Contracting Out Indigenous Futures

Noel Pearson, as Indigenous activist and intellectual, has consolidated his national prominence of late; some even suggest that he is on course to emulate Obama by moving on to seek election as a federal parliamentary figure.

Pearson’s support — even given his reservations about the military intervention into Indigenous ways of living — was of crucial importance for John Howard’s last throw: the Intervention as a final desperate effort to gain yet another term in office. In that context Pearson repeated the ‘little children are sacred’ theme in the manner of a mantra. On that quite basic moral issue he was so clearly on protected ground that few were prepared to argue that concentrating on the wellbeing of children too exclusively was diverting attention from the overall situation.

In fact a major policy shift was underway. Any attempt to link back the way it was presented to the previous election when ‘they were throwing children overboard’ tended to fall upon deaf ears. Most people accepted that ‘something had to be done’ and, if a military type of intervention was ‘over-the-top’, any opposition to such extreme measures faced difficulties in proposing alternatives.

Justifiably and profoundly disturbed as they were by the evidence of violence and alcohol abuse in many communities, most people were in no position to pursue the issue of why evidence, which had so long been available, had been persistently brushed aside by the Coalition. They were in no position to demand answers as to why other forms of intervention into these disastrous circumstances had been so long deferred. The shock effect of military intervention and the focus on the wellbeing of children effectively diverted attention from the Coalition’s accompanying agenda of forcing Indigenous people towards ‘real jobs’ (as defined by the mainstream labour market), the winding down of outstations and linking of welfare payments to meeting particular standards of child care and education.

Even if the Coalition’s account of the sources of the breakdown should turn out to be both shallow and excessively concerned with the limitations of an approach that Peter Sutton, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide, has stereotyped ‘the liberal consensus’, a marked change in policy is already being set in place. A turn towards a new wave of assimilation advocacy is underway and support from Indigenous and academic figures will ensure that it makes a significant impact; it will surely take in a re-evaluation of recent policies and some of their assumptions. Some people are certain to conclude that the ‘good intentions’ of the liberal consensus have led to a vast overestimate of the capacity of Indigenous people to use welfare support in maintaining any integrity for their own cultures. From a distinctly different standpoint, others may suggest that Noel Pearson, perhaps understandably, and Peter Sutton, far less justifiably, demonstrate an almost total failure to inquire into whether other policies might have better contributed to Indigenous continuity. Beyond that, their failure to probe the issue of whether ‘real jobs’ within the mainstream of Australian life can actually offer better long-term prospects for Indigenous people is a striking omission. It leads one to ask whether the neo-assimilationist answer may not also be affected by major blind spots.

The mainstream politics of most settler-colonial nations are affected now by deep-seated divisions as to the policies which could steer a way into the future for Indigenous peoples. Peter Sutton acknowledges ‘that the kind of deep cultural changes that may assist a real move out of profound disadvantage are not well understood’. Good point, and scholars themselves may have a special responsibility to stand apart for a spell, and to look before they leap. Within the mainstream, the issue of climate change as a consequence of ‘the way we live now’ presses home the relatively short-term prospect of fundamental change. Surely that prospect alone calls for searching consideration of just what assimilation has to offer as an answer to ‘disadvantage’.

Unintended Consequences

Before returning to such questions I should first acknowledge — as a long standing, even if relatively passive, mainstream supporter of the liberal consensus — that Noel Pearson, and especially Peter Sutton, do present undeniable evidence of a downward spiral in the conditions of Indigenous life in a number of locations. Those who might have been inclined to deny the need for far-reaching policy change in the past are scarcely in a position to do so now.

Given insufficient attention at times as to how policy changes might have led to different outcomes, what conclusions do Pearson and Sutton draw from that? Few indeed, it would seem, which might contribute to a measure of continuity for Indigenous ways of living. Neither Pearson nor Sutton considers the conditions for continuity of Indigenous social forms. While Pearson does have hopes for the continuity of Indigenous values, Sutton has hopes for the prospects of soft and individually personalised assimilation, achieved by way of one-to-one contact, ‘atomically, not en masse’ and, one might add, entailing the further dissolution of Indigenous institutions. Nothing is said in Sutton’s book about the prospects for the actual economic and social arrangements of the mainstream. The hopes and the values of the hyper-individualised mode of life are at the forefront and nothing emerges concerning the modes of social interchange which might sustain some continuity for Indigenous ways. Can one still detect the footprint in Sutton’s approach of that same ‘liberal consensus’, as it adapts once again to changing circumstances?

