Engagement Not Intervention

An old Aboriginal once described Europeans to me in eight words: ‘Very clever people; very hard people; plenty humbug.’ –W. E. H. Stanner, 1964

It now seems evident, indeed inarguable, that the Rudd Government is committed to continuing in the broad furrow plowed by Mal Brough and the Northern Territory Emergency Response. With talk of expanding some sort of welfare quarantines to Queensland and Western Australia–although not blanket quarantines but as penalties for poor parenting–it’s clear that we need a more nuanced understanding of what “roll back the Intervention” suggests.

An engaging new book from Seaview Press, Beyond Humbug: transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia by Michael C. Dillon and Neil D. Westbury, completed since the start of Brough’s revolution, takes a new look at how the government might begin addressing problems of disadvantage and dysfunction. The authors’ central thesis is that it has not been the policies of self-determination that have led to the current crisis but rather the government’s withdrawal from a meaningful engagement with remote Australia in that period. It is a failure of political will.

Dillon and Westbury have taken several cues from Stanner, in addition to their title, and begin their multifaceted analysis with an an introduction to “the cult of disremembering,” the willful forgetfulness of human plight that has replaced Stanner’s Great Australian Silence. In successive chapters of the book they look first at simple demographics, and then at the catastrophic implications for remote Australia that continued disremembering poses. In presenting their statistics they approach the issues not from the conventional perspective of “Indigenous” demography but through the lens of “remote Australia” instead. 

Of course, very remote Australia is largely Indigenous in population, but by framing the matter in this way, the authors achieve two results. First, they turn aside the investigative gaze from the specter of racism that always haunts these discussions, because remote Australia can and does encompass non-Indigenous populations. This approach invites the second result, which is to consider the problems in economic rather than in sociological terms. Many writers have noted that services that are provided without hesitation to remote white communities are often only grudgingly bestowed on black communities. The ostensible justification for the difference is that the former contribute to the economy, even though such contributions have historically taken the form of unsustainable ventures in agriculture and pastoralism.

The central chapters of Beyond Humbug look at government policy towards remote Indigenous Australia through the lens of land tenure. The authors present their own experience in working through native title claims in the context of resolving disputes over land that had been gazetted for national parks. They suggest here that negotiation, in good faith, is a means of significant engagement that serves the interests of all parties better than adversarial legal confrontations; such confrontation are themselves a kind ofdisengagement. The authors find fault on both sides–governmental and Indigenous–in an affection for and reliance on litigation.

In a second instance of questioning the standards of land tenure, the authors look at the problems of townships. These pose special problems because of the innate conflicts between traditional owners and the many residents who are long-term occupants of the land, but not owners. Further complicating matters in these jurisdictions is the inability of the government to secure ownership of assets such as schools, staff housing, and infrastructure for services in these areas. The multiple state and Commonwealth programs for providing housing assistance exacerbate tensions among both bureaucrats and residents. In the end, the combined inertia of the factors brings even the best-intentioned parties down.

As they look to new solutions, Dillon and Westbury do cast their eyes back over the last thirty (or fifty) years and draw an interesting and important distinction. On the one hand, the Liberal faction in recent governments–and to some extent those on the left as well–have repeatedly equated the policy of self-determination with policy failures in the last half-century. On the other hand, nostalgic reports of “mission times” have suggested that life was indeed better in the days of dormitories direct control. Is a return to paternalism–a key ingredient of the Intervention–therefore justified or warranted? The authors argue that it is not.

Since the advent of ‘self-government’ … the institutional framework of government which operates in the rest of the nation disappeared in [remote Indigenous] communities. … Nor is it asserted that the policy of self-determination was an Indigenous failure (indeed it is arguable that because of the institutional failures of the Australian state, self determination as never effectively enabled). But along with this paternalistic engagement, perhaps invisible to those involved on both sides of the equation,existed the architecture of the state, the framework of rules and opportunities which constrain, guide and empower all Australians. It is that framework which has disappeared in remote communities and probably to a substantial extent in urban Indigenous communities, and which must be renegotiated and redesigned with Indigenous communities before the nation can successfully address the challenge of Indigenous disadvantage. …[T]he impact of the absence of government engagement has only recently become clear. The removal of paternalistic arrangements was entirely desirable; no-one recognized that important institutional structures, mostly intangible and informal, but nevertheless of very real significance were also being removed (pp. 192-194).

The fundamental problem in achieving consistent and persistent government engagement is, of course, political. First of all, the authors rightly note that “[a]ny attempt by an individual state or territory jurisdiction to allocate substantially great general revenue resources to Indigenous development would confront a coalition of mainstream political and public interest groups who could effectively undermine the political viability of the government concerned” (p. 186). Anyone who doubts this need only pick up Quentin Beresford’s biography of Rob Riley to see how such interests undermined land rights in Western Australia over and over again during the 1980s.

To overcome these structural problems Dillon and Westbury propose an independent Indigenous Reform Council that can pursue solutions without regards to the buffeting winds of electoral politics. The private sector must also participate, for as they stress throughout Beyond Humbug, economic solutions are critical to social solutions. To this end, The Australian may be right to celebrate Andrew Forrest’s Australian Employment Covenant. But without the ongoing commitment of government–and by implication, of the Australian people–such measures will remain only half-measures.

However, it is critical to avoid the perception that these are in all respects Indigenous problems: “since the solutions to Indigenous disadvantage must involve Indigenous people, many Australians sincerely believe that it follows that these issues are only for Indigenous people to address and sort out” (p. 194). One of the saddest moments of election night in the United States nearly two weeks ago came even before CNN was willing to predict that Obama would win. The Democratic victory was looking inevitable, and conservative commentator Bill Bennett was not going to wait for Obama’s triumph to be proclaimed before announcing its “true” implication: that there would no longer be any excuse for African-Americans to fail. Obama’s electoral victory, in fulfilling the American truism that “any child can grow up to be President,” meant that no black child had reason to fail. The Australian itself did not waste much time before singing the chorus to this refrain. By the weekend it noted that the “new realpolitik” signaled by the “historic election of the first black man as the leader of the free world” also signals that “the time is now right … for the disadvantaged to step beyond victimhood and take responsibility for their own hopes and aspirations” (“The end of big Bunga,” November 10, 2008).

Wouldn’t it be loverly? But in fact, governments exist to ensure that the weak are protected; that is the basis of foreign and domestic policies. While everyone from Marcia Langton to Chris Sarra calls upon Aboriginal people to assume greater responsibility for their lot, no community, black or white, can achieve success without the resources and organization of government being brought to bear on its problems, just as few individuals can thrive without the support of programs that are ultimately governments’ responsibilities. 

In Beyond Humbug, Dillon and Westbury have documented ways that a failure to engage with problems for which it bears responsibility has crippled government’s ability to resolve problems its citizens face. Chief among these seems to be the endless shifting of functions, roles, and resources between state and commonwealth, with the attendant overlap of programs that ultimately fail to reach their goals. This is a situation that allows the appearance of good intentions to triumph over the achievement of results to the detriment of all involved. In the end, we can not talk about the responsibility of the governed alone: government is a contract between two parties, each of whom must be trustworthy. 

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