Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration: Noel Pearson

Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration: Noel Pearson

Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration


Noel Pearson

McLaurin Hall
The University of Sydney 25 October 2001

Thank you Vice Chancellor and thank you to the indigenous people of Sydney for welcoming us here this evening.

The Perkins Family have extended to me a very great honour in inviting me to speak in this inaugural oration in memory of their late father, at the university of his youth. I thank Mrs Eileen Perkins, Hetti, Rachel and Adam for this privilege and wish the family, the University of Sydney and the Koori Centre all of the best for the future.

Charles Perkins was for me and for generations of Aboriginal people across this country, a since-childhood inspiration. I was in the middle of Primary School at Hope Vale Lutheran Mission (as it then was known) in the mid 1970s when I was galvanised by the book cover shown to our class by the school principal, A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins. The shock and the pride that I felt in his Aboriginal defiance has stayed with me through my life.

I was glad to make his friendship late in his life. He was a source of support and guidance to me in my hardest times. There was a lot of laughter too.

I remember wandering around the corridors during my bachelor studies here in the 1980s and thinking about my more illustrious and infinitely more dynamic predecessor at this university in the 1960s. These corridors of opportunity were for me miserable, lonely and anonymous and a far cry from the history of student political activism and leadership of Charles Perkins.

Of the contribution that Charles Perkins made to Australian society and history in the late twentieth century, I take his political fearlessness most to heart. It is his example of fearlessness that I aspire to follow tonight, because I believe that Australian policies concerning the life expectancy of Aboriginal people are grievously wrong. The life expectancy deficit of Aboriginal Australians as compared to the wider community –which is currently more than two decades – will not decrease with our current policies, and is likely to increase. Neither of the political parties contending for office at the forthcoming election have made the changes in thinking that are necessary for Aboriginal people to turn around our social disaster. Both contenders continue to be half right in the policies that they are prepared to advocate. To simplify the policy contrast: the Australian Labor Party will be strong and correct in their policies in favour of the rights of Aboriginal people – particularly land rights and native title – and they will be weak and wrong in relation to the breakdown of responsibility in Aboriginal society occasioned by passive welfare dependency, substance abuse and our resulting criminal justice predicaments. The Coalition will better understand the problems of responsibility but will be antipathetic and wrong in relation to the rights of Aboriginal people: they advocate further diminution of the native title property rights of Aboriginal Australians.

I marvel that neither side of this indulgent political divide in Australian politics can see that what is needed is for the rights favoured by the ALP to be added to the responsibilities that are understood by the Coalition. But the major parties will insist on their indulgences despite the fact that the cost of their policy and political failure will be disproportionately borne by the black vulnerable: the children, the women and the elderly.

In my critique of prevalent Aboriginal policies over the past 30 years, I of course do not discredit or disavow the great achievements that have been made in the area of Aboriginal rights and recognition in this period. There have been great many achievements, not the least in the fight against formal discrimination – a fight towards which Charles Perkins made a decisive contribution. So let me not be misunderstood: the struggle for these rights was heroic and correct and their achievements were great advances for Aboriginal people and for the nation.

The question that we have to confront is this: why has a social breakdown accompanied this advancement in the formal rights of our people, not the least the restoration of our homelands to our people? Aboriginal families and communities now often live on their homelands, in very much flasher housing and infrastructure than decades ago – but with a much diminished quality of life, such that commentators familiar with theseremote communities increasingly call them „outback ghettoes?. Indeed this social breakdown afflicts with equal vehemence those Aboriginal peoples who have never been dispossessed of their lands and who retain their classical traditions, cultures and languages.

Let me pose the question in the broader context of the past 30 years and ask why during the period of indigenous policy enlightenment and recognition and despite billions of dollars and much improved housing and infrastructure and government services, there has been a corresponding social deterioration. What is the explanation for this paradoxical result?