Assimilation: An Unintended Consequence?

‘Where goes the money there goes the man’ (Pearson, Up from the Mission)

For Noel Pearson the military intervention created a brilliant context for the publication of his book Up from the Mission (Black Inc, 2009). It is a forceful and eloquent record of his changing hopes in response to changing circumstances. The book is marked by two main features in the way it frames the author’s unrelenting struggle to further the interests of his people. The first is the thesis that the reciprocal norms of Indigenous culture actually contribute to a spiral of communal degeneration. The welfare incomes, Pearson argues, that became available after the granting of citizenship, both installed the dispiriting effects of dependency and provided the means for the purchase of alcohol. Three key conditions — the cultural obligations of sharing, the dispiriting effects of dependency and the availability of alcohol — combined to feed a cycle of social breakdown.

Noel Pearson had first set out this thesis in 1986. For ten years, until the defeat of the Keating government, it remained in the shadow of his commitments to what Peter Sutton, in his just released book The Politics of Suffering, now disparages as the liberal consensus.

With the election of the Coalition, Pearson sought other means to advance the wellbeing of those with whom he passionately identifies. Gradually the radical centre, as the second feature of the way he frames his endeavours, emerged. He took it to provide new possibilities for advancing Indigenous interests within the existing democratic structure, and outlining its emergence is the major theoretical undertaking of his book.

Pearson presents it in a long essay entitled ‘White Guilt, Victimhood and the Quest for a Radical Centre’. In more everyday terms, the author is speaking of wedge politics, and along with that the need to intervene to restore a proper sense of an order in many Indigenous settings. One particular theme — ‘little children are sacred’ — provided a strikingly fertile point of entry into the field of political wedging.

Wedging occurs when any political party cuts into what had been taken to be the more or less solid constituency of its opposition, by urging action upon and appealing to values that its opponent cannot oppose. The appeal to ‘the battlers’ of the Labor constituency as a Coalition ‘wedge’ is one familiar example. Border protection supplemented by child protection also springs to mind. There, two wedges contributing to the same campaign operate: the child protection issue widened the split opened by border crossing in the case of the Tampa issue in 2001.

Noel Pearson’s search for a ‘radical centre’ had probably first been stirred in the early 1990s by Ron Castan (leading counsel in the Mabo case). As the Coalition moved into government Pearson felt forced to the conclusion ‘that Indigenous people couldn’t rely on one side of politics alone’. He actively sought out circumstances where, for instance as in land claims, the interests of different parties might be reconciled sufficiently to achieve a working agreement. In the new circumstances of Coalition government, especially after the winding back of access to native title following the Coalition’s passage of the Native Title Amendment Act, Pearson’s political orientation turned away from the Left, and indeed from the whole liberal consensus. Citizenship, native title: these rights had been achieved and for Noel Pearson the abiding concerns associated with that fatal cluster — alcohol, dependency and reciprocal obligations — again came to the fore. In the blazing statement ‘Our Right to take Responsibility’, he reasserted in 2000 his denunciation of ‘welfare poison’ as the source of dependency and sought the answer in ‘real jobs’ in the real economy of the mainstream. A passionate sense of loyalty to his people remained as a constant but, seemingly unaware of the hazards of his new course, the earlier meaning of ‘the radical centre’ had apparently drained away. It now entailed accommodations with the mining corporations. If these were a bridge it was no longer one of drawing on the common ground shared by the mainstream parties but upon the prospect of ‘real jobs’ for Indigenous people by seeking common ground with the big miners.

Sutton and Pearson: Unquestioned Assumptions

Indigenous culture, any culture, if it is to maintain a measure of continuity must hold firm to certain conditions of viability. The basic flaw in Pearson’s argument is that in seeking an accommodation now with the big miners he does not ask whether ‘real jobs’, in the mining industry especially, can provide the continuity that he has so ardently pursued. Within a far wider perspective than Noel Pearson presents in Up From the Mission, Peter Sutton actually throws doubt on that approach in The Politics of Suffering.

