Half the 21st century has gone and with it the dreams of a separatist movement which won its independence from the country formerly known as Australia. The rationale was a fervent and fashionable belief that Indigenous ills were all the white man’s doing. Reality remained unpersuaded
The scene is a cabinet meeting of the Central Government of the Sovereign State of Aboriginalia which gained independence from the Commonwealth of Australia in 2015 for all the land north of latitude 16 — the line that runs from Cape Tribulation to Lake Argyle. The President calls the meeting to order and requests each minister to report on the current state of his/her portfolio.
The Attorney General:
We need to be brutally honest about our current financial position. In essence our trade balance is unacceptable – there is no other word for it. While our mineral and energy resources brought in substantial capital funds when we sold our mining leases to the Chinese and our gas fields to the Americans, virtually all that capital has now been spent on social services. Our projected capacity to value-add our primary production has not materialised due to the lack of motivation and low productivity of our workforce, whose prime occupation appears to be inter-clan rivalry and regional conflict.
When we agreed to go it alone financially in our Sovereignty agreement, the high hopes we had of a workforce committed to the common good appear to have been unrealistic. Had we known this, we would probably have settled for remaining in the Commonwealth of Australia — an option to which I propose we revert, admitting that our experiment in Sovereign governance has failed.
In our nation-building efforts, we’d all be aware that, politically, we are a divided people. Like other democracies we have our equivalent of Left and Right, progressive and conservative elements, which in our case represent modern and traditional worldviews. Each portfolio is required to balance its political response to new initiatives, against the requirements of the real economy and future well-being. To this extent it is informative to analyse in some detail, the number of talented individuals who opted to remain Australian. In essence, the vast majority of mixed-parentage, tertiary-educated achievers decided to forego our offer of new leadership positions. In hindsight we should have done our homework in human capital before we were so insistent on Sovereignty. Our optimism about the future will require the patience of Job, if we are to bide our time for a generation of new professionals to emerge from our university. In summary, I believe that we shall have to rely on skilled guest immigrants for some time yet, if our professional services are to function at an acceptable level.
Our financial situation is rather weak, due mainly to three factors: low tax revenue, high social service costs and failure of our export market stream. As mentioned by my colleague, the fundamental weakness of our economic system is low individual productivity. In hindsight, our people’s blinding desire for Sovereign self-rule neglected a realistic estimation of our capacity for responsible citizenship. As a result, the miniscule proportion of the population paying taxes comes nowhere near required government revenue to provide schools, hospitals and necessary infrastructure.
In hindsight, selling our mineral resources and our best irrigated land to overseas interests was our fundamental economic mistake. Had those funds been sequestrated in a Future Fund, measured investments could have been drawn from the interest. This would have provided a secure, if modest, source of funds for essential services. Under present circumstances, I have to agree with my colleague that re-entry to the Commonwealth of Australia may yet offer our best hope for survival as a people, at least as a last resort.
Minister for Social Services:
Initially, our government actually believed that having our own non-discriminatory civil service would overcome the decades of disadvantage we’d suffered as a dispossessed people. Unfortunately it’s now clear that nepotism and corruption have taken such a toll on our community services that desired equity has become even more elusive than before.
Excuse my for saying so, but on all the accumulating evidence, we have to admit that our traditional primacy of family and clan has negated the equity inherent in the democratic process. In essence, we lack an appreciation of the common good. Having observed that these unfair, and often illegal, processes cause anger and despair, I have to say that unless this element of tribalism is excised from governance, we probably have no future as a nation. I recommend we give ourselves ten more years to develop a proper democracy, and if by that time we are still no better than a banana republic, we renegotiate our relations with the Australian nation. Meanwhile. I shall temper my optimism with evidence-based realism.
