There’s one abiding truth about Federal and State government policy towards indigenous people — with rare exceptions, it is overwhelmingly directed towards white people, and their shifting values, assumptions and prejudices.

Counting for 2% of the population, indigenous people simply don’t have the demographic heft that US African-Americans (13% of the population) or Hispanics, have to swing crucial seats.

Thus whatever genuine impulses there are to try and create real change — or open a space within which indigenous people can organise and progress with less obstacles — must always be subsumed to a consideration of how this will play in the cities.

The paradoxical thing about this imperative is that the policies dictated by it have done more than one one-eighty shift in recent years. For decades, the policy simply conformed to a near-universal racialism that assumed inherent characteristics of races, from which it was deduced that aborigines had no future as a distinct race/culture per se.

What is noticeable about the records of this policy today is not its viciousness, but the absence of such. Like much of the wave of eugenics that engulfed the 20th century — forced sterilisation in the US, Sweden and elsewhere, the language of apartheid in Africa, interracial marriage bans — it is the cool pseudo-scientific logic that is most notable, the urging on people to suspend their sentimental impulses — the impulse that would make it hard for a policeman to remove a child from its mother, for example — in the service of the greater good.

That attitude, in the cities at least, was swept away by the 60s global revolution of ideas, and the replacement of a skin privilege ideology which had sustained global imperialism (of which the very existence of Australia is simply a hangover) by a liberal, secular, anti-biologistic one — which eventually blossomed into a full culturalism, the belief that there was no universal cultural endpoint to which we were all trending, and that different societies would take different paths.

As far as non-urban indigenous people went, culturalism suggested that — barring the genocidal dissolution of a culture, no longer morally acceptable — an indigenous non-agricultural people would not have the same path to modernity, and that attempts to simply replicate the Western path would be not only wrong at some deep level, but also futile.

The implicit assumption of what one could call “developmental culturalism” was that an aboriginal society would emerge that combined both traditional and modern features, and — this was the extra bit — that it might avoid some of the widely-perceived negative features of consumer capitalism.

It’s fair to say that the results of that policy, ain’t been so hot.

For some years now, a counter-strategy has been under way — one which, in varying degrees of oversimplification — damns culturalism as a “culture cult” that keeps people suspended between two worlds, one utterly over (nomadic traditional life), the other held out of reach. The post-culturalists run all the way from unashamed neo-assimilationists such as Gary Johns, through former Pol Pot enthusiast Keith Windschuttle — spruiking a renewed enthusiasm for forced population movements with a call to forcibly abolish small communities — over to Noel Pearson, whose arguments retain some “culturalist” ideas of maintaining aspects of traditional life, but who also believe that a lot more modernity has to go into the mix. Others, such as Warren Mundine, seem to be saying both at the same time, sometimes in the same speech.

Whatever the case, the one thing that is noticeable about the post-culturalists is that they have the same confident disdain for what went before them, as the culturalists did for the assimilationists they replaced. Where eugenics and assimilation was constructed as arrogant and vicious (where it was more often merely pseudo-scientific), culturalism is now constructed as naive and narcissistic, a projection of western obsessions onto indigenous people.

There was some of that, but in the obsessive focus on that, the post-culturalists have disregarded a lot of the more materialist arguments being made around indigenous development — specifically that without a longish history of agriculture and institutional development, the idea that indigenous communities could just make a single, collective historical sprint was madness.

Increasingly, what we get in these debates is an anti-intellectualism, in which any attempt to talk about the major differences between indigenous and non-indigenous paths is then assailed as “patronising”, “relativist” and the like.

Take plans to educate significant numbers of aboriginal kids at boarding schools — effectively as a way of creating a larger aboriginal leadership class. This may work, but the possibility that aboriginal kids will find separation from kin and country harder and more damaging than non-indigenous kids (many of whom have mixed feelings about boarding school life) can barely be said without being howled down.

But the major confrontation between culturalism and its critics appears to be coming in the NT proposal to sweep up many smaller communities into 28 “hubs”, even where there is strong evidence that people are having better lives in key aspects — violence, alcohol and drug abuse, etc — in smaller communities.

Doubtless a principal driver for this policy is budgetary, not to mention all sorts of political skulduggery around factional and other fights. But the cover under which it is being presented to the nation is anti-culturalism, or at least a sort of simplistic pro-modernism — alleged improvements in service delivery, efficiency etc.

Culture, place, rights — these have become swear-words, and any mention of them is likely to be dismissed with a wave of the hand. We’re trying something new now.

In terms of playing to a white urban audience, the more bold and sweeping a policy is, the more it can be sold as the government “doing something” — a process that John Howard recognised in his canny (but ultimately politically futile) NT intervention. What white urban people want from indigenous policy above all is to be assuaged of the guilt of sharing a continent with a people in a deeply problematic period, caused by the historical ruptures that created the country in its modern form — a people who share citizenship but are nevertheless historically, culturally, existentially different.

The one thing that cannot be said in indigenous policy is that there are no easy answers, that social change is measured in decades not years, and that to presume that fixing a social problem is like fixing a mechanical problem – that repairing a broken community is like repairing a broken TV — is a category error of the highest order.

Do governments have the courage to be more piecemeal, less faddish, more reflexive, more willing to accept small gains, in indigenous policy? Or are they going to charge ahead with Big Ideas, as bold and unquestioning as the last set of Big Ideas, and “bravely” suppressing their own sentimental assumptions — such as that most people have a sense of place and cultural continuance, and cannot simply be decanted from one community to the next?

We will find out. Some of us will find out far more forcefully than others.