These two books both lend legitimacy to the military intervention; they both contribute to a massive shift in public opinion towards a neo-assimilationist trajectory. In the broadest terms both of them do so by far too readily jumping to conclusions about the policy failures of recent decades. Their reasons for moving towards the same assimilationist outcome differ, but both could find themselves alighting on the same platform. The immediate circumstance that steers them towards the same destination is that neither asks questions about the way the social forms of the mainstream society might affect the prospects for their markedly different expectations for cultural continuity. This omission stretches credulity in Sutton’s case. One imagines that as an anthropologist he will at least touch first base by way of an analysis of the mainstream society.

As I shall note later, this staring lacuna in his work and his reflections is not to be tied to any question of good faith. Rather, it would seem that unquestioned and individually centred assumptions about the relation of ideals to outcomes have eventually led to a profound disenchantment. He turns to assimilationist conclusions that he would have fervently rejected at an earlier time. Even given his rejection of the outcomes of the ‘fantasies’ of the ‘liberal consensus’, Sutton has a second coming within the terms of an even more individually centred commitment to humanist idealism. That is, to yet another twist in the history of a colonising process directed by ‘liberal’ practices, in the broadest sense of that word.

A general philosophical predisposition both blinds these authors to the limited prospects for any form of assimilation to the mainstream and appears to limit their grasp of Indigenous culture as well. Understandably in Pearson’s case, as one who grew up under conditions where threads of continuity of Indigenous ways were still present at Hope Vale Mission, he simply appears to take for granted that ‘identifications’ with those ways is sufficient guarantee of their continuity. For him ‘welfare poison’, as a source of income support for alcohol abuse and dependency, is the disastrously negative aspect of that same ‘liberal consensus’ which also combined with rising Indigenous activism to install citizenship and native title.

Sutton, however, works within a more searching and wider perspective. Shocked to the core by what he takes to be the eventual consequences of the liberal consensus in community breakdown, he far more explicitly endorses assimilation to the mainstream society than does Noel Pearson. Certainly there are ‘provisos’: citizens of Indigenous background will be able to look back to their heritage, just as others may look back to the roots of Western-style civilisations in Rome and Greece or in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Despite these secondary differences, Pearson and Sutton nevertheless contribute to the same broad shift towards assimilation evident in contemporary opinion. For each of them the negative aspects of the liberal consensus feed directly into community breakdown. For each of them, land rights was the high water mark. It was as if the two writers assume an essence of Aboriginality so that the social circumstances of the formation of values can be bypassed. For Pearson the ideal hope of the practical continuity of his people’s distinctive values persists. For Sutton that hope has turned into the blindness of fantasy: the last gasp of a discredited liberal consensus. The only ideal hope that remains is to look back to a lost heritage and perhaps even to cherish it within the limits of an assimilated mode of being.

Right at the centre of a methodological blindness shared by these authors is the failure to relate the central forms of interchange of both classical Indigenous culture and the new, rapidly changing mainstream to the values they would like to sustain. That is, sustain in practice for Pearson, in memory alone for Sutton. One might anticipate that both Noel Pearson and Peter Sutton could endorse the proposition of an integral association of values with circumstance, yet in practice each of them brushes it aside. Values, it would seem, can derive from ‘roots’ which are wholly subjective, grounded in individual choice.

Pearson’s political and cultural outlook is quite explicitly cast within mainstream identity theory. He identifies a range of groupings with which he identifies: his people, his Lutheran heritage and, a little more ambiguously, with his sense of belonging to all of the Australian people. In short the identifications of Noel Pearson as active agent are far more prominent in his account of his formation than are the distinctly fuzzy references to the institutional framework of his Indigenous heritage. He is quite forthright on the issue of identity. ‘I, and the members of my community, possess layers of identity, some of which are shared with each other, some of which are distinct.’ And he is equally plain spoken as to its derivation. ‘Amartya Sen has supplied us with a theory of what I have called layered identities in his most recent book, Identity and Violence.’ In sum it is to Noel Pearson’s aspirations as an individual that one should look for an understanding of his journey ‘up from the mission’.