Minister for Employment:
You all appreciate that it is not easy for me to admit that our unemployment rate of 30% is at the heart of our national situation. It was assumed that the resources sector would provide the bulk of our employment, but when the conditions of sale of our minerals, energy and fertile soils failed to stipulate an Indigenous labour force, massive unemployment followed. Why did we not foresee that the Asian buyers would not only employ their people but produce all their required food and services themselves? With no demand for our labour or produce, a potential driver of our economy becme a drain. Over time, our skilled workers sought employment over the border, back in Australia. This self-selecting brain-drain has left us bereft of entrepreneurs and go-getters, the very corps of Aboriginalians we’d relied on to drive our economy. I recommend a complete re-consideration of our labour relations with Australia, and a total re-think of our Unemployment Payment Scheme.
Minister for Education:
We are to be congratulated on the way in which we have made full use of the educational facilities bequeathed to us on gaining Sovereignty. However, our progress has been patchy. In Cape York and the Gulf, primary and secondary schooling proudly holds its own in international comparisons. In the Central, Kimberley and Arnhemland regions schooling has fallen behind external benchmarks. The reasons for this are several-fold, primarily related to a tradition which prioritises culture above modern capacity.
On gaining Sovereignty we had high hopes of modernising, of leaving behind the less useful elements of our culture. I have to admit that we completely underestimated the persistence of the ‘culture vultures’ whose resilient demands for priority of language, tradition, ancestral respect and Indigenous knowledge appear to have found widespread favour, especially in the remote communities. Looking back, we made a mistake when we acknowledged the right of our only university to re-emphasise Indigenous identity in its curriculum at the expense of promoting a modern internationally-aware outlook which prepared graduates for the real world.
The intellectuals responsible have a lot to answer for, but we, as a responsible government, must also admit our complicity in this disservice to our youth. This uncompetitive retreat into antiquity may give comfort to the traditionalists but until we are competent and confident enough to compete in the real economy, we shall forever remain a quaint anthropological backwater. It is precisely for this reason that virtually all our best and brightest vote with their feet when deciding where they want to be educated. It was clear long ago that our ill-founded system of dozens of bush high schools was never going to compete with city boarding schools in terms of cost effectiveness or efficiency in modern education. On the plus side, we have managed to overcome the debilitating effects of students missing for weeks at a time when traditional parents insisted they attend frequent ‘sorry business’ and other district ceremonies. In this and several other issues affecting our values, we owe an apology to the late Noel Pearson whose views were ahead of ours and brought unfounded criticism from our traditionalists.
By the way, we may not have noticed that our university hasn’t drawn a single overseas student from OECD countries. There is a message for us in this fact. Looking back, it is hard to deny that we have wasted 35 years of potential educational progress simply because of our strange over-emphasis on cultural identity. I intend to hold an educational summit at which the effectiveness of curriculum and its relation to syllabus will be debated. From this I intend to construct a modern base on which to move our nation into the contemporary world.
The Minister for Health:
We are descended from a fit, resilient people adapted to a harsh environment. When Sovereignty was eventually won, many of our people opted not to join us in Aboriginalia. This was their choice – but they may have had a message for us in our brave new world. It has long been fashionable to blame others for our poor health, and to an extent that was true. However, in a new country we have nobody but ourselves to blame if obesity, diabetes, alcoholism and smoking remain at unacceptable levels, far higher than international norms. In health we observed the ultimate lack of individual responsibility, particularly among males.
Three decades of awareness campaigns to alert our people to health hazards have largely fallen on deaf ears. Our contract researchers suggest that the fundamental cause of poor health is the apparent unwillingness of individuals to recognise and accept that new roles and behaviours are essential changes from outmoded norms. Clearly, we were naive when we expected Sovereignty to be the vehicle for our people to leave the whiteman’s vices behind us. Alcoholism may not have been part of our original culture, but domestic violence and child abuse are even worse than before.
