Noel Pearson has resigned as the director of north Queensland's Cape York Institute in protest at the State Government's decision to preserve three Cape York regions under the 'wild rivers' legislation. He is rejoining the Cape York Land Council in an activist role to fight the legislation.
Back in February 2007 in Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australian Aborigines 4; Policy Interlude I suggested that Cape York locals appeared caught between a rock and a hard place, between their own needs including the right of indigenous people to manage their land and the externally imposed desire of the conservation movement to preserve Cape York as a heritage area.
At the time I did not know what local attitudes were to the environmental moves. Clearly not positive.
There has not been a lot of response to Mr Peason's resignation, with very limited discussion in the blogosphere. Those comments have largely split on party, more precisely cause, lines. I think it fair to say that Mr Pearson's actions have not (to this point at least) attracted a lot of support.
In looking for background material on the resignation, I revisited some of the posts I have written on Australian indigenous issues.
My first post, Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post, was published on 20 December 2006. Since then, I have written something over 120 posts. I have also tried to read as widely as possible. More recently, I have had the opportunity to work with Indigenous people.
It's been a funny, sometimes bumpy, ride. The essay that follows reviews the some elements of the journey. In writing, I am not arguing cases or lines, although my own views will be clear. I am more concerned with the way my thinking has evolved.
The Opening Post
I started that first post with a statement:
I have so far hesitated to write anything on issues connected with Australia's aborigines because this area has become a bit of a mine field, especially for some one like me who does not have much direct contact with aboriginal people. However, events have conspired to create a need for me to make some comments.
The brief arguments that followed in that post set a framework that has guided much of my thinking and writing since. In all this, some of my views have changed, others have not.
I went on in that first post to explain that I had been interested in Aboriginal issues for a long time. By the 1980s I thought that the Aborigines had come an enormous distance. From my perspective, the wheels then seemed to come off.
I found myself resenting the sudden overall emphasis on the wrongs of the past that dominated discussion over the next twenty years. In parallel, all the reporting on aboriginal issues appeared to turn negative. I do not mean that it was anti-aboriginal, simply that all the stories were about problems, creating a constant negative flow that seemed to affect both aboriginal and non-aboriginal views. I started wondering just how things had gone so badly wrong.
Even then I thought that it was not all bad.
... rise in pride in aboriginality is now having a clear impact. I have a colleague whose grandmother was aboriginal. Twenty years ago, this was never mentioned. Today it is. I suspect that twenty years from now having some aboriginal ancestry will be a badge of pride among the broader Australian community. Indeed, it already is to some degree.
The only thing that will stop this happening is if we ourselves destroy it.
Drawing from my own experiences with Aboriginal eye care, I wrote:
This lead me to a simple conclusion. We should stop talking about specific aboriginal problems as though all aborigines were a uniform group quite distinct from the broader community, but instead should focus on disentangling the facts so that we knew just what we were really talking about.
I must say that this remains a real frustration. We simply don't get the information we need to be able to understand, let along make informed judgements.
I concluded by talking about the New England experience, expressing my frustration that the fragmentation imposed on New England by current systems made it very hard to see and understand changing patterns. I concluded:
In the absence of any integrated material I am forced to try to dig down location by location to discover the facts. Without these, anything I might say is likely to have little real meaning. Further, I have found little on some of the questions that I am interested in, such as the nature of modern internal migration patterns. It becomes yet another total story that needs to be written from ground up.
A Focus on History
A lot has happened since I wrote this post.
At a purely personal level, my resentment at the sudden and overwhelming emphasis on the wrongs of the past was part of my broader resentment at what I saw as the trashing of Australia's past, the imposition of politically correct views, a trend that reached a peak during the Keating years.
Looking back, I had no idea just how angry I had become. Looking back, my ability to write and express my ideas through blogging lanced a boil that had really begun to fester. Even now, I cannot listen to Mr Keating speak without a visceral reaction.
I wasn't alone in this type of reaction. Resentment still lingers in many sections of the Australian community.
In my case, the capacity to write, the need to understand, led me to investigate Aboriginal history with a special focus on NSW.
This may sound like a small thing, but it is actually almost impossible to undertake historical research of any type if your starting point is resentment at a topic and the way the topic is presented. If you cannot put that resentment aside, then the automatic tendency is to debunk, to disprove; understanding comes a distant second.
All those interested in history ask questions of the material they read. In my case, I was reading from several perspectives.