Maybe we should confront the possibility that the policy analysis and recommendations that have informed the past 30 years of deterioration may have been wrong. Our refusal to confront this possibility is a testament to the degree to which we will insist on our ideological indulgences ahead of diminishing social suffering.

Let me now set out my own explanation of this strangeness in our national Aboriginal policies. It is an explanation that I have been articulating and thinking about over recent years and they focus on our economic condition – namely, our circumstance of overwhelming dependency on passive welfare. I am in fact greatly indebted to the late Charles Perkins for my ruminations about our economic situation: he understood and articulated the problems for our people caused by our lack of a real economic base, very many years earlier. Passive welfare was a scourge which he urged our people to move beyond – and he was completely forthright with our people in relation to this, He was, patently, correct. I have also been reflecting on the insights of the late Mervyn Gibson from my hometown who first spoke to me about how grog had insinuated itself into our Aboriginal culture, and I have been assisted in my understanding by the analyses of substance abuse epidemics by the late Swedish Professor, Nils Bejerot.

Why are my people disintegrating, and why are we unable to do anything about it? I will go straight to the core of the matter and talk about addiction and substance abuse.

Our worst mistake is that we have not understood the nature of substance abuse. I maintain a fundamental objection to the prevailing analysis of substance abuse amongst our people. The prevailing analysis is that substance abuse and addiction is asymptom of underlying social and personal problems. According to the symptom theory we must help people deal with the reasons that have seen them become addicted to various substances. According to this theory we must address the “underlying issues” if we are to abolish substance abuse. The severe substance abuse in Aboriginal communities is said to have been caused by immense ingrained trauma, trans- generational grief, racism, dispossession, unemployment, poverty and so on.

But the symptom theory of substance abuse is wrong. Addiction is a condition in its own right, not a symptom. Substance abuse is a psychosocially contagious epidemic and not a simple indicator or function of the level of social and personal problems in a community. Five factors are needed for an outbreak of substance abuse: (i) the substance being available (ii) spare time (iii) money (iv) the example of others in the immediate environment and (v) a permissive social ideology. If these five factors are present, substance abuse can spread rapidly among very successful people as well as marginalised people.

Of course substance abuse originally got a foothold in our communities because many people were bruised by history and likely to break social norms. The grog and drug epidemics could break out because personal background and underlying factors made people susceptible to trying addictive substances. But when a young person (or an older non-addict) is recruited to the grog and drug coteries today the decisive factor is the existence of these epidemics themselves, not his or her personal background. And for those who did begin using an addictive substance as an escape from a shattered life and from our history, treating those original causes will do little (if indeed you can do anything about those original causes). The addiction is in itself a much stronger force than any variation in the circumstances of the addict.

There are two insights here that I want to reiterate. First, at this advanced stage of the grog and drug epidemics it is not a breach of social norms to begin with substance abuse. It follows that we cannot divert young people away from substance abuse. No matter how much money and effort we spend on alternative activities, drug free activities can never compete with the more exciting drug-induced experiences for young people’s attention, because all hesitation about the appropriateness of an abusive lifestyle is long since gone. Good living conditions and meaningful activities might, under normal circumstances, make non-addicts less susceptible to trying drugs and thus help in preventing outbreaks of substance abuse epidemics. Diversionary measures can only prevent substance abuse epidemics, not cure them once they are underway. Second, even under optimal circumstances, life is difficult and full of conflict. No matter what we do, we can never make life so good that an addict voluntarily leaves her or his antisocial lifestyle and joins us in our struggle for a better future. The addict has already shown that he or she loves the effects of the substance abuse more than his or her own land, people, family and children. We can never convince an addict to quit by offering a materially and socially better life including land rights, infrastructure, work, education, loving care, voluntary rehabilitation and so on. The addict will just use all these material and human resources to facilitate an abusive lifestyle.

