Good morning everyone and thank you very much to the Association for extending an invitation. It’s a great privilege for me to speak today.
Thank you for acknowledging the Indigenous people of Cairns and the traditional owners.
I am sometimes reminded of the Calvinist notion of predestination when I reflect on the Indigenous predicament. I get a sense that an Aboriginal child born today is predestined to be subservient. The odds of an Aboriginal child escaping the firmly established dysfunction are extremely bad.
Yes we see many examples and thankfully the numbers are growing of people who defy that destination and take another path.
I think about all of these things with a strong sense that there are strong forces at work that keep people more miserable than anybody would otherwise choose. Nobody chooses to be so dysfunctional or as disadvantaged.
Aboriginal people die on an average 20 years younger than their non-Aboriginal compatriots. We might say that life expectancy is an improvement on yesterday. That doesn’t ring true to me because the Hope Vale of my childhood regularly saw people reach their ’80s and ’90s. Two of my grandmothers lived to over 100. If you went to any of the communities in Cape York Peninsula in the ’60s and ’70s you would see scores of real Elders – people in their ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s. Bush people who lived very long lives.
I can’t believe that today people can consciously choose poor outcomes for themselves. There must be stronger forces at work that have an impact on there being so much inequality and so much misery.
I am cautious about explicating my analysis of these forces in public forums because the analysis is so tainted and subject to a great deal of suspicion and assumption and that is a class analysis, which today is unfashionable. I think our predicament is a class problem and it’s the problem of people such as my own people to be conditioned underclass people. We are very much constrained in our ability to improve our lives because of strong cultural and ideological forces in society. Those forces aren’t just part of a wider culture, they are forces that are internalised by ourselves.
We adopted ways of thinking about our condition that are extremely harmful and contribute to our ongoing perpetual dysfunction and disadvantage. I have been a strident opponent of conventional progressive thinking around Indigenous policies. I believe conventional progressive thinking has contributed more to the inculcation of a harm producing mindset amongst our people than the policies and prescriptions of our opponents amongst the conservatives. It is easy to identify the stupidities of conservative thinking in policy and prescription. It’s easily identifiable.
What’s harder to discern are those harmful policies and those ideas and those assumptions that are harboured by progressive people who traditionally see themselves as our friends. It’s the friendly and the progressive policies that have more decisive impact on what happens because they are the policies that we ourselves accept as correct. Indigenous people don’t have keen antennae when it comes to discerning some of the fatal flaws in progressive thinking about our problems.
So when progressives said that we had a right to welfare we agreed with them. When progressives said that we shouldn’t blame people for their behaviour and we shouldn’t even take into account people’s behaviour in trying to understand people’s predicament we agreed with them. We said that we were blameless victims and that our poverty is essentially blameless.
And a host of other ideas I could rattle off prescribed by progressives which, when you analyse what they mean and what effect they have, are the most destructive set of ideas that our people could ever entertain. People who accept that they have a right to welfare accept that they should occupy the lowest position in Australian society. If you are going to accept that you have a right to welfare rather than a right to a fair place in the economy of your own country, you are off on a bad start.
You have got it totally wrong about what your rights are. You have a much more noble and a much more dignified right than a right to welfare.
But if you are going to prescribe to 400,000 people the idea that you guys have a right to welfare and we are going to defend it to the teeth, then you are asking Indigenous people to hold up the whole welfare consensus for the benefit of people who actually don’t engage in the Australian welfare state at the bottom level. Mainstream Australians engage with the welfare state in its classical meaning, in its proper meaning. The welfare state started as a civilizing notion. Collective provisioning and collective guarantee, good health services, good education services and guarantees for people who experience misfortune are good things about the welfare state and most functional Australians interact with the welfare state at that functional level. Most functional Australians don’t deal with the welfare state at the miserable gutter level of permanent dependency of income support, and yet you are asking the most disadvantaged people to hold up the whole edifice when welfare down at the bottom end produces so much misery.
Aboriginal people exercised their responsibility in the lean times before full citizenship. But a fatal deal was struck in the wake of the 1967 referendum and the revolution of our citizenship. That deal was that Indigenous people could become equal citizens of this country, but rather than entering an era where the taking of responsibility would be rewarded fairly and equally, we entered an era where Indigenous people could be as citizens absolved from our responsibilities, we now had rights to welfare, rights to enter pubs, and rights to receive work-free income. An entire three decades of policy has been built on the assumption that Indigenous people no longer had to take responsibility, that their behaviour was irrelevant as an explanation of their poverty. They could be absolved for whatever behaviour because there was an explanation in history; there was an explanation in racism; there was an explanation in their traditional society.
I get depressed about the prospects of our people breaking out of our poverty mainly because the forces that I referred to at the beginning of my talk remain so strong. They are exceedingly hard to defy but I don’t believe that people are predestined to fall victim to class. People have agency, we can tackle these things – people’s behaviour and agency is necessary in order for us to overcome these structural barriers to Indigenous success.
I think that race is not insuperable. Race is not an insignificant barrier for Indigenous people of this country. But the mindset that we have to have to succeed despite the greediest prejudices that many of my people suffer on a daily basis, the mindset we have to have is one that defiantly refuses to submit to victimhood and refuses to make racism our problem rather than their problem. The minute we see racism as an insuperable weight on our prospects is the day we give in, the day when we surrender.
