Here’s a question: if a business cut its spending on new machinery by 10% a year over a five-year period and then issued a report blaming its poor performance on a lack of new machines, and wondered why it didn’t have new machines, you’d ask why that was. If they started a big conversation on innovative strategies for getting new machines, and bold new ideas for new machines, while cutting the budget again, you’d say that business was missing the point. If it finally stopped and decided to have a long hard look at itself over the lack of these new machines and why this kept coming up, you’d would reach for Einstein’s definition of insanity. It would be obvious.

Which brings us to Closing The Gap, and the ritual now as ancient as a welcome to country, the national reflection on why we have made no progress on Aboriginal conditions — or specifically and importantly, largely remote-area Aboriginal conditions — over the past decade. And most likely, in another decade, over the past two decades. Half a billion dollars will be ripped out of Aboriginal funding over the next five years, all of which will be recovered, we are told in the familiar terms of an ancient Canberra myth, by efficiency savings. It’s become a comforting tradition as so much changes around us.

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This time, however, there seems to be a degree more anger and genuine shame around over this repeated failure, for the simple reason that it is now clear that nothing has worked in a whole series of areas. For more than a decade or more, Aboriginal policy has been dominated by the “no-nonsense”, etc, discourses and policies advanced by Noel Pearson, and more recently by the 50,000 jobs promises of mining magnate Twiggy Forrest. But the jobs have failed to eventuate — where are they, Twiggy? — and the increasingly dopey-seeming Forrest has moved on to obsessively social engineering the lives of those on benefits. Pearson’s initiatives on school attendance, jobs, orientation to two worlds, tackling alcohol abuse, etc, have yielded results no better than places that didn’t adopt them, and worse than many. There is very little to show for all this, and a great deal of discontinuity as other approaches were driven out of contact with government, under both Liberal and Labor. The mournful tone is less about the fate of Aboriginal people than it is of the failure of a political paradigm in which people invested so much hope.

The push of the last decade or so has been based on one master idea — that policy from the 1970s into the 1990s had been affected by a Rousseauist counter-cultural overvaluation of remnant traditional Aboriginal life, as it was currently manifested in remote areas, and that this had denied people access to modernity. There was some truth to this, but the full reality was more complex: anyone who knew anything about human societies knew that the deep social forms of a people whose lives were still based around kinship relations and with specific and mythical attachments to country could not simply become “modern” in a generation, with the individualistic subjectivity, acquisitiveness, and time-space separation (among other things) that demands. Some people get squeamish about talking about this because it sounds critical, but it’s a purely descriptive matter, indeed a rebuke to Western hubris: you don’t become modern and prosperous simply by an act of will. History happens and shapes you thus.

The failure of an excessively counter-cultural approach caused this knowledge and approach to be thrown out with the policies themselves. In the ’90s and onwards there was a real anti-intellectualism about the reorientation of policy to a naive view that, deep down, everyone was pretty much Western: accumulative individuality would simply jump out of people fully formed, and they would comply with the modern institutions of school and wage-labour without a problem. This view ignored how miserable these institutions actually were, and how many decades of coercion and bullying it had taken to make Western people internalise them without burning the place down. Work, this bizarre violence to your life, where you stand in a meat works or an eco-tourism office or whatever, and do the same actions for eight hours at a time, is only tolerable to most people because they have already been to school, where they are trained to do that. That’s what schools are for. The knowledge they pass on is incidental and could be done in 18 months. Compulsory schooling developed at the same time as the factory system, and the two institutions mirror each other. The purpose of school is to train us to be bored, alienated and directed to mystifying and purposeless activity. Kids go to school because they see their parents submitting to the same discipline in work. And thus it goes.

The whole apparatus of capitalism — entrepreneurialism, savings, money, investment, work, school — is such a ridiculous and arbitrary disciplining of human beings that to try and start it ab nihilo in societies that have little base for it is doomed to failure. That is not to say that individuals and groups within it do not develop it — especially if they have had a strong dose of Christian/Western education in their upbringing — and it is not say that systems of commerce and trade cannot develop. That was the point of the Community Development Employment Projects system, that it would allow for piecemeal and practical developments of such activities in a manner that could be sustained within that social setting. But CDEP was described as “not real jobs” and cleared away for the Twiggy Forrest approach whereby an industrial revolution would sweep across the north. Amazingly, this is yet to occur.