We must understand that trauma, dispossession et cetera make our communitiessusceptible to grog and drug epidemics, they do not automatically cause abusive behaviour. Of course a high number of people who are susceptible to turning to

different kinds of abuse is, in an indirect way, a causal factor that might contribute to an outbreak of a substance abuse epidemic. But, I repeat for the third time, this fact has led to two fatal logical errors in our efforts to understand the current social disaster. Addiction is a condition in its own right and it is just as difficult to do anything about an addiction if you are a socially and economically strong white professional that became addicted through careless drinking of exquisite wines, as if you are an unemployed member of a decimated and dispossessed Aboriginal tribe. We must understand that an established addiction is a very strong force at the heart of the will of the addict and independent of the historical causes of the first voluntary consumption of the addictive substance. Trying to undo the past and to solve present difficulties such as unemployment has no impact on an active substance abuser’s addiction and lifestyle; the addiction and the consumption must be confronted head on and immediately.

Progressivist people will now claim that Noel Pearson is giving the Federal and State governments an excuse to cut spending (or avoid increasing spending) on programs that address “Aboriginal disadvantage”. But I have never disputed the governments’ responsibility to provide funds, and this is not what I’m discussing anyway. I merely observe that the programs that have been proposed in order to improve the living conditions for indigenous Australians will have little or no impact on the substance abuse epidemics. Furthermore, the proposed programs will not achieve what they are intended to achieve (better infrastructure and health, economic development, less violence and so on) if there is no realistic plan for curing the substance abuse epidemics.

More surprising than our (understandable and excusable) mistaken view that a troubled person’s historical legacy maintains the addiction and must be dealt with if the abusive behaviour is to cease, is our blindness to the fact that today, when strong people who have struggled to take responsibility for our families and communities, and young, not traumatised people get sucked into the most foolish and destructive behaviours imaginable, history is irrelevant not only in the treatment of the addiction, but also increasingly irrelevant as an explanation for the first experimenting with addictive substances. When abusive behaviour is deeply entrenched in our communities it is not the material destitution, the social ills and historical legacy that fuel the abuse epidemics. It is the epidemics that perpetuate themselves.

And these epidemics cannot be cured with our current policies, which are based on voluntary rehabilitation and clinical care. An addict may be willing to deal with the addiction after many years of abuse, when the social, medical and economic problems become annoying. In fact this is the usual pattern of people “giving up grog” in our communities. After a health scare and a “last warning” from a doctor, a middle-aged drinker will stop drinking. But by this time he or she is likely to have ruined his or her health irreparably and in any case, will have caused a lot of damage in his or her community prior to giving up, by making life miserable for family and community members, and by recruiting more people to addiction.

This last point is an important insight. It is mainly during the first part of his or her career that an addict spreads the abusive behaviour, not when he or she has become a social invalid. There is a whole literature about how addicts have been helped after decades of abuse. It is of course good if people manage to stop abusive behaviour, but if our policies are restricted to offering help to addicts we will get nowhere. We might reduce the prevalence (the number of active abusers) marginally but not the incidence (the number of new cases in a certain period of time). And if we are unable to reduce

the incidence because we have no efficient methods for influencing the behaviour of the addicts that are spreading the abuse, and the people just about to be recruited, we will not curb the epidemics.

Put it this way: today people begin abusing grog and drugs in our communities because other people do. And if “underlying issues” make somebody start drinking or using drugs, the most important “underlying issue” today is the chaos caused by the grog and drug epidemics. And if trying addictive substances is a symptom of bad or chaotic circumstances, an established addiction is not; changing the circumstances will not cure addiction, and hence not stop abusive behaviour.

This analysis is of course a simplification; our history and our exclusion from mainstream society have not become irrelevant factors. But these generalisations are more valid than the symptom theory. Unfortunately, symptom theory thinking underpins much of what influential Australians say and do:

The President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Kerryn Phelps, recently told the ABC:

“I think if we look at the despair, the hopelessness, the social dislocation of some of these Aboriginal communities, it is little wonder, that there are substance abuse problems. And I think that unless we actually address the infrastructure, things like adequate and appropriate housing, education for children, hope for jobs and for a future, for employment, and health services, that people will continue to look at ways of feeling better and that might be abusing substances.

