The End of Ideology


In the realms of Indigenous affairs policy, subscribing to an ideology is passé. This fact was underscored by ALP Shadow Minister, Senator Chris Evans, when he delivered a paper called ‘The End of Ideology in Indigenous Affairs’ at Perth’s Curtin University last month.

Senator Evans observed that ‘Both major political parties have pursued their ideological convictions in Indigenous policy to the detriment of Indigenous Australians.’ He went on to say that the ‘clash of [Labor and Coalition] political ideologies has dominated the debate, distracting focus from our respective policy failings in addressing Indigenous disadvantage.’

The failures of Indigenous policy over the past 25 years are plain for all to see. But can we lay the blame for these shortcomings on the bogeyman of ideology?

In the land of the three-year election cycle, pragmatism is king. The pejorative term ‘ideology’ is readily equated with rigidity of thinking and an inability to consider innovative options. It carries the can for a multitude of sins. But this straw man cannot be beaten endlessly.

Would the ALP have us believe that ‘Indigenous affairs’ is just an agglomeration of discrete problems? Do truancy, poor hygiene, welfare dependency and petrol sniffing all simply require their own micro-policy solutions, rather than a cohesive approach that takes into account the sources of these problems?

The well-being of Indigenous Australians was once a litmus test for Labor’s true believers who championed ‘social justice’ even before the expression gained currency. Prior to the 1967 referendum authorising the Federal Government to legislate for Aboriginal people, Kim Beazley Sr observed that ‘the way in which a minority people is treated is the touchstone of national character.’ He went on to say that

the true test of our respect for a minority race is whether we want them to be a distinctive people making a distinctive contribution. The whole nation is judged on any Aboriginal policy anywhere in any State.

Forty years on, the party that produced Curtin and Chifley appears to regard Indigenous Australia as little more than an electoral liability. The adage ‘there are no votes in blackfellas’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Disproportionate focus is placed on a squalid little battle over the economic viability of a few small, remote communities.

Thanks to Bruce Petty

In his address, Senator Evans noted that Labor was proud that it presided over the establishment of ATSIC,but he conceded that the Party was ‘complicit’ in the abolition of that organisation, during the 2004 election campaign.

In April 2004, MP for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon one of the few ALP caucus members with real expertise in Indigenous issues produced a discussion paper entitled ‘After ATSIC: Revitalising Elected Indigenous Representation.’ The first of 15 ‘guiding principles’ in the discussion paper was that ‘Indigenous Australians have a strong desire to maintain elected bodies at both regional and national levels.’ The ALP policy platform in the run up to the 2004 election stated rather coyly that a Labor Government would create ‘new arrangements for Indigenous self-governance and program delivery.’

Senator Evans’ address shed precious little light on how this will happen.

Evans also stated that he was proud that Labor’s agenda had led to the establishment of the ‘Mabo legislation.’ The Keating Government’s ground-breaking 1993 Native Title Act was redolent with promise for Indigenous land justice. However, the High Court’s 1996 Wik decision, which allowed for the possibility of Native Title continuing to exist on pastoral leases, caused an unprecedented outbreak of fear and loathing in the wider community. The scare campaign that followed reached its nadir with Western Australian Premier Charles Court’s suggestion that Mabo-type claims might be made on suburban backyards.

Native Title outcomes have been patchy. The Howard Government’s ‘Wik Amendments’ of 1998 may have exacerbated the inertia of an already protracted process, but land and connection with country is still crucial to many Indigenous Australians. Although only a minority of Aboriginal people still live on their traditional country, the conclusion that urban-dwelling Aborigines have no regard for the land is wrong. The ALP might do well to consider this.

The delivery of social justice to the most disadvantaged in our community was once a threshold issue for Labor. But this yardstick appears to have been outmoded replaced by the opinions of focus groups in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney, where elections are won and lost. ‘Never mind social justice,’ they chorus, ‘just keep a lid on housing interest rates.’

What price the vision to articulate a future which celebrates the oldest living culture on the planet? It might just save us from turning into the mean-spirited little country we threaten to become.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.