An Agenda for Indigenous Empowerment

An Agenda for Indigenous Empowerment

Keynote address

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Annual Congress

Noel Pearson

Good morning everyone, and thank you very much for that introduction. I bring greetings to the indigenous people of Brisbane, from Cape York Peninsula. I’d like to thank the College for your kind invitation to address your conference.

I want to say that my whole struggle with our predicament as an indigenous people in a remote part of Australia has involved an unresolved intellectual struggle between structural and behavioural explanations of our challenge. It’s a struggle that has great policy and political implications for our work. I think I end up with a 51% structural explanation, attributing 49% to behaviour, but my policy is the reverse. I have to believe in agency. I have to believe that we can overcome the structures that contribute to our predicament. So when it comes to policy I end up urging our people, and those who work with me on our enterprise, that it’s 49% structure and 51% personal agency. It might not entirely be a scientific way of approaching things but it’s the means by which we must muster will. It is the way in which we muster conviction and ultimately it’s the way that we conduct our leadership.

In terms of our egregious situation I think the indicators and statistics are notorious. Most Australians hear about some facet of that predicament every other week.We’re a people who live in a First World country and have indicators as parlous as those in sub-­­Saharan Africa. You’d have to go to some parts of the former Soviet Union to find life expectancy at such a low rate. 3% of the Australian population contribute in some jurisdictions up to 60% of the prison population. 3% of the population contribute up to 60% of children in child protection and juvenile detention. There’s only two parameters in which Indigenous Australians are over-­­represented in a positive sense – we’re 9% of the Australian Football League, and more than 10% of the National Rugby League. That’s a ‘closing the gap’ target that will take the rest of Australia a long time to resolve. But we all know, particularly Australians, that the social situation of the originals peoples of this continent is extremely parlous. The fact there is an indigenous middle class who are doing quite well belies the fact that in remote areas the numbers are very terrible. And it is from a remote community that I come, and it is the future of that community, and other communities in my region that has been the subject of my life’s work.

I first started to worry about the community into which I was born and raised as a third generation child in a mission; I began to develop an anxiety about our gathering social problems in my youthful perception. I began to have a sense that this place that I really, truly believed presented the most glorious childhood any child could ever have, I was starting to gain the perception that these very good things were starting to crumble in my hometown. This sense gathered in the 1980s, when I was a student at Sydney University, and I could see the accumulating social problems– amongst my own family, and amongst my friends and those in the world whom I loved most. I was distressed about the fact that in the late 80s there was no marijuana use in my community and then as a young leader on the local council in the community, the commencement and rapid growth of a cannabis epidemic that saw our first young suicide in the history of our community.

How could a community exist for 100 years and not have a suicide and then quickly accumulate a dozen of them? A community that had abjured marijuana during the 1960s and the 1970s, when it was freely available at the nearby mine site and amongst white people in Cooktown, nevertheless, steadfastly abstained and yet a young user returns to Hope Vale and starts a young gang of pioneers of cannabis use and they recruit more and more people to this new practice. Being at university at the time, I didn’t have the natural revulsion to this growth I would normally have as a person raised in Hope Vale. If I had maintained my traditional outlook, I would

have been horrified at the development, but I was a cosmopolitan by then at Sydney University. I walked around with the cannabis insignia on a t-­­shirt like other university students! And we all believed, people like me who never used any drug, nevertheless we all believed that cannabis was a ‘harmless drug’ and it was a‘recreational drug’. And of course, since that time over the past two decades, we’vehad several dozen of our young people turn up at Cairns Base Hospital, in the psych ward and some of them now suffering ongoing bipolar disorder.

During this whole period, I saw the breakdown of things within families and my community. I grew up in poverty but poverty was not a barrier to happiness. It was not a barrier to great social richness. My father and family and mother struggled to make provision for us like all of the families in my village but they sent us to school. My father urged upon me Francis Bacon’s injunction that: ‘Reading makes a full man’. A stockman who could read the bible, with an illiterate wife who could nevertheless urge her children to school every day, produced for me and my siblings a childhood that I would never swap for quids. I saw important things falls away. I saw important achievements crumble. The achievements of my grandparents, torn away from their homelands and their tribal families, dislocated from their mission as ten years olds. My grandmother, never getting to see her parents ever again, nevertheless rearing out of the ashes a new family. Today their descendants number in the hundreds.

