginal culture ("way of life" and "culture" appear in inverted commas as if there were really no such thing), which he says is based on authoritarianism, and perpetuates a pre-industrial way of life which inevitably results in nasty, brutish, short lives.  He also gives the idea that dispossession has caused Aboriginal poverty a whack - because he says land is not a source of wealth, enterprise is.  Run that by me again?  So of course the idea of land rights is also part of the problem.  He even manages to blame Aboriginal people for prejudice - Australians are not prejudiced against Aboriginal people, he says, only against people who are drunk and violent.  So, my Aboriginal friends, if you experience prejudice it's all your fault.

His solution is not very clear (perhaps you need to read the rest of the book to get to that), but he talks approvingly of integration - that is, of Aboriginal people becoming part of mainstream society.  His aim is to have Aboriginal people prosper without government support, as individuals indistinguishable from other Australians.  Like he does, with his parliamentary pension and government-funded academic post.

It's hard to know where to start in critiquing this.  For a start, even though Johns wears an academic robe these days he still sounds like a politician.  This means he has a poor grasp of the distinction between broad policy frameworks and detailed implementation.  Aboriginal leaders (not just white intellectuals) have for decades articulated the idea of self-determination within a framework of restoration and compensation - that is, Aboriginal people should be compensated for the loss of their lands or get their lands back, and then be able to decide for themselves what to do with these resources.  What they were able to get, as a concession from white politicians, was jurisdiction over some poorly located lands that no-one else wanted, and a trickle of government funding.  This isn't a problem with the idea of self-determination, it's a problem with the tokenistic shell that was actually implemented.

A second problem is Johns' "either/or" mentality.  You can have integration, or self-determination.  You can have land-rights, or engagement with the modern economy.  You can have traditional Aboriginal culture, or modern European culture.  Why not both?  Why do we assume that Aboriginal people, given the choice, would not choose economic development?  Why can economic development only take place in the context of abandonment of traditional culture?  What's to say Aboriginal people wouldn't choose to modify their culture over time to accommodate modernity or post-modernity?  I've heard tell that Aboriginal people in remote areas drive motor vehicles, use metal tools and listen to country and western music.  Were they forced to do this, or did they decide for themselves it was a good idea?  And is self-determination really all about staying in remote areas, or is it also a relevant discussion for the 80% of Aboriginal people who live in urban and regional Australia?

But the point is, why should we listen to Johns, another white man putting forward his own dreaming for Aboriginal people?  Why should you listen to me, yet another of the same kind?  Instead, let's listen to the Aboriginal voices and take what they have to say seriously.  We shouldn't expect that they'll all agree - Aboriginal people like to have debates as well.  We shouldn't expect that they will always be right, or that every idea they have will turn out well.  But lets not return, as Johns seems to want to, to that old paternalism where Aboriginal people have to do things our way or no way at all.  That's been tried - a lot - and look where it's got us.

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