If the military has a role in helping Indigenous people to take control of their own destiny, it has to be in this spirit of reconciliation, standing alongside them and providing assistance in restoring their pride and self-esteem. Importantly, we should recognise that this is not the normal role of armed forces in liberal democratic nation-states, which should have many other options to meet this need. For good historical reasons, most nation-states have grave concerns about the potential for the Executive to use soldiers against their own people. Armed forces are established constitutionally and primarily to defend the nation against external enemies. Their use internally normally requires the declaration of a national emergency involving a request from the Prime Minister to the Governor General. Within Australia, it has been rare until quite recent times, when the frequency of the domestic engagement of the armed forces has increased exponentially. Whether this reflects a genuine increase in the number of emergencies the nation faces or a growing tendency on the part of government to resort to the use of expeditionary forces within Australia’s territorial boundaries deserves serious analysis.

Governments in liberal democratic countries have been drawn into the contradictory mode of divesting themselves of social and infrastructure liabilities for the state, in keeping with the needs of the market, while taking coercive action to ensure stability and conformity. The complexity inherent in this contradiction is played out almost daily in the form of the growth of laws and regulations restricting established civil liberties, the growth of security mechanisms, both public and private, and the feeding of the fear and greed agenda through the growing appetite of the media for sensational and salacious material. Those strategists behind the resistance to Western global ascendency have proven to be adept at stoking these fires and fears through the use of threats and terrorism of the most visceral kind.

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Australia’s benign circumstances should combine to make the nation more generous and less prone to these fears. It is the only nation in the history of humankind that has united an entire continent under one system of government. It has an abundance of the land and raw materials required to power an inclusive and creative society. The foundations of its education system are liberal and embracing. Its geography probably makes it one of the most secure nations on Earth, while its near neighbours display little reputation for, or signs of, external aggression.

Despite these enduring characteristics, Australia has shown itself to be most susceptible to losing its potential to provide leadership in its region through both fear and loss of control over its strategic policy. Its response to changing circumstances in its immediate neighbourhood has been consistently reactive rather than creative, and its habit of resorting to crisis management rather than deep strategic commitment has established an over reliance on the military. In turn, the growing demands of this approach have reinforced the assessment that Australia must cast its lot with the United States regardless of where that course might take it, eroding its influence as a broker in regional affairs and further increasing its reliance on its armed forces.

Clearly, this sort of burgeoning complexity is not sustainable. The Reconciliation and the failure of neo-liberal globalisation approach founders at the first hurdle on Australia’s inability to recruit sufficient people to fill its existing force structure, let alone an expanded military to meet all emerging contingencies. Circumstances are not improved by treating symptoms rather than causes. It is often the case that such an approach simply adds to the complexity until things collapse into a new paradigm. The addition of new or unforseen factors such as climate change may even hasten this shift, as populations become stressed or diverted by the demands of survival.

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 1st of October, over the next week.

In many ways, Australia’s Indigenous people have been and continue to be the victims of a similar coercive market forces approach. The nation’s failure to come to terms with the responsibilities of its inheritance of an entire continent has resulted in the lack of respect for and abuse of the original peoples and their cultures. This failure is not only reflected in the dysfunctional circumstances of many Aboriginal communities, but is also evidenced in the severely stressed state of the continent’s unique ecology.

This abject irresponsibility may have been understandable at the beginning of the European presence on the continent. The ignorance and absolute certainty that accompanied European expansion could explain the abuse of both the environment and the cultures that had existed here for tens of thousands of years — through at least two Ice Ages. But we should know better by now. The importance to us all of supporting the Indigenous cultures that are left should have dawned long ago. The horrific consequences of us losing these cultures and living as aliens in this land should draw us towards a totally different strategy to the present processes of crisis management. Indeed, it is difficult to see how we can survive if we do not find some way of being drawn back and reconnecting with the country.

Unfortunately, the current strategy, if there is one, shows all the signs of remaining that of assimilation: the widely held view that the only hope for Indigenous people is to become like ‘us’ in the Australian mainstream, living in urban concentrations, having a job, having debt and equity, and joining the market on these terms. The market forces approach demands that we solve this problem once and for all, turning Aboriginal people into productive units and getting them off the debit side of the ledger — one way or the other. ‘Work makes you free’, is the age-old theme that has re-emerged to drive the latest efforts in this process. Little recognition is given to the much studied and widely understood deleterious impact on physical and mental health of both cultural and social disempowerment.

Such an assimilationist approach is most unlikely to work, because it is once again inflicted on Indigenous people rather than generated by them. It is founded on an ideology that may eventually turn out to be hotly contested at its source anyway. This is not to suggest that Indigenous people should not have all the opportunities to share in the benefits of national wealth and social development. It is simply that they have much more to bring to the table if they are empowered on the basis of their own culture rather than continuing in the needs-based mendicant state that is the source of much dysfunction.

Land and culture are the source of this empowerment. A strategy that fails to reflect this fundamental fact can be expected to generate more of the alienation and passive resistance that is reflected in the appalling Indigenous prison and health statistics that we are increasingly familiar with. It is true that only about 20 per cent of Indigenous people now live on the land that is the source of their Dreaming and spiritual well-being. But it is also true that respect for the relationship with the land and the culture that sustained Aboriginal people for thousands of years remains the source of their well-being and their contribution to a nation that might wish to be regarded as a fit custodian of the Australian
continent into the future.

We should expect that there will be Indigenous people who, in their desperation, will sacrifice some of their rights in order to gain access to government funding under shared responsibility and other conditional agreements. After all, native title determinations have not been beneficial to all Aboriginal people, and the claims process has proven to be very divisive in some instances. It is also true that ‘passive’ welfare (as distinct from active workfare) has been destructive of the spirit and the soul of many
Indigenous communities. It remains important, however, that we acknowledge that whatever emerges from such agreements should be for the enduring benefit of the people rather than the market, which, as we know from the wreckage it has often left behind, changes and moves on.

Reconciliation is the foundation of all successful strategies. Enforcement is not. Iraq has taught the West this lesson once again. The invasion in 2003 by the Coalition of the Willing was an act of war and Reconciliation and the Failure of Neo-liberal Globalisation expediency. It has created a situation that is so complex that it is starting to feed back into the nations themselves, demanding an act of contrition that will have profound effects in the longer term.

On the other hand, this commitment to reconciliation is the philosophical foundation of the United Nations itself, which only legitimises the use of force when all other options for mediation have been expended. Increasingly, the United Nations finds itself seeking to support reconciliation within nations as opposed to the original intent of insisting on and supporting mediation between nations. Normally, this role of facilitating reconciliation within states is applied to those dysfunctional communities that are attempting to recover from or avoid a civil war. Where does Australia stand in this equation?

…True reconciliation remains the key to these issues that have distracted and confused the nation in recent times. The only answer to the complex problems of moving forward in a rapidly changing environment is to choose the path together. This form of reconciliation requires a constant process — one of continuous exchange as the circumstances change — a partnership based on equality and respect. So far, governments — States, Territory and Commonwealth — have failed to build the trust and commitment that such partnerships demand.

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 1st of October, over the next week.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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