“It’s time to return to a more pluralist approach to the question, to acknowledge the difference between indigenous and non-indigenous societies, while affirming our universal humanity.”

None of these deep structural features are to deny contingent factors: racist exclusion of Aborigines from good mining jobs, exclusion from towns, underfunded services, high turnover, unfilled staff vacancies, etc. But it is to say that even with all these impediments, if something were going to start happening in the process these groups have been pursuing, it would have started to roll by now, and it does not appear to have. Enormous amounts of money have gone into problems like truancy, yet that appears to have been addressed by practically picking each kid up and ferrying them to school. Since they scarper at half-past 10, areas in the Northern Territory now make kids carry GPS, so they can be tracked like cattle from a helicopter. Eventually someone will think the “brave thought” of microchipping them under the skin, and any objection to such will be portrayed as a woolly-head obstruction of “outcomes”. The reality of this new “freedom” is both coercion and precariousness. The new self-reliance is accompanied by absurd and punitive work tests, and the top-down humiliation of the BasicsCard, universally applied. It’s the worst of both worlds.

In any other policy area, this sustained failure would be cause for a major rethink, but that has proved impossible. After years in which we were told that concern about a people’s relation to country, the survival of culture as a lived and reproducing thing, etc, was an obsession with symbolism, the Pearson process became an answer to symbolism. It was anti-symbolism that could be rallied to, like a symbol. Pearson’s robustness, his anti-theoretical stance, appealed to both Labor and Liberal people as a stand against the Greens and the complex, and perhaps overly passive and systematic diagnosis as the problem. As results failed to emerge, Pearson’s anti-symbolic symbolism became explicit. Labor grandees, left Liberals, gullible liberal millionaires all said the same thing: “he gives us hope”. Aboriginal activists with different viewpoints told a different story — that he was imposing “deal with them or me” conditions on his connections with government, choking off debate about Aboriginal futures.

Well now, can we stop this shit? This one-dimensional notion that kinship societies can become market societies with the wave of a hand, and that, without sovereignty, such a transition confers freedom, has surely been discredited utterly now. The stagnant problems that “[Failing to] Close the Gap” has identified are either extremely complex and multidimensional, or they are simple and being made complex by the notion that they can be solved without the application of sufficient money to solve them. Aboriginal health is an example. The people who say “you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it” are the ones who would be first with their family on a plane to New York to see the best specialist in the world if someone they loved had developed a rare illness, rather than the common ones we’re dealing with here . Doubtless there is much waste and misdirection, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that some distinct problems, such as the prevalence of parasitic worms, cannot be dealt with pretty straightforwardly, and that even complex problems could not be beaten back with a full court press.

Thus, problems — type 2 diabetes is one — that would unquestionably respond to really significant amounts of resources, dedicated clinics in every remote community, are said to be intractable, simply because that level of funding is held to be off the table. In its place is substituted a search for “ideas”, “new thinking” and a fetishisation of the process of innovation and inspiration as if it could simply bypass material processes. Quite possibly the levels of funding are politically impossible, but would it not be better to start from that number and get a basic cost to address half-a-dozen conditions — diabetes, parasitic worms, TB, etc, etc — and set that as the basic demand? That would necessitate disentangling these conditions from some of the genuinely fully resistant ones, such as alcoholism, and resisting the urge to the “squalor porn”, which continues to inform the bulk of reporting on remote Aboriginal health. Perhaps someone has done this — if they have, well done — but I haven’t seen it, and it has always seemed to me to be the missing part of the discussion.

God knows the vast difficulties that remote Aboriginal societies fell into in the ’80s and ’90s needed an audacious response. But it’s pretty clear that the most audacious act — sovereignty — was exactly what these semi-audacious, or pseudo-audacious schemes were designed to circumvent. That’s not to second-guess people’s attempt to do something to address an unfolding disaster. But it is to say that a lot of hard-won thinking and experience was thrown out — and there has been gain from that. It’s time to return to a more pluralist approach to the question, to acknowledge the difference between indigenous and non-indigenous societies, while affirming our universal humanity. Those who staked a lot on a monolithic policy must admit, if real improvements are what they are committed to, that it has failed overwhelmingly.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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