Dr Lawrence, it's not an issue of right or left

Opinion Article

2002 May, 30

I agree with many of the federal Labor Party's policies on indigenous affairs and many of the things that the ALP's spokeswoman, Carmen Lawrence, wrote on this page on May 9 ("Where Noel Pearson is wrong about the left"). Federal Labor rightly criticises the lack of interest in the predicament of indigenous peoples, the indifference to the disappearance of our distinct culture, and the readiness to campaign and litigate against our interests, that has characterised many on the political right.


Lawrence is also correct to emphasise the importance of regional autonomy for indigenous people. Nor have I forgotten federal Labor's efforts to defend the Native Title Act after the ALP lost power.


But I was talking about something completely different in my article to which Lawrence was responding ("Labor and the left seem to have abandoned Aboriginal people", on this page on May 7) - and Lawrence knows that.


She was being a bit disingenuous when she concluded by writing that, "As we reassess our present policy, Labor invites all those interested in innovative policy to work with us. Noel Pearson has been part of this process before. We hope he will be again."


For more than three years I have been discussing passive welfare and substance abuse epidemics in Aboriginal Australia. I have spoken to Carmen Lawrence's party as an invited guest. Judging from the statements of those who have spoken for federal Labor in Aboriginal affairs, the ALP (or those in the party who dominate indigenous affairs and who follow the traditional nostrums) would prefer to avoid discussing my attempts to contribute to "innovative policy".


Prompted by political opponents and journalists, federal Labor's former spokesman, Bob McMullan, only stated that he disagrees with some of my solutions, that I ran the risk of having part of my agenda hijacked by the right, and that I am entitled to my opinions because we live in a democracy.


It appears that federal Labor finds it difficult to deal with the problems connected with unconditional passive welfare payouts and to confront the substance abuse epidemics. The records indicate that federal Labor subscribes to an orthodox progressivist world outlook in indigenous issues.


The recent head-in-the-sand parliamentary speech (May 15) by Northern Territory federal MP Warren Snowden, who represents Labor on the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, was particularly instructive, especially when compared with the groundbreaking speech given to the Northern Territory Parliament by the Indigenous Labor minister John Ah Kit ("In dangerous territory", on this page on March 11).


Snowden extenuated the severity of the substance abuse epidemics. He said Aboriginal people are not passive welfare recipients because in many places people are actively engaged in trying to find remedies for their problems.


His resentment is typical of some factions of federal Labor and their support base in the liberally-minded, intellectual middle class; Snowden would not utter my name but directed his wrath against "some indigenous commentators", accused his opponents of "demonising" Aboriginal people, and so on.


Carmen Lawrence wrote that "an apology is a necessary starting point for any national leader before he can resume good-faith dialogue with indigenous people and communities". There would be no harm in apologising, but a much more important starting point for any national government is to recognise that substance abuse epidemics are today not merely symptoms of Aboriginal disadvantage (except in the indirect sense that they originally were more likely to break out in our communities), but self-perpetuating disasters in their own right, and to commit to making a restrictive and intolerant attitude to substance abuse the central focus of our attempts to improve Aboriginal health.


Australia's most despicable person next to John Howard, from a progressivist perspective, has been able to take this first step. Philip Ruddock's detractors undoubtedly say that that is easy for him because he gets his prejudice superficially confirmed by the policies of Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton, John Ah Kit and others, and the truth is that the practical policies of the Federal Government are insufficient to say the least - the rhetoric is not matched by the practice.


But I maintain that the choice of fundamental principles will be decisive in the long term, and that not even drastically increased spending can compensate for a reluctance to abandon the philosophies that have failed us.


While federal Labor proposes improved service delivery programs to "reduce Aboriginal disadvantage", the detested Tony Abbott is putting commitment and money into helping us in Cape York Peninsula to develop a family income management scheme that is aimed at attacking the destructive force inherent in passive welfare and transforming the passive welfare resource into something constructive.


Finally, Lawrence defends "the left" in her article, implying that I am arguing from the right. It is not a matter of left versus right, it is a matter of progressive versus progressivist. As is obvious from my speeches and writings, I come from a leftist position, to the extent that the labels left and right have any meaning (the headline on my Opinion article of May 7 was not mine).


But there are fundamental flaws in the intellectual prejudice of many people who think themselves progressive. These flaws become especially evident in Aboriginal affairs, where many of our present policies are objectively reactionary because they worsen the social and intellectual confusion among the most powerless, rendering them unable to organise themselves to struggle for their political, social and economic rights.


Federal Labor has to confront the progressivist thinking if it is going to be a serious participant in the modernisation of Australia's indigenous policy.

Dr Lawrence, it's not an issue of right or left