In summary, there is no way that our health workers can win their battle while ever-childish, irresponsible adults set the standards. The solution cannot come from external assistance to our people, it has to come from within. One researcher has suggested that at the time of Sovereignty there was an unconscious but significant self-election in our new nation’s gene pool, leaving us with a predominance of traditionalists, unwilling to face the personal challenge of the real economy. Clearly, at our current health status, productivity and competitiveness will remain at unacceptable levels. Without a fundamental change in values, our future is bleak and will lead to further emigration over our southern border.
I have to say that faith in traditional medicine, even in sorcery, have proven to be considerably more persistent than our Health Services had presumed. It can be argued that this persistence has been strengthened by failure of our modern services to persuade our people that Western medicine has the answers. Perhaps that is why several languages refer to our hospitals as ‘the place you go to die’. Clearly there are some ailments we are failing to overcome and there are some bush medicines which alleviate some conditions.
In truth, the answer lies in lifestyle not in pills, a situation well understood by our medicos who are well aware that they’re presently waging a losing battle.
The Minister for Industry and Science:
This portfolio was originally regarded as a potential driver of our emerging economy. Looking back we probably have to admit that our available human capital fell short of what our nation required. Today we have to face the fact that we have virtually no Indigenous industries beside beef and some fruit. At the same time, tourism has been reasonably successful, although unreliable bookings and transport, combined with an unfortunate decrease in personal security, may be responsible for reduced bookings.
With our world-class scenery, rare wildlife and unique culture, we have the potential to make tourism a major income source. This won’t happen until global standards of service and security are met. As for Science aspect of my portfolio, if I’m to be frank with you, we don’t have any of our own science. What science we do have is concentrated in our partners, Asian and American agriculture and mining. Tertiary intake of science students remains well below what our nation’s innovation program requires.
The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries:
Our agriculture made a promising start once we convinced the landholders that food production was no longer women’s work. Our plans for irrigated fruit, vegetables and cereals held great potential as our national bread-basket. Unfortunately our business plans could not be brought to fruition without an efficient workforce. We wrongly assumed that the old problem of insufficient will to work would be left behind when we moved out of the old work-for-the-dole era.
The Asian advisors we hired to develop the production schemes, built their models on Asian standards of output for workers. They offered to take all our products in excess of local demand at global prices, but within the first decade they realised that there were problems — not with capital, process or markets, but with labour-availability and productivity. It didn’t take long for the Chinese, in particular, to realise that they could make these schemes profitable in short order with their own labour. We rejected their initial requests to employ guest workers, but eventually we couldn’t resist the significant offer they made to both purchase the irrigable land and employ their countrymen on special long-term visas. In the process we lost control of production, markets and prices of our own food potential. On the positive side we have managed to keep control of an Indigenous beef industry, but only of the ranching sector; the feedlots sector is completely dominated by Asians who integrate it into their sorghum and hay production.
On the applied-science front we probably made a mistake by putting so much of our funds into Indigenous Science, as we designated it. This emphasis was no doubt politically motivated, and it seemed a natural extension of the previous Desert Knowledge hub. But it has since become clear that there are serious limits to the extent to which Indigenous Knowledge can carry us into the future. Unfortunately our present education system makes almost zero impact on our scientific manpower. The Japanese are keen to help in scientific training and research. Meanwhile, we recognise that even without any further research, we can greatly improve our standard of living by simply applying what is already known. Knowledge is not the limiting factor; human capacity-building is what is required. We are still a long way from becoming an egalitarian meritocracy, although that must be our ongoing goal.
Minister for Community and Family:
Initially, many of our communities weren’t real communities at all. And, yes, we can be proud of the way in which some of the newer communities have progressed from dysfunction, especially in their schooling and general lifestyles. Families remain the essential social unit, but there is a greater tendency toward the nuclear family and away from the very extended traditional family, with all its drag on individual entrepreneurism. Together with this revaluing of personal initiative has come an emerging appreciation of education and the start of a realisation that parental role models are key to generational progress. As a proud new nation, our emphasis on Indigenous identity precluded our recognition that our loss of human diversity leaves a dangerous vacuum in our cultural richness.