It is vitally important to be clear about this. I am not saying that we do not have identifications. The issue is how we ground them in the practical relations of our daily lives. Pearson bypasses that question. He gives the impression of being confused by the way the expression of the values of sharing, integral with reciprocity, feed into a fatal combination with dependency and alcohol. He finds his answer by identifying with Indigenous values, making no more than fleeting reference to the forms of social interchange of classical Indigenous culture. It is an idealism that allows him to seek practical solutions to his dilemmas within the social relations and values of the mainstream without any full recognition that these same practical engagements increasingly dispense with the institutional structures of kinship and reciprocity. Like Peter Sutton, he encounters a structural problem through his total failure to consider the social forms of the mainstream; his identifications blind him to its presence.

Real Questions and Blind Responses

This of course is to touch upon the radical expansion within the mainstream of the market economy. As it quite directly permeates institutions of community and kinship, which once stood at arms length from it, a sense of enhanced individuation increasingly bears in to exaggerate every citizen’s sense of agency.

Even while expressing strong reservations concerning the way Noel Pearson’s approach diverts attention from the classical mooring points of his own culture, even while stressing how that approach blinds him to the dead ends into which embracing the mainstream might lead him, it is important to re-emphasise the often disastrous situation to which he is responding.

Pearson has played a major role in bringing to public notice the way the fatal association of welfare dependence has fed into one particular and tragically flawed track of the liberal consensus. As Peter Sutton notes, ‘it was Noel Pearson who did the most to break the log jam … about dysfunctional Indigenous communities’. The military intervention in the Northern Territory carried consequences for mainstream perceptions of all Indigenous people. Its undifferentiated engagement, across the board as it were, with the diverse circumstances in the north tends to damp down the need to revise the policy expressions of that same liberal consensus in other places.

Few now question Indigenous citizenship, land rights are again becoming more ambiguous, but if a spiral of breakdown affected many Indigenous communities did it affect them all? If it is conceded that some are stable, even developing, what makes the difference? Why does Sutton suggest that the revenues from taxation should no longer be directed towards Indigenous outstations? It would be reasonable to anticipate that he might enquire into these issues as a scholar and anthropologist, as distinct from his despairing turn, across the board, to assimilationist propaganda.

In The Politics of Suffering Sutton mounts a powerful argument for the widespread breakdown in Indigenous modes of life. He records his own disillusionment with the self-serving ‘fantasy’ that the liberal consensus could any longer contribute to positive outcomes. Moreover he convincingly cites evidence of a far greater level of violence in the classical period in the lives of Indigenous people than is commonly acknowledged. The implication is that the roots of the current downward spiral are very complex, not solely to be ascribed to policy failures of the liberal consensus.

Beyond that Sutton notes that Indigenous people are marrying out, as it were, at a rate that in recent years has skyrocketed to above 70 per cent. In effect they are walking away from more community-related ways of living and diluting Indigenous practices by joining the mainstream: assimilation in fact, whatever the intention.

Sutton and Pearson, along with Wild and Anderson, the authors of the Little Children are Sacred report, join with those many others before them (even Peter Howson who back in the Howard years was Minister for Indigenous Affairs) who all acknowledged that a serious breakdown had emerged in the course of the prosecution of policies grounded in the liberal consensus. Those policies were themselves an expression of a different and more humane liberal intervention in Indigenous affairs. It was the continuing expression in terms of policy of that turn towards a more liberal consensus that espoused citizenship in 1967. If, forty years on, those policies were leading to negative outcomes, what might have been the possible responses?

One answer, as we have already seen, was given: assimilation. The shock of a military intervention can deflect attention from longstanding failure to respond to situations well-known in circles of government. An intervention in that mode can declare people to be incompetent by action without consultation (except for a word with Noel Pearson fifteen minutes before the hour struck). Moreover, even with manifest despair among many long-time supporters of Indigenous causes, it can turn back onto the path of wholesale assimilation by way of policy changes, changes half-displaced from public discussion by the shock of the intervention and the bipartisan wedge of the protection of children.

Another approach might have been to look to the blind spots in the neo-liberal perspective. What assumptions does it make about human nature and the way it is profoundly constrained — even constituted — by the institutional arrangements in which human nature finds expression? And, above all perhaps, if the liberal consensus was half blind to the later consequences of its policies, does an ongoing myopia now carry over to affect the policy agenda of a neo-liberal assimilation?

