Land rights and progressive wrongs
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 2: Dreams of Land
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Noel Pearson
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Noel Pearson's biography and other articles by this writer
In August 2003, Prime Minister John Howard visited the community of Aurukun and attended the annual Cape York Land and Health Summit held at Uk-aw, the brown-snake story place, on Wik country. Since the community began regulating the availability of alcohol on January 1, 2003, there has been an 80 per cent reduction in the number of people with injuries presenting to the local hospital. The Aurukun community chose to limit alcohol consumption at the canteen, prohibiting takeaways and any importation of alcohol. Thus the village and, most importantly, the homes are free of the binge-drinking parties that are a feature of family and community life in Cape York Peninsula.
There are still many problems to solve – drugs, behavioural problems associated with kids who have hardly ever been to school, youth who have grown up in the past dysfunctional system who have no education and almost no life skills, alcoholism among those who still drink at the canteen, and so on.
But the reduction in the violence alone is in itself precious. This statistic has a reality in terms of the lives of real human beings – the people of this community. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie's courage and the concrete actions taken to support our efforts in Cape York have already saved lives and reduced tragedy. We are at the beginning, and things can and likely will go wrong, but we will not be deterred.
The commentator Michael Duffy has written that nothing will come from any partnership between John Howard and us in Cape York Peninsula. He argues that, like other well-meaning indigenous leaders of the past, I have engaged the Prime Minister's attention by telling him "what [he] wanted to hear".
It may well be that nothing will come from our attempt to establish real partnerships between our people and the Federal Government. Progress will depend on policies that are rigorous and work under the hot sun, not just on paper. It will depend on leadership and determination by indigenous people as well as government.
The Prime Minister himself assumes that the common-policy ground that exists between us in Cape York and himself has come about because there has been a "change of attitude" on the part of indigenous leaders.
If he means that we have changed our policy and our thinking about our problems, he is wrong. I first articulated my own views about grog, history and dependency back in 1987, when I wrote a paper with my late friend and mentor, Mervyn Gibson, from my home town. In it we described how addiction had corrupted our culture and social relationships (www.capeyorkpartnerships.com). Reading again what I wrote as a 22-year-old, I am struck by how little my basic convictions have changed. So, with respect to those from the right who think they have succeeded in a "cultural war" on indigenous policy – the truth is that many indigenous leaders have always understood that rights and responsibilities must run together and that victim-hood will get us nowhere. There is little that I have said about the poison of welfare dependency that had not already been said by the late Charles Perkins.
People in Cape York Peninsula have embarked upon what is seen as a radical departure from the thinking that has been unable to avert the indigenous social disaster. We have taken the discussion about indigenous responsibility further and started implementing a comprehensive program.
I HAVE BECOME CONVINCED THAT indigenous people must move decisively beyond the legacy of the past decades – regardless of some real achievements, such as the recognition of native title.
Until autumn 1999, I was known as a native-title activist. In general politics, I wouldn't have promoted ideas that departed from left-liberal Labor-oriented progressive thinking.
There is a widespread perception based on brief or selective media reports that I have moved to the right since 1999. However, in my published texts I have defended the welfare state and the organisation of people in trade unions and other political and social movements. My good relationship with many political leaders of the right must be due to their broad-mindedness, because they have read my texts and know where I stand.
In my daily work, my commitment to indigenous and lower-class people is unchanged. What changed in the late 1990s was that, from my remote Aboriginal-community perspective, I started to doubt whether many of the official policies of the organisations and parties of the left, and the left-leaning intellectual culture, serve indigenous people.
I use the label "left" in a wide sense. It includes most of the academic, cultural and media spheres where people have had rights-based and service delivery-based perspectives on the indigenous predicament. I also include those with "moderate" and "liberally-minded" attitudes in the Liberal Party. At the same time many Labor people cannot be labelled "left" in this sense.
