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The new Indigenous affairs orthodoxy

  • 11 September 2008

There is a new orthodoxy in Indigenous affairs, and woe betide anyone daring to diverge from it.

Nicholas Rothwell is one of the chief enforcers of this orthodoxy. In this month's Australian Literary Review he pours scorn on the recalcitrants, singling out Jon Altman (whose sins include issuing a 'rebuke' to Rothwell about a story he had written) as representative, while heaping praise on Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and others to whose views he accords his stamp of approval.

Masterful as the arguments Rothwell elects to champion are, they do not adequately account for what exists, nor do they provide definitive prescriptions for change.

For example, it is highly contentious to proclaim that alcohol is the 'cause, not mere attendant symptom' of the 'present-day Indigenous crisis' and that drinking and drug-taking are 'best conceptualised as self-perpetuating diseases, rather than symptoms of social ills'.

The rights model of the 1970s and '80s with its emphasis on self-determination has proven to be seriously flawed, but it is only the latest in a succession of flawed ideas and poorly implemented policies devised by generations of policy-makers, bureaucrats and people on the ground.

The advocates of this approach were attempting to correct earlier mistakes. They were no less passionate about improving the condition of Indigenous Australians, and no more corrupt than their current detractors.

Before the people Rothwell describes as deluded or cynical 'leftists', 'academics' and 'ventriloquists' had their influence, there were those who wished to 'smooth the dying pillow', to assimilate, integrate, and educate Aboriginal people. Usually, these reformers were filled with zeal and confident they knew what was best.

Throughout the sorry history of relations between the state and its agents and the Indigenous population, there have been degrees of neglect, and a blind assumption that good intentions would suffice. We need not be mired in the past to acknowledge its impact and its enduring effects.

After all, Indigenous Australians' inequality, poverty and enforced dependency long predated the provision of welfare payments and the right to drink, even if the extension of these rights has exacerbated the problems.

It is surely no coincidence that the levels of sickness, violence, substance misuse, child abuse and neglect found in many Indigenous aggregations have similarities with what can be observed in sites of civil war and social upheaval in other parts of the world. These are among many factors that require something more than the Manichaean simplicity of Rothwell's argument.

Despite his