New deal, old story


In a pre-election address, Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone stated, ‘For too long we have let ideological positions like self-determination prevent governments from engaging with their Indigenous citizens.’ Instead, Vanstone promised to work with Indigenous communities to ‘change behaviour’.

Howard et al have had great success in casting self-determination as a (failed) political agenda, and their so-called ‘New Deal’ for indigenous affairs as common sense. Self-determination Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs is, of course, a principle borne of an Aboriginal-led political struggle.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Thanks to Sean Leahy

And the influential Centre for Independent Studies has recently published two reports that make clear the ideological dimensions of the New Deal.

Last week the CIS published John Cleary’s Lessons from the Tiwi Islands, a case study that supports the general treatise of Helen Hughes and Jenness Warin’s A New Deal for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Remote Communities, published in March.

Hughes and Warin argue that in the 1970s, HC (Nugget) Coombs engineered and imposed a socialist, ‘utopian experiment’ on remote communities. His romantic, frozen-in-time understanding of Aboriginal culture has condemned subsequent generations to economic marginalisation, they argue.

Communal land-ownership is identified as the root cause of miserable conditions in remote communities, retarding ‘the productive use of land, employment creation and economic development.’

Both CIS reports have had a dream run in the opinion pages of The Australian and an executive summary of the first piece was republished in the Australian Financial Review. Crikey called it the ‘new debate we had to have’; Australian columnist Christopher Pearson positively gushed, praising Hughes and Warin’s ‘seminal’ work.

We find nothing ‘new’ in their ‘courageous’ criticisms of the beneficiaries of the present system. Hughes and Warin argue that the funds that flow to remote communities don’t reach their target, absorbed instead by bureaucracies; diverted by corrupt Aboriginal figures; or used to support waged, white do-gooders.

Grassroots Aboriginal advocates have long expressed their frustration with the bureaucratic structures imposed on Aboriginal organisations by government. Over fifteen years ago Gary Foley, who was involved in setting up the first Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, wrote that three quarters of the money spent on Aboriginal health was being channeled into state bureaucracies. In this way, governments starved Aboriginal-controlled health services of the resources needed ‘to do the job properly’.

Under ATSIC funding guidelines, organisations had to be incorporated under the 1976 Commonwealth Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act. Melbourne-based Gunnai activist Robbie Thorpe argues, ‘incorporation was the death knell for all Aboriginal organisations. It took away Aboriginal people’s authority and exchanged it for white man’s law.’

For this, and many other reasons, Aboriginal people were among the most strident critics of ATSIC.

Christopher Pearson terms the Aboriginal industry’s white beneficiaries ‘parasites’; Aboriginal activists, such as artist Richard Bell, call them BINTs (Been In The Northern Territory). Note that Christopher Pearson writes of these white people with vicious relish while Bell et al who actually have to put up with them have the grace to discredit them humorously.

We can only assume Hughes and Warin have unknowingly referenced these ideas. Apart from a quick mention of media favourites Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine, they fail to acknowledge any active political contribution by Aboriginal people.

Their potted history of Coombs’s legacy depicts Aboriginal people as duped by a white public servant. Land rights is represented as one of Coombs’s delusions, totally obscuring the demands of the ongoing pan-Aboriginal political struggle. According to their account, while most Aboriginal people struggle to read the back of a Weetbix box, the only ones with any initiative in remote communities use it to rip everyone else off.

Helen Hughes and Gary Foley make unlikely bedfellows. However, while they may seem to agree on the symptoms of the existing deal, they would no doubt diverge on cause and solution.

As Moira Raynor, Greg Barns and ANTaR’s Peter Lewis pointed out in early 2004, self-determination is not to blame for the persistent issues the ATSIC-years failed to resolve. The predominance of non-Indigenous staff and policies in ATSIC and preceding bodies means the ‘self-determination experiment’ has never been properly conducted.

Hughes and Warin liken remote communities to ‘museums’, designed to preserve a hunter-gatherer culture that is ‘uneconomic’ in modern Australia. They want Aboriginal people to catch up with our post-industrial society and enjoy our ‘ever increasing capital and advancing technology’ (albeit as lowly paid casual labourers). Sound familiar? This revives the Social Darwinist idea that Aboriginal society lags behind ours on the one-way evolutionary superhighway. They rail against bi-lingual education, ‘separatism’, and the recognition of customary law. Remote communities, they repeatedly warn, are conceived of as ‘a nation independent from the rest of Australia’.

Hughes and Warin, of course, never mention the word ‘assimilation’. They also never mention a single thing we can learn from Aboriginal people.

Revealingly, their interpretation of Coombs falls neatly in line with right-wing historian and journalist Geoffrey Partington’s, who assesses Coombs’s legacy against that of the pro-assimilation public servant Paul Hasluck. Partington also warns of separatist nations within Australia. In response he rehabilitates the Federation slogan of ‘one nation for one continent’, praising Hasluck for seeking ‘unity through Aboriginal assimilation’.

Hughes and Warin would fail the challenge Michael Gordon set for John Howard ahead of this week’s Reconciliation Australia workshop: ‘to demonstrate that he is all about integration of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders into the Australian economy and society, but not assimilation and the loss of identity, culture, community or language.’

To that list, we would also add ‘land’.

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