Taking our culture on the road of Adam Smith

Opinion Article

2011 August, 10

It was the reporting of Tony Koch and Rosemary Neill, going back to 1998–99, that forced me to come  to grips with indigenous policy in a way that I had hitherto failed. Their reports about the realities of  the Cape York communities that I was concerned with forced me to an analysis about the failings of  government policy. So our new directions emanated from the provocation in The Courier-Mail at the  time and subsequently in The Australian.  

In the past 11 years there has been a fundamental shift in this debate. It is a shift that had to take place,  a shift that I believe promises a new future, and a change in the Aboriginal policy paradigm that is  absolutely imperative for our goal of reconciliation.  

We've come leaps and bounds during this past decade but we are yet to realise the juncture we're at  now. The principle of indigenous self-determination, as some call it, or the principle of indigenous  responsibility, as I would call it, must be the principle that permeates indigenous affairs if we are going  to make the change that's needed.  

The policy principle in the future must be that indigenous people have the right to take responsibility  and power over our own lives. Properly understood, self-determination is the power to take  responsibility, it is to arrogate to oneself the power that for too long has been assumed by government.  Individuals, families, communities must take power over their own destinies.  

On Cape York, during the past 10 years, we have been unrelenting about that point: we have the right  to take responsibility, we have a right to arrogate to ourselves a power that has been taken from us, and  left us disembodied and mendicant for too long. In my view there has been a shift across the political divide on this question. We have the opportunity before us where indigenous rights and indigenous  responsibility can be brought together.  

I have a view that reconciliation will mean two things: we'll travel the path of development and social  and economic advancement of our people, and if we do that we have to wake up to some real lessons,  the universal lessons about development we have to travel -- what I have dubbed the Adam Smith road.

All people who have ever developed have pursued the Adam Smith road and it will be no different for  our people. If there is to be indigenous development and we are to take a fair place in this, our own  country, then we will have to travel the Adam Smith road.  

There's another road we will travel at the same time and that is the road of cultural determination, our  determination as a people to keep our identity and our traditions, our heritage, our languages. Some of  the most successful people on the face of the earth are people who walked two roads at once. Take the  Jews, they walked two roads at once. The road of Adam Smith and the road of cultural determination.  

I have high ambitions for my mob: I believe we can walk two roads, we can keep our languages, we  can keep those things that are precious about our culture and our traditions. There are also universal lessons about development, about the importance of individual agency and family responsibility and  function that are the building blocks of successful communities.  

A similar challenge faced the Australian people with regard to the sclerotic pre-1983 national  economy. And the correct policy principle that we successfully managed to instil in all sections of  society is that of competition. An analogous challenge lies ahead of us in relation to the question of indigenous responsibility. We must have a massive cultural change in the way in which government  operates and unless everything we do is premised on the idea that indigenous individuals -- and their families and their communities -- take charge of their destinies and take responsibility for the power and the consequences of that power, then we will just see an ongoing cycle of anxiety about the fact  indigenous Australians do not yet occupy a fair place in the country.

This is an edited extract of a speech given yesterday to launch News Limited's Reconciliation Action Plan.

Taking our culture on the road of Adam Smith