Monday, October 18, 2010

Andrew Bolt and the question of Aboriginality

One of the difficulties arising from being an active blogger over a long period is that the sheer volume of posts (now over 3,200) can make it difficult to remember, let alone find, past posts on particular topics.

I mention this because, at the end of September, Legal Eagle had an interesting post, Ethnic identity and the law, dealing in part with a court case in which some indigenous people are suing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt over some articles he wrote about indigenous identification and skin colour.

I read the post in Greece and really could not comment at the time. However, I knew that I had written something on the issue of the definition of Aboriginality. Now searching on return, I found this post Sunday and now Monday Essay - personal reflections on Australia's Indigenous peoples from 13 April 2009. This includes a brief discussion of the concept of Aboriginality. There I quoted one current definition:

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.

It will be clear from the careful way I phrased the post that I found this a difficult issue amidst a suite of difficult issues relating to Australia's Aboriginal peoples. At a purely personal level, I have had to struggle to disentangle all the complexities of history and principle involved with our treatment of our indigenous peoples in a context where actions by both non-Aboriginal reformers and often well-intentioned official policies just make things more complicated.

The definition of Aboriginality I quoted with its emphasis on descent, self-identification and community recognition is of itself an attempt to replace the previous "race" based definition based on proportions of Aboriginality with a more sensible and rational definition.

The central problem with the previous definition was that it linked a single variable - descent- to official policies and programs based on that variable. There was a cascading chain of ideas: varying community and official attitudes about the Aborigines led to official policies and programs based on those attitudes. In turn, this required official definitions of the people to whom the policies and programs were to apply. Given then current ideas about race and ethnicity, proportions of Aboriginality came to be central.

The approach was, of course, deeply flawed. Among other things, it conflated perceptions about race and culture, concluding that culture as perceived (the idea of a child race, for example) was directly linked not just to race, but even the proportion of race.

Today, we still have the same cascading chain of ideas. Varying community and official attitudes about the Aborigines still leads to official policies and programs based on those attitudes that in turn require official definitions of the people to whom the policies and programs are to apply. The definitions of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander still matter beyond the personal level because they have practical effects; costs as well as benefits attach to them.

If we have to have official definitions, then the current three fold definition is to my mind clearly better. However, it also has its own problems and costs and is, I think, unsustainable in the longer term as the basis for policy. This gets me into difficult territory, so let me try to explain as simply as possible, recognising that I am still trying to think these issues through.

I have spent a fair bit of time over the last few years working on Aboriginal demography. This has included (among other things) analysis of trends and the generation of projections for use in planning service delivery. Increasingly, I struggle to know what these generalised statistics actually mean.

As I have said before, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not a single uniform entity, but are made up of a multiplicity of groups with a multiplicity of needs. Further, those needs contain a mixture of Aboriginal specific needs linked to history and culture with needs that are, in fact, sub-sets of needs within the broader communities in which the specific indigenous people live. The end result is a variable patchwork quilt.

Take Sydney as an example.

The number of Aboriginal people in Sydney is growing, if at a slower rate than the State average. Because there is out-migration of Aboriginal people from Sydney, Sydney's growth depends in part upon the natural birthrate, in part upon inter-marriage and self-identification. If two Aboriginal people marry and have two kids, the Aboriginal population as measured rises by two. If those Aboriginal people select non-Aboriginal partners and each have two kids who chose to classify themselves as Aboriginal, then Sydney's Aboriginal population as measured rises by four rather than two.

There is considerable variation in the Aboriginal condition within Sydney. For example, while Aboriginal home ownership is higher than the national average, it varies greatly across Sydney.

The problem that then arises is that statistics based on a simple definition of Aboriginality combines with service delivery based on that same definition to create something of a mess. The mess compounds as geographic coverage expands across the nation.

Am I opposed to Aboriginal specific services and policies? I am not. I have had far too much direct contact now with Aboriginal people to adopt that position. I am arguing, however, that we need to be far more flexible, more nuanced, in our approach. This brings me back to Andrew Bolt. Here I quote from Andrew Bolt as reported by Legal Eagle:

…Mellor and McMillan are representatives of a booming new class of victim you’d never have imagined we’d have to support with special prizes and jobs.

They are “white Aborigines” – people who, out of their multi-stranded but largely European genealogy, decide to identify with the thinnest of all those strands, and the one that’s contributed least to their looks. Yes, the Aboriginal one now so fashionable among artists and academics.

Let me start by listing areas that I agree with him:

  1. I agree that the current definition of Aboriginality and its link to entitlements can create problems.
  2. I agree that that there is probably a group of people who chose Aboriginality to gain benefits. Just ask any Aboriginal person in NSW on this one.
  3. I agree that there is a group - I would not limit it to artists or academics - who have made Aborigines a fashionable cause based on their perceptions of historical wrongs without adequate regard to either the historical record or the reality of variation within the Aboriginal community.

