Some Tough Love For Marcia Langton


Recently, I wrote a column for Tracker magazine entitled "Gawad Kalinga: The currency of caring" that sparked quite a reaction, although not from the quarters I was expecting.

Marcia Langton, a long and active sparring partner, got all "atwitter" after reading the piece. I’ll get to that shortly.

The column was out of my comfort zone, because it was about being out of my comfort zone. In it, I made a series of concessions about the strength of my past beliefs on the issue of welfare.

You can read the article in full here, but here’s a summary:

I recently travelled to the Philippines for a story on an aide program run by Gawad Kalinga, a Filipino non-government organisation that has done amazing work in the slums of Manila, and beyond, by actively engaging poor people in the fight against poverty.

The experience taught me about the dangers of "passive welfare", but equally about the dangers of "tough love", when it comes to helping people out of poverty — and I related that to my experience reporting on Aboriginal communities back in Australia. I wrote:

"On the political front, we all have a few bitter pills to swallow. 
For the left — my mob — there must be a genuine acceptance of the toxicity of passive welfare. It’s one thing for us to concede that ‘sit-down money’ is a problem for Aboriginal people. But it’s another thing altogether for us to really understand the strength of its poison, and to actively campaign for ways to change it.

"Simply giving someone something for nothing — i.e. a house — might seem like a basic human right, but it’s also a fast-track to apathy and community dysfunction.

"While I will never accept that there is some other alternative to a social safety net, I do now understand that we need to find a better ways to deploy it.

"I’m not suggesting Aboriginal people not be given access to adequate housing. I’m suggesting that we find ways for Aboriginal communities to help build them, and ways for Aboriginal people to take control of them, whether that be ownership or some other form of permanent tenure.

"So that was my lesson for the left.

"The lessons for the conservatives, I imagine, will be just as confronting.

"Gawad Kalinga’s philosophy is based on Love. The capital ‘L’ is intentional. And note the exclusion of the word ‘tough’ in front of it.

"Love-ins, hand holding, caring, values formation, people sitting in circles and discussing their feelings are all concepts that freak Conservatives out.

"But tough love — the safety net of Noel Pearsons and politicians everywhere — does not work, has not worked, and will not work.

"The reason why the Gawad Kalinga model has worked — and the reason why the men and women behind it are among the most revered people in Philippines society — is because of the effort they put into building genuine relationships in the communities before they bring in a single bag of cement.

"Geoff Scott, CEO of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, and one of my colleagues on the study tour, remarked during the trip, ‘Aboriginal people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’.

"That’s the precisely the thinking that needs to sweep Aboriginal affairs in Australia."

So that’s a very shortened version of the column. The offending piece, if you like. Now here are the tweets from Langton:

"After years of juvenile, hateful abuse of Noel Pearson and me, Chris Graham understands scourge of welfare."

And this:

"Evidence that Chris Graham has become an adult. See blog Chris Graham At Large. Finally he gets Noel Pearson."

Langton also took to posting on my blog:

"First encounter with poverty, hey, Chris. There is much to be learnt from first hand experience. Sitting in Sydney playing with abstract ideas with no basis in the empirical is the ultimate privileged white man’s indulgence."

Those who know me, or who follow my work, will know that what I do, I generally do with passion.

There are a lot of upsides to passion — motivation, for one. But there are a few downsides as well. The biggest is that sometimes, I play the man, not the ball. I’m trying to get a handle on it as I pass 40. It’s a work in progress.

But having looked around, I can’t find any examples of me directing "juvenile hateful abuse" at Marcia Langton. I’ve certainly spent the better part of the last decade challenging her claims and ideas, in particular when she backs policies like the NT intervention, which have clearly made things worse; and grog bans, which have clearly failed.

I have also stated consistently, repeatedly for the past decade that welfare is a problem in Aboriginal communities. Indeed, Noel Pearson’s views on welfare were the most significant influence on me when I started reporting Aboriginal affairs over a decade ago. What I realised after my trip to the Philippines was how a big a problem — and in particular how a big a barrier — it is to Aboriginal advancement.

Now here’s the rub.

What I have also said for the past decade is that Pearson’s solutions — and apparently Langton’s by association — are no solutions at all. Indeed, based as they are on a tough love approach, they have made things worse. The statistics bear that out.

What I realised after my trip to the Philippines — and what the offending column noted — was how wrong those non-solutions really are.

I’ve said many times that I believe self-determination is the key to Aboriginal happiness. I now believe that more strongly than ever. And I’ve repeatedly argued in the past that the tough love approach to policy does not work.

Tough love works at an individual level when the person knows that what you’re doing, you’re doing out of love.

But tough love doesn’t work at a government level because Aboriginal people know that (a) governments don’t love them, and (b) the bureaucrats sent in to deliver the tough love are doing it for cash, not care.

Governments can do "tough"; they can’t do "love". 

If conservatives want to die in a ditch for a suite of policies that have been shown over time to have failed, I can’t stop them.

But if they’re serious about advancing Aboriginal interests, then they need to start an honest discussion about the impact of the policies they advocate.

Admitting error has never killed anyone, myself included. But sometimes the policies we advocate — or in my case the policies we don’t advocate strongly enough — do.

More information on Gawad Kalinga Australia can be found here.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.