Part of my interest lay in simply understanding what had happened. I may have been putting my resentment aside, but I was still deeply suspicious of what had become the "conventional" interpretations.
Part of my interest lay in understanding New England's specific past, given that I still wanted to write a history of New England. Here I became increasingly interested in the emerging linkages between present and past, at the way in which it might be possible to write a real story about the Aboriginal past.
Part of my interest, too, lay in the way that history helped me better understand current policy debates. Here I pointed and counter-pointed between my analysis of current issues and the past, always conscious of my New England/NSW focus.
I make this point because the diversity of Australian Indigenous history and experience actually makes it difficult to generalise. I rarely write about Northern Territory issues, for example, because I lack detailed understanding.
Reading about Aboriginal history in the European period can be distressing, in part because of the damage done by people through misguided policies introduced with the best of intentions. The effects of these changing policies still play out today in often unseen ways within the Indigenous community.
To illustrate what I mean, Judith Burn's PhD thesis looked at housing and mobility among Aboriginal people in Western NSW. By way of background to this, patterns of mobility and migration among Aboriginal people are important to things such as social housing demand.
Judith used interviews in a number of Western NSW towns to trace people's movements over time, assessing the number, direction and reasons for moves. As part of this, she used maps to show varying patterns of in and out migration between centres. These patterns are very different from those holding in the broader community and directly reflect the various stages in Aboriginal history in Western New South Wales.
To begin with, Aboriginal life at the time of European intrusion was marked by complex patterns of seasonal migration and of varying interactions between friendly and less-friendly or enemy groups. People knew their land and their place within it.
Much of this was destroyed quite quickly, yet the traditional patterns can still be seen in the movements along the River.
The creation of missions and reserves, together with the policies of the Aboriginal Protection (later Welfare) Board of moving and concentrating people, created a second set of geographic linkages linked to specific missions and reserves, past as well as present. Many Aboriginal people people have multiple places they think of as home - the place they think of as traditional country, the reserve or mission where their families were moved, the place they live now.
Another set of continuing linkages was created by the later Family Resettlement Aboriginal Corporation. This was created as a voluntary program to encourage Aboriginal people to move to areas such as Newcastle where there was available work.
While the early evaluations of this program were generally positive, it ended badly because it coincided with the sharp decline in Australian manufacturing and rising unemployment that marked the second half of the 1970s. Many of those who did move and obtained work lost their jobs and returned home. However, the links established then still appear in the migration patterns. People come and go to those centres.
One of the difficulties in the migration patterns can be summarised this way: if you don't have work, then you may as well return home where you at least have country, friends and family. This explains why some Aboriginal young go to the regional centres or the big smoke, then return.
The Aborigines as People
One of the things that I have tried to do in my still limited historical research is to focus on the Aborigines as people. This may sound a simple thing, but in fact much historical discussion (and public policy for that matter) focuses on institutions and institutional changes. We recognise that there are people beyond this, but they largely disappear from view.
Take, as an example, the policies of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board in relocating Aboriginal groups. We can write about this in institutional terms, the reasons for, the general effects. But which people were relocated and where?
Previously I spoke of this in the context of the impact on current patterns of mobility in Western NSW. However, it goes far beyond this.
Some Aborigines lived on missions or reserves under the control of the Aboriginal Protection or Welfare Board, others chose to live on the fringes of town to avoid Board control.
This still plays out in NSW today.
Describing his own family, one Aboriginal person told me with pride that his family were fringe dwellers, not mish.
This simple statement had all sorts of distinction attached to it that I do not yet fully understand. However, fringe dwellers were for more likely to be mobile, more likely to be in the workforce, more likely to attend normal public schools instead of the separate Aboriginal schools found on the missions or reserves. Yet this distinction is not necessarily as clear cut as I am presenting here.
To understand all of this you have to find some way to break through the institutions and labels to the people underneath.
Diversity within the Aboriginal Community
Working in an environment where I come in daily contact with Indigenous people has altered and refined my views in a variety of ways. I am helped here by the fact that I am interested in Indigenous issues, I now know a fair bit about the history of Aboriginal people in NSW, I am from the country and I smoke!
In an article in newmatilda.com, Blacker Than Thou, Sarah Maddison pointed to some of the complexities and divisions within the Indigenous community. Many of the same issues play out in NSW, although their expression is greatly affected by the State's specific history.
There are a number of issues here that I have to be careful in writing about. I do not necessarily understand the full complexity, I am not Indigenous, while there can be considerable sensitivities involved.
