Well, at least we have it. We’ve needed something like it for a long time, to draw a line in the sand. We knew that when it came it would come as a move for which resistance would be ill-prepared, and against overwhelming strength — but also that there would be no other way in which it could happen. Now here it is. The Western Australian government’s announcement that it would begin “shutting down” 100 or more Aboriginal communities is the start of something the Right have been preparing for, for some years now — a forced process of assimilation that amounts to an extermination of Aboriginal culture.
The manner in which it is being done is typical of the Abbott government’s modus operandi, by minor administrative shift, with major consequences. Responsibility for funding services for these small communities is being switched from Commonwealth to state, which gives Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett the opportunity to say WA cannot afford to provide essential services and that as a consequence the communities will have to be wound up. Regrettably blah blah more in sorrow than in anger, etc, etc.
Let’s get to what the reality of this act is in a moment. For now, let’s be clear that this has been the aim of a section of a Right for at least a decade now — to abolish the majority of Aboriginal communities across the north and west of the country and either consolidate them into larger units or simply drive Aboriginal people into the cities. The “respectable” argument for this is that such communities do not have the critical mass or proximity to become independently viable, that maintaining them “freezes” Aboriginal people in a static state, and that the policy is a legacy of a pious 1960s-70s belief that Aboriginal society post-1967 could develop into an alternative to alienated industrial capitalism.
The Right’s solution to this was announced by Keith Windschuttle in The Australian about a decade ago — these communities should be dissolved and moved to the cities. He was joined by a whole section of the Right, such as Gary Johns, a former Labor minister gone to the Right, Paddy McGuinness, then Quadrant editor, and contemporary Aboriginal culture was subject to abuse that took its afflictions as its core, in a manner that was flagrantly racist. “The culture of the concentration camp,” former Liberal minister Peter Howson called Aboriginal culture.
The assault on Aboriginal culture was part of a wider project, which was the reversal of the cultural pluralism — they would call it relativism — that had developed from the Whitlam years onwards. The idea that non-urban Aboriginal society would develop, but develop differently, had taken a few blows (many of them self-inflicted) over the years, but 9/11 and the idea of a new and triumphant Western chauvinism really put it on the back foot. Noel Pearson’s idea that non-urban Aborigines would live in two worlds — modernity and traditional culture — but as separate, yet simultaneous, spheres of existence became the public version of what the Right was willing to get behind. Really, the Right’s not-so-disguised agenda was dissolution of community, and it was pretty upfront about it.
“So the denial of service to Aboriginal communities is racist by its very act. But it relies on a deeper racism, that such communities are in some sense not ‘real’.”
Well now the tanks are moving. If dissolution begins in Western Australia, there is no reason to believe it will not be extended in the Northern Territory and Queensland. These places are communities with problems, some of them very serious. But they will be presented as the opposite — as problems that happen to have a communal form. Dissolution will thus be disguised as the most robust solution to the “remote” communities problem. And if you can see that language follows familiar lineaments, that is not because I am breaching Godwin’s law, but because the root of oppression is to regard other people’s settled existence as a problem in need of a solution, rather than as a given condition in need of assistance in solving its problems.
Let’s be clear about this. There is a very good argument for small non-urban Aboriginal communities to have a discussion about combination or consolidation, on their own terms, and as a free act. Such moves might well have advantages (and disadvantages). But such discussions would have to come from within the communities as an expression of autonomy, rather than as a forced march. There is an implicit principle we have followed for decades in Australia and that is universality of service as a component of citizenship. It’s a necessary principle for a vast country, where the economic tides come and go. Half of white rural Australia is a drain, but we overwhelmingly agree that we want it to persevere, because people live there, have made lives rich in tradition and memory there. If we didn’t respect that, we’d wind up half of rural white Queensland, which costs us far more money than Aboriginal communities do.
So the denial of service to Aboriginal communities is racist by its very act. But it relies on a deeper racism, that such communities are in some sense not “real”. Arising in varying ways, from missions and gathered-in nomads and forced servitude on now-vanished stations, such communities are often implicitly judged to be contingent, pro tem. Part of the problem has come from good intentions — the celebration of Aboriginal culture as “the oldest continuous culture on earth”, etc, etc, much of which contains a degree of the old “noble savage” attitude, with which to unfavourably compare the beleagured present to a highly romanticised past.
This assault on Aboriginal life, a long time in the making, would appear to open itself to challenge, legal and political, not merely in Australia, but at the international level. This is a racist forced move of populations by a settler society on the same level as the Palestinians, European Roma, apartheid-era South African non-whites, and others. But it is also a move that leaves the “radical centrists” in Aboriginal leadership no place to hide. Warren Mundine has already called it “apartheid”, and it’s something that will be harder for him to dismiss than some of the other things the Right have done that he disagrees with. Ditto with Noel Pearson. Their disastrous campaign to reject alliances with the white Left and cosy up to the Right has helped dissolve a great deal of solidarity that would have been useful, and put them at the mercy of people who have never really taken their “two worlds” idea seriously. Dissolution was always on the agenda, and Pearson, Mundine and others made disastrous errors in identifying who their people’s enemies really were.
But above all, these moves have to be opposed, tooth and nail, without mitigation or exception. Whatever discussions there are about the future form of Aboriginal society are to be had, they have to occur with an underlying guarantee of universal citizenship without conditions. This would appear to be the most important fight facing indigenous people, their supporters, and for that matter the entire country.