Noel Pearson’s Rights and Responsibilities

The September issue of the Australian Literary Review featured a cover photo of Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton with a banner reading “Black on the Inside.” The headline below heralded “The Indigenous affairs revolution,” authored by Nicolas Rothwell. Inside (or at least on the version that appeared online) the headline read “Indigenous insiders chart an end to victimhood.” 

Among the books that Rothwell takes as the springboard for his discussion of Indigenous solutions about the dire state of affairs that afflicts contemporary Aboriginal society is Noel Pearson’s Our Right to Take Responsibility (Noel Pearson and Associates, 2000). It is, as Rothwell points out, an early manifesto, a glimpse into the genesis of thinking that has come to dominate much of the discourse around Indigenous disadvantage in recent years. Although Pearson frequently wrote opinion columns for The Australian in the months leading up to and immediately following the announcement of the Intervention in June 2007, Our Right to Take Responsibility was a sustained attempt to develop his arguments about welfare and alcohol and the destructive synergy between the two.

Immediately following the book’s title page Pearson offers an “epigraph page” that fairly succinctly encapsulates the arguments of the 100 pages that follow:

If we are to survive as a people

We have to get passive welfare out of Aboriginal governance in Cape York Peninsula

We have to get ride of the passive welfare mentality that has taken over our people


In the nine chapters that follow Pearson develops his themes in a manner more kaleidoscopic than strictly logical. And I don’t mean to denigrate them by making that distinction. By kaleidoscopic I mean that Pearson successively takes up aspects of the problems as he sees them, examines them, gives them a shake, and re-examines them, drawing conclusions as he does so. 

This sideways thinking can be an important antidote to strict, rational argument, which has often not served Indigenous Australian well. After all it was the logic of equal pay for equal work that led to the massive dis-integration of Aboriginal stockmen from the economy of remote Australia in the 1960s, just as the logic of an economic safety net for all Australian citizens led to the widespread dependence on government welfare in the absence of an economy or of the chance for Indigenous people to engage in the economy, urban or rural.

Thus he is able to acknowledge pervasive and pernicious racism in Australian society (or more accurately on Cape York, for Pearson maintains his rootedness in the local experience throughout). At the same time, he avoids positing such racism as a fundamental, much less excusable, cause of dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. Similarly, he is able to acknowledge that “the resources embedded in welfare are valuable,” while decrying the effects of passive welfare as an economy that operates outside the necessary strictures of reciprocity.

In exploring the theme of reciprocity in an economy, Pearson makes one of his most brilliant and persuasive arguments. He stresses the importance of reciprocity as an Indigenous value, indeed as a traditional value. He notes how the culture of drinking debilitates that reciprocity: drinkers demand that money be shared for grog, that relatives surrender welfare checks to the canteen, but that they fail to offer anything in return. The families of non-drinkers must feed and tend to the families of drinkers, but they receive no reciprocal benefits from the drinkers. 

By analogy, Pearson argues, individuals receive money from Canberra, but Canberra receives (and perhaps expects) nothing in return. The reciprocal basis of social organization is ruptured and the weaker party suffers. Aboriginal communities, lacking the resources of the wider economy, spiral into dysfunction. Within those communities, women and children’s fates are beholden to the drinking men whose physical violence becomes the basis for social relations.

This is powerful stuff, and even now, after years of following arguments in the media over what needs to be done about remote Indigenous Australia, I found myself stopping to reconsider old truisms in light of what Pearson has to say in this book.

In the latter half of the book, Pearson turns his attentions to questions of government and governance, and here he is less successful or, at least, less convincing. In part this is because of his perception of government as essentially an act of ceding power to representatives (and thus more in line with whitefella politics) and governance as collective decision-making at a very local level (and thus more appropriate to blackfella polity). He suggests a way forward in which the resources of government might be directed towards the collective will to governance, that is, that welfare be not passive and not given to individuals but redefined as an active partnership between Canberra and local or regional initiatives to develop an economy that might ultimately eclipse the whole question of and need for welfare payments.

No doubt a certain pessimism informs my judgments here, for I find it close to inconceivable that a government that discarded Aboriginal law on the grounds that there lies no basis for its recognition in Crown Law or Common Law would agree to making grants to local manifestations of Indigenous governance without demanding the kind of accounting and accountability that it could never obtain from Indigenous processes of decision making and allocation of resources. Pearson is right in recognizing two fundamentally different models at work in Canberra and in Hope Vale; he lacks a coherent vision for bringing the two together in a functioning relationship.

And this is one of the great weaknesses in the theses of Our Right to Take Responsibility. Both because it lacks the rigorous development of such a plan and because it is essentially a series of important but isolated insights, it comes across as the kind of book that would play superbly into the hands of someone like John Howard who would be happy to select those parts of it that supported his program while conveniently ignoring whatever else he chose to look past. I was stunned, I admit, to hear Marcia Langton herself describe how Howard had “cherry-picked” ideas out of Our Right to Take Responsibility during her debate over the Intervention with Clare Martin on SlowTV.

And while Pearson (and Langton) are correct about the terrible wrack that alcohol is making of Indigenous communities, there are serious problems with Pearson”s dismissal of the “symptom theory of addiction.” In “Agendas of addiction” (The Australian, March 1, 2008) and elsewhere–including Our Right–Pearson attempts to sideline the importance of poverty, racism, and even physiology to an understanding of the alcohol induced misery of Aboriginal Australia. He seems to avoid creating an excuse at the cost of ignoring a cause.

Following the analysis of Swedish psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, Pearson has announced that five factors are “sufficient for addiction problem to develop.”

  • Availability of the addictive substance
  • Money to acquire the substance
  • Time to use the substance
  • Example of use of the substance in the immediate environment
  • A permissive ideology in relation to the use of the substance.

These assertions fit nicely with Pearson’s contention that welfare and grog are the roots of disadvantage. But taken by themselves they don’t explain enough. They don’t explain why some individuals in these afflicted communities succumb and others do not. 

I once heard a lecture on substance abuse in which the speaker, a rehabilitation counselor, offered a stunningly simple condition that we would do well to add to the list above: “People take drugs to change the way they feel.”

In the end, Pearson’s refusal to acknowledge the enervating effects of poverty and exclusion seriously undermines the insights he has to offer. His call for Aboriginal assumption of responsibility is both corrective and correct. But passive welfare alone does not account for the parlous state of remote Australia. Government handouts may indeed be part of the problem, but the failure of government to engage effectively and meaningfully with Indigenous Australians’ needs both in the cities and in the bush is another obstacle to amelioration. This latter point is the thesis of another book that Rothwell discussed in his ALR article, and that will be grist for a subsequent post: Neil Westbury and Michael Dillon’s Beyond Humbug: transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia (Seaview Press, 2007).

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