The Dilemmas of Black Politics

Sarah Maddison Black PoliticsIt has already been two years since Sarah Maddison published Black Politics: inside the complexity of Aboriginal political culture (Allen & Unwin, 2009), time enough for her to have published a second study (Beyond White Guilt, 2011) that examines the difficult questions surrounding relations between indigenous peoples and the settler state in Australia.  I am late coming to these books, but the passage of time has made them no less compelling and important.  At least, that is true of Black Politics, which I’ve just finished reading.  Indeed, if there is any change in the situations that Maddison describes so articulately, it is that the promise hoped for in the Labor victory of 2007, promise given breath by Rudd’s Apology in 2008, has fallen away, much as Rudd’s government did.  Once again, the problems of black politics have been pushed aside by the machinations of a white politics that is indifferent to them.

Black Politics is the product of years of research.  The bibliography alone extends to twenty-nine pages, but more importantly, much of the substance of the book is derived from extensive and far-reaching interviews with thirty Indigenous leaders, ranging from the Dodson brothers to Marcia Langton and Tom Calma, Alison Anderson to Jackie Huggins, representing those from Nyoongar to Wiradjuri to Yolngu lands.

No discussion of Indigenous politics in Australia can ever be truly divorced from the larger public framework of Commonwealth and state affairs.  However, Maddison keeps her focus largely on the internal dynamics of Aboriginal issues.  She does this by setting up a series of dichotomies or oppositions, most of them familiar from headlines and public debates.  I am, generally speaking, not fond of dichotomization as a rhetorical device, finding that too often it sets up irreconcilable differences–setting things out in black and white, so to speak–where nuance and complementarity are called for.  But I have to admit that it works splendidly in Black Politics.  This is partly due to Maddison’s own rhetorical excellence: her writing is clear and free from cant and jargon.  Moreover, she has built out of these bifurcations of important issues a single, book-length argument that flows naturally and organically from introduction to epilogue.  If you ever needed to have the sweep of today’s political problems arrayed before you, you would want to turn to Maddison for a precis that serves equally well as an introduction and an advanced analysis.

Perhaps the best way for me to illustrate the scope and the structure of Maddison’s argument is simply to list the dichotomies that form the ten chapters through which she advances her exposition, after an introduction that describes “a history of policy failure” in the first chapter.  Here is the list:

  • Autonomy and dependency
  • Sovereignty and citizenship
  • Tradition and development
  • Individualism and collectivism
  • Indigeneity and hybridity
  • Unity and regionalism
  • Community and kin
  • Elders and the next generation
  • Men, women, and customary law
  • Mourning and reconciliation

The book ends with an epilogue, “Looking to the future,” that attempts to suggest a way forward.  As noted above, though, this vision rests on the promise of the Rudd government and in hindsight looks more like a hope than a plan.  Maddison is adamant in the end, however (and this is perhaps the single recommendation that emerges unambiguously), that without a strong and national voice in Australian politics, black politics will never advance its cause, however that cause may come to be defined.

There are thus a few fundamental principles that underlie Maddison perceptions about the current state of black politics.  First of all, this book is not really a broad historical overview, although it is certainly informed by a sense of the last fifty years of Australian history.  But primarily, this is a book whose arguments are defined by the eleven-year tenure of John Howard’s government.  I don’t think I’m pushing too hard to say that Maddison believes that whatever gains Indigenous people may have made in the political sphere in the latter half of the twentieth century–illusory or real, stillborn, half-hearted, or well-intentioned–they were almost all effectively wiped out by Howard’s animosity and refusal to engage with the values and aspirations of the country’s black minority.  Two events tower above everything else in contributing to the continued and perhaps even worsening disenfranchisement of Indigenous Australians: the abolition of ATSIC and the Intervention.