Inside and Outside: Ruling Assumptions

These are difficult questions. For those who wish to question the present turn towards assimilation, a first response might be to ask whether it might not be more appropriate to first pay attention to the vast diversity of Indigenous circumstances. That would question any blanket approach whether in the mode of military intervention or otherwise. For many of those who, as Indigenous people, have taken or who may wish to pursue what I am terming an assimilationist trajectory — including many who as Peter Sutton notes are marrying out — what policy, what practical steps could assist them? Would those steps include helping them to renew their Indigenous roots if they so wished? For those who sought to further develop community-related ways of living very different policies to those prevailing now might well be essential. The question of a quite fundamental blindness within the liberal consensus, as well as within any neo-liberal turn, is crucial. The integrity of future policies depends upon this issue being addressed.

In his book, Peter Sutton gestures towards one of these blind spots. He records a Hawaiian’s perhaps only half serious response to an anthropologist who had been chatting about cultural matters: ‘Hey, we didn’t know we had a culture until the White Man came and told us!’ There is no way of knowing whether this particular Hawaiian was fully serious or not, but it is both astonishing and significant that, as an anthropologist, Peter Sutton should refer to this issue just in passing.

It has been well known, for at least the best part of a century, that while, prior to colonisation, the members of Indigenous cultures may readily recount their beliefs they seldom find a place to stand outside them. Their institutional framework does not include more abstracted social combinations of scholars, or disciplines like anthropology, which are ‘lifted out’, as it were, from the society with which they are integral. Eighty years ago, when speaking of the Melanesian cultures, Marcel Mauss noted ‘an incapacity to abstract and analyse concepts’. This way of putting the issue would be controversial now but what Mauss was getting at in the circumstances to which he was referring was that a self-conscious capacity to stand apart is often unnecessary. In effect a course of action is directed in ways that are profoundly taken for granted rather than consciously abstracted and evaluated. Mauss was not suggesting that these capacities could not immediately be taken on board. He presents evidence that they could. The basic point is that the rationality of the cultures he was representing is more directly embedded, or typically attached to more immediately apprehended environmental points. If it is more likely to operate in a taken-for-granted mode than is ours, that does not exclude recognition of the reality that when, at one level, a whole way of life becomes more abstracted, the way a course of action is governed may also be ‘taken for granted’.*

At least at the level of empirical observation, as Peter Sutton is likely to recognise, to be radically ‘lifted out’ of the limits of one’s familiar and routinised mode of life in our culture, one must enter into a sphere of social interchange which is separated, differentiated from that setting, while also being integral with it. Along with Noel Pearson, he stresses education and points to the way the boarding school was the abstracted setting which ‘lifted’ Pearson, the Dodsons and others out of the immediacy of an Indigenous setting (which was already far removed from classical Indigenous ways). Within a very different realm of social interchange, the foundations were laid for them becoming Indigenous intellectuals. In becoming such they were drawn into the social forms of the settler-colonial culture, including an exposure to the liberal consensus. In Sutton’s case especially one might anticipate that he was able to recognise that abstract forms of intellectual interchange provide the conditions of possibility for the emergence of any particular scheme of policy proposals. Those of which he speaks as the liberal consensus are one such outcome. If that scheme now calls for basic revision, the liberal consensus as such must be interrogated. Peter Sutton backs away from that profound challenge. He ends his book in mystical vein with the mainstream culture as the taken-for-granted context.

To speak of the more abstracted ideas of intellectuals as integral with their forms says nothing about actual insight into that conjunction. Even as an anthropologist, the person inducted into such abstracted schemes may be as little aware of their integral connection with a distinctive form of interchange as typically prevails within the pre-colonial Indigenous settings of reciprocal interchange to which I have briefly referred. Within the ways we constitute abstracted modes of interchange it is typically their scholarly expression that can promote that insight. The unfortunate feature of Sutton’s work is that he leaves aside the consideration of the various ways abstracted schemes of interchange may be related to the process of bridging between two cultures.

That bridging is typically fraught with the misunderstandings associated with different frames of integrity, as Inga Clendinnen so vividly portrays when she depicts the culture gap that led to the ‘just/unjust’ spearing of Governor Arthur in her Dancing with Strangers. Where distance between cultures is great and members of one are profoundly gripped by the certitudes of economic growth, they may readily conclude, with Noel Pearson, that ‘To secure Aboriginal economic development, it might be necessary for us to make far reaching concessions to the dominant culture’. Those concessions might include sending the children away to the boarding schools of the dominant culture, where English is first language, and distantly located jobs in big mining as the means of escape from the ravages of welfare dependency. As one might anticipate for Noel Pearson, all of that would stop far short of seeking a treaty as a framework for interchange between cultures.