And I see all of that achievement across my community and many other like communities, and I lament that achievement crumbling before us and so many lives being wasted. We have so much better facilities and opportunities than were available in my father’s time and in the early part of my life, and yet we avail ourselves of only a fraction of that opportunity. We convert only a fraction of that opportunity into real social and personal progress. What is the explanation for this extraordinary situation where the Australian nation at a nominal level spent $33 billion dollars last year in the name of indigenous people? The Productivity Commission and the Treasury, when they do a count of all of the monies allocated in the name of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they end up with $33

billion in 12 months. Yet the results are as poor as you can imagine. Most of that money is indeed just nominal. It is what State and Territory governments get because they can count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in their funding formulae. But there are also massive industries constructed around this budget outlay and yet our indicators remain static, some of them going backwards.

So I’ve spent a lot of time, and we’ve spent a lot of time in Cape York trying to understand why is it against all of our febrile wishes and our anxious desires we seem not to make the kind of progress that we should be making. The great dialecticbetween structure and behaviours bedevils us. Of course, the proper explanation involves both. Our problems are not just a manifestation of our personal behaviour –there is a structural explanation. Of course I don’t think we are inherently criminal –in fact, if we look back in history, we see examples of rates of imprisonment, such as in the Kimberley in the 1960’s, prior to equal wages, where the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley was lower than the Western Australian average. There were less Aboriginal people in jail per head in the Kimberley in the early 60s than in the mainstream population and yet today, you can go to a prison in Northern Australia and not see a white man.

Behaviour and structure must both be contended with. But it is a highly ideological and fraught business – where you sit on the 51% -­­ 49% divide characterises your whole outlook. If you’re 51% structure, you’re against welfare reform and tackling dysfunction as a behaviour because you think there are larger forces at work, that leave people as victims and as the culture says, we should not be blaming victims. We should not be blaming victims. And therefore, we should absolve people from any responsibility for their behaviour. From any responsibility for agency to make progress. And people like me who think that welfare reform is critical for our people, and that we must confront the manifestation of structural harm in the form of behaviour, that we must confront them now as behaviours – we face an almost insuperable tide of opposition. We are told to stop blaming victims and that we should solve the structural problems. If we solve the structural problems, the behaviours will work themselves out. Well we have a view in Cape York – that we

have to tackle behaviour as behaviour now. We’ve got to seek structural reform and structural change, and we must tackle structural barriers but there is no getting around the fact that addiction epidemics in the community have got to be tackled as behaviours. It’s a great struggle and how we present ourselves in both the explanation of social phenomena and as policies of action has a great deal of implication for us. We either get supported or we get bitterly resisted, depending on how we characterise both our underlying explanation and our overt policy.

I think there are strong structural forces at work. In a classical sense, I believe in the old explanation of the forces of class. If you want to understand why it is hard for disadvantaged people to rise up in the world, I see no better explanation than the classical explanation of the operation of class. The world is a pyramid and refuses efforts at flattening for good reason. If we all were able to easily achieve things that we desire for ourselves – a better life – the world would be flatter than it is. But the world is not – because strong forces keep people where they are. And I come from the Marianas Trench where the gravitational forces keeping poor people down are very strong, and it’s highly ideological, and I have developed a rule of thumb. I have one rule of thumb that works for me most of the time in answering the question of‘How do you combat the strong forces that keep disadvantaged people in ongoing disadvantage?’ My rule of thumb is: whatever the progressive nostrum is about how to move forward and up, do approximately the opposite. Do approximately the opposite. If you do whatever the progressive culture tells you to do, you’ll maintain your position in disadvantage. You’ll stay where you are and possibly might even deteriorate.

So our entire policy program in Cape York Peninsula is based on that rough rule of thumb – whatever the progressives say we should do, we try to think what is approximately the opposite of that – let’s do that. And it’s no accident. The classical understanding of the operation of class is all about people being quite confused, about what it is they need to do to rise up in the world. I’ll give you one instance. Lower class people are told to renounce self-­­interest. That self-­­interest is somehow selfish. That it’s some kind of dirty word. And yet the rest of us wake up every

morning just as David Hume once said, with self-­­interest right in front of our noses. We want something better for ourselves and for our children. We want a better salary, the kids to go to a better school. We want a few more material advantages. We wake up with self-­­interest motivating our lives. And yet when it comes to the disadvantaged, we think the right policy is charity. That somehow they have to be saved by the rest of us. Instead of understanding that the most powerful engine for progress is self-­­interest. Just as it is for us! How is it that we have a culture that prescribes such a differential idea to disadvantaged people than the one that we prescribe to ourselves? How is it that we end up with a culture that prescribes to the lowest classes a formula that we wouldn’t even apply to ourselves? I say self-­­interestis a power – the liberal idea of self-­­interest, people climbing to a better life, in jealous pursuit of something better for themselves and their children is the engine of development and it is a power for change. That is just one of many examples I could play to you, to show you that correctness of that rule of thumb.

