Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Indigenous policy: a rant

Indigenous policy in Australia has been something of a serial disaster from the beginning of European settlement. This is a fairly normal pattern: around the world, integrating hunter-gatherer cultures into mainstream society has proved to be deeply problematic.

What is less normal is that, over the last 40 years or so, overall living conditions for Aboriginal Australians in outback communities have generally got worse. That is, the situation in many indigenous communities (in terms of employment, drug abuse, child abuse, violence, school attendance) is worse than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Cultural distance
First, some context. Ever since the invention of agriculture about 12,000 years ago, farming and farmers have been pushing out hunter-gatherers and hunter-gathering: a process that is still going on around the planet.

There is no mystery as to why: farming can supports a lot more people. This is, in fact, farming’s sole original advantage. But it is, of course, all the advantage it needed.

The last continent that this process reached was Australia. But, as historian Geoffey Blainey has pointed out, when farmers and farming reached mainland Australia with British settlement, Britain was already in the first stages of the Industrial Revolution. Which made the cultural gap between the new arrivals and the residents the largest in human history.

It is this cultural gap, this cultural distance, which has always been, and remains, the central difficulty for indigenous policy: as it has been everywhere that hunter-gatherers have been territorially incorporated in modern societies.

The greatest immediate problem for indigenous Australians from British settlement was the introduction of the Eurasian (and American) disease pools into an epidemiologically isolated population. It had much the same devastating population effects as it did in the rest of Oceania and as had happened with the introduction of the Eurasian disease pool to the Americas.

So, with the cultural disruption inherent in the wave of new diseases and death while suddenly confronting a new society with a much wider range of capacities, indigenous society in Australia had to travel from the paleolithic to industrial age more than 100 times faster than European cultures had to. Aggravated by poor networks of communication between the residents and the new arrivals.

Cultural distance and lack of communication remain the central problems. There are a whole set of cultural adaptations to living in agrarian—let alone industrial—society that we take utterly for granted which Aboriginal cultures do not have and merely living territorially in the same society does not necessarily transmit. Attitudes to work patterns, property, deferred action, time, reasoning, education, alcohol use and so on that we take as “natural” but which are, in fact, cultural adaptations.

But, in order to grasp that, one has to accept that aspects of indigenous culture may be problematic for good social outcomes in an industrialised society. One has to be able to “see” that what we take as “natural” are a series of learned responses: in particular, to not engage in policy which assumes responses we take as “natural” will structure Aboriginal behaviour. One has to see the broader Australian culture as being well-adapted to modern society. (Hence, for example, Australia ranking second in the world on the UN Human Development Index.)
All this being aggravated by poor information flows. After all, how many inner city Australians actually know any Aborigines? Particularly Aborigines living in outback communities? Not only are there gaps in presumptions, there is a lack of connecting personal networks.

The reasons why Maoris ended up 15% of New Zealand population rather than then 2% that Amerindians are of Canadian and US populations, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are of Australian population is that the Maoris were agrarians (so the cultural gap was much less), Maoris shared a single language (so communication was easier and quicker) and disease control was better due to much greater knowledge about disease transmission.

Then things got worse
One can begin to see why indigenous policy has been so problematic from the start of British settlement. But not why things have got worse in many indigenous communities since the early 1970s.

The simple answer is: because indigenous policy became a totemic policy. That is, it became increasingly driven by what people who personally knew few, if any, Aborigines felt was good policy. And what they felt was good policy based on their own worldview. A worldview that generally took a critical attitude to the society around it.

In other words, rather than seeing the key to indigenous success as being to adapt to the otherwise highly successful Australian society, “proper” indigenous policy became about using indigenous Australians as a totemic example of what was wrong with Australian society. The key role for indigenous Australians became a stick to beat the rest of Australia with.

So the big issue became, not cultural distance, but racism. Missions and pastoral work—which had evolved as ways for local whites and local Aborigines to deal with each other—were replaced with centrally organised policies of making full-time employment (something no hunter-gatherer culture evolved) the only acceptable mode of pastoral work (so effectively reserving it for white stockmen) with outback Aborigines living in government-funded communities based on romantic notions of indigenous collectivism.

