Coercive Reconciliation

It may well be that the most important book on indigenous themes published in 2007 will turn out to be Coercive Reconciliation: stabilise, normalise, exit Aboriginal Australia(Arena Publications, 2007 342pp.), edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson. It is a collection of thirty essays occasioned by the declaration of the national emergency and the massive intervention into the lives of the indigenous people of the Northern Territory, and a remarkable achievement not the least for the speed with which it was produced. 

Arena Publications proposed the idea of a “quick book” about the government’s plans as announced in the press conference Howard and Brough called on June 21 of this year. Two months later, to the day, on August 21, Coercive Reconciliation went to the printers and into circulation a month after that. The first of its accomplishments, then, is to record what people thought and felt in the very first moments when the shock and the wonderment, the outrage and relief were new. For as the thirty essays in this volume document, all those emotions characterized the initial reactions.

Now that another two months have passed since the last of the words contained here were penned, things have inevitably changed. Yet another strength of the book is that most of it remains highly relevant, and will no doubt continue to be so. These essays are of the moment, indeed, and yet they are for the years to come as well. 

Some of the authors are indigenous writers, others are not. Some are impassioned and angry, some exhort, others reason. There are essays about economics, and philosophical speculations, essays that scrutinize not just Howard, but Clare Martin and Noel Pearson as well. In turn, the authors take up child abuse, grog and petrol, land rights legislation, home ownership, the permit system, indigenous demography, and neo-liberal economics.

This variety in tone, in the structure of arguments presented, and in the scope and depth with which topics are treated is another of the book’s strengths. At times my blood was stirred by passionate preaching and at times it was chilled by brutal analysis. I now know that Section 19 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act details arrangements for leasing Aboriginal land, and I understand the differences that the 2006 amendments introduced. (I must confess that even the extended discussion of home ownership still leaves me painfully befuddled about the mechanics and subtleties of that process and how it works in Australia as opposed to here in the States.)

Coercive Reconciliation is divided into four parts. The first, “A National Emergency?” provides background information and looks at the government’s action in relation to the larger national and international context. Part Two looks at the issues raised by Little Children Are Sacred; there is probably more relevant information in these chapters than in all the government “response” and legislation.

The second half of the book takes as its metaphor the plan expressed by Brough and taken up in the book’s subtitle: “stabilise, normalise,” (in Part Three) and “exit.” The plan is to stabilize communities through the drastic imposition of changes in welfare and work, and through prohibitions. The next phase presumably will be to normalize Aboriginal Australia, which in the government’s philosophy still means (even now that the Prime Minister seemingly has seen the light of reconciliation) giving Aboriginal people the means to become liberal white Australians like John Howard. Having achieved that goal, the government forces can exit, presumably at the end of five years when their new leases are up.

With so many excellent essays to hand, I can not hope to do justice to each of them other than to urge you to read them all. So I’d like to focus on a pair of essays that deal with substance abuse, and the trio that concludes the book and catches themes both particular and encompassing.

Maggie Brady, who has written two book length studies of problems and solutions relating to alcohol in indigenous communities (Alcohol in the Outback: two studies of drinking(Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, 1984) and Indigenous Australia and Alcohol Policy: meeting difference with indifference(UNSW Press, 2004)) here contributes “Out from the Shadow of Prohibition.” In its few short pages, she tackles the gamut of problems with the government’s proposal for curbing alcohol abuse, from outright prohibition in areas that were already, for the most part, legally dry to Brough’s ill-considered notion of opening social canteens in previously dry communities.

She traces the calls for assistance that have come out of communities for decades, and the attempts that have been made to reduce violence and protect its potential victims. She notes, as many others have, the problems that will result from prohibition without programs in place to deal with alcoholism. But she goes further and looks squarely at the other obvious part of the problem: supply.

News reports have made much of the ineffectiveness of the requirement for registering purchases of alcohol in excess of $100, a plan that already represents a revision of the earlier attempt to regulate sales by percentage of alcoholic content. But few to date have laid out as clearly the culpability of the liquor industry in insuring the continued supply of booze. The lobby has refused to tax stronger grog to increase its price and thus, perhaps de facto, to decrease it salability to impoverished people. The tourist industry fears the impact of total prohibition on visits to Uluru or fishing trips out of Maningrida. The government fears for the $4 billion in taxes it does collect on liquor sales already. 

She notes that indigenous people who suffer from alcoholism have their problems confounded by the fact that they are the very ones least likely to have access to the medical treatments it will eventually require, the least likely to be able to afford help, and the least likely to take advantage of such help were it accessible and affordable. Her remarks resonate strongly with the proposition put forward elsewhere in this book that questions of human rights are important because nations have demonstrated that they can not always be trusted to act in the best interests of all the people they govern.

In the face of government callousness, corporate indifference, and a general lack of resources, it is not surprising that there is an alcohol crisis in Outback Australia: Brady notes that effective government action might alleviate a problem that, especially in the Northern Territory, afflicts not only Aboriginal people. All the measures proposed to control the consumption of alcohol will remain half-measures as long as nothing is done to control the supply.

Brady’s essay is followed immediately by another telling the story of indigenous determination to foil substance misuse that has beaten the odds and led to demonstrable victory. Tristan Ray’s contribution, “Youth Well-Being in Central Australia,” offers details of three programs initiated by communities to combat addiction among youth to petrol sniffing.