The other explanation is race. But it is class that employs the nation of race. Race is just an easy category for the forces of class to employ in the business of keeping people down. And of course, for ‘the lowest of the low’, we come out of a history of racialist thinking that attributed to the original peoples of this continent the position of being the ‘lowest of the low’, as one of our missionaries at Hope Vale originally described us in the late 1800s. And that history of racialist thinking, in this country, that somehow indigenous culture and disadvantage is to be explained by some innate racial characteristic is a legacy that still remains. Explicit racism has receded from the day of my grandfather and father, but that legacy won’t wash out of this country for a long time and we still retain very strong subterranean assumptions about the inferiority of the indigenous peoples of this country. It is a baggage thatwon’t soon go away but my own personal theoretical explanation of its endurance lies in the fact that it is just another very convenient marker for the forces of class to keep people where they are.

Too many white Australians think the door opens to opportunity from the outside -­­they don’t. Many doors are only openable from the inside. You’ve got to be led into

the door from the inside. And there is a great deal of manifestation of class forces using the easy marker of race and colour, such as money. The old joke goes ‘What do you call an Aboriginal driving a Mercedes? A thief’. That is what the culture would say. You’d immediately wonder where that person got the money from. What organisation, what government program produced that result? So on one hand, on the surface, we say people should progress economically and partake in the benefits of being Australian, develop wealth and everything else, and the minute a black person shows any sign of accumulating wealth, there will be more controversy over that than there is over anyone else owning a Mercedes. These are the cultural forcesthat attach to the old racialist thinking and makes it very hard for people to progress. In fact, we end up in a situation where our own young people themselves are equivocal about whether they should be materialistic. Whether they should work and get paid for it. Whether they should be consultants and entrepreneurs – people working in enterprise, people pursuing professions. And once you get a people thoroughly confused about a basic question like that, how are you to have social progress? When the culture says, that to be a real Aboriginal is to abjure materialism?

Finally, trauma. There is a terrible history of trauma. And there is a present, swamped with trauma. But I have some real reservations about constructing trauma as a massive interpretation of our challenge, especially historic trauma. I have to believe that people can rise above historic trauma – otherwise we lose agency andwe’re defeated by history. I have to push back on too much attribution to the past to people’s present struggles. That may just be a kind of policy and leadership convenience, but I don’t think so. I’ve witnessed people who went through horrible trauma in their own lives, but who have rebuilt families – they worked, they gave meaning to their lives and they rebuilt their families. And there is a tremendous solace in work, and in activity. And in going about life, notwithstanding history. I always use in my example, that whatever the scars and the burdens that people coming out of the Holocaust suffered, they nevertheless endured and they laid the foundations for their families. And I therefore lament too much preoccupation with

historical explanations for current predicaments. Because I just see too much acquiescence and submission to history. And a loss of agency in the present.

Having said that, it is the trauma of the present, and of recent history, that most engages me. In one of our communities in Cape York Peninsula, Aurukun, the Queensland government of the day in 1985 forced that community to accept a canteen selling alcohol. The community had resisted for years and years, in surveys and plebiscites in community, the introduction of that canteen. The ladies didn’twant it, the elders didn’t want it, the leaders didn’t want it, but for Russ Hinze as the Local Government Minister, it was a very easy equation. And that equation was a community who received millions of dollars of unemployment payments, and the canteen was the means by which you could convert those benefits into local government dollars for the Council to run its affairs. Literally, the kidneys and livers and the bodies of the Wik people, became the means for the laundering of Commonwealth funds and turning them into operational funds for Russ Hinzes’newly formed local government. And 20 years later, that disaster was never arrested. Peter Sutton, in a book about all of this called ‘The Politics of Suffering’,shows there was only one homicide on the southern side of 1985 and there have been dozens ever since. There was no suicide prior to 1985, but there have been dozens ever since. And we educate in a very helpful school that we have established, that we’ve taken over the running of in the last five years, some really beautifulgreen shoots of hope in the primary school at Aurukun, nevertheless the challenge we now face is 20 years of brutal trauma, occasioned by the growth and untrammelled alcohol binge. We had to fight with the Beattie government to introduce alcohol restrictions. We urged the government to restrict alcohol to our communities. There is now a cycle – the parents of the children at our school now are parents who are very damaged and we have cycles of offending and abusive children and so on that are very well established now, and it is hard to see how we are going to break those cycles, when in the past we didn’t have that as a major challenge.

