Saturday, October 13, 2007

We (Australia) need a new compact with our indigenous people



Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson.

I think that Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson is a very clever and wise man. In the midst of the furore on Mr Howard's statement about the need for Aboriginal reconciliation, he made the simple point that we should take advantage of the opportunity now opened up. He also suggested that the matter should be discussed with an open agenda and mind through a process of listening and understanding.

I make this point because I have just been on a tour of the blogosphere looking at the responses to Mr Howard's statement. It reminded me, among other things, why I dropped out of discussion on so many public issues because I could not accept the tone and assumptions of what I used to think of as the soft headed left. All this is still there, and it just bores me. I don't want to play in that sand-pit.

So far as I am concerned, while I am interested in Mr Howard's motives, these are irrelevant to the conversation I want to have.

Over the last twelve months or so I have written something close to fifty posts across my blogs, more than I have written on any other single topic, about issues concerned with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This stream of posts has in part been a dialogue with myself, an exploration of my own thinking and feelings about a subject that I first became involved with in the sixties through my university studies. But it has also been an exploration of different aspects of indigenous life and history and of the evolution of policy towards our Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

My writing was triggered by a key question: how had we got things so badly wrong? How had we gone from a situation in the sixties and seventies where our Aboriginal peoples seemed to be making huge progress from a position of dispossession and deprivation, where there was an excitement about Aboriginal Studies, to a position where reporting about Aboriginal issues was almost entirely negative?

I found my attitudes and ideas changing as I wrote.

To begin with, I came to a better if still imperfect understanding of the systemic nature of discrimination. By this I do not not mean the headline stuff that our kids are taught today. Rather, I am talking about the way in which individual laws and policies sometimes implemented for the best of reasons created barriers to advancement, encouraged deprivation

In trying to understand this, I became frustrated at what I saw as the absence of proper Aboriginal historiography. By inclination and training I am an historian as well as economist. Insatiably curious, I like to understand things. Here I got more and more frustrated.

My writings on indigenous issues have been spread across three main blogs.

This blog has a strong personal, cultural and policy focus. So when I am writing here I try to dig down into the derivation of things.

To do this, I need statistical data. Where do our indigenous people live? What do they do? I need information about people and trends. What are the main streams in Aboriginal art? Can we in fact talk about "Aboriginal" art? Who have been the main Aboriginal writers, artists, actors? Then I need information about the derivation of things. What are the elements and assumptions built into this policy, how did it evolve?

The Regional Living Australia blog tries to tell and sell the story of life outside the metros. This brings me into contact with indigenous issues in a different way. Again, I need information. In writing the series on the Kimberley, for example, I needed to look at the history and structure of the region.

The third blog, New England Australia, is localised.

Here I want to know answers to questions like these: what is New England's Aboriginal population; what are the main Aboriginal language groups; what is the current position of the Aboriginal people across New England; what are the stories of New England's individual Aboriginal peoples; where do Armidale's Aboriginal people come from; what is happening to Aboriginal people in the Northern Rivers as house prices rise?

Three blogs, different focus, same problem. The information, and especially the historical information, that I need to write is often not there. Bluntly, we in the non-Aboriginal community are all so busy fitting and interpreting Aboriginal issues within our own frames that we forget to talk and think about the Aborigines as people and peoples.

I do not want this post to become too long.

What I think that I should do to encourage discussion is to put down my own personal manifesto setting out what I believe should go into a new relationship between Australia and its indigenous people.

One outcome from my research and writing, and this was a position that I did not expect to reach, is that I now believe that the creation of a new compact with our indigenous people is the single most important issue facing modern Australia. In my next post I will try to explain why.

Postscript

You will get some feel for the problems we face in developing new approaches in this area if you look at this post including comments on Larvatus Prodeo and, on the other side, the responses to Rafe's post on Catallaxy. Sort of the left and right of it.

Near the start of this post I spoke about the conversation that I wanted to have. I used the word conversation advisedly. Conversation involves clarifying issues, getting to understand what the other person is saying.

Lexcen's comment on this post is an example of what I call conversation, as is Andrew Bartlett's initial comment on Larvatus Prodeo. I am going to miss Andrew and indeed the Democrats as a whole. For someone like me who is uncomfortable with the venom that can sometimes be found in the major parties, Andrew has been a force for rational and civilised discussion.

I feel, I may be wrong, that there is a growing group of Australians who want to reach a resolution of the problem created by past relations with the Aborigines so that we can all move on as Australians. I do not want to be writing the same type of posts in ten year's time, assuming that I am still around.

