Reflections on indigenous issues by a non-indigenous person for the consideration of non-indigenous people.

This is a post I have written for the blog “Public Polity” which is Run by Sam Clifford who is an active member of the Queensland Greens.   I will be writing regularly for Public Polity. 

 Firstly a note on vocabulary.  When I use the word “white” I am speaking of culture and worldview, I am not talking about skin colour.  White is a psychological, sociological and legal structure which dark skinned people can also be agents of, in fact this is the premise of our immigration policy and citizenship test.

 “Aboriginal” is not a matter of skin colour but of bloodline – a matter of family and that particular family’s connection to particular country.  There were no Aboriginal or Indian or native people in Australia before Captain Cook. There was just families, communities and nations connected to this land.   On this continent today there does indeed exist a colonial and an “Aboriginal” society. The Late Oodgeroo Noonucal coined the term “non-Aboriginal” to turn the colonial perspective around and  define migrant experience by its difference to sovereign Aboriginal Australian reality rather than define Aboriginality by its difference to “normal” colonial society.

The psychological, sociological and legal structure inherent in Aboriginal families and the Australian landscape is not exclusive of non-Aboriginal people.  It is in fact white Australia’s refusal to relate to Aboriginal Australia within the frameworks of Aboriginal society that has caused all the problems.

The history of invasion, genocide and colonisation is not just an Aboriginal story.  Aboriginal people have been the victims of this history but it is predominantly a history of what white people and governments have done.  The smallpox, massacres and poisonings, the missions and reserves, the slave labour, the stolen wages and the stolen generation are all part of mainstream Australia’s history every bit as much as Gallipoli, the Eureka stockade or Donald bloody Bradman.

It is important to understand the history to explain why Aboriginal Australia today is like it is.  But the history of war and colonisation also explains why white Australia today is like it is, how the forces of history built the new nation and our contemporary culture and structures.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Rudd’s apology and acknowledgement that we got it wrong in the past is overshadowed by his government’s indigenous policy and programs, or at least those that we have had a glimpse of so far.  They are a continuance of 20th century Aboriginal policy paradigms and I am sad to say so are the Greens indigenous policy frameworks.

The radical departure from colonial bandaids that began with Whitlam and continued through the Fraser, Hawke and Keating years and is embodied in the U.N. declaration on indigenous rights appears to have been forgotten in the 21stcentury policy framework of the ALP and the Greens.

Notions such as land rights and self determination have been sidelined as secondary considerations to the urgent priority of “Closing the Gap”, an inherently assimilationist campaign/policy that identifies the cause of Aboriginal problems to be inherent in Aboriginal society itself – ill health, not in the white society including government policy. 

  “Close the Gap” applies a bandaid to the symptoms that white society sees (usually on TV) but fails in any way to address the structural factors that cause and perpetuate illness and disadvantage.

The causal factors of Aboriginal suffering today  are inherent in white colonial society and are invisible to white colonial society, it is the background normality.

The problem lies in such things as institutional modes of health care, paramilitary (police) and prison deterrence modes of maintaining law and order, exclusive legal title to our own back yard, mining and European modes of farming, welfare programs etc.  All these things that are the front line of the continued impoverishment, ill health and deaths in custody in Aboriginal society are taken for granted by the colonial society.  They are the morally righteous agencies of democracy and market economy.  These things that bring death, disease and dispossession to Aboriginal Australia bring health and prosperity to colonial society.  It is not easy to identify our own sociology as a causal factor in Aboriginal trauma and crisis.

The common Australian notion of reconciliation is a white myth.  Inherent in this myth is the assumption that white and black Australia must find some middle ground, shake hands and begin negotiations.  A simple formula but one that is no more likely to succeed than Palestinian Muslims finding a common ground with Israeli Jews while the state of Israel exists.  All Middle East so-called peace negotiations are not good willed, open-minded exchanges; they are power games where the dominant military and economic power – The U.S. – determines the framework and parameters of negotiations and raw power is played against raw power in the process. 

The whole “peace” process and the management of conflict in negotiations is tightly controlled by the vested interests of the U.S. who designed and maintains the state of Israel in accordance with U.S. interests.

So too with Australia’s reconciliation movement.  It has been designed and managed within the worldview of white Australia, the illegally imposed British state and its entrenched colonial society.   The meetings, petitions and bridge walks of the last 2 decades have been predominantly manifestations of white Australia.  Apart from the Aboriginal spokespeople and committee members, Aboriginal Australia has largely not joined this movement.  The reconciliation process has been a white commentary on black Australia, perhaps easing some of White Australia’s anxieties but it has not connected in any meaningful way to Aboriginal Australia.

The reconciliation movement has achieved no positive change in Aboriginal Australia, except of course for the Apology, which while spiritually significant, does nothing to address issues of Aboriginal poverty, disadvantage and ill health. 

This is a stark contrast with the land rights and self-determination movements of the 60s. 70s and in particular the 80s leading up to the 88 bicentennial protest. This movement was lead exclusively by Aboriginal people and the meetings, marches and other events were well attended by Aboriginal people including tens of thousands from Around Australia gathering in Sydney in 1988.

The early land rights movement of the 60s and 70s, while consistently promoting land rights as the primary agenda, built independent, self managed Aboriginal medical centres, legal services, housing services and childcare services to tackle the exact same issues that we are faced with today. 

As well as struggling for funding for these welfare crisis responses the movement forced on structural reform such as the native title act and ATSIC and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.  However, despite the existence of the reconciliation movement, all the gains of the 20th century s have been deconstructed. 

