Self-interest as a path to Aboriginal flourishing


'Up From the Mission' by Noel PearsonNoel Pearson's book, Up From the Mission: Selected Writings is more than worth a read. It is a shaker. In the Kimberley, we are feeling its impact on the ground.

It has been well reviewed. This present piece concerns the following words of John Hirst in Australia Literary Review (Weekend Australian), of 3 June 2009:

Nor does (Pearson) explore whether Aborigines will want to be enthusiastic participants in the wider economy and society. Their communal and anti-materialist attachments might still be a bar, apart from everything else.

Again, Pearson is confident about incentives and if those fail he will 'crank up the engine of self-interest among the underprivileged'. 'To put it crassly,' he says, 'poor people need to become at least as greedy as those who are not poor.' Yes, this is crass.

So, for his Cape York constituency, Pearson sees self-interest (as he explained in a speech to the Centre for Independent Studies in July 2010) as 'the engine of development'. Not only is it 'relevant to any serious intention to close the gap on disadvantage, it is absolutely central'.

In this, he is urging his own people to a big mutation indeed.

In the traditional pre-'scientific' religious intuition referred to as the kinship system, everything in the wide universe was seen as having a place, a 'skin', in the totality. Everything was inter-related and inter-dependent. Self-interest as a mode of human being and living did not occur to the Aboriginal mentality. Nor could it, in the circumstances. In this, I believe, it was graced.

Here in the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome and Roebuck Bay in Western Australia, good things have been happening, along the lines Pearson is proposing. The Howard family's Midlagoon is a popular tourist resort. The Sibosado family venture in Lombadina is again a seasonal attraction. The Cox family bakery in Beagle Bay is, similarly, a heartening success story, and exemplary.

Billard, close to Beagle Bay, is a Victor family project, backed by the government. It is feeling its way, with suicide-prevention its focus.

Each of these is getting out of what Pearson calls 'passive welfare' and into employment and self- (or family-) aggrandisement.

The question is: are the ancient kinship vision/experience and Pearson's self-interest reconcilable, or inevitably opposed?

Though he grew up in Hope Vale Lutheran mission, and still regards Hope Vale as his dearly-loved home, Pearson avoids the subject of religion. There is one short paragraph in one of the essays contained in Up From the Mission:

The decline of religion and the influence of the churches in the communities are also part of this story ... I served on the Hope Vale Aboriginal Community Council when the last vestiges of the Lutheran Church's administrative involvement in the affairs of our people were removed in the late 1980s. We cut these last ties with a relishing sense of historic reckoning.

The awful truth is that we threw the baby out with the bathwater ... Both the church and our people should have found a way to move beyond the paternalism of the past without destroying the moral and cultural order that had been such a strong quality of our community ... We now repent social and moral wreckage.

The next paragraph (and the remainder of the book) opens: 'But these are details ...'

So, to our question: are the kinship system, (hardly recoverable now in all its former practices), and Pearson's self-interest, reconcilable or mutually opposed? I think they are reconcilable.

The spiritual vision/experience the kinship system offered is unquestionably a lasting wonder our world sorely needs to have set before its eyes.

Perhaps Australia's Indigenous wise may come to re-energise that old holistic understanding, its embers lying within their deeper selves, waiting; may allow it to assert itself, from among them, in possibly new ways, and for use. For their part, let the climbers climb.

 Dan O'DonovanFr Dan O'Donovan is a diocesan hermit living at Beagle Bay in the Catholic Diocese of Broome

Topic tags: Dan O'Donovan, Noel Pearson, Indigenous Australians, First Nations



submit a comment

Existing comments

Yes Dan, our sophisticated cultures have forgotten Christ's teachings.Instead we have plundered and decimated 'virgin' lands and demonised other beliefs.Arrogance and self-interest are not helpful and we have Europe on it's knees now after leading the world down the path of material greed.

The philosophies espoused in the 'Enlightenment' in Europe brought a sense of duality and separation of mind,body and soul and church versus state, and european communities became caught in a quest for power.

I would like to hope our 'civilised' (truly educated) elders can be heard and indigenous wisdom can be protected because as you say it is not akin to self-interest.

Self- interest is not the same as self respect. It's about selfishness.

I have been very fortunate and honoured visit Nauiyu and meet Miriam - Rose. She has found a way to nurture her community and culture and find links to ancient common ground through an exploration of the sacred which is at the heart of all human beliefs.She has gone beyond Us & Them, and forges a path into a global community.