What might be a different way? A first step would be to find a productive place to stand within the diverse forms of contemporary social interchange to look back upon the way the dominant values of the culture are integral with its dominant mode of social interchange. If there are structured possibilities for transformation inherent within the social forms through which the peoples of a culture carry on their lives, could a focus upon them lead to policy guidelines? That is, policies that do not lead either to Pearson’s apparently unintended consequence of de facto assimilation or to Sutton’s endorsement of personalised recruitment towards the same result.

Neither of these routes, as they converge towards the same precipice that mainstream culture is building, examines their own assumptions. While both Pearson and Sutton are ‘lifted out’ of, abstracted from, full immersion in the practicalities of the daily lives of their fellow citizens, they do not critically examine the assumptions and values they share with most mainstream people. In short, while they do enter into an intellectual form of interchange, which allows them to make explicit and to generalise about dominant values, they do not critically examine the way they are driven by them.

Were they to do so the conclusions they might reach about the mainstream culture might coincide with those reached by a growing minority who question its current trajectory. Its dominant value of growth, while integral with the practicalities of the expanding market, may well be incompatible with the survival of the human species. Why blindly induct others? In some contrast to that, as long as values of reciprocity and sharing are paid only lip service within Indigenous culture — by their being ‘valued’, as a distinct form enacted — they are open to co-option.

Erosion by exposure to the ‘welfare poison’ supplied courtesy of the welfare consensus is not necessarily the end for intentionalist planning. Before jumping to that conclusion an analysis of the assumptions of the liberal consensus and the prospects for their revision is a necessary condition of any serious approach to policy formation.

For the present the ideas, the intentionality of many Indigenous people, who have yet to break out of essentialist ideas about their nature as supplied by the liberal consensus, still maintain the hope that cultural values may be sustained without on the ground practical arrangements compatible with them. The suggestion here is they cannot, that support must be limited to just that. Pearson is right to insist that when it replaces a self-active mode of subsistence ‘support’ turns into its opposite. Yet to be right about recognising a problem and selecting a dead end as its solution clearly presents a basic dilemma.

If the first intervention was colonialist settlement and the destruction of Indigenous cultures its widespread result, it is important to acknowledge that colonialism had another side. It expressed moral as distinct from acquisitive imperatives. Mainly Christian at first, then more actively humanist as well, these imperatives found early expression in the missions. They were soon followed by a second stage in colonisation, an ‘intervention’, under the aegis of the liberal consensus. Now as land rights are eroded and reciprocal values are defined as part of the problem a third stage of colonisation, launched by military intervention, has begun. This time around it is driven by the assumption that mainstream culture can provide the answers to ‘disadvantage’ — by assimilation. So go back to GO.

The underlying problem is the deep-set incapacity within mainstream culture to examine how ‘growthmania’ is now driving it blindly towards the precipice. If the liberal consensus is now in crisis it is important to remember that, as a creation of the better intentions of the mainstream, it built up a powerful momentum in the course of the best part of half a century. Any capacity to adequately conceive and follow a different course will call for persistent and drawn out effort. But it is certainly possible to begin to suggest what some of its foci might be.

For some people it may seem presumptuous for a relative outsider, as I fully acknowledge that I am, to enter that field at all. After all, Indigenous people have special rights while those who presume to speak for the mainstream have varying degrees of on-the-ground knowledge that far exceeds mine. Nevertheless there are mainstream policies, they are in crisis, and every citizen should seek to respond.

The first question I would raise relates to the outstations, which, Sutton asserts, are typically disaster sites no longer deserving taxpayers’ support. For my part, while recognising the vitality of many outstations, I would like to see far greater public reporting of whether, with adequate water and power supplied to them, outstations could approach a far higher level of internal sustainability. That is, production of the means of life that are integrally connected with social processes of exchange. I would like to know whether a transition from the specific obligation of kinship to the looser bonds of family naming (see chapter 8 of Sutton, Native Title in Australia) is compatible with the renewal of values of reciprocity.