7 comments:

Lexcen said...

Jim, you raise important questions. Are we (the Australian public) in fact talking about an imaginary aboriginal society that exists only within our own mind? Or should we be more specific and narrow the focus on the aboriginals living in outback communities as one group, the aboriginals living in squalor in suburban slums (unemployed and living destitute) and the aborigines who have managed to adapt to western lifestyle. We can't group them altogether can we?
Furthermore, there is no one leader, figurehead or spokesman that represents all aboriginals. There are many voices who speak on behalf of "their people" but I doubt if they are representative of a large and diverse group as I have tried to describe. In reality we all know that the issues that concern us are really about the aboriginals who live in squalor in remote communities, who rely on welfare as an income, who have no expectations of employment or aspirations to improve their lifestyle, who have deal with alcoholism within their community, who are trapped between a traditional society and its values and modern society neither of which they quite fit into anymore. The barrier between these aboriginals and those of us who discuss them is not just a barrier of distance and separation but one of language, do these people speak English? Furthermore, my blogs have raised comments from people in America who inform me that American aboriginals - the Indians have more or less the same issues as Australian aboriginals. It seems that it is a problem so vast and insurmountable that all the goodwill in the world won't make an iota of difference. My personal view is that you cannot have two sets of values, two sets of laws, two sets of cultures co-existing within the one country no matter how much it may appeal to the idealistic mind. The fact is that such a situation creates a schizophrenia like state in the aboriginals who find themselves trapped between two cultures neither of which they belong.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, Lexcen, I am meant to be planting onions, but having checked for responses to this post I found yours. You raise some good points, so I have put the onions on hold to respond.

You wrote: "Are we (the Australian public) in fact talking about an imaginary aboriginal society that exists only within our own mind? Or should we be more specific and narrow the focus on the aboriginals living in outback communities as one group, the aboriginals living in squalor in suburban slums (unemployed and living destitute) and the aborigines who have managed to adapt to western lifestyle. We can't group them altogether can we?"

One of the points that I have tried to make time and time again in fact is that at one level there is no such thing as "the Aborigines." As you say, we are dealing with a diverse community made up of many groups. Further, to some degree "the Aborigines" are a construct of non-Aboriginal society. But the story does not end there.

Just as there was no "Aboriginal Australia" in 1788, so there was no Australia. Both "Aboriginal Australia" and "Australia" are constructs developed since.This does not mean, however,that they lack reality.

So at one level we can talk about Aboriginal Australia as an entity, but a second level it becomes completely meaningless when we fail to recognise the diversity in Aboriginal society.

You wrote: "Furthermore, there is no one leader, figurehead or spokesman that represents all aboriginals. There are many voices who speak on behalf of "their people" but I doubt if they are representative of a large and diverse group as I have tried to describe."

I agree and it is a problem. At the same time, this issue also comes up in broader Australian society. Is Mr Howard or Mr Rudd for that matter representative?

You wrote: "In reality we all know that the issues that concern us are really about the aboriginals who live in squalor in remote communities, who rely on welfare as an income, who have no expectations of employment or aspirations to improve their lifestyle, who have deal with alcoholism within their community, who are trapped between a traditional society and its values and modern society neither of which they quite fit into anymore."

I disagree at two levels. In fact, I would say that you are caught in the trap you have previously defined.

One point that I made in the context of the NT intervention is that the problems there are not representative of the broader Aboriginal community. Further, the issues that concern me and on which I write about most are not those of NT tribal Aborigines, but of Aborigines elsewhere in the country and especially in my beloved New England. Yes, there are some common issues, but many differences.

In my view, at a practical level we have to deal with NT issues as NT issues, but not generalise unless there is a cse for so doing.

You wrote: "My personal view is that you cannot have two sets of values, two sets of laws, two sets of cultures co-existing within the one country no matter how much it may appeal to the idealistic mind. The fact is that such a situation creates a schizophrenia like state in the aboriginals who find themselves trapped between two cultures neither of which they belong."

Doesn't this mix together different things? There are multiple values in Australia. There are mutiple cultures.

Laws as opposed to customs is a different issue. I must say I have real problems here. In my view, so far as law is concerned, this must be universal.

Over to you!

Lexcen said...

