Thinking for ourselves


It is high time for the Australian Left to mature in its approach to Indigenous issues. Since the 1970s, the Left has been determined to defer to Aboriginal voices as authorities on Aboriginal circumstances, politics and solutions. Unused to criticising Aboriginal perspectives, it now finds itself hamstrung within the current debate, where a number of high profile Indigenous leaders are in close co-operation with a conservative government.

Outsiders often offer the keenest observations on complex situations. The late American anthropologist Eric Michaels, who worked with Walpiri people at Yuendumu to help set up Walpiri Media, writes of the Australian Left with acerbic wit and razor-sharp political analysis in his book Unbecoming: ‘The rule seems to be not merely that one never criticises a black; one never even discusses Aboriginal politics.’

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

On 26 January 1988, Michaels watched the ‘Tall Ships thingo’ on TV before strolling down to Hyde Park to join the Aboriginal Bicentenary protest. He cast his eye over the non-Aboriginal supporters, who were all dressed in black, according to instructions. After stage directions were issued, requesting ‘all non-Aboriginal people leave the shaded areas so that Aboriginal people can sit there’, Michaels quips: ‘Now was revealed the true reason for wearing black on an especially sunny, hot Sydney midsummer mid-afternoon’.

‘The Australian Left seems to expect, rather welcome, this kind of treatment from Aborigines,’ he writes.

‘I blame the Left, and the Labor Party, more than Aborigines, who can be forgiven (but not for much longer) for seizing whatever advantages are presented. But even while blacks may claim some privileged position in this debate it seems a poor indulgence to exhaust land rights’ limited support by using white supporters as whipping boys.’

‘One curious result is that the Left ends up supporting, encouraging, even backing the rise of the bourgeois Black New Right people committed to destroying these very Lefties,’ Michaels continues.

This dynamic between Aboriginal leaders and their non-Aboriginal supporters continues to this day. Its origin can be traced back to the early 1970s.

At the 1970 Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) annual conference, members were split over the question of removing non-Indigenous control of the civil rights organisation. After a tied vote and high profile defections, a rival all-Aboriginal body was formed in response. These were fast-changing times and many non-Indigenous people in the movement for Aboriginal ‘advancement’ were forced to confront both their own attitudes towards Aboriginal competence and thorny questions about power.

This process is necessary, and for many people, transformative. It is after all true that Aboriginal people are the only experts on their own experiences. However, non-Indigenous responses to this challenge have contributed to a dangerous legacy.

Many non-Aboriginal people who have since been involved in Aboriginal politics have sought to mitigate their privileged position through an uncritical acceptance of Aboriginal people’s ideas and deference to their leadership. In doing so, they absolve themselves of any responsibility to think for themselves about deeply distressing and confusing issues. Furthermore, they/we feel unable to comment when Aboriginal leaders are corrupt or when Aboriginal people are perpetrators of abuse.

Fast forward to the current debate: in recent months commentators on the Right have been busily ‘uncovering’ shocking statistics on poverty and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. (Their claim to an expose is simply ahistorical: a rash of reports on the crisis state of Aboriginal poverty have been produced every few years since the 1870s in Victoria). Invariably, they take the opportunity to blame a starry-eyed Left for advancing long-term rights-based solutions, while appearing to deny material crises.

They take their lead from Noel Pearson who is particularly scathing in his criticism of Left-liberal attitudes toward drug use and harm minimisation. Have no doubt about it, Pearson is not torn about the prospect of alienating Indigenous people’s traditional support base: ‘A positive spin-off of rejecting the Left-liberal consensus about substance abuse is that we will lose the support of people whose involvement would delay our attempts at restoring social order and a real economy,’ he said at a Prime Minister’s roundtable in 2004.

Pearson has mounted an attack on the relevancy of the Left, who, in the past, have largely applauded his ascendency.

The Left must depart from its over-anxious deference to all Aboriginal voices. Quite obviously we cannot continue to agree with all Aboriginal people, given their contrasting views on the best way forward.

It is high time for us, the non-Aboriginal Left, to re-insert our own value-systems into the analysis. Christopher Pearson doesn’t seem to tie himself in knots about doing so. A willingness to disagree with Aboriginal thinkers will signal that the Left is willing to enter into intellectually equal relationships with them.

Nevertheless, adding our voices to this debate is not to be our greatest contribution. We miss the point entirely if we think that debates about Aboriginal issues are all about changing Aboriginal society; nothing will change as long as our society remains unchanged.

We must actively partner those Aboriginal activists striving for radical change to the relationship between our two societies an unequal relationship any conscientious non-Indigenous person should not be willing to tolerate.

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