I do not imagine that this process of renewal could be set in place ‘just like that’, and that it would not entail significant shifts from classical prescriptions of obligations and rights. If it were to be stable at all — and quite apart from its external linkages — it presumably would include figures who could stand outside often profoundly taken for granted values. That is, individuals able to recognise the integral connection of values with the practicalities of the maintenance of a quasi-autonomous process of daily life.

That process itself could scarcely emerge without a relatively autonomous community of reflective individuals able to bridge between outposts. In other words, a reflective community able to value their own ways of living while recognising that other ways might be equally viable. The emergence of an Indigenous mode of reflective interchange of that order is of course a big ask. It would be in the mainstream interest to see if it could be developed. If its reciprocal co-existing roots could be revitalised, we might learn from, rather than simply intervene in, the lives of Indigenous people.

Is it not possible that we have simply forgotten one main root of the institutional basis of our own morality in reciprocity? Didn’t Marcel Mauss assert a basic truth when he observed for his time that ‘Much of our everyday morality is concerned with obligation and spontaneously in the gift. It is our good fortune that all is not yet couched in terms of purchase and sale’?

Mining Indigenous Hope

Noel Pearson positions a despairing article he wrote as late as 2006, which appears quite early in his book, at the opening of a group of chapters entitled ‘Challenging Old Friends’. It is called ‘Hope Vale Lost’. He grew up there; his mother still lives there. Earlier, way back before citizenship, the people earned their own means of subsistence and were also abstracted from, yet lifted out of, the daily practicalities of work by their engagement in a superordinate social body, one which, understandably, they took to exist primarily as a Lutheran community of common faith. They achieved a certain stability by the superimposition of what they took to be ‘ideas’ alone that lent a period of viability to their daily lives. At least these ideas were taken to do so until another set of policy prescriptions worked their way through the bodies and minds of the participants.

By 2006 a second invasion at Hope Vale, this time of ‘welfare poison’, has consolidated its hold, and in a final paragraph Pearson sums up. As he drives away to a different place he reflects on the same symbol of a community that has lost hope that presented itself on his arrival:

As I drove through my hometown on the Sunday evening on my way back to Cairns, I saw the dead puppy still in the street. I thought about the distance between being inured to the fate of a puppy that didn’t see a car coming, and being inured to the fate of our own children.

Yet hope is resilient and by 2008, for Pearson, it has found its reward:

Enter Andrew Forrest. One of the country’s most successful industrialists, Forrest has initiated an idea without parallel. The extraordinary feature of the Australian Employment Covenant is that Forrest and his private sector colleagues are setting the goal of guaranteeing jobs for 50,000 Indigenous Australians. It cannot be overstated how fundamentally this opportunity changes the landscape.

Early in 2008 Forrest was still the richest man in Australia ($9.4 billion). After the meltdown his investments in Fortescue Mining had lost more than 70 per cent of that value. Forrest appears to be an individual of genuine philanthropic intent but he cannot operate without lasting agreements on land rights, nor can Rio Tinto or BHP Billerton, both of which are just next door. For the big miners access to land rights becomes the condition for ‘real jobs’.

One way into the future could be Peter Sutton’s. Aboriginal culture could find a mode of continuity at least in the short term in the process of its dissolution into the ‘remembrance of things past’. But for the longer term? Perhaps first turn back to ‘Reflections on the Current Condition’ in Arena Magazine no. 100 before going on to ask more searching questions of the present limits of reflective scholarship. Such an inquiry might allow Sutton and Pearson, along with a host of others, to more actively consider whether reciprocity might be seen again as being at the root of our humanity. That could be one key aspect of a way into the future for both Indigenous and mainstream institutions and modes of individual formation with which these institutions are integral.


* While this issue is of fundamental importance I cannot pursue it here. Clearly, as for instance Bill Stanner recognised, a capacity to stand apart is present within Indigenous culture; that is, the ability to transcend oneself, to make acts of imagination so that one can stand ‘outside’ or ‘away from’ oneself and turn the universe, oneself and one’s fellows into objects of contemplation (W. E. H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays, R. Manne (ed.), Black Inc, 2009). For what Sutton might conceivably recognise as a ‘half-way house’ between relativism and realism, see Geoff Sharp, ‘The Idea of the Intellectual and After’, in S. Cooper, J. Hinkson and G. Sharp (eds), Scholars and Entrepreneurs, 2002.

Geoff Sharp is General Editor of Arena Publications.


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