Jim, I'll give you a short answer this time. Multiculturalism is a myth, it's a fallacy. Each society is one culture with many influences, consider it like a cooking pot where different ingredients are added to make a casserole. As each influence is added to the pot, the casserole becomes more interesting. If the ingredients on the other hand do not merge, if they stay separate then we no longer have a casserole but a conglomerate. It is my metaphor for modern society. For example each group of immigrants has added to the overall culture of Australia but they have had to let go of values that are incompatible with Australian values. Trust me on this, I'm from an immigrant background. When it comes to NT aborigines, there seems to be an artificial separation that could be compared to apartheid. Keeping communities isolated on reserves isn't the way to go. In fact, integration is the only option for a stone age hunter gatherer society with no concept of formal structures, reading, writing, technology, ownership of property, a legal system, the list just goes on and on. The divide is too great to bridge with idealistic notions of maintaining a dreamtime culture parallel to a modern lifestyle. So, in fact I am addressing the most pressing problem facing Australia which is referred to aboriginal problem. Yes there is diversity and different communities but the focus must surely be on the most disadvantaged, the most recognizable communities that have failed to reach a living standard which we would consider acceptable in Australia and not comparable with living conditions in a third world country.

ninglun said...

A very valuable post, Jim. I will be referring to it, even shamelessly but honestly stealing from it. You may have noted that as my rejigged Archive Blog has developed over today I am making space there for something very serious on this.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, you will know from my previous posts that I, too, have problems with multulturalism as an ism.

Just to summarise my own views, we have a core Australian culture. As you say, each new migrant group adds something to this. So one of my interests has been exploring the evolution of that culture over time, as well as the variations across Australia - it is not single uniform culture. I am reminded of this every day since I live and work with people that are culturally distinct,sometimes very distinct, from me.

I think that the existence and strength of the core culture is critical to Australian survival as an entity. One of the problems that I had with the ism school is that they seemed to deny, in some cases explicitly denied, the place of the core culture.

Gathered around the core culture are a variety of individual migrant cultures. I have never had a problem with migrant groups retaining their own cultures so long as they do not breach Australian law.

I actually live in a Greek area. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral is down the road, as is an Armenian Orthodox Cathedral. My next door neighbours on both sides are original Greek settlers who still speak mainly Greek.I enjoy this variety.

One of the reasons why I have always been so comfortable with the continued existence of migrant cultures along side the core culture is that there has been a natural process of integration and assimilation down the generations.

Again taking the local Greek case, the children and grandchildren of my very Greek neighbours retain some Greek cultural features but are also clearly and definably Australian.

My comfortable attitude was badly disturbed by some of the more extreme proponents of Mism. In asserting that all the cultures in Australia were equal to and should be given equal treatment with the core culture they threatened my own cultural identity.

To me, the natural outcome of this process was fragmentation, the replacment of a core culture capable of living with and accepting - absorbing - other cultures with a multiplicity of equal and separate cultures.

For two reasons, I am much more relaxed about this than I was ten or fiteen years ago.

First, the more extreme proponents of Mism over-reached themselves, creating a reaction that has toned things down. I may not agree with all elements of the reaction, but it has restored a degree of balance.

Secondly and far more importantly,the core culture itself has proved very resilient.

Now how does all this link to the Aborigines and especially those closer to the traditional hunter gatherer life?

My personal thinking here is still cloudy and confused.

To begin with, does the long Aboriginal occupation of the land put them in a special class? My inclination is to say yes. But what does a yes answer mean?

I need to address this one in a full post at some point. At a personal level, I do not want to see all elements of traditional Aboriginal life vanish.

I was taken-aback by the 2006 census results because they suggested that the last couple of New England's still spoken Aboriginal languages were close to extinction. I would hate to think that school children in the respective areas would lose access to the sounds of the past.

But how do we retain elements of traditional Aboriginal life in modern Australia? How do we absorb this into and recognise it within the modern Australian core culture? How do we make it more than mere tokenism? How do we create an environment that bridges cultural divides. And what do we mean by traditional Aboriginal life anyway?

Quite clearly, and for some of the reasons you point out, retention of a traditional hunter-gatherer life is extremely difficult. But we are, I think,dealing with a much broader problem than this.

As a simple example, the Torres Strait Islanders complain, and with justice, that in all the discussion their existence as a distinct and separate ethnic and cultural group is being ignored.

As a second example, measured by numbers, there are in fact more remote area Aborigines in NSW than there are in the NT. With the abolition of CHIP, funding for things like housing for this group has been withdrawn and redirected to the NT.

I will stop at this point. I really do need to tease some of these things out more fully.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I will read your new material with interest. Looking at the blog posts on Howard Aborigines, I checked them again this morning,its not going to be easy to get any new thinking up. This where Mr Dodson is wise. We are not going to get anywhere if we keep recycling old positions, and that includes my own.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.