The standard working definition of Aboriginality has been expressed this way:
An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.
This definition thus has three parts: descent, self-identification and community recognition. Of these three, self-identification and community recognition are the most important.
Looking at descent first, the definition means that there are NSW Aborigines who are Aboriginal in the same way that I might variously classify myself (and do from time to time) as English, Scottish or Kiwi. To these three, my daughters can add Irish.
Of itself, this leads to great variety in the appearance and actual ethnicity of NSW Aboriginal people.
The second leg, self-identification, is important because it goes to the heart of people's perceptions of themselves. To be Aboriginal is to think of one's self as Aboriginal. This is one of the reasons for the quite rapid growth in Indigenous numbers as more people self-identify. It is also a reason why growth will continue because with inter-marriage between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups, the children may choose to be classified as Indigenous.
The self-identification leg worries some Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. However, the previous ethnicity based definition created major problems rather dramatically illustrated by the following quote from the historian Peter Read:
In 1935 a fair-skinned Australian of part-indigenous descent was ejected from a hotel for being an Aboriginal. He returned to his home on the mission station to find himself refused entry because he was not an Aboriginal. He tried to remove his children but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the local reserve. During the Second World War he tried to enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal. He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After the war he could not acquire a passport without permission because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the Aborigines Protection Act-and was told that he could no longer visit his relations on the reserve because he was not an Aboriginal. He was denied permission to enter the Returned Servicemen's Club because he was.
You can see the mess that was created. However, with time the broader self-identification approach has all sorts of policy implications.
Just as my wife and children are angry with me for my failure to get a British passport when it was possible (this would have given us better access to the EU), so now the presence of Indigenous specific programs may under some conditions provide benefits encouraging people to claim Aboriginality.
This brings me to the third leg, community recognition. You must not only claim to be Aboriginal, but also be recognised as Aboriginal. Again, this one has its problems leading, among other things, to conflict within Aboriginal communities.
The point of this analysis is that there is no easy way of dealing with the definition of Aboriginality. To make things easier for myself, I have come to make a two fold distinction in my mind.
Distinction one is a claim to ethnic connection based on ancestry in the same way that I sometimes think of myself as Scottish. This is a matter of historical pride. Distinction two is a direct cultural/historical linkage.
There are some people who I would classify as Indigenous in my mind even though in blood terms they are as much Indigenous as I am Scottish because they grew up in Indigenous communities and have always been seen as part of their community.
This brings me to my final point in this section, the need to drop down from the broad macro State wide level to the local and the individual.
When you do this, many of the broad problems associated with things such as the definition of Aboriginality vanish. It does not matter what people's precise ethnicity is: they have clearly shared and are part of what I think if as the NSW or New England Aboriginal experience. End of argument.
The problem, however, is that a new and far more complex set of differences now emerge.
At this stage in my thinking, I have barely begun to sketch these out.
At the most basic level, we have the continued existence of alliances and rivalries that existed eons ago. Just listening to conversations, many Aboriginal people know who their traditional friends and enemies were, who can marry who, whom cannot be trusted.
Superimposed on this, we have the patterns created by subsequent history such as the actions of the Aboriginal Protection or Welfare Board. Then we have the results of most recent changes, including the concept of self-determination and the creation of the Land Councils in NSW.
On top we have broader changes, such as the decline of inland NSW where so many Aboriginal people live. It all gets very confusing!
Government Policy towards our Indigenous Peoples
In their book Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia (Seaview Press, South Australia, 2007), Michael C Dillon and Neil D Westbury point to a number of problems with the policies of various Governments towards Australia's indigenous people.
This is an important book because of Michael's links with Minister Jenny Macklin. It is also an important, if also deeply flawed, book because of the arguments it puts forward.
The book argues, correctly to my mind, that one problem is a lack of rigour in policy making. It also argues, again correctly to my mind, that a second problem lies in the failure to recognise Indigenous difference, leading to a one size fits all approach.
All this said, the flaw in the book lies in the way that the authors, having made these points, actually generalise from Northern Territory experience. The NT is only a small part of Indigenous Australia.
Despite these faults, the book is a must read for anyone interested in improving the real condition of Australia's Indigenous peoples.
In my own policy writing, I have tried to get across the importance of Indigenous variation. I have also tried, as Dillon and Westbury argue, to get across the need to distinguish between problems that are uniquely Indigenous, those that are sub-sets of broader problems.
So far I have not been very successful. Still, I have come a long way in at least my own thinking since that first post in December 2006.