A handful of sand

Gestures make things worse.

By Lyle Dunne

The Australian reports that Warren Mundine has predictably come under attack for his repudiation of the Labor party, covered extensively in the weekend edition of 3 – 4 November.

Ironically, some of the response to his criticisms in fact confirms their validity. In response to his accusation that the Labor Party has been very focused on touch-feely symbolism,

NSW deputy Labor leader Linda Burney, described as “the first Aborigine elected to NSW parliament”, has provided a list of Labor achievements in relation to Aborigines – each of which was symbolic.

Well, to be fair, the abolition of the White Australia Policy was not completely symbolic. Unfortunately it had nothing to do with Aborigines. The White Australia Policy was about restricting Asian immigration. As such, its most enthusiastic supporters had been the Trade Union movement, and its political voice the ALP.  To be fair this were not necessarily directly based on racial considerations, so much as the fear of Asian labour undercutting their wages.

Labor’s list

But here’s the rest of the list:

“It was the Labor Party that brought in native title; there is the landmark speech of Paul Keating in Redfern Park … there’s the famous photo of Gough Whitlam pouring dirt into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, there’s the national apology to the Stolen Generations — shall I go on?”

No thanks Ms Burney, that’s enough to be going on with.

What’s the ALP ever done for the Aborigines?

Speeches, an apology – and my personal favourite, a handful of dirt. Or, as Paul Kelly’s memorable song has it, a handful of sand. (“A handful of dust” might have had unfortunate echoes of Evelyn Waugh or TS Eliot, I suppose.)

Burnet was backed by ALP national president Jenny McAllister, whose response focussed on the symbolic significance of positions held by Aborigines in State governments and the Federal ALP (including, of course, Mundine himself).

So you might think Mundine’s point was that the effort put into these symbolic gestures could have been redirected to improving the living conditions of actual Aborigines.

That’s true as far as it goes – but the reality is a great deal worse.

These symbolic gestures do distract from the real problems of Aborigines. They do tend to give their perpetrators a false sense that they’ve actually done something, and provide a smokescreen for the failure of indigenous policies of successive governments.

But I submit there’s more at stake than an opportunity cost here: these gestures actually directly make the lives of Aborigines worse.

Take the Kevin Rudd “apology”, for a start.

Obviously it lacks the essential element of an apology, namely contrition: instead of saying  “I did wrong, and I ask your forgiveness”, it says “Someone else did wrong – but I’m doing the right thing, and I ask your admiration and gratitude”.

And there’s a strong argument that Rudd could at least have apologised for his own government’s efforts in this area before slipping into those of his predecessors.

But the real issue I have is with the effect on indigenous Australians. We’re saying to them “you’re victims here. We took your land away. You’ve been subject to terrible treatment”.

There’s an argument that much of this is true. It’s certainly clear that it made its authors feel better, and even that some of the people to whom it was directed were grateful.

What Aboriginal people most need is less acknowledgement and assurance of their different, special and (especially) victim status,

But what does it do to people’s self-respect? Contrast the perennial comments of Noël Pearson about the dangers of passive welfare, or the recent comments of NT Minister for Indigenous Advancement and Regional Development, Alison Anderson, about the prospect of jobs in tourism and mining.  What will telling people they’re victims do to their motivation to follow this sensible advice and take responsibility for their own economic futures?

Does anyone really believe that  boosting people’s sense of grievance will make them stronger and more independent – or is it just pandering to our moral vanity?

But what about land rights? Surely this was at least material recompense for dispossession?

Rights without ownership

Well, we’ve given indigenous people land rights, but mainly on condition that they can’t do anything productive with the land — the kind of “ownership” that no bank would recognise for the purpose of issuing a mortgage.

In the process, we’ve made a lot of statements affirming their Ancient Spiritual Affinity with the Land — something we’ve come to believe is true of Australian Aborigines to a much greater extent than any other culture, despite the fact that most Aborigines profess belief in Christianity rather than the belief systems that apparently underpin this affinity.

Perhaps this is true anyway – though I wonder how some of the people who assert this would know. But again, my concern is not so much whether such statements are true, but what their effect would be. In this case, it seems to me that the effect is often to strengthen the links between people and places where there’s little or no prospect of employment, or of economic advancement of any kind.

There is no realistic prospect of resurrecting hunter-gatherer lifestyles, so the only remaining option in most cases seems to be welfare.

(There will always be jobs as policemen, teachers and health workers, of course. But in the absence of any private economic activity, we’re really talking about communities on welfare. )

The NT intervention was justified by reference to a crisis within NT indigenous communities. But at best, it’s gone some way toward turning dysfunctional abusive welfare-dependent communities to relatively successful welfare-dependent communities.

So what are we doing about this? Well it seems the Federal Government and the Opposition are arguing about recognition of Aborigines in the Parliament and the Constitution, again.

(Writing on this blog about possible constitutional amendments in January, and especially in February after the Australia Day fracas, I was optimistic enough to hope the silver lining might be that this particular piece of misguided moral vanity might whither away. Alas, it seems that this proposal may still hang around to divide the community for years to come, even if it never makes it onto a ballot paper near you.)

But no-one seems to be arguing that what Aboriginal people most need is less acknowledgement and assurance of their different, special and (especially) victim status, and more recognition that their future hopes, like those of the rest of us, lie in helping themselves, rather than the cargo-cult approach of sitting back and looking to government to remedy past ills, real or imagined.

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