Saturday, 11 March 2017

A substantive agenda for progress



In a recent post at the blog Club Troppo, the invariably stimulating and innovative Nicholas Gruen ruminates on the dilemmas of Indigenous recognition, reconciliation, closing the gap, symbolism versus substance, and the insidious dangers of ‘memefication’. His post ‘Seeking traction in the swamp of identity politics’ (link here) is well worth a read, as is the YouTube clip he attaches of Steven Oliver reciting his poem ‘Hate he Said’.

There was much in the post which I agreed with, particularly the frustration with symbolism in the face of deep-seated disadvantage, the absence of a coherent strategic agenda from the Indigenous leadership, and the assessment that the power structures which allow Indigenous disadvantage to continue are primarily non-Indigenous (notwithstanding Peter Sutton’s and Noel Pearson’s well-made arguments pointing to the role of Indigenous agency in determining social outcomes and arguing in favour of an Indigenous responsibility agenda).

I was however slightly disturbed by the note of pessimism Nicholas struck:  his comment on the boredom elicited from hearing yet again of the deep-seated disadvantage facing Indigenous citizens; and his resort to contemplation of technicist interventions/solutions notwithstanding the systemic lack of commitment to implementation which Nicholas recognises (correctly) to be ubiquitous; and finally the note of despair (or is it desperation) which emerges from the final paragraph which returns to the truism that symbolism won’t solve or resolve all issues, but which also doesn’t attempt to offer a way forward.

Let me quickly emphasise that I am not singling Nicholas out here – he expresses a set of views which I think are widely shared. I also recognise this pessimism and tendency to despair in my own thinking about these challenges. But it seems incumbent upon those of us who focus on these issues to at least move toward identifying substantive, and Nicholas’ post caused me to ask: well what would I propose?

My proposals here are not intended to be comprehensive; there is no silver bullet, nor a short term fix. These proposals are as much a ‘note to self’ as a critique of others given my own propensity to ‘go with the flow’ and too quickly accept that it is all too hard.

Here are three proposals (perhaps more accurately termed ‘ideas’) designed to make a long term difference:

First, mainstream Australia is too quick to dismiss symbolism; it is not sufficient to resolve deep-seated disadvantage, but as a nation we have comprehensively underestimated the deep, ongoing and inter-generational psychological impact of cultural dispossession. The statistics on Indigenous mental health are testament to this. Symbolic actions by governments, corporations and individuals all have an important role to play in healing this insidious damage. Paradoxically, for many if not most Indigenous citizens, many ‘symbolic’ actions by mainstream Australia are actually demonstrations of good faith with tangible consequences for the way they feel about their status as citizens and the ways they see themselves within the Australian society and polity.

Second, as a nation, and in our public policies, we display remarkably little commitment to enabling and encouraging informed Indigenous choice in all sorts of contexts. There will be areas where society imposes its own rules (road rules; taxes, mandatory education) and reasonable people will differ on how far society should go, but within the realm of the Indigenous domain however large or small that might be, we should actively support and acknowledge the potential for different choices to be made. Too often, we step in and impose solutions, views, conditions, pre-requisites and the like; and just as often we fail to support Indigenous preferences, choices and decisions, and more covertly, we undermine Indigenous ways of deciding, and choosing.

An example is the limited support the nation provides for the maintenance of Indigenous languages, and our extraordinary incapacity to recognise the potential value for all Australians that might derive or be sourced from the extraordinary cosmologies, natural history and environmental insights and knowledge which go hand in glove with language.

Encouragingly, the Federal Government recently announced new funding for language support. The world, not just Australia, will be a poorer place if in 100 years we are left with only one or two spoken Indigenous languages.

Third, I propose that perhaps the single most transformative change we could adopt as a nation in relation to Indigenous citizens would be to adopt a constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination directed against all races. The nation was established and founded upon notions of racial superiority, and while we have made great strides as a nation in overcoming racial discrimination, we have a long way to go. The Racial Discrimination Act (section 18C aside) attracts broad support, yet it is vulnerable to the whim of the Executive and a potentially populist Senate, not just now, but into the indefinite future.

I am under no illusions that this is an extremely contentions proposal/suggestion, that tactical or pragmatic considerations can make it seem like an utopian aspiration, and that it will take years if not decades to achieve. But it is an issue which affects all Australians, and the failure of non-Indigenous Australians to prosecute the agenda has left Indigenous Australians grappling with how to address it from a position of political weakness and virtual impotence.

In the context of this proposal, it is worth contemplating, in a spirit of reflexivity, that while we non-Indigenous Australians often demand that Indigenous citizens change and adapt (merely because ‘we won’ or ‘they are a minority’), we are far less keen to seriously consider making substantive changes ourselves which would improve the quality of life and public discourse for all Australians. If we truly believe ourselves to be a free, equal and open society, why would we oppose such a strengthening of our constitution?


Strategic incoherence is not a uniquely Indigenous characteristic: the non-Indigenous leadership of the nation also suffers from the absence of a coherent strategic agenda aimed at protecting our fundamental values and our quality of life!