Calma approach proves too timid

Opinion Article

2009 August, 29

There is nothing the government (or anyone else) can do for the Aboriginal people of Australia that the  people are unwilling to do for themselves.  


If people from the progressive side of the political divide reflect on this principle, they will agree.  They would realise what they think of as self-determination is consistent with this principle: nothing  will work if the people who are the subjects of reform efforts are not willing to make the reform.  


If people from the liberal and conservative side of the cultural and political divide reflected on this  principle, they would also agree. After all, it is one of their own classical nostrums about the  relationship between government and citizens. They would think of it as the necessary responsibility  that must be held by citizens.  


Properly understood, what the Left calls self-determination and the Right calls responsibility are one  and the same thing: the power that people must have to take charge of their own destiny.  


In Australia the two sides have failed to recognise this commonality. This is because those on the  progressive Left side (including the majority of indigenous leaders) came to interpret self-determination as all power, no responsibility. This was the problem with the Aboriginal and Torres  Strait Islander Commission: it gave some substantial powers to indigenous people, but the mentality  was one of “we want power, but it’s all the governments’ fault when there is failure”. It’s true these powers were residual and many areas of failure – not the least health and education – were in fact state  and commonwealth government responsibilities, rather than ATSIC’s. But the defining feature of the  old ATSIC paradigm was power without responsibility.  


Those on the liberal-conservative side, on the other hand, have also failed on responsibility, for two  reasons. First, when it comes down to it, Australian liberal-conservatives are still big believers in  government. They think overwhelmingly that it is government that needs to be the main actor in the  salvation of the indigenes. Like their social democrat opponents, they see it largely as a matter of state  service delivery rather than what we have come to call in Cape York Peninsula supported self-help.


Second, while they are keen for individual responsibility, they would prefer to ignore any group,  community or people as holders of responsibility. Their aversion to collectivism makes their position  too extreme. So they want to abolish indigenous organisations, and replace them with what? Large,  mainstream, welfare-delivering non-government organisations like the Smith Family, Mission  Australia and so on? As if they do a better job of delivering welfare.  


The fact is indigenous Australians are peoples in an important sense. That means we share communal  identities (not the least in relation to the ownership of traditional lands). There are many aspects of  language, cultural traditions and heritage that mean we are not just individuals, but we are members of  groups as well.  


It is true that the great majority of indigenous Australians, including those who have been closely  involved in contributing to Tom Calma’s blueprint for a new national indigenous representative body,  largely function as individuals in the Australian mainstream. These are said to number 400,000 while another 100,000 live in discrete communities, usually in remote areas. While vast gaps in social and  economic conditions exist across this spectrum, it is plain that the crises in the discrete, remote  communities are of a particular kind.  


My point for the moment is this: the liberal-conservative Right cannot just wish away the people  dimension when it comes to discrete communities in particular. To continue to insist on utter assimilation is madness, and it’s the wrong idea anyway.  


The fact is that rather than there being two choices: individualism or peoplehood, what has to happen to  Aboriginal society is what has happened to all traditional societies on entering the modern era. Aboriginal individuals need to split in two: part of their life must be conducted as individuals pursuing their lives in the modern world. They must be animated by their own self-interest and their families  must be their first priority. They must be able to have access to opportunity without going through  collectivist procedures and they need to have a private life that is separate from collectivist politics.  Their pursuit of their individual interests must be fully legitimated as the best (and only) means of  social and economic uplift.


The other half of the Aboriginal individual’s personality will constitute their identification with their  people: their lands, their languages, their traditions, their heritage. This is not a sphere of life that  provides any chance for socioeconomic development. It serves those more intangible human needs for  culture, spirituality and identity.  


Calma’s model for indigenous Australian representation is a tragically wrong-headed outcome of what  was clearly a hopeful exercise involving many indigenous people earnestly trying to find a way to a  better future.  


It is difficult to add anything more to Nicolas Rothwell’s penetrating analysis in The Australian  yesterday. Rothwell’s conclusion is devastating: “For some time it has been clear Aboriginal self-determination has had its day. Calma’s report lays it in its long-prepared grave.”  


It is a strange outcome. It’s clear that the long shadow of ATSIC dominated Calma’s process and the  product they have come up with shows the psychological terrors under which they laboured. They  were anxious (like the Rudd government) not to give the impression that they were trying to revive the  dead monster, ATSIC: yes, we only want advisory powers and will have no involvement in service  delivery. They were anxious to ensure proper representation for women. They were anxious to prove  the new organisation’s commitment to ethics and probity, and have made extraordinary proposals in  this regard. They did not want government to be in a position to abolish the organisation, so they have  opted to establish a company rather than a legislated body. They think that philanthropic and corporate  funding will provide some financial independence to the new organisation, with little appreciation that  there is small hope of this.


Understandably, given the opprobrium that came to be attached to ATSIC, they are running so scared  from the ghost of ATSIC that they have proposed a model that can be summarised as all voice, no  power, no responsibility. The worst result of all: they have the ability to complain but no ability to influence or take responsibility.  


The recognition of indigenous Australians as peoples should be a matter for commonwealth legislation  at the least. If there were problems with the arbitrary interferences and changes by governments, then  the search should have been for solutions that protect against such events. In any case the need for government funding still leaves the most decisive power in the hands of government. The erstwhile  representative company may still survive, but without government funds?  


The position of indigenous Australians is reduced to that of a representative function of approximately  the status of the Australian Native Grasslands Protection Association or the Australian Philatelic  Society (if there be such organisations). Except that it will have the formal role of complaining about  the torment of powerlessness afflicting Australia’s first peoples.  


Calma and his team have not grappled with the whole problem of the governance interface between  indigenous Australians and the Australian commonwealth. One nation, several peoples. Finding the  equilibrium between the 97 per cent Elephant and the 3 per cent Mouse so that the Mouse can do for  itself those things that the Elephant will never be able to do for the Mouse. Individual socioeconomic  development in the private sphere, cultural development in the sphere of the people.  


Thoughtful members of the Rudd government should treat the Calma report as a kind of embarrassing  Oliver Twist moment in the relationship between black and white Australia. Embarrassing for the  whites as much as for blacks. They should ask Calma to go back to the drawing board and give indigenous Australians the opportunity to think through these issues outside the shadow of ATSIC. To  accept Oliver’s pathos would be the worst act of political cynicism.

Calma approach proves too timid