AS THE INDIGENOUS CRISIS ACCELERATED, it became apparent that leftist or progressive discourse was unable to deliver solutions or even identify policy areas ofstrategic importance. Of course, there has been much well-targeted criticism from the left (for example, observations about sheer neglect of health services). But even if all of the proposals of the left had been acted upon, possible gains would have been swallowed up by an explosion of indigenous dysfunction, the causes of which the left was unwilling to discuss.
During the 1990s, I thought that there must be academic expertise that could help do something for our people, do something about the accelerating social breakdown. I approached academics and anthropologists because I felt I didn't have enough theoretical understanding of the questions about culture, alcohol and so on.
Mervyn Gibson and I wrote the paper in 1987 about broader social issues, about how alcohol had insinuated itself into our culture. The discussion was based on the observation that the Hopevale mission of my childhood was poor but socially stable. But I put our ideas from 1987 to the side for many years when I worked on native title. During this time the social disintegration accelerated and the gulf between the reality in our communities and the credibility of the thinking of my supporters and allies, the progressives and small "l" liberals, became intolerably wide.
My original aim was to influence the left, but I only roused resentment or bewilderment. (Labor politician Mark Latham was the exception and, indeed, I was inspired by his courageous challenge to the established Labor thinking about social policy.) During the 2001 election campaign we received a message from federal Labor saying that it would "differentiate from Howard's policy by not using the words ‘welfare dependency' but have a very strong position on regional control and other things that ... Noel would like".
I wondered how these policitians were going to make any headway if they couldn't even bring themselves to call one of our two main problems by its name. (Federal Labor's election policy document did contain a cautiously expressed concern that "long-term CDEP [Community Development Employment Projects]... is contributing to welfare dependence", but no section of the document was devoted to passive welfare.)
In the same policy document, a ninth of the "health" section was dedicated to our other main problem, abusive behaviour; there were no whole sections about indigenous violence and substance abuse.
Of course, the conservatives had no record of serious interest in my people's development but they were pragmatically open to dialogue about our immediate problems, in spite of the disputes and differences between them and me.
The big problems were that progressive thinking consisted of a fixed set of ideas and attitudes and that left-liberal and radical opinion was unable to change in response to evident policy failure among our people.
The left was unwilling to discuss passive welfare even as we saw the deleterious effects of an entire people being predominantly reliant on handouts. The left also defended the dogma that "substance abuse is a health problem" and "caused by underlying issues" even as the majority of indigenous people were severely affected by the self-perpetuating substance-abuse epidemics.
Let me once again state that our miserable condition is a product of our dispossession. My objection to leftist analysis is twofold: first, in the case of the individual addict, the addiction itself is the main problem. Personal and collective history might have led to the first, voluntary abuse, but history and personal circumstances don't maintain the advanced addiction, so we can't expect to stop the abusive behaviour by reducing "indigenous disadvantage" (which, of course, we should do anyway). Second, when substance abuse becomes widespread in our communities, it becomes the main "disadvantage factor" and "underlying issue". Its omnipresence becomes the main reason why non-addicts (new recruits to addiction) start experimenting with intoxication – history becomes even less a "cause".
In relation to substance abuse, I find contemporary Australian radicalism isolated historically and geographically. Harm minimisation dominates the leftist thinking in Australia. But in many places (including Australia) and in many historical periods there is and has been popular, progressive resistance by people to the use of addictive substances. These people's ideology may be non-socialist or religious or whatever, but my definition of "progressive" is that of ordinary people getting together to improve their living conditions.
It is easy to see why "self-improvement" as a radical cause is difficult to advance. It is compromised because it was used as a diversion against the early labour movement; non-socialist "workers' associations" were organised by the bourgeoisie and social misery was attributed to lack of self-discipline and drinking among the lower classes by hypocritical elites. Radical people are also prone to think in terms of "social engineering", "structures" and "social forces". They are sceptical about mass movements that strive to consciously uphold social norms and ideals about individual responsibility (but not sceptical towards movements that strive to achieve economic, gender or "racial" equality by using the legislative power of the state).