Julia Gillard’s speech to the parliament when delivering the annual report on closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage was a landmark in Aboriginal policy.
The dignity and rights of indigenous Australians have been the subject of many pronouncements by past Australian prime ministers, both Labor and Liberal.
Gillard’s departure has been to talk about the responsibilities of indigenous Australians. And this speech was explicit.
Gillard has crossed the rhetorical Rubicon. In so doing she courted the risk that she would be interpreted as “blaming the victims” for the disadvantages and injustices they suffered.
The standard left-liberal carping about not “blaming the victim” is uninteresting. (Is there not another argument to be made?)
What I am interested in is the response of the indigenous Australians whom I regard as substantial leaders, whose records are replete with a lifetime of work with the struggles of indigenous people to achieve a better life.
So I reflected on Lowitja O’Donoghue’s response to the Prime Minister’s speech. And I also read the riposte of the chairwoman of the NSW Land Council, Bev Manton, and I went back to read the Prime Minister’s speech in their light.
“That’s a very tough call,” O’Donoghue told The Australian, arguing that governments had created the cycle of dependence and could not expect indigenous people to easily break free when there were still impediments. She said: “When we want to step up to take action, we find white people are all the senior managers.”
Indigenous people changing their behaviour is a “dangerous cliche”, Manton said, which “does not reflect the barriers that have been placed on generations upon generations of indigenous people”.
Political discourse favours either rights or responsibilities. It is almost impossible for any politician or policy-maker to talk about rights and responsibilities. The “and” is the hardest word to say.
So brain-dead discourse continues, with the political and cultural Left painted in the colours of rights, and their counterparts on the Right painted in the colours of responsibility. While many politicians and thinkers on both sides of the ideological spectrum believe in the “and”, the reality is that the way in which the discourse works it is one or the other. The “or” prevails in the debate, rather than “and”.
If someone from the Left tries to make the “and” case for the importance of responsibility, they risk being criticised by their own side. This is what happened to the Prime Minister.
The same dynamic operates conversely for people of the political and cultural Right who try to make the “and” case for the importance of rights.
There are political reasons the two main tribes want to maintain the polarity, rather than make the case for synthesis.
I have never met a major political leader from either side of national politics who does not, as a matter of personal philosophy, believe that rights and responsibilities must go together.
The problem arises with the question of the relative emphasis or priority that is placed on rights and responsibilities. Too many people from the Left place too little emphasis on responsibility, preferring to believe that rights are more significant for individual and social success. And too many people from the Right believe the opposite.
The second problem arises about the relative order that should be placed on the achievement of rights and responsibilities. Too many from the Left assume that rights must precede responsibilities, and their opponents argue that responsibility must come first.
Labor has struggled with making the bridge between rights and responsibilities. Now that the Prime Minister has decided to cross the Rubicon it is a pity that her landmark speech has not built the bridge that is needed.
Not just because she has not persuaded her fellow travellers (perhaps they can never be persuaded), but she has not made the emotional bridge to persuade indigenous people whose reactions are not to be ignored. I regret that she did not build a landmark bridge with her landmark speech.
It is regrettable because I don’t doubt that Gillard is a believer in the importance of responsibility. Looking into her own life she cannot avoid the truth that responsibility is her native disposition.
While she has pursued power through structures and pathways that have inured her to the importance of personal responsibility she cannot deny it when she reflects on her own upbringing and her own advancement.
Gillard’s speech reminds me of former prime minister John Howard’s speech at a reconciliation function at Old Parliament House in 2004. He told the largely left crowd: “Reconciliation is about rights as well as responsibilities . . . we can agree on the special status of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander as the first people of our nation. We can recognise and acknowledge past injustices . . . we recognise that communal interest in and spiritual attachment to land is fundamental to indigenous culture . . . government does not seek to wind back or undermine native title or land rights.
“Rather, we want to add opportunities for families and communities to build economic independence and wealth through use of their communal land assets . . . the government of this country, the governments of this country have enormous ongoing responsibilities to commit adequate resources to the tackling of the fundamental health and education and employment problems that face indigenous people.”
This was Howard’s attempt to put the “and” between indigenous rights and responsibilities. This speech sketched out what I thought was a credible framework for a bridge. Unfortunately, the bridge would never be built.
Of course O’Donoghue’s point is correct: no matter how fine the bridge-building rhetoric is, it must be reflected in the policies and the practices of government.
The paucity of indigenous ownership of the reform agendas that are being undertaken is a gaping problem. Governments have taken over the field and displaced indigenous leadership and responsibility: so where is the space and the means for responsibility?
We should reflect on what Howard meant when he told indigenous leaders in Cape York Peninsula: “There is nothing that the government can do for your people that you are not willing to do for yourselves.”
Unfortunately, both the liberal conservatives and Labor have premised too much of their reforms on government responsibility, instead of enabling indigenous people to do things for themselves. This is why I keep saying that the most important right our people have is theright to take responsibility.