The best known of these is the Mt Theo Program begun by Warlpiri people from Yuendumu, which aims to first isolate sniffers, then to provide them with meaningful and (perhaps more importantly) enjoyable activities, and finally to encourage them to become mentors to still-troubled peers. Other programs in Docker River and Alice Springs have followed suit. But the success of all these activities has undoubtedly hinged on the introduction of unsniffable aviation fuel and Opal. Consonant with Brady’s arguments about alcohol, the control of supply is crucial. It is all the more remarkable that success in this arena has been achieved, given that petrol is a commodity that Central Australia cannot do without. Perhaps the very fact that prohibition is not an alternative gave a boost to the introduction of Opal. Or maybe, just maybe, we have proof here that indigenous initiative, unthwarted by white resistance, can make a huge difference in resolving problems in indigenous communities.

Coercive Reconciliation ends with three essays that examine large themes in contemporary indigenous affairs and of great importance to civil relations among Australia’s citizens. They offer the opportunity for us to meditate not on specific issues like substance abuse or child protection, but on matters that underlie the success or failure of any government policies and indeed the very question of “reconciliation” itself.

John Hinkson’s “The ‘Innocence’ of the Settler Imagination” tackles the fundamental difference in cultural assumptions and values that bedevil so many Australian attempts to come to terms with indigenous advantage. He sees the tensions inherent in the distinction between kinship-driven social norms and those of market-based individualism as the key problem that will require understanding and resolution if solutions that are meaningful to Aboriginal people are to be uncovered. Under Western eyes there is an inviolable primacy to the individual and the social institutions that allow us to interact with other individuals: primarily money and the marketplace.

The Intervention is founded on these principles of the marketplace. The individual ownership of homes, the leasing of communal lands, the participation in the for-profit economy are all essential building blocks of the Howard-Brough solution. They are all also inimical to the values of indigenous society. The globalization of markets and the pressure that it puts on Western democracies will exacerbate “settler” intolerance of social norms that do not follow the dictates of classical economics.

This relates to a theme that is sounded frequently in Coercive Reconciliation, and one I had not consciously considered until now: that the global war on terror that has dominated international discourse since 2001 has greatly increased the suspicions of Western democracies towards societies they perceive as “the other.” I do not mean to imply, and nor do the several authors who raise this point throughout the book, that white Australia thinks of Aboriginal people as terrorists. But the demonization of those who are different and who hold to differing belief systems than those that grew out of Enlightenment Europe has doubtless resulted in a decrease in tolerance for indigenous Australians in recent years.

Following on Hinkson’s delineation of differences, Raimond Gaita takes up the need to find common ground in “The Moral Force of Reconciliation.” This is a powerful essay that takes up Howard’s refusal to apologize, the spurious and distracting question of “white guilt,” the value in Noel Pearson’s attempts to wrestle with the problems of his communities on the Cape and the reasons why his best efforts have been betrayed by the co-opting of them in the name of the Emergency. Gaita is particularly forceful in deconstructing the condemnation of those who criticize the Intervention, those whom Brough and Pearson have repeatedly attacked as heartless conspirators in continuing the abuse of children because they disagree with the particulars of the neo-paternalistic strategies of the government’s opportunism.

Gaitia is equally devastating in his discussions of the very notion of reconciliation, especially as Howard has manipulated it over the years. He points out, for starters, that the very choice of the term “reconciliation” is misguided, implying as it does “that non-Aborginal Australians had a legitimate complaint against the Aborigines” (p. 301). He skewers Howard’s logic of “practical reconciliation.” If, as Howard insists, there is nothing to apologize for, then it follows that there is no need for reconciliation. The politician hopes to exploit the “feel-good” reaction to reconciliation without having to do the hard work of compromise or assuming responsibility for the current (and very sorry) state of affairs.

The volume closes with Jon Altman’s “In the Name of the Market?” Weaving together the themes of cultural difference, market economies, and a very real “practical reconciliation” of the economic quandaries that he sees as fundamental to the logic of the intervention, Altman attempts to chart a middle ground. In this ground the priorities of Aboriginal culture–connection to the land, caring for country, respect for relations–are married to the concerns of non-indigenous economic and social issues such as climate change and biodiversity and Aboriginal art, already a proven success in international markets, is supported and allowed to flourish.

Altman proposes that a hybrid economy can be created that can begin to ameliorate indigenous disadvantage and so help to alleviate the social problems that beset impoverished and marginalized communities. Altman’s primary research over the years has been conducted in and around Maningrida and another essay in this volume by Bill Fogerty and Matthew Ryan, “Monday in Maningrida,” offers concrete examples of how indigenous initiative and government support can combine to create solutions to both economic and social woes. And like so many other essays included here, theirs notes that more than anything else, it is the failure to follow through, to sustain initiatives through community involvement in making decisions and through timely and effective delivery of funding for human and physical infrastructure, that has resulted in past failures and will threaten future success.

As I look back over the pages of Coercive Reconciliation, I am struck by one theme that arises repeatedly: respect. Respect is implicit in the reports of communities that have welcomed the first waves of doctors and soldiers who have come to help. A lack of respect for indigenous values is central to most of the fears of further harm being perpetrated by the intervention. The debates about rights and responsibilities are fundamentally about respect. Coercion is the antithesis of respect. This book’s achievement is to offer a sustained critique–emotional as well as rational–of the current crop of solutions to the perceived problems of indigenous Australia. The authors recognize much that is flawed but still maintain hope that, given respect on all sides, the future can be made to work more effectively, if never perfectly, than the present.


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