It has taken us two decades to recognise the significance of the complete absence of immigration into our country. We need to ask ourselves why this is, why do even desperate refugees avoid us as their new home? The answer may be unpalatable, but we need to heed the message: Our lifestyle and community norms favour urban dwellers, but half our people are still in the bush, where we really can’t service them cost-effectively. Luckily the insistence on living on clan country has diminished over time as new generations recognise the disadvantages of bush life, although in Arnhemland and the Kimberley, traditional bush living still hangs on. This is one of the reasons that family nepotism still dominates Shire Council allocations and Big Men are still able to intimidate the vulnerable with their humbugging.
As a result, violence is still too high in some communities, although pre-Sovereignty dysfunction has probably improved. We can take some comfort from the fact that we are not alone in suffering alcohol-fuelled violence, which together with drug use and comparatively poor education outcomes, still plagues our southern neighbour. The answer to social dysfunction lies in the community-wide commitment to education. At the same time, unless we create many more meaningful jobs, our brain drain will continue.
The Minister for Arts, Culture and Sport:
First, the good news: sport continues to play a vital role in recreation and social cohesion. By and large our national teams give a good account of themselves, especially in the major sports, despite the poaching of our elite performers by southern talent scouts. We shall continue to improve sporting facilities, but this becomes very expensive when hundreds of small remote communities expect equity with their urban competitors.
In the arts, many practitioners continue to earn a reasonable income from their works, despite what appears to be a saturation of the market down south. We seem to have lost our monopoly on authentic Aboriginal art, due partly to a loss of legal protection under recent legislation. As a result, the day of the dot paintings may be over, which means that without an innovative new style, we may lose our earlier advantage. On the cultural front we may have finally learned that the place and role of culture and tradition in a modern nation is vastly different from the outdated reverence for ‘culturally appropriate’ limitations on entrepreneurship.
I have to say that the Culture Division of my portfolio has been the most problematic. While we all appreciate the role of culture in giving our people cohesion and a sense of belonging, this Indigenous-identity concept has had a serious effect on productivity and wealth generation. You will remember that early in our Sovereignty we officially discontinued the use of the term’s ‘Indigenous’, ‘First People’, ‘Aboriginal’, refering to ourselves as citizens of Aboriginalia. This was after we considered the suggested national name of North Australia, which many in commerce thought promised clear economic advantages, as with South Korea, South Africa and the new South Sudan.
It took over a decade for our people to realise that cultural pride and its attendant emphasis on ceremonies, corroborees, funerals, initiations and secret business, was nurturing a mindset which demotivated individuals in their efforts to progress to entrepreneurial initiative, as noted earlier by two of my colleagues. What’s needed now is a serious re-evaluation of the ‘dis-benefits’, if you will, of allowing our culture to define us. For this reason I am establishing a Commission into the Role of Culture in the socio-economics of Aboriginalia. This will be an independent investigation led by very experienced sociological researchers from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but including three of our own people. I understand from the Attorney-General that a similar panel is envisaged to look into the role of Traditional Law in our modern nation state. I welcome this initiative and I look forward to positive outcomes from both of these long overdue investigations.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence:
I welcome this opportunity to announce that our membership of United Nations has been used to real advantage in putting our case for free trade to our global partners. The de-emphasising of human rights, which was our historic focus at United Nations, has been replaced by new emphasis on self-sufficiency and a sustainable-population strategies.
Since our inability to blame-shift our social inequities to another jurisdiction has brought a renewed internal responsibility to our Sovereign government, we have reassessed our equity policies. At the UN we are still classified as a Developing Country, based on income per capita and GNP. We are continuously working toward recognition as a Developed Country, assessed largely in terms of trade and productivity, but we have a long way to go, as you’d be aware. While it pains me to admit it, the recent big drought, following the equally devastating floods, gave us no option but to apply to the UN for aid. While this damaged our image globally, it demonstrated again how fragile our national economy is. It brought home shortcomings of our earlier agreements on resource exploitation with our overseas partners. As mentioned by my colleague, we now recognise that we were unduly persuaded by the offer to build transport, health and education infrastructure by our development partners. As a result, our trade balance is still very much Third World. Fortunately many of our mining agreements were issued only as 99-year leases, not outright sales, but still that is a very long wait to regain the rights to what should be our main source of wealth.
