INDIGENOUS disadvantage stems from dispossession and the historical denial of rights. But poverty is also behavioural. Disengagement from the real economy, passivity and dysfunction are not only symptoms of oppression, they are also unnecessary behaviours that can and must be changed at the same time as we fight for our rights. That is why we pursue welfare reform in Cape York Peninsula and why we want urgent responses to the grog, drugs, gambling and social order problems.
We can’t wait patiently. Opposition indigenous affairs and reconciliation spokeswoman Jenny Macklin this week lauded those communities in Alice Springs that have rejected the government funding offers that offend land rights. She quoted the Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody song about the Wave Hill strike led by the great elder Vincent Lingiari, From Little Things Big Things Grow: “Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait.”
It is wrong to equate the Wave Hill strike with the present situation. Whatever their poverty, the people who walked off Wave Hill to Wattie Creek were not socially or culturally dysfunctional. They had leadership, they had law, they had order. It is irresponsible to romanticise a “we know how to wait” attitude on the part of indigenous communities that are racked with the social dysfunction of grog, drugs and violence. Ask the child going hungry or the adolescent prey of exploitative abuse whether they know how to wait for relief from their suffering.
To those community leaders who reject land title arrangements (which, in the case of the Northern Territory, don’t seem to me to be the best solutions that could have been devised and the federal Government seems unable to resist compromising its good intentions with its ideological prejudices) I say: by all means wait, but you have an immediate and inescapable responsibility to stop the suffering of your children and your most vulnerable. You can’t sit back and place all the blame on the Government for the suffering that happens tonight and the suffering that happens next week.
To their political and public supporters I say: you have a responsibility to find alternative solutions to the crises because you cannot expect the entire cost of the strategy that you laud to be borne through the continued suffering of the most vulnerable.
There is an urgency in our concern to tackle the behavioural dimension of our problems. But just because we admit that our problems are behavioural, that does not mean that we do not believe there are also structural barriers to indigenous progress. The principal structural problem faced by indigenous people concerns our power relationship with the rest of Australian society through its structures of government: judicial, legislative and executive. Australian democracy just does not work to enable the solution of our problems.
Democratic participation in the existing judicial, legislative and executive institutions of governance in Australia is the only means available to indigenous Australians to achieve and exercise power.
But do the existing mechanisms of democratic participation by such a small minority, who are unique in that they are indigenous to the country, and whose socioeconomic circumstances are so egregiously out of step with the rest of the country, work to ensure my people enjoy the same expectations of life as their fellow citizens?
No, they do not.
Indigenous people are too small a minority to make government work for them. The breakdowns in communication between government and indigenous communities are not caused only by shortcomings of government representatives and indigenous leaders; there is a fundamental power imbalance that distorts even the best intentions.
When it comes to the judicial institutions of government, apart from making provision for indigenous mechanisms of justice at the local level, it is not possible to see how there could be a more level playing field in this arena of power, so far as the needs of indigenous people are concerned. And when it comes to representation in legislatures, it is not possible to see how there could be a more level playing field in this arena, too.
Apart from the NT and the odd seat in other parliaments, the small numbers of indigenous people can only minimally affect power through political representation in parliaments. When it comes to indigenous dealings with the executive of government, again indigenous people – as a result of our small numbers – are not in a position to make government work for us.
First, there will never be a sufficient number of indigenous people working for the governments (even if the longstanding under-representation is addressed).
Second, there are too few indigenous leaders and community people with the necessary expertise and knowledge to deal with all the programs, policies, procedures and mechanisms of government that affect indigenous people; there is a sheer problem of scale.
This is not just a function of poor educational capabilities in our indigenous community; it is also a function of the numbers. Even if we were over-represented in terms of our educational capacity, we do not and will not have the people to work across the full range of institutions and issues that affect our people if the only means to do this are the existing mechanisms.
Third, the administrative arms of government work because there is always democratic demand from the mainstream.
Government works for the mainstream because citizens are able to exercise electoral power to force political leaders to ensure government delivers. Indigenous people do not have this leverage.
Fourth, the issues that are important and necessary to indigenous wellbeing are not all similar to those affecting the mainstream, who do not have the same socioeconomic problems. Government is frequently incapable of properly addressing indigenous
issues, as it is used to servicing the needs of the mainstream.
Finally, the existence of an institutional bias against indigenous people, sometimes referred to as institutional racism, also makes it hard for indigenous people to get government to work for them.
There are three ways to think about how to address this lack of structural power on the part of a small minority within an otherwise functioning democracy that serves its mainstream well.
First, one could seek to increase representation and participation of indigenous people in the institutions of power and in administration. This is the usual response and this aim should continue to be pursued. But even if aggressive affirmative action were adopted, the comparative weight of numbers means an increase in representation and participation would not fix the structural power deficit. Affirmative action is likely to be strongly resisted. Although proposals for special provisioning of parliamentary representation have been put on the agenda in Australia, the fight for such an outcome is likely to be far greater than the benefit of the outcome. Getting a small minority of political representatives into legislatures will not fix the nub problem.
Second, one could establish separate institutions of governance for the indigenous community. The creation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and other national, regional and local institutions have been supported by federal and state governments from time to time for this purpose. Indigenous governance institutions are important; however, it is their interface with government that is the nub question. How do these indigenous institutions relate to the real sources of power in Australia, namely its governments? What is the relationship? Is the relationship based on negotiation and is there mutuality in the relationship?
It is one thing for governments to delegate to indigenous institutions certain space for governance of their own affairs (as was done with ATSIC), but the crucial question remains: what is the nature of the interface between the indigenous institution and government? This was particularly important in the case of ATSIC because its jurisdiction did not cover the whole field of indigenous affairs.
The commonwealth continued to be responsible for important components of indigenous affairs (such as education, health and income support), and state and territory governments also held a jurisdiction unconnected with ATSIC.
ATSIC’s purview was not comprehensive and in any case its relation with the commonwealth was in the nature of a client commission, subject to direction by a commonwealth minister and accountable through various mechanisms to the federal government. This accountability relationship was not mutual; it did not impose return obligations on the federal government and no attempt was made to establish equality between the indigenous commission and government.
The point of ATSIC was not to establish an interface with government; rather, it established an indigenous affairs ghetto away from the main game.
Third, one could focus on the interface between indigenous people and governments, state and federal, and construct mechanisms that ensured equality between them. Partnerships between grossly unequal partners are not real partnerships; rather, they are master-servant, boss-client relationships.
If consultation and not negotiation is the principal official means of transaction between the parties, then there is not a true partnership. Rather, there is one party with the power to act unilaterally and one that is subject to that power.
There has never been a serious attempt to focus on the institutional interface between indigenous people and governments in Australia. To construct an interface that creates greater parity and mutual accountability (and true shared responsibility) would require governments to agree to limitations on their existing powers and prerogatives and to make accountability a two-way street rather than the existing one-way street. It would also require governments to be bound not just by policy commitment but by law.