As Bali rises high – Bali hi, geddit, ge- …oh ok everyone’s a critic – last week’s story – the Aurukun case – sinks back beneath the waves, still with many key questions unanswered. Yet in its wake it’s becoming obvious that the debate about aboriginal futures is tied up in extraordinary conclusion, largely stemming from the way in which everyone is trying to claim that initiative X, Y or Z represents a “revolution” in policy, and a break with old tired ways of the past.
Take three articles which appeared today and over the weekend. In Saturday’s Oz, Noel Pearson wisely steered clear of all but passing comment on the Aurukun case, focusing instead on his scheme to establish local community Family Responsibility Committees (FRCs), which would oversee the distribution of welfare cash for people with addiction etc problems. With FRGs in place, Pearson argues, the Aurukun r-pe might not have occurred.
In an article in the same issue, Nick Rothwell writes of the Wadeye community which is going beyond the old dogmas etc. This former Christian mission composed of seven different clan/tribes has now been extensively reconstituted with a vast building programme which has recognised the separateness of the clans – and the conflict arising from their gathering together – and built seven different living areas.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
And today, there is discussion of the form an apology for the “stolen generations” might take, with the suggestion that it include remarks about a “cruel, evil” policy, and have a $1 billion compensation payment attached to it.
The trouble with all these breaks with the past is that they are simply continuing it in different forms. Take Pearson’s FRGs. The idea is that alcoholics etc will come before this board of elders and retired white law officers, have their money managed, and be referred to “appropriate services”.
In other words, it will form an extra loop in the existing bureaucratic process, with persistently dysfunctional people hauled up periodically in front of a board.
For decades the theory behind such interventions is that they take autonomy away from people, to give it back when they have been thoroughly reconstructed.
It only works if the process is totalitarian, and though Pearson’s scheme most closely resembles a Maoist cultural revolution era neighbourhood committee, it will have neither the resources nor the ruthlessness to make a real difference. Like all such committees – parole boards, charity committees, job centres – its participants will become exhausted and cynical. The idea that such schemes could prevent the rape of a s-xually acting out developmentally disabled girl screwing for cigarettes is pure pollyannaism. Crime and prostitution go up, not down, when you withdraw cash from an addict community.
If Pearson’s mix of tribalism and statism is problematic, what about the scheme Rothwell writes of so positively? Whether this is the right solution or not, consider its implications – it confirms and reinforces clannishness by writing it down in bricks and mortar. Rather than a united aboriginal community arising from a former missions – transcending clan difference and becoming wholly aboriginal, while retaining valued traditions – we go backwards towards separation.
But the most paradoxical of all is the increasingly self-defeating campaign around an apology which, in its insistence on interpreting the actual “stolen generations” policy, and refiguring aboriginal funding as compensation.
To put it simply we don’t damn the “stolen generations” policy because it was cruel, but because it was wrong – wrong in the sense that it transgressed a universal value, the connection and love of parents for children, in favour of the then modish theory of eugenics.
The perniciousness of the “stolen generations” policy was that it was frequently done in a spirit of that most dangerous of emotions, kindness, and the resultant belief that the end therefore justifies harsh means.
Emphasising its “cruelty” is a license to avoid reflecting on current policy, and equivalent fallacies of today. The future will judge us pretty harshly for letting rivers of grog flow in remote communities, but does that make the move to aboriginal self-determination cruel?