Notes and Blogs

No essay this week, I confess, as I’ve happily spent the last seven days entertaining my friend Walter, down from Boston for a springtime visit, our first since we saw each other at the opening of Dreaming Their Way in Dartmouth two and a half years ago. Our week ended with an invitation for me to give a talk on Aboriginal art in nearby Siler City, North Carolina, a rural community with a thriving arts district. The NC Arts Incubator sponsored a didjeridu-making workshop Friday afternoon, followed by my talk to a group of about 20 Australophiles. The workshoppers gave me an impromptu “welcome to country” serenade! Great fun for all. So instead of writing this weekend, I’ll take this opportunity to catch up on a few short notes that have been washing about the shores of my desktop.

An excellent new paper by Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research is now available online. It is entitled “Beyond Closing the Gap: Valuing Diversity in Indigenous Australia.” The paper was originally presented at the Centre for Public Policy’s conference on “Values & Public Policy” in February of 2009; here is a brief abstract of its arguments, thanks to Australian Policy Online.

In his Apology speech the Prime Minister attempted to balance the symbolic with the practical while emphasising that ‘business as usual’ is not working. Ultimately though, the ‘Closing the Gap’ approach is business as usual that fails to value Indigenous difference and fails to accommodate Indigenous aspirations in all their diversity. Unless we get beyond CTG, the next phase in Indigenous policy making and program investments is as ‘destined to fail’ as previous approaches.

This paper advocates for the pendulum to swing back, to accommodate and value diversity and difference rather than just statistical equality. In doing so, the author provides some reflexive comment as an academic on these policy swings. In 2005, Tim Rowse and Jon Altman wrote a piece on Indigenous policy that contrasted the contending approaches of economics and anthropology to Indigenous affairs policy: the first emphasising equality of socioeconomic outcomes, the second the facilitation of choice and self-determination. The former implies integration, the latter adherence to different and diverse life worlds. Over time, the author has used economics and official statistics to highlight socioeconomic disadvantage and neglect, while at the same time using anthropology to critique any approach that uses mainstream social indicators that only reflect the dominant society’s social norms. This paper will continue in the same vein using a dual disciplinary approach. However, without being over-reflexive, as an anthropologist of development he is clearly uncomfortable with the current dominance of the ‘Closing the Gap’ framework.

February also saw the publication of a six-part series at NewMatilda.com entitled “Two Week Intervention.” Scott Mitchell, a journalist and student in Sydney, chonicled two weeks of living in Newtown under conditions designed to approximate those of Indigenous residents of one of Alice Springs’ town camps. 

His income will be $460 in total for the full fortnight, with $100 of that taken for rent, $30 for child support and another $30 for government repayments or fines.

Half of his fortnightly income will be quarantined with a local supermarket in Newtown and this cannot be spent on cigarettes, alcohol, porn or gambling.

A large sign will be placed on the front of his house that reads “Prescribed Area: No Liquor”.

He is not allowed to drink alcohol (or use porn) within his local area (Newtown).

He is not allowed to catch the bus, only the train. This is because most Town Camps are not serviced by public transport, meaning residents have to walk a considerable distance to the nearest bus stop. Scott’s residence is more than a kilometre from the nearest train station.

He is not allowed to use the internet at home, only in a net café, and has to use a public phone box to make calls.

While some of the “approximations” seem a bit far-fetched, I found the story fascinating most of all for the way in which Mitchell found himself in a variety of troubles stemming largely from a sudden dislocation of his accustomed habits of thinking and living. It was not simply a matter of having to change his way of living; rather he seemed to get into trouble with his new lifestyle by failing to adjust his way of thinking. Despite the very self-conscious nature of the experiment, Mitchell was tripped up often by falling into assumptions about how he could control his daily life, realizing only too late the consequences of mundane actions. The copious comments left on this short-term blog are as fascinating as Mitchell’s own story.

Finally, I’ve been following another blog out of the Ngaanyatjara lands for a couple of months now. Robbo bills BitingTheDust as “a view of pharmacy and health from a very remote pharmacist,” but sells himself quite short in doing so. While many of the earliest entries (BitingTheDust has been online since August 2008) focused on health issues in remote lands, there is much more in the way of content available here.

There’s natural history, reminiscent of Bob Gosford’s essays on birds and snakes in The Northern Myth. There are regular posts on Desert art, and a few here and there on music coming out of his part of the country (The Wilcannia Mob, for instance, or today’s post of a new recording by Gosha Jackson and Basher Woods out of Mantamaru, “I Miss My Home“). And there are some brilliant photographic essays. The sequence documenting an approaching and then enveloping dust storm kept me riveted for a long time; I’m still bemused by the architectural wonder of the long-drop dunny at an abandoned homestead near the Strzelecki Creek.

Of late Robbo has added a new category to his blog: “Indigenous News Update.” Sometimes he collects a half-dozen links to news stories on a general topic like politics or health; other times he ranges far and wide in a single post, from Indigneous Rugby Union on tour in Thailand and China, to Jimmy Little, to culture shock among Intervention workers. 

No matter what subject he lands on in any given post, the perspective is always enlightening, often amusing, and definitely worth a look. Remember Clarke and Dawe on the Intervention? If not, check it out here along with a selection of the best of Crikey! on the subject. 

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