So I have been a steadfast counsellor of my people not to fall prey to the mentality of racial victimhood because racial victimhood is a surrender – it’s a giving in to the racists. We should think of racism as the problem of the racist. It is not our disability. Once we are clear about the nature of racism we then develop the necessary thick skins, the necessary hard noses to defy the real and hurtful and barrier-producing effects of racism.
The power lies within our people to get clear about the way we contend with prejudice and race. So we have to shrug off the counsel of our friends who say that racism is a terrible barrier to advancement and that until we diminish racism in Australian society our people will never be able to advance, because those people are prescribing a hopeless future in my view. They are saying that until we get a much more tolerant society and a much less racist society there is no prospect of our people advancing. Well we could be waiting until kingdom come.
The fact is we’ve got to take our share and make our way notwithstanding the state of racism against Indigenous people. It’s an easy thing for me to say because I have confronted relatively little of it in my day-to-day life. I encounter less racism than most members of my people. But I’m also often in situations where I’m jolted back to the reality that prejudice against my people is a daily occurrence for many. And when I see those situations I am reminded about how much more privileged I am in my interactions with ordinary Australians. What many of my people experience must be absolutely soul destroying.
So we have to understand that race is not destiny. We have got to develop the right mindset and the people who prescribe the wrong thinking to us are mostly our friends but they encourage a victim mentality in our people. They think that victimisation should mean victimhood. They don’t seem to understand that yes there is victimisation but that does not mean that Indigenous people should have a mentality of victimhood. Victimhood is the absolute worst condition for any people to have.
The other thing is that class forces are very real. I think that in the welfare debate there is now a middle-class welfare nomenklatura that is in the business of taking responsibility for the lives of disadvantaged people.
And they are not about to let go of that responsibility.
As long as they refuse to let go of that responsibility and restore those responsibilities where they should properly be held and restore those responsibilities in the family, in the parent, in the community, in the individual, as long as they refuse to let go of that responsibility then we are going to have an underclass problem. The worst opponents of the policies that we need to advance our people are a whole government and non-government organisational welfare bureaucracy that takes charge of things that in the middle classes are normally taken charge of by responsible parents.
We don’t expect in the middle classes that someone else should take charge of our children, and their ear and hearing health problems and their need to go to the doctors and their need to be fed properly. Why don’t we hold the same expectations of lower-class people? We don’t tolerate loud parties and drug taking and social disorder in the streets of Stratford where I live so why should we tolerate it in the murri street in western Cairns. Why can’t we have the same standard of social order in those suburbs where the underclasses and the working families and Indigenous people live?
There is a steadfast industry of middle-class welfare service deliverers who are convinced about the idea of individual imbecility of underclass people. I know that is a broad statement to make but seven bitter years later I tell you I have hit up against every one of them and they are steadfastly committed and they are more powerful than any of the advocacy that we have fronted up against their role and we have barely shifted them. They have mortgages, they’ve got jobs, they’ve got careers, they’ve got business plans, they got strategies, they’ve got policy papers, they’ve got promotions – they’ve got vested interests in the maintenance of a situation where Indigenous people are mere cadavers on life support taking no responsibility for themselves.
The Queensland Department of Health obviously have no self-consciousness about the dead end that they have reached when they call a program (with a bureaucrat with a fax and phone and 4WD and some officer to report back to in a Cairns regional office attached to it) the “Life Promotion Program”. When you get to the point of devising a program to “promote life”, where have we come to? I keep telling them (and the irony and ridicule has no effect whatsoever) that the next program they will be devising will be a “breathing promotion program”.
We have just not understood that the welfare state has gone through so many cycles of interventions that have created new generations of problems that require new generations of intervention. We just haven’t woken up to the fact that we are now at a very late stage and we are exhausted in relation to the problems.
The answer lies in us returning to the formulae that underpinned the working-class success of the past. People taking responsibility for themselves, and for their children and for their family and for their community: parenting, Vegemite and Vita Brits breakfast, attend school every day – even if they be poor catholic and public schools, social order in the community in the neighbourhood, social norms, moral values – all of these modest and humble ingredients.
The Australian story is a story of intergenerational uplift out of the bog Irish to people who are now CEOs’ of Westpac; people who only two generations ago never had a person in university, whose children now all are at university and it’s because some basic ingredients in that whole working class story where people were fully engaged in the economy produced uplift. And yet somehow, we fantasise that underclass people are going to be uplifted, not through their own engagement, but through the interventions of welfare and through the interventions of people who take responsibility on behalf of them.
Finally, I think that in the area of education, and in public education in particular, I just don’t see a way through. I just cannot see how it is that we can succeed with public education in Cape York Peninsula. I think it is a terrible tragedy that we don’t have the church schools involved in primary education in the Cape. It has to be church schools, with an old mindset and old expectations. I am old enough to have seen two cycles of policies and now I can see the first episode of ground hog day because the Government has a policy called “Bound for Success” – but I was there seven years ago when the policy was “Partners for Success”. All the indicators then told the usual story: Indigenous education in Cape York Peninsula was a disaster, and they said that we need a new blue print. I heard them say that seven years ago and you know, in seven years’ time we will hear the next cycle begin, the next blue print.
So what I would urge on the Catholic School system in closing is that this public education predicament is a real problem facing our people. The Church schools ought to be engaged in the primary school challenge, ought to be partnering up with those communities that need high quality teachers and school leaders.
We need a radical change to our situation.