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The ethics of paternalism in Aboriginal policy


Australian Government sign warns 'No liquor. No pornography.'Following the abuse received by Adam Goodes from a teenage spectator in the AFL's Indigenous round, and the subsequent remarks made by Eddie McGuire, the country became embroiled in a debate about racism in modern Australia. The debate was about words — 'ape' was the pejorative used by the Collingwood spectator — and in our rush to condemn, defend or make sense of the ensuing debate yet more words were spilled across newspaper columns, blog posts, broadcast media and social media.

Meanwhile, the Northern Territory introduced its Mandatory Alcohol Treatment Bill which, if passed, will see more Aboriginal people incarcerated. We were too busy describing the modern face of racism to notice.

The importance of words cannot be diminished but newspapers and bulletins can hold only so many. While plenty were dedicated to the story of McGuire, the teenage girl and Goodes, none mentioned that in 20 years the proportion of Aboriginal people held in custody has grown from one in seven to one in four. The introduction of laws which would criminalise alcohol consumption and introduce more Aboriginal people to jail made the news but did not incite the passions of the commentariat or public, being devoid of sport stars and television personalities.

Perhaps that's not so surprising. After all, this is not the first law which disproportionately affects Aboriginal people, and it won't be the last.

Of course there is nothing in the legislation passed by the NT Government which explicitly singles out Aboriginal people. The laws, if passed without amendments, will mean that anyone convicted of their third offence of public drunkenness will be mandatorily detained in treatment centres. Having scrapped the banned drinkers list — a policy which prevented problem drinkers from purchasing alcohol — in the name of liberty, the Government has enthusiastically committed itself to a policy which will lock more people up.

What is public drunkenness anyway? It is just one of a suite of laws that exists in the statute book of each state that are governed by police discretion, and a handy way of taking people into custody when they've done nothing wrong. When a drunk person trespasses, urinates, causes criminal damage, abuses others or police officers, they have broken the law. When they have done none of the above, there is the public drunkenness offence.

Give police tools to act out their prejudices and they will do so: Aboriginal people are targeted with impunity. In 2002, 19 per cent of all Indigenous custody incidents were for public drunkenness. In the Northern Territory 92 per cent of all public drunkenness incidents involved Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are 42 times more likely to be in custody for public drunkenness than non-Aboriginal people, though according to the 2004–5 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, rates of high level alcohol consumption among Aboriginal people are commensurate with non-Aboriginal people at around 15 per cent.

Nationwide, 26.7 per cent of our prison population are Aboriginal, despite representing just 2.6 per cent of the population. Western Australia imprisons Aboriginal people at a rate greater than South Africa jailed black people during apartheid.

Against these statistics, the 1991 Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended public drunkenness be decriminalised. That hasn't happened, and rates of imprisonment among Aboriginal people have grown in the years since the report was handed down.

The inherent racism of Australians is often used to explain away this generational mess of failed policy but this unsophisticated response is unsatisfactory and obscures analysis of why and how this failure has occurred, and therefore how to solve it. Besides, no matter how much money is thrown towards programs aimed towards addressing Aboriginal disadvantage, it's not enough. It's never enough. Though every billion dollars spent is matched with the finest of intentions, things still haven't gotten better for Aboriginal people.

Fine intentions. What do they describe? Often they describe the desire to see Aboriginal people achieve the same standard of health, education and opportunity as every other Australian. Rarely do these fine intentions every actually include handing power to Aboriginal people to achieve these goals.

Fine intentions amount to, in a word, paternalism, which philosophers including John Stuart Mill and Immanueal Kant have critiqued. Mill held a person's ability to make their own decisions should never be overruled, even if it were for the individual's own physical or moral good, while Kant believed paternalism to violate the dignity of human beings; that paternalism interfered with people's individual will in such a way that people were not treated as equals, but as 'immature children unable to distinguish between what is truly useful or harmful to them'.

For decades, from the earliest days of colonisation, to Aboriginal protection boards, the Stolen Generations, the Northern Territory intervention, and its successor, the Stronger Futures legislation, a common thread has weaved through Aboriginal policy: the patronising and corrosive notion that governments know better.

The Intervention was announced with a telegenic level of symbolism that would vie with George Bush's 'mission accomplished' announcement: army tanks and armed services personal, weeping ministers, and emergency writ large. 'Intervention' is the right word: it was a centralised, bureaucratic incursion into peoples' lives the like of which has not been undertaken before. Indeed, the cost of administering $150 million of Centrelink money under the intervention's key policy of income management was $105 million, a cost of $4400 per person, per year.

This aspect of the intervention, compulsory income management, resurrected apartheid in Australia. All Aboriginal people in receipt of welfare had a portion quarantined to a basics voucher, limiting the number of stores they could shop at and forcing them to specific check-out queues. Express lane, 12 items or less, and a line for Aborigines with basics cards.

