The new Indigenous affairs orthodoxy


Australian Lliterary ReviewThere 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 tone of certainty, however, Rothwell does not spell out what is to become of the places such as Maningrida (which he labels 'zoo-like' and implies only advocates of 'victimhood' support) and their inhabitants.

Many of these places were created to exclude Aboriginal people from the 'mainstream'. With some notable exceptions, those in charge assumed the 'inmates' to be incapable of education and full citizenship. To a great extent, the inhabitants had to devise ways of surviving and coping, some of which have proved maladaptive.

Later, the removal of paternalistic order occurred with no preparation for the 'self-management' that replaced it. The situation that now prevails is, at least in part, a legacy of past conditions.

Once again, recipes for salvation are being prescribed for Indigenous people, often with little or no reference to the views or desires of the intended subjects. A little humility might be in order on the part of the current ascendancy, since their recipe is no more guaranteed to deliver the desired results than that of any of their predecessors.

Few people would disagree that there are conditions of both chronic and acute crisis afflicting many Indigenous communities, and that innovative ideas and models must be tried. But let us not pretend that some magic formula has been discovered. Abolishing welfare, imposing alcohol bans, and moving people out of unviable communities, may be partial solutions, but even if they are, such measures will have unintended consequences, at least in the short-term, and they must be accompanied by radical innovation of a more positive nature.

The creation of 50,000 jobs in two years is one such proposal, but its achievement is by no means assured just because influential people wish it to be. Change of such magnitude requires great care, and a willingness to be proved wrong. At least one lesson should have been learned from past failures: that change, once set in motion, will engender an unpredictable chain of events for which its advocates and its subjects must be prepared, to the degree that is possible.

Rothwell fires a parting shot at those who mention 'race', which he considers no longer relevant. Convenient as this may be, racism cannot be simply willed away. Race has been used in Australia from the beginning to define, regulate and exclude Indigenous people. The definition of Indigenous Australians as the inferior 'other' needing to be controlled, has been part of this nation's history and still prevails, albeit in new guises.

Most recently 'race' was invoked to identify which people in the Northern Territory would be subject to the Emergency Intervention, irrespective of the particular circumstances of individuals.

Many commentators, in Australia and elsewhere, wish us to be over 'race'; would that it were such a simple matter of choice, but that genie is not so easily returned to its bottle. Like other unpleasant facts of Australia's history it remains a factor in the world view and lived experience of many people, Indigenous and otherwise.

Myrna TonkinsonDr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974.


Topic tags: myrna tonkinson, indigenous affairs, nicholas rothwell, substance abuse, prescription for change



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Existing comments

How absolutely right and wise.
Moira Emilie Rayner | 11 September 2008

I lived in NT alice and darwin in the 60-70s.I made friends with aboriginal women and they talked about how they got only 3 years at school and just wanted education for their children and then expressed serious concern about their daughters being bait for white men. I saw some brutality of young aboriginal women by white men around both towns - there was some alcohol used then - methylated spirits put into soft drink. I learned a lot from these women, how they cared for their children, the time they gave them. I could go into their homes and have a cup of tea, they would not be seen to be coming into mine although welcome, they would be talked about. It was a great time in my life with 8 children of my own. Some of the girls sent down to Adelaide for education, I had stay with me on my move to Adelaide, it was a great experience. I am well retired now but have some great memories and a lot more positives than negatives. I am sad about current reporting, bad things happen but there is no coverage of the positives about aboriginal culture.
margaret o'reilly | 11 September 2008

Thanks for telling the truth without ideological posturing. There is only one race in Australia: human, but humans tend to stereotype each other and group each other for our own sentimental or political end. None of us has pure motives, but in your article I can foresee a way we can analyze so called Indigenous dysfunction by mentally putting ourselves in their situation over the generations and predicting what our lifestyle would now be without jobs or even the hope or recent memory of jobs, our noses pressed willingly or not up against the shop window of the modern world, but without any capacity to take part in it under our own control, forced to act out the mainstream's role plays about culture and race, yet utterly dependent on mainstream largesse and transient political moods for health, education and even identity. Maybe if it were me, I'd be drinking; I'd forget I had adult roles to fulfil towards my kids; maybe I'd reject whatever I could reject in a strategy to protect my self-esteem against constantly offered "help". Maybe I'd think only whites look after kids and send them school, becauuse only whites have aspirations and real jobs.
Rev Dr Steve Etherington | 11 September 2008

In the Kimberley over a number of years I translated myself in imagination from time to time to Inuit country in Canada - in search of a way to appreciate the life experience of Jaru and Gija people in and around Halls Creek.

I had visited Churchill and Baker Lake in the far north of Hudson Bay in 1988. I dislike the cold, the least of the challenges which I would have had to deal with to survive. And with the ice now melting what further challenges there will be!

On meeting a young lad out on Baker Lake, I told him I was from Australia; did he know where Australia was? Isn't that where Midnight Oil comes from? he said. (He had schooled in Toronto).

In such cultural complexity, humanising progress is slow and I suspect there is an accompanying law of modest returns. But time is prolonged for the human spirit of goodwill.
Noel McMaster | 11 September 2008

There's an old saying among pragmatists which goes :'If the problem is too difficult you can go to bed and stay there or you can write a thesis'. Otherwise we could do what Margaret O'Reilly did by hanging out with people in trouble and sharing hospitality, without hoping to get a PhD out of it.
Claude Rigney | 11 September 2008

Maybe worth having a look at the Australian Database of Indigenous Violence (trial version).
James Franklin | 11 September 2008

Thanks to Dr Tonkinson for a splendid piece, informed, judicious, cogently argued and superbly written. It's frustrating that people like Rothwell seem to write from no sense of history, from no sense of how the long term and comprehensive exclusion of Aboriginal people from everything that is needed for a society to flourish is at the heart of all the pain and dysfunction of the lives of so many of them. Quick fixes, complacency and sententiousness will contribute nothing to the betterment of their lives. Patient, hard policy work, and real listening to them will.
Joe Castley | 11 September 2008

Thank you Myrna, you are an incredibly gifted writer. You are so absolutely correct.
Alice Miller | 12 September 2008

Thank you Myrna.
Bentley James | 13 September 2008

Eloquent? Undoubtedly. Passionate? Indeed. Dr Tonkinson has done a reasonable hatchet job on what she sees as Rothwell's ideological and perhaps racist approach.

Interestingly, she avoids a direct engagement with Pearson and Langton. She also avoids prescribing any solutions of her own, a strategy free of the risk of having her own prescriptions subjected to criticism.
Ignatius Smyth | 17 September 2008

Saving languages is not dooming Aboriginal communities to be 'cultural museums' as has been said. However, Nicolas Rathwell's analytical essay, 'Education failure in any language' (Weekend Australian, Inquirer page 5, December 5-6, 2009) expresses the problems mildly in stating: 'The goals of mainstream and traditional education are hard to bring into harmony' and that 'Education is a matter of power'. ESL would be a good start.
Bill Day | 10 December 2009


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