We are lending support to the efforts for a treaty because I believe that that is the way that we can ensure an obligation by government to fulfil the rights of indigenous people.”

And the federal Labor Party’s official policy on drugs states as follows:

“We need to address the social causes of drug taking in an effort to reduce thedemand for drugs. We have to discover why some people view drug use as a means of coping with the pressures of life, and why for some drug dependency becomes a way of life… Labor believes that the long term answer to drug use is to build stronger families and more supportive communities to help people when they have personal and emotional difficulties that make them vulnerable toadopting addictive behaviours.”

Of course Kim Beazley doesn’t go on to suggest abolishing capitalism and creating a new society, he confines himself to building “supportive communities”. But if he thought about it he would remember that our society is in a permanent state of departure, rapid change and sometimes even crisis; we have had depression, recession, restructuring of the economy, the decline of rural Australia, the decline of the family centered around a male bread winner, the decline of the Church, economic globalisation, war and so on. The “pressures of life” and “personal and emotional difficulties” will for the foreseeable future be overwhelming compared to our ability to be “my brother’s keeper”, a question first posed by Cain in Genesis chapter 4 verse 9. He would also have understood that when “drug dependency becomes a way of life” the user is addicted and no longer displaying a symptom of not “coping with the pressures”. It is addiction itself and the substance abuse epidemics themselves that need to be attacked with mandatory drug

free treatment, and we need to remove the opportunity to choose an abusive lifestyle or continue leading one.

Substance abuse belongs to a much wider range of learnt behaviours which have incommon that they immediately trigger rewards (“highs”) which may or may not beinduced by substances foreign to the human body. The reward of abusive behaviour is instant and in the psychology of the addict linked to the consumption of the substance or other high-inducing act, but negative consequences come later and are therefore not linked to the abusive behaviour. People’s behaviour is determined by this simple conditioning: they have learnt to associate wellbeing, or absence of discomfort, with taking the “drug” (which may be immaterial), but emotionally no connection is made between the later negative consequences and taking the “drug”. The addict is thereforewilling to tolerate great misery but won?t kick his habit. Intellectually of course it is easy to realise that there is a causal connection between the drug and the problems, but intellectual insight is no match for the deeply rooted conditioning. Once we areaddicted, it doesn?t matter that the punishment becomes disproportionately largerelative to the reward.

People who talk about abuse of different kinds usually see it as a health problem (if they are progressivists) or a moral problem (if they are religious and/or conservative). But abuse epidemics are a political question. The social function of substance abuse epidemics is to make people unable to organise themselves, politically and socially. It is true as the drug liberals say that many of the negative consequences of illicit drugs (criminality, overdoses and so on) are due to the fact that the substances are expensive and of varying quality. It would be perfectly possible to make everything you can get addicted to readily available, that is add the presently illicit drugs to the endemic abuse of alcohol, nicotine, gambling and so on, give up all attempts to control the endemic abuses, and still have a functional society, but my people would probably have disappeared before the situation stabilised. I have seen to my surprise and horror how large groups of “normal”, functional people who took responsibility for families and originally were very distant from abusive behaviour, were sucked into the alcohol abuse epidemic when it gained momentum in my hometown of Hope Vale and in other communities in Cape, and other abuse epidemics are now following grog and gambling. If we let the progressivists and the libertarians win now and make harm minimisation the main social response to substance abuse, the change into a drug society would be irreversible. And our people, on the very bottom of stratified society, can least afford this policy. It is therefore a political struggle to prevent the final establishment of new abuse epidemics, and to limit by means of restrictions the damage done by the endemic addictions of Australian society such as alcohol and gambling.