On border protection, I am Minister of Defence in name only, since Australia has maintained responsibility for our Coast Guard. It is common knowledge that refugee boats now regularly bypass us and head to the Geraldton and Townsville coasts. Other aspects of the Defence portfolio concern Indonesian ambitions and the re-location of US facilities to Australia. The almost insolvable population/space problems facing Indonesia explain their repeated requests for new land-settlement arrangements. We remain very wary of this, having learned hard lessons from our Chinese agreements concerning agricultural land.
Our resources position is of course limited by the way our southern border was determined, supposedly on dominant Indigenous population grounds, but in practice also on location of mineral and energy resource deposits. This is why the Kimberley was much more contested than the Central and Gulf divisions. Still, we came out of it with substantial base metal and gold reserves, which we’ll have to exploit much more judiciously than we did initially, when our appreciation of long-term partner benefits left a lot to be desired. We won’t make that mistake again.
The Minister for Justice:
Overall our justice system is functioning at a reasonable level, although our efforts to lower juvenile incarceration have not really succeeded. When we seceded from Australia we were determined to overcome the previous high jail population and number of deaths in custody. The root cause of our high crime rate remains the combination of low community norms and the meaningless lives of poorly educated and unemployed youth.
As was found by the previous Australian Enquiry into Indigenous Deaths in Custody, we also find that the death rate in our custody is no higher than in our community at large. There is a message in this.
As to the rate of incarceration, no progress is expected until parental control and education improve. Our magistrates courts continue to function reasonably effectively, but non-appearance and interference of witnesses has a significant influence on the percentage of guilty findings. Nobody admits to bribery of police and magistrates, but our low level of pressing charges and gaining appropriate decisions on punishment, suggests that we are still a long way from operating an honest system.
There is little doubt that traditional family pressure is often at work on enforcement officers when offenders are apprehended. To counter this we are introducing a system in which officers are only transferred to locations far removed from their clan country. For our High Court and Appeal Court, we are relying entirely on international judges, having learned early on from both our own experience and that of our PNG and Indonesian neighbours, that justice and politics don’t mix. This is also true of law-makers whose job in drafting necessary, but unpopular, regulations is continuously being interfered with by politicians from both major parties.
I thank you one and all for your frank assessments of progress in each portfolio. Perhaps the new honesty on our actual position requires time for reflection on my part before I respond, but there are a few home-truths which come to mind right away and, with your indulgence, I’d like to come back after lunch to consider a few of the building blocks which I believe require attention at an early date.
Many of you may feel it’s a waste of time looking back at what might have been, but I believe that by doing so we gain fresh insight into our present challenges. As for our Sovereign status, we have several options:
First, we can follow the curent path and focus on developing our economy and society as a truly autonomous Sovereign nation state, as we have been for several decades.
Second, we can seek a union with neighbours beyond our present British Commonwealth membership. Third, we can re-negotiate our relationship to Australia. Obviously we prefer to retain our present form of Sovereignty, which would keep us aligned with the Pacific and African states of the Commonwealth. Free trade with the more prosperous member states — the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia — would benefit our trade balance, but that would require considerably greater productivity than we presently achieve.
A union with close northern neighbour states probably holds less advantage for us than for them, at least as far as Indonesia and PNG are concerned, both of which have impending food-production and population challenges. That leaves re-negotiation with Australia as probably our best option if we are to avoid ‘failed state’ status. I’m not suggesting we are anywhere near that position at present, but we need to be realistic about our record since secession.
Whether Australia would be willing to consider having us back, which would include buying out the current 99-year lease-holders, is a moot point.
Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow