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August 18th 2014 print

Brian Roberts

In Defence of Noel Pearson

The PM's adviser on Indigenous reform has a sharp tongue and quick temper, but what his critics dislike most is his recognition that a traditionalist mindset hobbles both initiative and hope. To those who value and promote group identity above all else, that sentiment, rather than his language, is the proverbial red rag

pearsonEditor’s note: Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan has recounted a recent visit by Pearson to the paper’s newsroom, where it is said a senior editor was verbally abused with, among other taunts, an alleged threat to throw him “off the balcony.” Pearson’s sharp tongue and stormy temper are legendary — he once tipped water over a TV interviewer — and there can be no doubt he has plenty of company in the wish to tongue-lash Fairfax’s senior editorial cadre, which has done so much while the board fiddled to lay low a once sane and competent news organisation. Just how removed from the market the paper has become can be judged by the reader comments below Sheehan’s column — rabid, unhinged, paranoid and framing the subject of Pearson’s worth in terms of the left’s prevailing passions for identity, victimology, factionalism and, one guesses, jealousy.

It is not the first time Pearson has been attacked in these and similar terms. Late last year, The National Indigenous Times launched its own assault along similar lines. The essay below responds to that article (unavailable online) by Marcus Wollombi Waters. a lecturer in screenwriting at Griffith University.

UPDATE: Andrew Bolt also has his doubts about Pearson

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Pearson’s Aboriginal adversaries have long been at odds with him on several issues centred largely around an alleged willingness to subvert Aboriginal culture and tradition to mainstream multiculturalism. Pearson, in turn, has promoted individual initiative as the key to well-being, whether or not self-interest is perceived to dilute purity of clan identity. During the past decade, this form of identity politics has split the Indigenous community into the joiners and the separatists — mainstreamers and sovereigns, in other words. While the boundaries and extent of support for these polarised views are not clear-cut, this divide operates as a political reality in contemporary Australia. The fact that Pearson’s advice has been taken seriously by governments of both political persuasions puts considerable wind in the sails of the Pearson backers.

Marcus Wollombi Waters’ commentary on Pearson’s Gough Whitlam Oration begins by referencing a 20-year-old public putdown he suffered at Pearson’s hands when Waters asked about the role of traditional Aboriginal practices in his future vision. Being what he calls a ‘fair-skin Blackfella’, Waters recalls how, when answering this question, Pearson commented on Waters’ colour. Perhaps it can be assumed that Pearson was inferring that light-coloured spokespersons aren’t ‘the real McCoy’ in Aboriginal terms.

Of what does Waters accuse Pearson?

  1. His real nature is one of infallible superiority.
  2. He’s not nearly as accepted by his own mob as he is by Whitefellas, who appear to love him.
  3. Over the past twenty years he’s been at the forefront of conservative Black politics and ‘has left many people behind, who do not have the capacity to embrace his vision of the future.’
  4. He uses his public appearances to polarise his own mob, to satisfy white middle-class audiences who have always proved more loyal to his politics.
  5. He claims (at least in jest) that he and many of his generation are bourgeois, albeit with varying propensities to decadence.
  6. He denies ‘the current wrath of discrimination facing Aborigines’.
  7. He has made a career of saying what Whitefellas want to hear, giving relief when middle-class Whites feel comfortable in the presence of a Black man. (Waters finds this ‘sickening’.)
  8. He is a ‘gatekeeper’ who generates lateral violence, discrimination and alienation among Aboriginals. Such gatekeepers ‘stop your employment and surround themselves with hapless cronies to keep the visionaries out and the moderation and acceptance flowing’. These gatekeepers have caused identity and culture to be replaced with ‘agency’ and ‘self-interest’.
  9. He dismisses his own people’s values, with no sense of consequences, leaving others to handle the damage he’s caused.
  10. He claims that Aboriginal citizenship was first granted by the 1967 referendum, when it was in fact granted in 1962, following the 1949 granting of citizenship on condition Aboriginals give up traditional ways, keep away from other Blacks, maintain European lifestyles and ‘keep out of trouble’.
  11. He is one of those educated Blackfellas who continue to manage Aboriginal affairs and regard culture and identity as backward and problematic.
  12. He claims that five generations of welfare dependency (Pearson’s ‘passive welfare’) have degraded his mob while his forebears are claimed to have worked as drovers and stockmen. In this he’s guilty of picking and choosing his own alternative histories, dependent upon audiences.
  13. He promotes a philosophy which ‘devalues Aboriginal identity and tradition by emphasising self-interest and individualism’.  In his words: ‘I have a problem with people from my class who have obsessed too much about politics of identity to the exclusion of the politics of material and economic well-being’. This relativism, says Pearson, actually disguises ‘a soft bigotry of low expectations and double standards about what constitutes progress. Pearson has a problem with those of his own people ’whose sole concern is counselling the disadvantaged not to be agents of their own progress’. He sees personal agency (individual motivation?) as complimentary to structural reform. ‘Self-interest, for too many progressives, is anathema to social justice, when in fact it is the very engine of the social justice that is sought’, claims Pearson.
  14. He doesn’t understand simple humanism, he needs to develop empathy with people and recognise that there are many still in need.

