The tragedy of the Howard Government’s eleven-year hold on power is that Indigenous policy has focused on destroying the potential for this nation to respect and nurture the cultural renaissance of traditional Indigenous society. Public policy that celebrates Indigenous culture has been shunned.
We are left with a vague sense that the problems of the present-day crisis have no history and that the way forward is for Indigenous people to abandon their identity and be absorbed into European settler society. Any casual glance at Aboriginal people living in Redfern, Mt Druitt or Perth will tell you that there is no paradise for those in the Northern Territory to pass over into the Promised Land on the other side that is mainstream Australia.
The current battle ground of the assimilation agenda is located on that vast new region of northern and central Australia where Indigenous people maintain their languages, own their traditional lands under Western legal title, and practise their customs whilst seeking to survive on public sector programs whose poor design has resulted in entrenched dependency.
This is where the Howard Government is implementing its radical agenda of deconstructing and denying the abilities of Indigenous people to live in their settlements on traditional country. It is setting out to remodel them into mine labourers, small business people and private entrepreneurs. This is an existence already questioned by many debtridden Australians.
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The policy agenda is increasingly asserted in both rhetoric and funding programs. Communal ownership and collective decision making will give way to private land and home ownership and a new mobile Indigenous individualism that will need to seek employment opportunities dictated by market forces at distant locations.
In this conservative worldview, population movements from remote communities or welfare dependent towns to urban environments with economies struggling with or sustained by the global market are simply par for the course. Such communities sink or disappear. Forty thousand years of a society founded upon different presuppositions to the Greco-Roman tradition and the Protestant work ethic of industrialisation is finally colliding head on with the believers of the meteor called the global market economy.
The benign use of government language — mainstream services, practical reconciliation, mutual obligations, responsibilities and participation in the real economy — cloaks a sinister destination for Australian nation building.
The extinguishing of Indigenous culture by attrition is the political goal of the Howard Government’s Indigenous policy agenda. Our nation is confronted with a searing moral challenge.
A cultural genocide agenda has been foisted on the Australian public in the context of extensive media coverage about the social collapse of Indigenous communities, centred on s-xual abuse of children and rampant violence fuelled by alcohol and drugs.
Rather than explaining the human tragedy caused by decades of under-investment by governments in capital and social infrastructure, the Howard Government has promoted a neoconservative public discourse in which Aboriginal people’s failure to take responsibility has become the central tenet of the debate.
In these circumstances, the Howard Government’s policies of coercive intervention and dismantling of the building blocks of self-determination have been broadly painted as correcting three decades of progressive liberalism that have resulted in degrading welfare dependency.
Some Indigenous voices in this debate, motivated by the urgency of ending the suffering in Indigenous communities, have been recklessly naive in aiding and abetting the Howard Government’s agenda. The struggle for Indigenous people’s cultural survival amidst overwhelming destructive historical forces cannot be constructed as a contemporary political debate with contrived theatre to forge a middle path acceptable to mainstream Australia.
The advocacy for recognising Indigenous people’s cultural survival has unimpeachable integrity that cannot be compromised in the face of historic European settler hostility and frontier violence. Indigenous advocates, campaigning for structural change in government relationships that aim to liberate their people from the tyranny of welfare dependency and control, have misread the Indigenous political struggle.
Economic development has been a central component of the Indigenous struggle for land rights and decolonisation. This is why the capacity for Indigenous people to negotiate with governments and resource developers over the use of their lands has been so critical to self-determination.
The debate on welfare reform and the capacity of Indigenous people to take responsibility for nurturing and supporting their families and communities must be part and parcel of self-determination. It should be recognised that investing in the reconstruction of Indigenous society through traditionally based governance structures, customary land ownership and internal reconciliation and healing are critical to ensuring social cohesion through the interconnected obligations and responsibilities on which Indigenous societies are based.
The recognition, respect and resourcing of Indigenous authority by the dominant society is fundamental to dealing with the scourge of grog and drugs that have caused such incomprehensible damage to Indigenous communities.
Tragically, the Indigenous public policy debate in recent years has been framed by imperatives that are oppositional to Indigenous systems of belief. The value of individualism has been elevated above the value of community and collective decision making.
Policy prescriptions about wealth generation through employment and individual home and land ownership are argued for by influential voices as the new basis of civil society within Indigenous communities. The misguided logic of this view is that communal land ownership and Indigenous collective decision making is responsible for the social collapse of Indigenous communities.
The ravages of alcohol and drugs, violence and child s-xual abuse, and the endemic community malaise are the result, they argue, of separating Indigenous settlements from the mainstream Australian economic and social system. This argument plays into the hands of conservatives who have long advocated that Indigenous people should be assimilated into the dominant society.
Any special measures designed to achieve any level of equity with mainstream Australia are now characterised as a denial of the rights of the colonial inheritors. This perspective then sets like cement in the minds of the average punter as a dictate that there is nothing noble about the Aboriginal race.
The Howard Government has used the growing welfare reform debate it has intentionally fuelled, and the conservative ideological critique about the social implosion of discrete Indigenous communities, to escalate its political goal to dismantle the structures that support Indigenous self-determination.
This has not suddenly occurred as a result of accusations of rampant s-xual abuse of children in Indigenous communities. In its eleven years of power, the Howard Government has laid the political groundwork for a dramatic change of policy which promotes the absorption of Indigenous communities into Anglo-dominant Australian society.
This has not occurred through persuasive articulation of its policy agenda but through drawing on the cancer of settler hostility to Indigenous people that bubbles beneath the surface of Australian civil society. It should never be forgotten that throughout much of the twentieth century the formal policy of governments was to administer the extinguishment of Indigenous people by historical attrition, to first smooth the dying pillow and then assimilate to end cultural difference.
Published by Arena Publications, Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia is a series of essays edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson and is the first book to cover the Northern Territory Intervention. Crikey will be publishing a series of extracts of the book, due to hit bookshelves on the 1 October, over the next week.