Such discrimination has no place in modern Australia, its attitudes or laws. Hence the Government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act. Opposition to the measures were cast aside due to the sense of emergency created by the Government. The public were not presented with a persuasive policy debate but were instead subjected to a primitive, utilitarian ethical construction: Do you support policies, which, if a bit drastic, will stop children being abused? Or in other words, don't you think the end justifies the means?

And it was this question that the Government returned to whenever opponents expressed concern at the intervention and its hostile imposition upon Aboriginal people. The policy removed from Aboriginal people their autonomy in choosing how to spend their money, it forced them to submit their children to mandatory health checks, and lease their land to the Government in return for essential services, in the belief that ultimately the Government was better placed to deal with this emergency than Aboriginal people.

So do you oppose child abuse, or do you support it?

The government was at war with child abuse, their opponents were at war with 'paternalism'. The odds were always stacked against them in terms of public debate.

Paternalism is a bit of a nothing word anyway. It has been invoked to oppose laws that mandate cyclists wear helmets, or attempt to reduce smoking. Its cousin, the term 'nanny state' is often used to defend the right of racists to be racist and shock jocks to shock: the term of choice for those wishing to prevent government regulations encroaching upon their turf.

For those lucky enough to be born white and middle class, such ethical considerations offered by Kant and Mill are several steps removed from real life, especially since the case study in question is whether we should wear bicycle helmets or not.

But for Aboriginal people such questions have a material affect on their lives. The Mandatory Alcohol Treatment bill for instance is a 'tough love' measure that insists that locking up drunks in mandatory treatment centres is justified since it's for their own good. It posits that depriving people of their liberty by placing them behind wire and under the care of guards is an ethical response to the harm they cause themselves through drunkenness.

The ethical question posed in first year arts courses is whether the end can ever justify the means; whether the deprivation of one's liberty can ever be considered an ethical response to a problem.

For Aboriginal people, the answer to that question can be found in rates of abuse and alcoholism which have not reduced despite the intervention, or its continuation under Stronger Futures.

The answer can be found in an adult incarceration rate 14 times higher than non-Aboriginal adults, and 31 times higher among Aboriginal juveniles; a life expectancy gap of 11.5 years for males and 9.7 years for females.

The answer? Paternalism never has, and never will work for Aboriginal people.

Callum Denness headshotCallum Denness lives in Melbourne. His background is in filmmaking, art and journalism. He was awarded Second Prize in the 2013 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for the above esssay.

Judge's citation:

The Australian Catholic Bishops' 1996 Social Justice Statement was called A New Beginning: Eradicating Poverty in Our World. On page 28, it stated that the eradication of poverty requires 'the inclusion of poor people in the process of eradicating poverty, with poor people playing the central role and the contribution of those not in poverty being ultimately at the service of poor people.' More recently, section 47 of Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate also stated that 'the people who benefit from [development projects] ought to be directly involved in their planning and implementation.'

Sadly, this strategy is hardly ever followed in Australia's dealings with its Aboriginal people. To the contrary, as this article eloquently reveals, these interventions are shaped by paternalism, which the article defines as 'the patronising and corrosive notion that governments know better'. As this article also reveals, the effects of this paternalism are very serious. Hoped-for improvements do not eventuate. Often, instead, further damage is done.

I have demonstrated that the principle of participation is clearly found in Catholic social teaching. Interestingly, this article draws on other sources — including John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant — to warn of the dangers of paternalism. The author also demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the various government interventions which were intended to benefit Aboriginal people.

It is important that any article begins in a way that will get the reader's attention. The discussion at the beginning of this article of the abuse directed towards AFL player Adam Goodes is a very effective way to do this.

This article did have a rather large number of typos and other small mistakes. These did detract from the overall quality of this work. Even so, this article makes an important point about a very important concern. I hope that governments in Australia hear this critique, and change the way in which they engage with Indigenous Australians. This valuable article certainly merits Second Prize in the 2013 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers.

Topic tags: Margaret Dooley Award, Adam Goodes, Eddie McGuire, AFL, Intervention, Stolen Generations



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Existing comments

Totally agree with the writer. The NT and other governments approach to aboriginals is sickening and demeaning of both the aboriginals and the rest of Australian society. We deserve better!

Alan Baker | 24 September 2013  

Hi Cal Brilliant essay. Well done. Try it in the Conversation. Add an intro paragraph on the Indigenous players playing in the GF (there are 8 I think; they won't be incarcerated if they get drunk in their celebrations) on Saturday and it might get a run. Cheers Andrew

Andrew Taggart | 24 September 2013  

Congratulations on your essay Callum. Self-determination is defined as the process by which a person controls their own life. And the Australian government has traditionally taken a paternalistic approach to Indigenous self-determination. Tony Abbott has put much work into forging relationships within the Indigenous communities and, hopefully, will continue to listen and learn and make much-needed changes. And, Callum, we all make typos!

Pam | 24 September 2013