Getting The Homelands Wrong


In recent years a new genre has emerged: messianic tomes that aim to provide the defining discursive frame and policy prescription to solve Australia’s deep and troubling Aboriginal problem, especially in remote regions. The latest is Diane Austin-Broos’ A Different Inequality. According to the back cover blurb, this book will provide "a unique insight which will reshape not only the debate about remote Aboriginal communities, but also what happens on the ground". This is quite a claim.

The core of this book is contained in three chapters, where Austin-Broos’ imagined debate on remote Indigenous development is played out via her reading of the relevant literature. In Chapter 4, she clusters a spectrum of writers like John Reeves, Helen Hughes, Noel Pearson, Peter Sutton, Bob Gregory, Gary Johns and others as, roughly, the "Closing the Gap" or assimilationist or integrationist camp. They are styled as being doggedly pro-equality and anti-separatist, who do not tolerate suffering and who would be happy to sacrifice Indigenous cultural difference for socio-economic sameness.

In the following chapter, Austin-Broos corrals those she classifies as privileging cultural difference, who champion land rights, homelands and non-standard forms of work, but who she sees as tolerant of, or oblivious to, "disadvantage". This camp could be characterised as those who favour self determination and choice or more pejoratively "The Culture Cult", following a term coined by anthropologist Roger Sandall in 2001. Austin-Broos establishes this group as clustered around the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the Australian National University and I, as its foundation director, emerge as the cult leader.

Having set up this binary, Austin-Broos, an emeritus professor of anthropology from the University of Sydney, has an epiphany: it is a polarisation in the debate in the humanistic social sciences about remote Indigenous communities that is leading to ineffective policies or paralysis. This is an extraordinary claim. It suggests at once that scholarship in Australia actually influences policy — and that debate might be counter-productive.

In the final chapter, the author presents her synthesis: the issue that needs to be addressed is not some tradeoff between cultural difference and socio-economic equality. Rather, she argues, we must strive for both. And the crucial policy means to achieve this end is "mainstream primary education to support both equality and difference" appropriately fashioned in a manner that "can be received by remote Aboriginal children".

This conclusion is hardly contentious, although it overlooks the work of many dedicated educationalists who have for years advocated hard using evidence and cogent argument for just this and more.

What is far more problematic is the crude depiction of two competing camps, one favouring equality, the other cultural difference. This false binary is not original and is often rehearsed in opinion pieces in The Australian; academically it has been quite recently deployed (but goes unacknowledged here) by Emma Kowal in American Anthropologist (2008) in a more sophisticated analysis of the tension in remote service delivery between "remedialists" and "orientalists".

I do not want to revisit this debate here, but rather debunk the false opposition upon which it rests.

Let me begin with the question, what are these "homelands" that are being defended? This is a term that is used pejoratively in recent public discourse, for example, by Helen Hughes in Lands of Shame or Amanda Vanstone who depicted homelands as "cultural museums" or the late Peter Howson who saw them as "anthropological prisons".

So let’s be clear here, according to state attempts to make remote Aboriginal populations legible there is a category of community that is officially termed "discrete Indigenous" because the majority of residents are Indigenous. According to the 2006 Census there were 1187 such communities, 988 with a population under 100 and 199 with a population of over 100. The former had an estimated population of about 19,000 (average size 19), the latter 74,000 (average size 373).

Austin-Broos glides between the homelands (generally understood as the smaller communities) and larger remote Aboriginal communities to suit her arguments. She fails to acknowledge that from an Aboriginal perspective homelands comprise small family groups who share a philosophical desire to live in a very particular way on their ancestral lands at a distance from larger townships.

Austin-Broos sets out to establish the CAEPR position on "the homelands". She does this in two ways. First she selects some edited monographs she suggests are illustrative of the Centre’s corpus. These texts are Aboriginal Employment Equity by the Year 2000 (1991), Land Rights at Risk (1999), The Indigenous Welfare Economy and the CDEP Scheme (2001) and Coercive Reconciliation (2007). This is a fraught strategy and the selection curious. For a start it suggests that edited volumes can be reduced to a singular perspective. Furthermore, each of these volumes had little to say about "the homelands" — and the last one is not a CAEPR book, but rather commissioned and published by Arena Publications with only six of the 33 writers in the book CAEPR staff.

Keen to "distil a public position indicative of CAEPR", Austin-Broos is conflicted here. On one hand she erroneously recruits some, like Melinda Hinkson co-editor of Coercive Reconciliation, as a member of CAEPR, while simultaneously suggesting that those who wrote for this so-called CAEPR publication were actually at loggerheads with the book’s editors. In reality, the vast majority of contributors to the four volumes taken as Austin-Broos’s representative sample are not from CAEPR at all. To suggest that their views were somehow honed by the editors is demeaning and inaccurate.

