Challenges of the first world

Opinion Article

2010 May, 15

The ultimate context in which indigenous people in Australia are situated is economic. In much of the  discussion there is an assumption that indigenous people in Australia are in a similar position to  indigenous people elsewhere in the world.  

But there is a fundamental difference between indigenous peoples in a developed country, in our case  Australia, and in developing countries, whether they govern their own nation-state (as in Papua New  Guinea) or are minorities within a nation-state (such as in West Papua).  

It is completely different for indigenous people to live within a welfare state provided by a developed  country and in the absence of one in a developing country. The economic context in which Aborigines  and Torres Strait Islanders live is completely different from that of our indigenous friends in PNG.  

The crucial thing about a First World welfare state is this: the safety net can completely replace the  traditional or postcolonial economies of indigenous communities with income support through  government transfer.  

Passive welfare is today the predominant component of indigenous economies in Australia. The First  World welfare state has completely replaced any real indigenous economy.  

This distinction, between indigenous peoples living in a First World welfare state and those who do  not, is decisive and is not understood when people think about the survival of indigenous cultures in a  globalised world.  

I watched a film from PNG and was struck by the cultural vibrancy and diversity of the country. Two  thoughts returned to me.

The first was that across the world cultural and linguistic diversity is being maintained because the  lifestyles around which these cultures exist continue and traditional economic life continues. It  continues not just by these people’s choice but of necessity. The livelihood of these societies is  intimately connected with their lifestyle and traditional cultural forms.  

The problem that indigenous peoples living in a First World welfare state face is this: there is no longer  any need to maintain the traditional economy or lifestyle. The retention of traditional cultural forms  then becomes a choice rather than a necessity.  

The second thought was that passive welfare and traditional life are not compatible. Passive welfare  undermines traditional relationships and values and gives rise to social problems and, ultimately, social  breakdown.  

There has been a refusal to accept passive welfare as real. The idea that income support programs help  remote indigenous people to maintain a traditional lifestyle was the assumption behind commonwealth  policy from the 1970s. It was assumed that: first, indigenous people in remote communities should decide what kind of lifestyle they wanted, including a traditional lifestyle (and assimilation would no  longer be forced on them) and, second, they should receive income support from government to pursue  this.  

The story is complex before the 70s. My view is the decisive change that occurred after the 60s was the  near-comprehensive collapse of (discriminatory) indigenous participation in the mainstream economy  and their transfer to income support from government.  

What choices do we face as an indigenous people living in a First World welfare state? There are three  I can think of. One is to remain where we are: attempting to retain our traditions while dependent on  passive welfare for our predominant livelihood. I would say this is not a choice; we can’t continue as  we are. If we do, the social and cultural pauperisation of indigenous society in Australia will continue  and we will not establish the foundations necessary for cultural vitality and transmission to future  generations.  

The second choice is to go back, to maintain our cultural and linguistic diversity as the people of PNG  are able to, or other indigenous people in the Third World. But this is not possible. We are engulfed by  the Australian economy and society and it is impossible to see how territories could be established  where the welfare state no longer reached and where traditional economies could be revived. (This is not to say we cannot reform the welfare state within indigenous regions.) For one thing, our people  would refuse this course in practice, no matter what romantic yearnings we may harbour.  

The third choice is to find solutions to a bicultural and bi and multilingual future. That is, we must face  the challenge that comes with culture and traditions no longer being linked with our economy in a  relationship of coincidental necessity but rather one of conscious choice.  

This is what I have in mind when I suggest a First World indigenous people rather than a Fourth World  people.  

This path has several elements. First, it is about being able to retain our distinct cultures, traditions and  identity while engaging in the wider world to the extent of individual choice. This individual choice  would need to be compatible with, rather than contradictory to, the maintenance of our communal identity.  

Second, we need to ensure the economic structure underpinning our society is real. This will require  reform to the welfare system affecting our people so we get rid of passive welfare. It will also mean our  people gain their livelihood through a combination of real economic activities - traditional, subsistence,  modern - and this will include the need to be mobile through orbits into the wider world and back to  home base again.  

Third, education will be the key to enabling bicultural and multilingual facility, as well as economic  mobility.  

Fourth, we will need to shift our cultural knowledge from its oral foundations to written and digitised  foundations. The transition made by the Jews from oral Hebrew to written, thousands of years ago, is  one we must make as a matter of urgency.

Challenges of the first world