The substance abuse epidemics are embedded in our Aboriginal social web and has become our new dysfunctional culture: to drink is to be Aboriginal. When you look at a drinking circle you see people who are socialising around grog. Everyone is obliged to share the money and the grog.

These social and cultural obligations are invoked at every turn by members of the drinking circle. These invocations are very heavy indeed and they most often draw upon real obligations and relationships under Aboriginal laws and customs. What – when people are not drinking but hunting – is a cultural obligation to share food with countrymen, is turned into a cultural obligation to share grog. In fact your fellow drinkers will challenge your Aboriginal identity in order to establish your obligation to contribute money to buy grog.

Outside of this drinking circle are the women and the children and old people and the non-drinkers. These non-drinkers are placed under tremendous social and cultural pressure to contribute resources to the drinking circle for buying grog. Ultimately the addicts resort to intimidation and violence.

In Cape York Peninsula we are developing plans to combat the substance abuse epidemics. There are two fundamental points that must underpin our community strategies:

The community strategy must be aimed at creating an environment which makes it more uncomfortable for substance abusers to continue with the abuse than to quit. There must be no more unconditional support if people don’t change, there must be a material cost. And, very importantly, there must be an immediate rejection of abusive behaviour by the environment, there must be a social and emotional cost.

The other main element of the strategy must be enforced treatment, because we need a cure for the current epidemic. The absolute intolerance of illicit drugs, absolute enforcement of social order, and mandatory treatment is the core of the strategy. In order to cure an epidemic there must be involuntary, mandatory and humane treatment of people who are engaged in abuse. Everything that the addicts encounter must be designed to force them into that treatment. Every law, every social norm, every action by government and community organisations, every word the addicts hear must be consciously designed with this purpose in mind.

A great mistake in our discussions has been the idea of trying to “normalise” drinkingwhen confronted with an epidemic. Given the large number of problem drinkers in our social web and the existence of the epidemic – who really believes you canincrementally reduce the problem from a, say, 80% problem down towards a “normal” 10% level? Alcoholics cannot “normalise” or “control” their drinking – they must rehabilitate and abstain.

This is the most difficult issue. Many people express the view that abstinence is not going to work as a solution – rather there must be controlled or moderate drinking.

Anybody who thinks for a moment about the problem would acknowledge that the only long-term solution for alcoholics is abstinence. There can be no “moderate” or “controlled” drinking for people who have rehabilitated from severe alcohol addiction.

And there are too many people in our society who are alcoholics – for whom abstinence is the only choice. How can this reality be dealt with if our strategy is to “normalize” drinking? We can?t normalize drinking amongst alcoholics.

The question is: what should happen with those people who are “moderate” and “controlled” drinkers and people whose drinking problem may be getting more and more out of control and may develop into alcoholism in time? We need to give further consideration, firstly, to the role of moderate drinkers in the perpetuation of the grog epidemic and, secondly, the role they could play in a strategy to overcome the problem.

It may be that we need a strategy that is aimed at supporting alcoholics with abstinence, and this may not necessarily involve long-term prohibition for a community. We could think about a period of prohibition. The (as yet undeveloped) thought is that

when a community makes a democratic decision to adopt a strategy to combat grog and drug problems – then this needs to be marked by a dramatic commitment to change the current pattern of drinking and supply.

Alcoholic drinkers and the moderate drinkers are part of the same social web. Iconstantly see moderate drinkers participating in the early “happy” stages of a drinkingsession – “I?ll have a couple of beers with my cousins” – and then leaving the heavy drinkers to the misery and violence that comes later on in the aggressive, paranoid, depressive stages.

There can be no other policy other than a complete intolerance of illicit drugs and there must be a law enforcement capacity to put this policy into effect. This is only a matter of determination and unity. We can make it impossible for the consumers to continue if we have the emotional courage to confront our own family members. And the suppliers are nothing to be afraid of. No matter how much money and violence criminals and organised crime can mobilise, the democratic state can always mobilise more money and violence.