Finally in terms of addressing this structure and behaviour challenge, we proposed welfare reform. We have undertaken reform of welfare – we think unconditional support for people, where they don’t have to do anything about their livelihood, is destructive. It unravels people. It unravels families. We resist bitterly the idea that welfare is a right. What kind of right is that? To live at the bottom of Australia! How can you say to me that we have a right to welfare, when in fact you’re telling me we have a right to continue to live in misery and disadvantage? What we do have a right to is a fair place in Australia, with a fair share of the country! We have a right to a job! We have a right to material advantage! We have a right to participate in the opportunities of the country. Don’t tell me we have a right to $15,000 a year down at the bottom. And yet that is what the culture tells us. All of these middle class people, with good salaries and good homes and children attending good schools are telling my mob that we have got a right to live at the bottom. That is why we have been so vehement in relation to welfare reform. We don’t think life on the safety net should be our lot.

Secondly, we have to confront empowerment in our relations with government. The 3% mouse of indigenous Australia when trying to contend with the 97% elephant –the elephant is always treating the mouse as mendicant – it’s a structural and a democratic problem. No amount of political representation and indigenous people being involved in the bureaucratic and power structures of the county will resolve that democratic problem. The 3% can never really get the 97% elephant to behave in a way that treats the mouse with dignity as citizens. The elephant will always treat the 3% mouse as some kind of sideline mendicant. We’ve got to solve the problem because at the moment, the 97% elephant is spending $33 billion per annum on behalf of the mendicant mouse and in reality, the way that the money plays out is that the elephant has organised a great number of industries that employ the elephants in delivering. We now have multinational corporations that deliver work for the dole programs in communities painting rocks. We’ve outsourced all of the functions of government to private and not for profit organisations, hardly any of them indigenous, because we’ve constructed an industry, a major industry around indigenous disadvantage. There’s got to be empowerment, we need to sit at a table

with government with equal power, particularly concerning the things that relate to our futures and our lives. And the Australian democracy at the moment does not accommodate that. I have about as much leverage as any indigenous person can have with government and the few solutions we get through hammering and exhortation and trickery and cajoling and every other tool we employ can’t yield all of the solutions that are needed. We need government to work as a matter of course to support indigenous people like they do other citizens. We’ve got to confront the need for structural empowerment of indigenous Australian communities so that they can take charge of their destinies and take responsibility for their lives.

And finally, a key part of the solution is constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. This is a debate that is now upon us. I just urge Australians in particular to account for the fact that had we properly accounted for indigenous people at the time of Federation, there were more indigenous people than there were in Tasmania at the time of Federation and in the power carve up in 1901, the Tasmanian’s got twelve senators – how many did indigenous Australia get? Had the indigenous people in the Northern Territory been given an equal provisioning to the provisioning made for those minorities like Western Australia and Tasmania, there would have been Senate places allocated for people in the Northern Territory. Equal to the other jurisdictions. But of course as we all know, indigenous peoples were excluded from the Federal compact in 1901. We weren’t even considered as citizens. I was born a non-­­citizen. My first two years of life I was not an Australian citizen and the 1967 referendum that answered that problem, perpetuated an old problem –which is that rather than including us as citizens of Australia, the Commonwealth was conferred the power to make laws in relation to our race. We were characterised as members of a race and I think over time we’ve come to realise how fatal that was, because all of the baggage of the idea that indigenous people form a special race, a different race of people to others, has been attached to the idea of being indigenous. To be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has been a perpetuation of the idea that they are a special race.

The reforms that are being sought in the Constitution to recognise indigenous Australians finally and properly will include an abandonment of the idea of race. There are no separate races – we are one human race – we’ve just got to recognise that indigenous peoples are the original indigenous peoples of this land. My message to the rest of Australia in confronting this whole question of indigenous recognition is that many practical benefits will flow from this recognition. It will be a psychological liberation for indigenous Australians to finally abandon the idea that we are a separate race. We are citizens as the rest of the country, yes, we have a special place as being descended from the original indigenous people of the continent, but that is not a racial category and as well as the psychological benefits of doing that, I believe that many practical benefits will also flow. My message to white Australians who naturally resist an amendment to our constitutional arrangements – I have to say that my message to them is that you know, this is our country – we’ve reached a point in our history where the original peoples of this country have to say to the rest of the country, this is our country too and we have to make arrangements to reflect that.

Thank you.


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