The result has been, almost everywhere, social disaster. Which leaves us with a question

Do progressivists want indigenous Australians to succeed?
I ask this question seriously.

Progressivists in Australia have clearly selected indigenous policies, not on the basis of what is likely to succeed, but what makes them feel good about themselves. They regularly refuse to treat any part of indigenous culture as problematic while happy to treat almost any part of own culture as problematic. The key issue is defending romantic notions about themselves as exemplars of compassion and social justice (so anyone who disagreed them was “obviously” lacking in compassion and concern for social justice) and indigenous Australians as noble collectivists.

Hence they have advocated and overseen a set of policies not based on careful analysis of the realities, but on projection of their own preferred world-view. One, moreover, that demonises and dismisses experiences and perspectives that do not conform to their congenial worldview and sense of themselves, thereby cutting out of policy debates those with experience in living, working and dealing with indigenous Australians

A process aggravated by the fact that progressivist views have become so hegemonic in their social and institutional milieus, they cannot deal with effective dissent except in terms of demonisation and belittling. Thereby acting as if truth and morality is their sole possession. (A splendid set of possessions to have, to be sure.)

But one cannot build successful policy based on such a crippled epistemology (pdf). Only by careful attention to the truth, to the realities of the situation, can one hope to have any success in such an inherently difficult area of public policy.

To take a few examples: the exaggerated and over-simplified breast-beating about massacres. Of course massacres occurred: you simply cannot get such a huge disparity in relative power with valuable resources to be had, very limited information flows and sparse policing resources and not have violence be part of the story. In both directions. My own ancestor, John Warby, absented himself from one punitive expedition in the early Sydney colony (1814), for which he had been contracted as guide and leader of the Aboriginal trackers, once he became aware of the expedition’s instructions: apparently because he judged them as likely to sabotage his own (very good) relations with the local Aborigines. The expedition (under Captain Wallis) proceeded to attack an Aboriginal camp at night, killing at least 17 men and women (not including any which might have fallen to their deaths in flight).

But sometimes, part of what was going on was that one Aboriginal group would get some of its men into police service and then use their official position as a weapon against hostile Aboriginal groups. If one cannot acknowledge that hunter-gather societies are typically more violent than agrarian and industrialised societies, and that hunter-gatherer societies were typically less successful at evolving restrictions on violence, then one cannot deal with violence in Aboriginal communities.

Consider complaints that native title is a weak form of property rights. This is as it should be. Without denying for a moment the points Geoffrey Blainey makes so well in The Triumph of the Nomads about Aboriginal groups managing the land, land just did not have the scarcity value needed to evolve strong property rights in land. Which is directly connected to the high rates of violence and attenuated mechanisms against violence. Nomadic hunter-gatherers have limited returns from trade, their groups can just split rather than finding other ways to resolve disputes and they lived in small groups which could be successfully wiped out by killing all the males and incorporating the women.

To put it another way, the costs of violence are lower and the potential returns higher across the society than in agrarian or industrial societies. Of course hunter-gatherer societies are typically more violent than agrarian societies—where being tied to a particular bit of land forces repeated interactions with the same people, requiring mechanisms to resolve disputes—or industrial society—where the greater social surplus allows increased investment in policing and the greater level of capital increases social returns from effective policing and dispute resolution.

Consider the “welcome to country” acknowledgements at the start of public events and speeches. Has it never occurred to such people that the previous 50,000 years of Aboriginal history in Australia was not all sweetness and light: that such acknowledgments can, in reality, merely be giving a tick from one set of dispossessors to a previous set of dispossessors. Which represents a moral advance how, exactly?