The point that Austin-Broos seeks to make with her imagined depiction of CAEPR’s "defending the homelands" is that CAEPR scholars represent Aboriginal people living not just culturally different lives, but also as aspiring to relative self sufficiency. She contends that CAEPR scholars critique education as assimilationist and romanticise the quality of life at "the homelands" while remaining silent on suffering and distress. CAEPR scholars emerge as curators of "cultural museums".

This characterisation of CAEPR is something we’ve heard before. It is a line that has been peddled for some time by various conservative writers. What makes this book particularly concerning is the process by which its author builds her case.

To make CAEPR writings fit this characterisation, Austin-Broos engages in some unusual academic practices, including the heavy editing of quotes. Let me provide an illustrative example.

It is critical to Austin Broos’s argument to represent my emerging conceptualisation of economic hybridity, that emphasises inter-linkages between market, state and customary sectors of local economies, as flawed. Why? Because otherwise it would function as a conception of her very argument that cultural difference can sit alongside economic success. I was drawn to a quote attributed to me:

"The development challenge is how to foster all three sectors of this economy at variable rates, depending on local circumstances … [and]promote self sufficiency in remote Aboriginal communities." 

Did I say this? Something did not seem right and so I went back to the original. This is what I found:

"The development challenge is how to foster all three sectors of this economy at variable rates, depending on local circumstances. Over twenty years ago, the Report of the Committee of Review of Aboriginal and Training Programs outlined strategies to promote self sufficiency in remote Aboriginal communities …"

These are very different quotes. The former, deleting half a sentence, falsely attributes the views of the Report of the Committee of Review of Aboriginal and Training Programs to me. By doing so it allows Austin-Broos to then say, "In this and other descriptions of the hybrid economy, however, he claims that this economy, is, or can be, self sufficient. He also declines to mention other forms of employment". The issue of potential "self sufficiency" is returned to on several occasions, but the erroneous characterisation of my work is only established and sustained by this fabricated quotation. Indeed the problem with Austin-Broos’ reconstruction is that my hybrid economy theory actually emphasises the limited prospects for self sufficiency.

As for failing to mention other forms of employment, Austin-Broos chooses to ignore much of my published work including the outcome from a long-term project (2002-2007) recently reported in Power, Culture, Economy: Indigenous Australians and Mining (2009) that assesses the potential for mining employment in the hybrid economy.

Significantly her approach is not limited just to the treatment of my research.

Layer by layer her oversimplification of the work of CAEPR researchers can be unraveled — be it in her suggestion that CAEPR research on mobility is either "migration-inhibiting" or rejects outmigration as a possibility; or that "a position on education relevant to labour markets remains undeveloped". She conveniently overlooks that CAEPR researchers have frequently highlighted the extent of Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage and the need for proper investment in appropriate education in all circumstances. Yet those who have statistically documented neglect and marginalisation again and again over two decades are here represented as impervious to the issue of inequality: "The partner to silence on suffering and distress", suggests Austin-Broos, "is the reification of cultural difference".

I don’t want to present CAEPR as heroic — but I do want to fundamentally question Austin-Broos’s antithesis — and to suggest that with half her concocted binary undermined by misrepresentations her argument and concluding synthesis collapse.

What is the motivation for this book? Austin-Broos is somewhat disparaging of the field of applied or policy anthropology suggesting that it lacks academic rigour and independence: policy anthropology is consultancy work too captured by the clients and not "real" anthropology. And so she creates another false binary: critical independent anthropology like hers and research centres such as CAEPR that play a dual role as a policy research group and as consultants. Not only does this simplification overlook the linkages between the pure and applied, but it also demeans the carefully guarded independence of most policy anthropologists.

Austin-Broos is keen to demonstrate to her peers how a critical anthropology might be deployed to resolve her perception of a tension in academic and policy writing between inequality, poverty and cultural difference. But in her need to dichotomise writings about remote Indigenous development, she falls into the reductionist trap of esssentialising diverse and hotly contested scholarship, paying scant attention to research that is far more nuanced and complex than she cares to recognise.

I am somewhat conflicted in reviewing this book.

On the one hand I am happy to leave it to others to assess whether Austin-Broos’ depiction of my field is fair. On the other, I am aware that my review could fuel interest in her book. But silence can too readily be misinterpreted as acquiescence or worse, agreement. In my view this book’s inaccuracies could damage academic reputations. Its commercial publication is an indictment of Allen and Unwin and its reviewing and editing processes given numerous factual errors; this publishing house is usually more careful, especially on such sensitive issues.

And at book’s end from the perspective of policy what does she actually have to offer, what is this unique insight which will reshape not only the debate about remote Aboriginal communities, but also what happens on the ground?

The author’s solution is reduced to a simplistic formula, the ubiquitous elixir of effective primary education paid for, no matter the cost, by the Australian state. This sounds awfully like the current dominant narrative articulated by the elites in Australian society from the Prime Minister down: education, education, education for jobs, jobs, jobs. In the end there is no sense of where cultural difference actually fits in this formulation — and so her utopian ideal to combine equality and difference ends up as little more than a rhetorical flourish. Considered debate about Indigenous development, an issue of national importance, deserves far better than this.


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