What 'Liberal Consensus'?

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I’ll disclose my interest at the outset. I run a centre that undertakes research to inform public policy in the difficult area of Indigenous affairs. My years working on Indigenous issues, mainly from the perspectives of economics and anthropology, only number 32, fewer than Peter Sutton’s 40, and the list of communities I have visited is less impressive than his. I know enough, however, to recognise that The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of Liberal Consensus, Sutton’s new collection of polemical essays, offers limited assistance to those striving to address the undeniable development and social problems Indigenous Australians face.

Sutton has a huge reputation in the academy with a long track record in Indigenous studies, primarily in linguistics, material culture and native title. Sutton knows Cape York languages, he curated the memorable Dreamings exhibition in New York that placed Aboriginal art on the world stage in 1988, and he has worked as an anthropologist on numerous land rights and native title cases that have required him to prove to the courts continuity of tradition, connection to country and associated religious and economic affiliations.

Arguably, Sutton’s career as a linguist and anthropologist has been made in the Indigenous cultural and land rights arenas. In 2000, he had an epiphany: the vestiges of pre-colonial social norms, in combination with alcohol and passive welfare, have formed a deadly cocktail when interacting with western institutions. This is not a new observation. Sutton himself quotes WEH Stanner’s 1958 observation that the Market and the Dreaming may be incompatible. And, since 2000, Noel Pearson has been on a similar moral and political crusade focused on Cape York, the same region in which Sutton has specialised. Indeed, Sutton’s book has been published hard on the heels of Pearson’s Up From The Mission, reviewed on newmatilda.com earlier this month.

Pearson’s reform agenda is both more sophisticated and productive than Sutton’s, in part because Pearson identifies both the decline in Indigenous social norms and inappropriate and inadequate state action as problematic, whereas Sutton is more limited in his understanding of the state apparatus. Where Pearson has a policy agenda, Sutton is ultimately a policy nihilist: he proposes no future pathway. While he finds past assimilation abhorrent and he abhors the destructiveness of so-called "self determination", he hints on many occasions that the former is probably preferable to the latter, invoking the emotive posture "in the name of the child" (both present and future), as used by Mal Brough to justify heavy-handed intervention in the Northern Territory.

The publication of The Politics of Suffering also coincides with the release of the Productivity Commission’s Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage 2009 report. With the now-common media and political hype drawing attention to yet more disappointing results in closing the gaps, the Melbourne University Press publicity machine was well positioned to promote Sutton’s book.

To the key question of how the problems facing Indigenous Australia have become so deeply entrenched, Sutton’s answer is that among scholars — and I do not think he excludes himself from this category — there has been a code of silence born not of malice, but of the cultural relativist framework within which social anthropologists in particular operate.

Sutton takes the high moral ground as the scholar who will risk all at the end of a distinguished career to out his peers. He sets out to establish his moral authority based on references to the numerous communities that he has visited and having thus chronicled his credentials, Sutton progresses with what I regard as a selective and at times indulgent polemic. I make this assertion on two grounds. First, he rarely links his observations about Indigenous dysfunction to empirical evidence from the numerous and diverse places he has visited — his main focus is on Aurukun in north Queensland but he is too comfortable shifting from this particular to the general. Second, he fails to engage with a massive body of scholarship, much generated by people whom he selectively references using private rather than public sources, and he often fails to place the scholarship that he does reference in its proper context.

I particularly object to some of Sutton’s emotive backhanders and give just one typical example. He makes the observation that "Many of the academics who I knew who reacted negatively to the Intervention as a whole … but failed to give primacy to the fate of so many children, were also childless". Sutton debases his own keen intellect here in concert with Mal Brough’s hysterical and self-serving observation that people who did not support the Northern Territory Intervention didn’t care about kids, or hadn’t had kids.

My major concern, however, is Sutton’s scholarship. His central hypothesis is that the role of tradition as an explanator of dysfunction has been under-emphasised and protected in some way. While Pearson confronts Indigenous people and their leaders in Cape York communities for a code of silence that excuses violence, alcoholism and abuse, Sutton wants to confront the academy and some of his peers. In my view this is a highly charged and moralistic confrontation based on a largely imagined intellectual indiscretion of silence, a latter day version of Stanner’s "Great Australian Silence".

In my reading of the literature I see very little silence. What I see is many academics grappling with the highly problematic role of culture and transformation in explaining poor outcomes both from a mainstream statistical perspective and for Indigenous people. There are numerous publications that highlight the role of children’s autonomy and absence of effective sanctions in explaining poor school attendance, for example, or the significance of competing cultural prerogatives — especially kin-based pressures to share — in explaining poor mainstream employment outcomes, poor health and public housing problems, to name but a few areas of inquiry.

In seeking to highlight the role of Indigenous culture as an explanator of dysfunction, Sutton understates the link between structural factors and failure. He writes, "In 2008, one can still read accounts [unspecified]arguing that dispossession, dislocation, separation, exclusion from services, inadequate services and the tyranny of distance were sufficient to explain current levels of Indigenous disadvantage, especially in the field of Indigenous health." This seems like a reasonable and comprehensive list to me although we can easily add culture.

To be more precise, there is compelling evidence that if the curriculum is right and education facilities adequate, children will attend and can excel at school (not to mention young adults learning outside formal school settings). There is evidence that if employment arrangements are suitably flexible, Indigenous people can excel as employees or as self-employed workers and business people, that if health professionals are suitably tolerant of bi-cultural determinants of poor health, outcomes are improved, that if design takes into account residential preferences, family structure, and environmental health factors, housing can provide effective long-term shelter.

Structural factors like historical and current needs-based neglect cannot wholly explain dysfunction where it occurs — and that is not everywhere — and nor can cultural factors, whether pre-colonial vestiges or post-colonial modifications, be upheld as the sole explanator. Such a dichotomous framing is erroneous in any case because today inter-culturality, an ongoing and highly diverse adaptive blend of customary and western social norms, is everywhere.

There are successes in Indigenous policy that need to be recognised, replicated and supported; and there are policies and policy processes that need to be reformed. Now, as history and culture wars are being exposed as unproductive, Sutton seeks to generate a new firestorm, as if in the name of imagined practical outcomes ideological contests are worth revisiting. This to my mind is irresponsible; to use Sutton’s words "it beggars belief". While Pearson has clearly defined his "radical centre", a legally defined mix of rights and responsibilities in the Cape York trials, Sutton never defines his. He announces the end of the "liberal consensus" (was there ever such a thing in Indigenous affairs?) with vigour but Sutton’s own project remains opaque.

This is a deeply disturbing and very negative book. Frustrated by his own inability to influence state policy — which too many scholars believe is a seamless and unproblematic process merely to be triggered by their expertise — Sutton shifts his attack onto his conspiratorial colleagues and his disciplinary foundations.

Unfortunately, this treatise against Indigenous culture comes at a moment when Sutton is likely to win many allies who are all too willing to use such arguments to impose monolithic assimilationist solutions. As if such approaches have not been tried, and failed, before. As if our economic system and materialist culture are not looking to be increasingly on shaky foundations. Ultimately, in his desire to expose others’ denial of what is failing, Sutton himself denies what works. Indigenous people in many places have overcome extraordinary hurdles to foster emergent social norms and new institutions to negotiate the difficult space between the Market and the Dreaming. Their efforts are ignored and unacknowledged in this book.

Peter Sutton’s new book, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of Liberal Consensus, is published by Melbourne University Press.

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