Or the hugely exaggerated breast-beating over “stolen generations”: if one cannot acknowledge that cultural dislocation can put children at risk from their own families and relatives one cannot be honest about the genuine problems of such dislocation. (I recommend Andrew Bolt’s speech at the launch of Keith Windschuttle’s book on the stolen generations: an edited version is here.) What such over-blown and over-simplified apologies do is, in fact, endorse the process of congenial romanticisation and self-congratulation (mostly a deeply mendacious process) while making it harder to protect children at genuine risk.

But lots of people do not want hear any of this, because it gets in the way of their consoling self-romanticising and “noble savage” fantasies about Aboriginals and Aboriginal cultures. They particularly do not want to hear that they, and their attitudes, are not any sort of solution but a big problem that has been making things worse.

One is left with progressivist sentiment that takes no responsibility for consequences: particularly not its own failures. That does not care about truth and consequences, but status-from-noble-intentions: hence Noel Pearson saying of progressivist ideas (pdf):
But I have major reservations about the Australian Left. In important policy areas, the political Left is dominated by unprincipled sloppy leftist and progressivist ideas, which are in reality reactionary and against the interests of the majority of the people.
For they do not care for the truth about Aborigines and Aboriginal Australia if it contradicts their consoling myths, such consoling myths being much more important to them. So, the answer to the question do progressivists in Australia genuinely care about Aborigines is: no, they do not. What they really care about is their myths about themselves.

For indigenous Australians to succeed by becoming and acting like other Australians would, in fact, be a major defeat. What they want indigenous Australians to be is a stick to beat the rest of Australia with to suit their self-image, their consoling myths.

And while they continue to use Aboriginal policy as a totemic policy for that purpose, nothing will get better in any systematic sense, for they certainly have enough social “pull” to frustrate any policy changes that affront those myths.

Successful indigenous policy has to be based on truth, and the epistemologically challenged romanticisation that progressivists are so enamoured of must be the enemy of truth. It is, therefore, just another way of colonising indigenous Australians: of exploiting them for one’s own benefit, and against theirs. With a collaborating “comprador” class of “activists” and indigenous bureaucrats providing the needed cover.

ADDENDA: Picked up Keith Windschuttle's book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: the Stolen Generations 1881-2008 from my local bookshop.

In the bookshop, the books people have ordered are behind the sales' desk on a shelf where people can clearly see them, with the order slips in the books with the name exposed so the shop assistant can easily see them.

The only book where the order slip had been carefully placed over the title with a rubber band (thereby also blocking the shop assistant from seeing who had ordered it) was Keith's book: the only hardback on the two shelves. The bookshop clearly did not want people to know that such a vile book had passed through their hands.

They still sold it to me, however.


  1. Lorenzo, another great and thoughtful post. I see many, many parallels between what you've related here and what has happened in North America (and Central/South America too, for that matter) with our own indigenous populations.

  2. Thank you. Yes, the patterns repeat because the underlying problems repeat.

  3. Interesting, saw your comment in facebook about your blog so I have been poking through it.

  4. The rationale for the libertarians who propose a more comprehensive basket of land rights for Aborigines is to allow them to participate fully in the economy of which they are now a part. Sure, when American Indians finished up with the right to alienate and use their land as collateral, some of them sold it for not much or were in other ways silly, but a lot weren't. A lot turned out to be pretty entrepreneurial and sharp. They now exhibit a wealth profile consistent with other groups in the US (some rich, some poor, a big lump in the middle).

    If we want Aborigines to participate in the system, they need some tools. Property law is one of those tools. The libertarian idea isn't based on desert (indeed, some Aborigines may not have developed concepts of ownership at all), but purely on pragmatic policy. We want this group to stop being mendicants.

  5. If people are to have property rights, then those property rights should be "fair dinkum" and be genuine assets, I agree with. My point above was about native title as-a-thing-in-common-law being residual.

    The Amerindian example is a good one but applied to full-ownership land, which I agree is what should happen to fully Aboriginal land. One needs to be a little cautious, given a lot of Amerindian cultures were either agrarian or ex-agrarian (due to the impact of horses), but that should still be the direction to go.