Developing the North

How quickly and how far we have shifted in federal policy around Aboriginal issues; how far, it seems, also popular opinion and a sense of who Aboriginal people are for White metropolitan society. It is hard to believe that Henry Reynolds only fifteen years ago could call for serious consideration of alternative forms of sovereignty for those more remote places in Australia that are primarily Aboriginal in population make-up and still deeply set within Aboriginal tradition. How far it is from that serious discussion of the benefits and ethical imperative of a treaty rather than either reconciliation, with its mixed meanings and intentions or later, emphatically, intervention.

As the five year anniversary of intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory nears, and as the federal government brings down its Intervention Mark II in its Stronger Futures legislation, we see the wholesale trashing of the idea of cultural self-determination and, relatedly, a massive shift in the esteem with which Aboriginal people are held in mainstream Australian society. Both these shifts are contradictory and hard to plot; and they go both to the heart of the contemporary neoliberal restructuring of life across the board and to a more hidden, much older kernel of settler colonial attitudes towards Indigenous people.

As one reads The Australian or views television one might believe that esteem for Aboriginal people has shot up: those gorgeous ads in Western Australian coastal settings with beautiful young Aboriginal people happy to be engineers and miners; Nicholas Rothwell’s beautifully crafted paeans to the North, respect paid to those he meets along the way. But pure ideology and romance aside, of the seventy-three prescribed communities, we still hear virtually nothing, and certainly few straight answers have been forthcoming from this government, or John Howard’s, about the fulfilment of the Intervention’s explicit goals. Even more to the point, as Jeff McMullen points out in an article in this issue, we don’t hear from the Aboriginal people themselves from these communities; neither in the press nor indeed via costly government-held consultations that, one must presume, were meant exactly for such dissemination.

Morbidly fascinating from a certain point of view is how, for most non-Indigenous Australians, the Intervention and its modus operandi has passed into a space of indifference and normality. The implicit goals of Minister Mal Brough’s ominous military phrase ‘Stabilise, normalise, exit’, accompanying and part justifying intervention, have never been achieved; the seventy-three communities are radically de-stabilised, Aboriginal people widely pathologised, and the white managers and officials have never left, indeed have become structurally embedded. Now the intervention rolls on in Jenny Macklin’s Stronger Futures legislation for another decade. What has been normalised is the technique itself, and likewise the ‘new’ object of intervention, in white consciousness as least: the Aboriginal person who must now, for their own good, accept the kind of strenuous moral disciplining that development through violent social change requires. In other words, grotesquely, ‘normalisation’ for Aboriginal people has been normalised for a vast number of the Australian, largely non-Aboriginal, public.

As mentioned, the picture is complex. But let’s not be deluded by the ‘pro-Aboriginal’ campaigns of media outlets (media outlets so intriguingly at the centre of intervention thinking), or by the good heartedness of many, especially sections of the old ‘moral middle class’, who have gone over to the Peter Sutton and Noel Pearson versions of Aboriginal suffering. In all of these cases compassion is offered, often writ large, and respect for Aboriginal people is certainly professed. But it is the ways in which, and for what, respect is or will be given, and the role compassion plays, that are in question.

Peter Sutton’s appeal to his broad audience in his The Politics of Suffering was its moral seriousness and self-conscious ethical stance. He could speak movingly of Aboriginal suffering, which he had experienced at close hand, and felt himself (the latter a large component of his appeal). But compassion here took the route, or was hitched up to a larger picture, in which the compassionate attitude in general was fundamentally to take on a suspect aspect. The easy recourse of southern latte-sipping liberals, compassion can’t get you to the bottom of the problem, and Sutton and others’ new diagnosis was what was really at stake. The high-moral remonstrance is hard to ignore at any time: in this case, it asked people to also face up to a reality that he told his interlocutors they had largely created through a naïve celebration of Aboriginal culture. Put together professed suffering for the suffering of others and high-minded moral remonstrance and you are quite likely to generate a passionate conversion.

Noel Pearson’s attack on self-determination, after and simultaneously with many similar ones from deep within the intellectual Right in Australia, was similarly to put the cat among the doves of the ‘moral middle classes’ and ‘southerners’ generally. It challenged them, like Sutton’s appeal, to get the backbone to face an unpalatable truth: here the said failure of the welfare model in remote communities and, what might seem a contradictory policy within that, self-determination, which he took to be another example of warm and fuzzy southern ideology: a convenient White lie that hid a descent into poverty and social disarray that he reported existed in (some) remote Aboriginal communities. If Sutton’s role was one of a kind of moral-emotional catharsis for White supporters of Aborigines, Pearson’s was the Black imprimatur, along with the influential statements of Marcia Langton and Warren Mundine, that sealed the package. Without this imprimatur it is doubtful that the Intervention could have generated the widespread support it did, and seems still to have. (It was of course instrumental in solving John Howard’s problem of appearing to be a racist, and in converting the right-wing to Aboriginal development in the north.) A philosophical and moral framework from ‘authentic’ sources was provided for the action of government; while White Australia came to have an articulate Black conscience. In the face of a concerted media campaign that backed up the Pearson/Sutton view of Aboriginal culture as vulnerable to alcohol, violence and sexual abuse, Aboriginal culture per se came to stand for dysfunction, while compassion was to be actualised through new means of instilling self-control and individual responsibility on the way to prosperity.