To a degree these events inform the discussion of the dichotomies that Maddison structures her story and her arguments on.  In some cases, these are obvious and easy to grasp, for certainly the tensions between autonomy and dependency were at the heart not only of Howard’s agenda and continue to be central to Noel Pearson’s thought (Pearson, interestingly, is not among those interviewed for the book, although his arguments are extensively presented throughout.)  Similarly, tensions between men and women dominate much of the national discussion of violence in Aboriginal society today, and the relation of that violence to customary law and practice has been hashed over at great length.  What Maddison contributes to the discussions here is first of all the Indigenous voice, recorded and reported through her interviews as well as through the published writings of figures as diverse as Pearson and Calma.  She moderates: she is able to present both sides of the argument, she wants to articulate the good and the bad in both, and in the best synthetic fashion, move beyond the polarization while recognizing that there is no one voice.

Indeed, if there is a great and repeated insight to Maddison’s arguments here, it concerns the difficulty of achieving consensus in a large and disparate population.  She rightly insists that there is no “Aboriginal” voice or identity, and her choice to advance her argument through thesis and antithesis as it were (e.g. sovereignty and citizenship or tradition and development) is the device that is designed to foreground the multiplicity of perspectives.  But the other side of that coin is her equally firm belief that without finding a voice with which Indigenous people can engage the national government, there is little hope for anything except continued failures of policy.

It is for this reason that Maddison mourns the loss of ATSIC.  She admits that it was a sometimes problematic organization, although she also suggests rather forcefully that many of the problems stemmed from whitefella attitudes towards its internal contradictions and debates rather than from inherent shortcomings.  In other words, the inability of white politicians to recognize that black politics operates under different ground rules (many of which Maddison is trying to articulate in this book) and the demand that it conform to the expectations of the dominant culture rather than the ones that ATSIC was meant to serve constitute an enormous part of the problem.  Indeed, as she approaches her conclusion, Maddison sets forth the speculation that perhaps what Indigenous politicians need more than anything right now, when there is no effective organization for coordinating representation of Indigenous viewpoints, is a year or two of seclusion in which to hammer out both means of representative discussion and the issues themselves that need to be discussed.

If I have any critique of Maddison’s stance or argument, it lies with her selection of resources and informants.  And it centers not on the fact that she has not chosen wisely–for she has–but perhaps too narrowly.   In keeping with her focus on the importance of national politics and a national Indigenous voice in national politics, she has chosen to interview, for the most part, prominent figures at the national level.

Although many of these individuals are no doubt equally important thinkers and actors in smaller arenas–at the regional or community level–there are few voices in this book who speak (or are quoted) about the concerns of those whose lives do not extend beyond the town or settlement they inhabit.  The book lacks conversations, except incidentally, about how national policies and agendas play out in Bourke or Fitzroy Crossing or Maningrida.  The exception to this is a brief discussion of Wadeye’s troubles in the middle of the past decade.  But Wadeye was transformed for a time by the national media into the very symbol of Aboriginal dysfunction and was the scene of much publicized personal “interventions” by both Howard and Brough in the run up to the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

As Maddison’s focus is on national politics, her reading naturally draws on official reports, government studies, and the national media.  But I found myself wishing more than once that she showed a greater awareness of the anthropological literature.  I do applaud her decision to give voice to Indigenous Australians throughout the length of this book in preference to whitefella scholars and their anthropological apparatus.  But I think that in some of her discussions, for instance of tradition, indigeneity, elders, kinship, or customary law, her insights were shaped more by the way these issues play out in the media and less by scholary examinations and reportage of the voice of informants who have less invested in what are after all politics largely defined by settler laws and institutions.

But these are minor quibble, despite the length to which I have just drawn them out.  Black Politics is an important–and necessary–book.  I believe Maddison is correct in her assessment of the shocking damage that has been done to Aboriginal welfare and advancement in the last fifteen years.  That damage needs to be comprehensively recorded.  It is all the better for having been done largely on the basis of Aboriginal voices.  I expect that the majority of the readers of this book will be whitefellas, but I also believe that Black Politics can be a powerful source of inspiration and organization for black politicians–however their role is defined—in the future.

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