And it goes without saying that, if we are serious about attacking these problems, it is unthinkable to have anything to do with white people who use illicit drugs or tolerate such behaviour in their families or associate with such people. Such people must be removed from our organisations and our communities must make it clear that white people involved with drugs will have to remove themselves from our land, otherwise we will have to assist them with that.

Finally, the ground we might gain in fighting substance abuse will be a difficult to defend unless we move beyond passive welfare, that is, transfers from Federal and State budgets to individuals and families without reciprocation. Before I discuss the impact of passive welfare on Indigenous Australia, I will say a few words about the welfare state generally.

In the welfare state the working taxpayers – the “mainstream” – collectively finance facilities aimed at their own wellbeing, development and security. Welfare in the wider sense does redistribute resources from richer to poorer citizens, but it also redistributes the resources of the individual over her or his own life cycle.

During the stage of the industrialised market economy when the welfare state was developing, the lower classes consisted mainly of a huge, homogeneous industrial army and their dependents. Since they lived and worked under similar conditions and were in close contact with each other, they had both the incentive and the opportunity to organise themselves into trade unions and struggle for common goals. They possessed a bargaining position through collective industrial action.

At the same time it was in the objective interest of the industrialists to ensure that the working class didn’t turn to radical ideologies, and that the workers weren’t worn down by the increasing speed and efficiency of industrial production. Health care, primary education, pensions, minimum wages, collective bargaining, and unemployment benefits created a socially stable and secure working class, competent to perform increasingly complex industrial work, and able to raise a new generation of workers.

These two factors, the organisation of the workers and the objective interest of the industrialists, produced an era of class cooperation: the welfare state. The support and

security systems of the welfare state included the overwhelming majority of the citizens. The welfare ideology predominated in Australia during the long period of bipartisan consensus founded on what Paul Kelly called “the Australian Settlement”.

But now the circumstances that gave rise to the welfare state have changed. The modern economy of the developed countries is no longer based to the same extent on industrial production by a homogeneous army of workers. The bulk of the gross domestic product is now generated by a symbol and information-handling middle class and some highly qualified workers. These qualified people have a bargaining position in the labour market because of their individual competence, whereas traditional workers are interchangeable and depend on organisation and solidarity.

The lower classes in developed countries have lost much of their political influence because of the shrinking and disorganisation of the only powerful group among them, the working class proper. The lower classes are therefore now unable to defend the welfare state. Nor is there any longer any political or economic reason for the influential strata of society to support the preservation of the welfare state.

Australian welfare state advocates have failed to answer the most critical question facing its future viability: how is the welfare state founded on the class compromise effected at the end of the C19th and the early C20th going to be maintained now that, in the new economy which has emerged, the power of organised labour is inexorably diminishing and it is no longer in the objective interest of the influential strata of society to support it? What is our answer to this question? From whence does the commitment to the welfare state come in the future?

The predicament of my mob is that not only do we face the same uncertainty as all lower class Australians, but we haven’t even benefited from the existence of the welfare state. The welfare state has meant security and an opportunity for development for many of your mob. Indeed, the University of Sydney is a great institution of the Australian welfare state. But the immersion of a whole region like Aboriginal Cape York Peninsula into dependence on passive welfare is different from the mainstream experience of welfare. What is the exception among white fellas – almost complete dependence on cash handouts from the government – is the rule for us.

Our dispossession is the ultimate cause of our passive welfare dependency. Upon our dispossession the traditional economy of our ancestors was ruptured and we were engulfed by the new economic order, in which our official and actual place until 1967 was in the underclass: quasi-slaves, workers in fact but not in status. The irony of our newly won citizenship in 1967 was that after we became citizens with equal rights and the theoretical right to equal pay, we lost the meagre foothold that we had in the real economy and we became


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