Of course the miners’ ads’ idealised images of openness, individual achievement and money (consumer goods not far away) have as their historical backdrop and internal contradiction how the Intervention has actually operated. On a daily basis it has largely been about restriction, restraint and control (income quarantining, alcohol policy, external management), not to mention dispossession (land tenure, threats to homelands) and destruction (of functioning policies in employment like the Community Development Employment Projects program). The perfect beauty of the mining dream and of development in the North in general that are now firing up the Australian imagination, and central to various players’ agendas, including The Australian’s plans for Aboriginal Australia, in this sense have a dirty secret. This is not to say that the Intervention is necessary to the mining boom as such; but the Intervention’s remit vis-à-vis the reshaping of Aboriginal persons and a recasting of the value of Aboriginal culture and land sits well with the terms of the mainstream vision for the north: essentially white large-scale development, de-culturation of the land, a workforce of flexible employees intent on wealth and consumption. If nothing else there is a harmony of interests and identities in the emergent story of the north born of a broad base of change and upheaval: economic (mining), military (see Richard Tanter’s article in this issue) and socio-cultural (a concern with the soul of the subject of development, especially acute in the case of Aboriginal people).

If there is bipartisan neoliberalism operating in government across a broad range of areas (see Arena Magazine 116), bipartisanship is strongest indeed in relation to the solution to Aboriginal culture, and there is little demurring in Australian culture at large. From Brough’s militaristic formula to the Labor government’s more equalitarian-sounding and technocratic ‘Close the Gap’, the approach on the ground of normalising and assimilating Aboriginal culture to the latest vision for White Western development is more or less the same. As White Australia tried to come to grips with what Noel Pearson and Peter Sutton were saying over the past five years, was it that they missed, or rather simply implicitly recognised and integrated the neoliberal message (or potentiality) at the heart of what was being said?

In this issue of Arena Magazine Tracey Banivanua Mar reviews James Heartfield’s book on the history of the British Aborigines Protection Society. This avowedly humanist organisation with powerful connections and a vast reach across the British Empire was dedicated to ‘protecting’ indigenous peoples caught in the maelstrom of early colonisation. But far from protecting anyone from the depredations of White development, ‘protection’ often shadowed that development, or helped to legitimise it, or as James Boyce has shown in the case of Melbourne, hastened through its humanitarian concerns the demise of the very people it purported to act for. The attitude of there being a ‘problem’ in Aboriginal culture goes back a long way – in fact to the earliest justifications for colonisation, and post-hoc rationalisations for settlers’ rapacious behaviours. And so it would seem that the case for developing the Aborigines that lies at the base of the (humanitarian) intervention model is over-determined in contemporary Australian culture: neoliberal development of the land and the soul, and a settler colonial predilection for exactly that in relation to Indigenous inhabitants and their problematic, savage cultures. Aboriginal people may no longer be rounded up and shot, or officially divided into full bloods, half castes and quadroons, but they will undergo a process of individualisation and de-culturation in this new stage in the settler colonial project.

The issue of culture is an intriguing one in the contemporary setting. As Aure Mondon points out in his article in this issue on the upcoming French election, one of the ways that the Le Pen family has been able to go mainstream, which is to say, be stridently anti-immigration  yet profess a non-racist orientation, is to insert ‘culture’ wherever  ‘race’ might once have been the actual or implied term. It’s something like the Andrew Bolt defence: he’s not a racist because he would never let the colour of someone’s skin interfere with his appreciation of the person – as an individual. These are variations on a theme, their common basis the banishing of biological racism from respectable discourse and the use of new explanations offered as realities of the neoliberal context, for example, the radical individuation of persons and their disembedding from deep cultures based in group, rather than networked, forms of social relation. As a number of commentators have remarked, in the period of late capitalism culture became an ambiguous category; at the same time as it exploded in and as popular culture, culture as deeply embedded meanings and shared life-ways seemed to become matters of choice for radically individualised subjects. In that guise ‘culture’ has become a dirty word, a derogation that has fanned out across all the social groupings and in the case of White Australia’s dealings with Aboriginal Australia neatly dovetails with deep strains of settler colonial propensities for social and moral violence.

*The next issue of Arena Magazine will mark the five year anniversary of the Intervention and the beginning of Stronger Futures with essays and commentaries. In June too, the next Arena Journal will be released with an issue devoted to the theme of settler colonialism. 

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