Now the areas where Mr Bolt is just plain wrong:

  1. He ignores the link between Aboriginality, culture and family up-bringing, focusing instead on skin colour and looks. I don't want to go into the long and in some ways sad history of this one, but if you grow up in an Aboriginal community, identify with it and are identified with it, then you are Aboriginal regardless of blood proportions. For example, you probably speak and are recognised to speak Aboriginal English. This is not a comment on Aboriginal English, simply on the way we use a variety of markers to categorise people.  
  2. I know of no evidence to support the assertion that there is a "booming new class of victims" supported "with special prizes and jobs". I do know of specific individuals, I do know that among Australia's welfare poor there is an incentive at the margin to claim Aboriginality as a way of getting a possible edge, but we are talking in hundreds, perhaps low thousands, not tens of thousands.
  3. Mr Bolt fails to recognise that Aboriginal people themselves are the greatest barrier to this type of rip-off. This one deserves a special comment.

Kinship is central to Aboriginal culture. To be accepted, you must be able to show and have accepted your kin relationships. Aboriginal people actually guard this quite closely. In my experience, they quickly identify people who are trying to use claims of Aboriginality for personal benefit and close ranks against them. It is a matter of pride.


Legal Eagle said...

Very nice post, Jim. Very well put.

Neil said...

As you remember, Jim, my nephew is Aboriginal by the current definition, blonde as he is. He it appears has been endorsed by acceptance in his community.

I guess I could be Aboriginal too...

I think the point is what the current criteria replaced; despite some issues in those criteria I certainly don't ever want us to return to the "degrees of blackness" tests of the past -- quadroon, octoroon and all that.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE.

Neil, I had remembered your connections. So long as we have policies and programs for which being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a general condition of access, then we have to have a formal definition.

I agree with you that the present definition is better than the old one, although as I noted in my orginal post the modern equivalent (DNA testing) is becoming more prevalent at the demand of indigenous groups such as some American Indians.

My feeling (hope) is that the importance of the general definition will decline with time as the areas to which it is relevant shrinks.

Anonymous said...

“So long as we have policies and programs for which being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a general condition of access”


I did not comment on that post over at Legal Eagle’s place just because of this comment of yours.

I think it is wrong for any legislation to be framed by race, full stop. Against that, I think it is correct that implementation of any legislation “be informed by” any significant issues arising because of culture. The former gives rise to the Andrew Bolts of the world – gives them a free hit if you like. The latter feeds more funds for the treatment of glaucoma to indigenous communities, because that is where that particular Australian health problem is rampant.

I use that example deliberately, because if glaucoma was totally genetically based, then of course, genetic identity would come into play in treatment and hopeful eradication. But even then, the term “genetic identity” is wrong; it is a catchall when what is really meant is genetic predisposition.

But I regard that as exceptional, and not a rule to be enshrined in legislation.

On the other hand, diversity in culture and, in particular, protection of fragile cultural links to our Australian heritage (which I regard as as much mine as it was Emily Kngwarreye’s), should be encouraged, protected, nurtured – and then protected again - by any and all means, including legislation – against the A Bolts of the world..


Jim Belshaw said...

I understand your position, KVD, but I am wondering whether or not you are caught in the same thought trap as the most passionate advocates of a racist Australia. I am not being rude when I say this, simply reflective. Let me try to explain.

Governments have all sorts of policies for all sorts of groups. We havee policies for single mums, for older Australians, for small business people, for regional Australia etc. In each case, we are dealing with a group that has some particular attribute or attributes that we have decided warrants policy action.

I would argue that the Aborigines are such a group. They were the original inhabitants of this country, they have been gravely disadvantaged by existing previous policies not excluding later do good policies. To my mind, they are in principle no different from the other groups I mentioned. Why, then, must policy towards them be classified as race based?

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim

It's raining, and I must shortly start morning duties, so this is brief, and I may need to qualify or expand it a bit later...

I take your point on the taglines you attach to needed policy initiatives - single mums, regional Australia, etc - and find my self thinking that each of those identified groups contain indigenous peoples.

But the tagline (I'll stick with that loose word for now) of 'indigenous' is so wide as to be less that useful in the generation of meaningful policy.

So, while I absolutely agree with your concluding comments about indigenous disadvantage, I just think rectifying that should be more properly addressed by targeting the specifics of disadvantage - education, health, single mums etc - rather than throwing a blanket race descriptor over the problem.

Probably digging a hole for myself here... I will go do some work, and think about how I might clarify what I've just tried to state.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi David. I think that there are two issues, one the principles, the other the facts.

I have argued before the indigenous policy should only address issues that are unique and specific, and that indeed many problems faced by Aboriginal people are subsets of broader problems and should be deal with in that way. Indeed, I have also argued that to do otherwise is to court failure.

So we have the tag indigenous and then the attributes to be addressed. So far so good. But I suspect that this still leaves some questions open. I, too, have to do some work!

Anonymous said...

Yes Jim - I think I better stop digging my hole now. I cannot 'improve' on what I earlier wrote - but I do recognise just how superficial it now sounds as I re-read it.

If all problems could be resolved simply by the application of goodwill then the only thing which seems certain is that A Bolt's comments were not helpful.