I feel indigenous wisdom identifies feminine qualities as sustaining and sacred. Secret women's business is Sacred, is based in natural law. We are just beginning to learn these things.
Beauty and Harmony are not advertising tools and our yearning for unity is universal.

There are many ancient, spiritual gifts, found in many cultural settings. We need to celebrate,respect and honour and realise they greater value than politcal and economic power.This is where we need to focus our hope and attention.
We have no sacred foundation to sustain us otherwise.

Catherine | 28 October 2011  

This 'self-interest business' that Pearson believes will benefit aboriginal people is the very same business that has led to environmental destruction and the Great Recession that came to a head in 2008. Clearly Pearson is only interested in his own advancement, which in the zero-sum game of capitalism means someone has to lose to pay for his gain. Pearson should not comment on a culture he cannot represent.

John G | 28 October 2011  

I would classify 'self-interest' more specially as 'personal ownership' as against community ownership understanding that this is entwined with the kinship system.

Relying on 'community' takes away the individual motivation to take responsibility. It's easy and appealing and requires no effort. It is not only Indigenous that fall into this trap of passive welfare.

Those Indigenous who are not constained by lack of motivation are moving forward. For others the constraints are powerful such as peer pressure, drugs and alcohol and a feeling of marginalisation derived from geographical, cultural and educational difficulties.

Marie Fitzgerald | 28 October 2011  

Well if Pearson is looking at current white Australian society as a role model for the Aboriginal population to follow, I think he's being very unimaginative. Does he really think that obsession with material gain, with having the latest gadgets, the biggest, fastest car is the way to a better life. Does he think that the sort of ruthless self interest depicted in reality TV shows which are so popular, is the way forward. Does he think that continuing to pollute and consume the country's environment is an improvement? No wonder he's John Howard's favourite Aborigine.

Mike H | 28 October 2011  

My respect for Noel Pearson is not reduced by his reference to self-interest as a motivation for getting out of the misery of dependence - dependence on welfare, alcohol, petrol sniffing. However self-interest, "enlightened" or otherwise, too readily degenerates into the "greed is good" excesses of the world's financial markets. Fr Dan's list of Indigenous success stories in the Kimberley happily identifies the ownership as 'family' not 'self'. And I don't think it is miss-reading Pearson to interpret his "self-interest" as 'active care for family'. Seen in this light, it fits snugly into the kinship system, rather than appearing opposed to it. 19th & 20th century mission and State slashed much of the spiritual strength from the traditional kinship system. Late 20th century welfare poisoned much of what remained, with alcohol and the depression that comes from being unable to provide for one's family - nuclear or extended. Australia's Indigenous people will be able to "re-energise that old holistic understanding" when opportunities for welfare-free livelihood are generated. Mining, oil& gas, pastoral, tourism, small-scale retail or service industry - it matters not. Escape from welfare is probably the core of Pearson's activism, and it's happening now in the Kimberley.

Ian Fraser | 28 October 2011  

I feel compelled to suggest to Father Don that his rose coloured glasses may need adjusting . Perhaps one of the greatest "asset" an indigenous man from the timeless kinship tradition of which I am a little familiar was a healthy ,helpful wife or two .The non-covetous elders gathered as many as 5 of them down to barely teenage .

During ceremony/walkabout time the protection afforded by the family nomadic existance was often broken down by the young ,virile unmarried men "sneakingup "on the youngest at an opportune time . Of course once congregated on Missions & Settlements the practice magnified considerably .I could suggest a few at least which current DNA testing could verify including a set of twins with two separate fathers .

Perhaps Noel is suggesting people can be reprogrammed to gather dollars rather than wives of past system .

John Kersh | 31 October 2011  

Similar Articles

Gillard's grotesque people smuggler sledge

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 04 November 2011

So-called people smugglers are often penniless teenagers who are simply a link in the chain for those who are seeking legitimate asylum. The Government's new retrospective law will punish such individuals for an act that was legal at the time it was committed.


What matters in Qantas confrontation

  • Brian Lawrence
  • 01 November 2011

The Qantas industrial dispute is likely to make a major contribution to the history of Australian industrial relations. The important issue is whether Qantas should have been required to threaten substantial damage to itself and to the national economy before it could gain access to arbitration.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up