 The mode for engaging in indigenous affairs that the reconciliation movement and presently the Greens and ALP operate in defines both the problem and a prescription for a solution totally within white notions and frameworks.  The essential task of facilitating and empowering the agencies of Aboriginal perspective has been reduced to allowing Aboriginal input into the decisions, policies and programs owned by the white government.

 At present Aboriginal people are only allowed to be part of white programs and policies, there is no funding or support for anything else.  The dominant mode of engagement with Aboriginal people is  “consultation” where Aboriginal people are told what the white policy and program is and are given advice and assistance as to how to conform to it.  The new ALP government and the Green’s policies do not suggest any change to this mode.

The challenge for us non-Aboriginal people, whether we are policy writers or grass roots activists is not to try and develop solutions to Aboriginal problems.

We non-Aboriginal folk should try and solve the problems of white Australia that cause the problems in Aboriginal Australia.

The challenge for indigenous policy and action is to allow and resource Aboriginal people to deal with their own problems within their own cultural frameworks and authorities and in accordance with their own priorities.  – self-determination.

The challenge for the Greens and the ALP, who both enthusiastically endorse the signing of the U.N. declaration on indigenous rights, is to develop policy in accordance with the core principles of the U.N. declaration – land rights and self determination.

Real reconciliation is about the colonial invader society paying reparations for the damage it has done and continues to do, when somehow and somewhere some land, wealth and power is transferred back to the people it was  stolen from.

Bandaids such as “Close the Gap” just won’t stick.



Filed under Aboriginal, australia, history, justice, politics, war

9 responses to “Reflections on indigenous issues by a non-indigenous person for the consideration of non-indigenous people.

  1. Paul

    You’re very good at complaining about the situation – do you have any answers as to what SHOULD be happening?

    And, as I understand it, the Greens DO support monetary reperations, land rights and Aboriginal control of Aboriginal issues.

  2. Hello Paul,

    I never said the greens oppose compensation, though I did ask if they did on greensblog.

    I have said that the greens indigenous policy and parliamentary action is caught in a 20th century assimilationist and protectionist policy time warp.

    What should be happening? Well since you seem to be a Green supporter, to shift from the “Close the Gap” framework that the Greens went to the election with and have made their parliamentary agenda to a land rights and self determination framework.

    the greens need to modify their policies to conform the the U.N. declaration on indigenous rights. That might take some time. But right now, while indigenous issues is before the parliament and whole nation and in the lead up to the signing of the declaration, the senators need to redesign their single issue – health platform for the parliament to include such things as land rights and self determination. It is no use having these words in a policy document if they are not reflected in the Green agenda in the senate.

    But the Greens policy itself is just a collage of slogans and platitudes. It is true the words Land rights and sovereignty appear but there is no coherence or framework of any sort. The two notions of consultation and self determination are confused and used as synonyms.

    Rudd and it seems the Greens have ignored anything of real self determination policies that were the basis of Keating’s policy. Instead self determination has been reduced to a sentiment where policy allows for Aboriginal input into policy and programs but not control over them. Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs is different to Aboriginal input into Aboriginal affairs which is the dominant paradigm of the Greens policy and the close the gap.

  3. A very nice argument. I couldn’t agree with this statement more: “‘Closing the Gap’, an inherently assimilationist campaign/policy that identifies the cause of Aboriginal problems to be inherent in Aboriginal society itself – ill health, not in the white society including government policy.” We sure are good at pointing out how indigenous cultures are in the wrong, without noting our own social and governmental problems.

  4. philiptravers

    Having known a number of people who were in the support group in Melbourne re Land Rights and self-determination in the early to late seventies,and a banner carrier out of the front of Parliament House Victoria.I found your attack on Andrew Bartlett the impossibilty of your historical reference,entirely a function of your last name.Bartlett ,essentially,may have lost a large number of votes,by supporting Aboriginal concerns before the last election.You can go on about terminology,and fashion all sorts of objections on and in words,but with all the events in Queensland and the Northern Territory,I doubt that any fair minded citizen of this country,and that includes whatever words Aboriginals of this nation want to describe them selves as.Essentially your objection to Bartlett,was bare faced contempt,anyone falling for it,hasnt yet tried a deeper research of everything Andrew Bartlett the Senator,has as times I am sure been in pain about this matter.Staring down the gun barrel of statistics,and, meeting Aboriginal people,and then be dismally defeated at the last election,can only be worse for him personally,when,people like you ride in on the high moral horse.Be careful,because I am feed up with nonsense like yours.Because,whilst being highly offended,personally, by some personal activities of Aboriginals,I have remained sympathetic ,because I am human.What Andrew said,about Sorry day fits my sense of humanity.Go beyond this warning…and….Intimidation!Yes!Sorry!?No!

  5. Hello Philip,

    I assume you are refering to my comments on Andrew’s blog about the Democrats not supporting the Green senate amendment to the apology to include compensation.

    You may be interested to know I have made another one.

    I dont really care if you are annoyed with what I say, but if you want to have a go at explaining why you think I am wrong then I would be happy to discuss it with you.

    My wife and I have worked with Andrew a lot in the past couple of years on Indigenous issues, we facilitated a couple of his visits to Qld. Aboriginal communities and you may notice the Palm Island information page on his website is written by me.

    I have no doubt about Andrew’s personal integrity or his commitment to Aboriginal isuues, but the Democrats were wrong to abstain on the compensation ammendment.

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