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Response to Lattas and Morris’ ‘Blinkered Anthropology’

Francesca Merlan in defence of the NT Intervention

In Arena Magazine no. 107, Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris attribute to me the view that the current situation of Indigenous people, however one interprets it, is due to their ‘culture’. Nowhere have I said anything vaguely similar to this. One of my concerns has been precisely to show how totalising, bounded and fixed notions of ‘culture’ fail to help us understand the relations and outcomes of Indigenous Australians with others. Another has been to argue (for example, in my book Caging the Rainbow) that to hold Indigenous people to imagined standards of ‘authenticity’ is to impose double jeopardy upon them: to colonise them and radically alter the conditions of their existence, then also demand that they remain as they were.

Concerning the NT Intervention, my experience in remote, as well as not so remote, Aboriginal social settings is that certain unwelcome conditions are widespread. These include alcohol and substance abuse, and related violence; and their consequences for child and youth welfare. Health conditions are notorious. In many remote communities very few people survive to old age, while younger ones have multiple bypasses, complex operations, ongoing dialysis, and batteries of pills to swallow every day. There are other kinds of problems that do not lend themselves to such clear-cut description, including social involution and disoccupation in the face of what are often overwhelmingly difficult social conditions. None of these problems can be simplistically attributed to Indigenous ‘culture’. But there is a question, once one has had experience of these concentrated forms of neglect, problems and special vulnerabilities, whether one thinks that action should be taken. Many Indigenous people do. And so, in my own way, do I.

While advocating such action, I am fully aware of the limitations and difficulties that always attend such efforts. I can accept that others may regard those as prohibitive, or oppose such efforts in principle. I find it harder to accept that Lattas and Morris should be so intolerant of other views than their own on this question.

In thinking as I do, I am not ‘hiding’ behind any ‘leading Aboriginal intellectual brokers’. Do I refer to Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson, not because they have particular opinions and concerns, but just because they are Indigenous? If that is the suggestion, it seems insulting all round.

Let me also be clear that there are many aspects of the NT Intervention that I do not condone. I am not a supporter of the Intervention as launched, but of the idea that considered long-term intervention is needed. I have in mind something less flamboyant, much longer-term, much less geared to political cycles and impression management, much more collaborative and Indigenously-directed, and more attuned to existing social patterns and dispositions than we have yet had.

Yet, even with its flaws, I have seen evidence of some results of the existing Intervention that seem positive; for example, many Top End Aboriginal women with whom I have discussed the introduction of Basicscards do have positive views of this ‘income management’, while disapproving of the government’s non-consultative launching of the Intervention. Nor do people simply succumb, even with such developments as income management, to being policed into ‘mainstream models’ of family life: they lend Basicscards to their sisters and beyond, so that sometimes it is an interesting question where any particular person’s Basicscard actually is.

But these are variations on the main question: whether one thinks that some action is warranted to try to address social issues and problems, or whether one thinks that this is, and must necessarily always be, an extension and expansion of the ‘carceral state’ with its ‘systems of surveillance, discipline and pastoral care’. Can good come from the state? What terms of evaluation might be applied to state involvement? Lattas and Morris have never been clear about whether they think any explicit steps should be taken about any of the kinds of things I mention above, or how—with what combinations of state, Indigenous, and other agency—they think this might take place.

Aboriginal people had already become increasingly and thoroughly enmeshed in state apparatus even before the current Intervention. Many basic things about the resourcing of their lives—money transfers, health care provision, housing and so on—tie them, like the rest of us, to regulations and provisions of the state. There is, I agree, no call to enmesh them further in it. But anything we can call Indigenous ‘self-determination’ will develop under conditions of inter-relationship of Aboriginal people with other Australian people and institutions, not in complete isolation from them.

I also would agree that many of the Intervention provisions constitute a more thorough-going reach into the innards of domestic life than is true for most of the rest of us. The very school meals program that Lattas and Morris cite as an example from my discussion paper ‘More Than Rights’ (accessible online at <>) represents just such an inroad into domestic organisation. Yet Lattas and Morris defend that program unconditionally, and rebuke me for suggesting that it would best be temporally limited. Why do I say it should be? Consider that such programs were a staple of the assimilation era, in most of the very communities where the meals programs now once again operate under the Intervention. Such programs were then, in the 1960s, conducted with exactly the primary purpose Lattas and Morris attribute to the current Intervention—to instill mainstream cultural dispositions and habits. They appear to have been only partly successful in that, but also to have created conditions which did not foster, and maybe even suppressed, the emergence of domestic regimes involving regular meal preparation.

Finally, Lattas and Morris are ‘scandalised’ by what they see as the use of anthropology’s familiarity with Indigenous cultures to legitimise the ‘legal alterity’ of Indigenous people. This refers to my statement that ‘universalist understandings of rights can be problematic in their application to people whose social lives differ from the mainstream’. I should have gone further and said that the application of universal human rights is often contentious with respect to the mainstream as well—but perhaps particularly contentious with respect to people, like many Indigenous Australians, who do not themselves think in terms of universal human rights, and who may act and propose kinds of solutions to concerns in their lives that do not conform to universalist principles.

This is not to say that we should not have and value human rights; and it is certainly not to advocate relegation of Aboriginal people outside their reach. However, there are often complex questions around the realisation of rights, and the reconciliation of certain rights with others. For example, how, in practice, is equality of right to life, liberty and security of person (as per Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to be realised? There are regulations in mainstream communities to support and prioritise certain kinds of value and activity over others; so, for example, the rights of children to be tended may have to be prioritised over the rights of parents to do as they want. This is familiar territory: we all recognise obligations to protect the vulnerable. But my point is that ways in which Indigenous people may choose to identify and realise norms may differ from those in wider Australian society.

Francesca Merlan

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