Assessment of Waters’ criticisms

In listing his grievances, Waters is largely repeating critical comments from other Aboriginal spokespersons made since Pearson came into prominence after 2000. If one examines the sources of these criticisms, as I have done for two decades, one becomes aware of a central theme which invariably relates to personal hurt from Pearson’s basic challenge to exaggerated identity and traditional values. Not that Pearson is alone in his challenge, but his powerful diction, command of the English language and knowledge of international literature, have put him in a class of his own –- a class which frustrates and angers his adversaries.

Thus, while the Pearson/Waters spat may appear as simply another public disagreement between big-ego Blackfellas, it is in essence much more than that. It represents an increasingly significant social divide within the Indigenous population. For this reason the above opposing views and values they reflect warrant a serious assessment based on reason rather than emotion. All the participants recognise the futility of attempting to characterise socio-political judgements as factual or truthful, since the role of logic and reasoning in such value judgements is clearly limited by the strength of emotions of those who choose to let tribal origins define themselves as individuals. This trend is recognised by the increasing use of personal introductions emphasising that the speaker or writer is “a proud Kamilaroy man”, “a Yalanji woman”, “a Noonuccal elder” etc.. Such labelling is meant to pay homage not only to clan, but also to country.

In assessing Pearson’s ‘crimes’ it is useful to separate the personal inferences from the material policy differences. It may well be that a spokesman comes across as self-assured, confident, even superior. Such an image may have nothing to do with the merits of the policy stance taken and everything to do with word choice, tone of voice and body language.

Comparing Pearson’s and Waters’ statements, it is pertinent to note that neither author dwells on integration, assimilation or separatism. In fact these value-laden terms hardly get a mention. Why is this, when Pearson’s policies depend on mainstreaming in the real economy and Waters abhors anything capitalistic or assimilatory?

Waters’ claim that Pearson is not nearly as accepted by his own mob as by the Whites may be a plus for Pearson as he runs somewhat ahead of his people’s general appreciation of the need to be individually responsible and productive. Waters’ apparent lack of emphasis on the work ethic leaves observers wondering what the alternative might be.

If Pearson has left behind all those of his people who do not have ‘the capability to embrace his vision of the future’, as Waters puts it, what remedy does he propose to bring them up to the mark?

If Pearson uses his speaking opportunities to ‘polarise our mob’, whose fault is that?

If Pearson is seen as ‘denying the wrath of discrimination facing Aborigines’, perhaps it’s because he focuses on building on the initiatives of self-starters who don’t allow discrimination or victimhood to hold them back.

Waters’ (and many others’) claim that Pearson only says ‘what Whitefellas want to hear’ is an old response to Pearson’s efforts to lead. Perhaps the alternative should be assessed: What is it that they don’t want to hear? Do Waters’ culturally separatist ideas offer a serious future vision?

If Pearson is ‘the gatekeeper’ and causing identity and culture to be replaced with ‘agency and self-interest’, how serious a dis-benefit is this for emerging modern Aboriginal Australians? This is the central question that the separatists need to answer in the spirit of honesty. Could it be that regarding some elements of culture and identity as ‘backward and problematic’ is precisely what is required to foster self-esteem, progress and greater self-improvement?

It may be that the lack of emphasis on self-interest and individualism is at the heart of what has been holding Aboriginal individuals back, and if this translates into a devaluing of identity and tradition, then the net gain from such a shift in self-definition may be considerable. Pearson’s query about what constitutes progress, could be a game-changer if taken to its logical conclusion.

To accuse Pearson of ‘not understanding humanism’ reflects an ignorance of his book Up from the Mission – perhaps the best exposé of positive Indigenous values ever written. That book, even more than any of his other writings, reflects Pearson’s deep understanding of community needs and the causation of poverty among his people.

The essence of Pearson’s philosophy is the recognition that the traditional tribal mindset isn’t conducive to modern well-being or that of coming generations. He is less concerned that such progressive socio-economic change may be an uncomfortable transition for those traditionalists who choose to let their tribal groups define who they are. Pearson was the first to articulate the future implications of low expectations by Aboriginal parents. He suggests that the double standards applied to defining progress by the traditionalists is holding their youth back.

To accuse Pearson of ignoring the needs of the less fortunate through ‘his conservative Black politics’ is ill-founded. It is precisely his non-acceptance of poverty which convinces him of the need to change, the need to re-assess the reasons for stagnation and the need to clarify where his people are heading.

Central to the clash of views on Indigenous policy is the question of whether pride in family identity is necessarily lost when joining the mainstream. In other words, does Western education and competitive employment demand that Aborigines ‘un-be’ as caring family members?

Traditionalists like Waters claim that Aboriginals lose ‘their customary responsibility and obligation to community’ in joining the mainstream. However, both insiders and outsiders wondering about the actual extent of these noble practices, notably by men in today’s ‘traditional’ communities, probably agree that Aboriginals need to ‘increase their social and cultural capital and move away from an identity that aligns our mob with poverty and struggle’. At the same time Waters repeatedly warns against the dangers of assimilation, so when Tony Abbott recommends that ‘children should go to school and adults go to work’, Waters responds that ‘this sounds a lot like assimilation’. He fears that Aboriginal cultural maintenance, values and identity will be controlled by others.

Waters regards Aboriginals’ ‘oldest living sustainable intellectual property’ as ‘too valuable to be lost through assimilation, integration or Westernisation’. Dismissing traditional law, as Waters accuses Pearson of doing, is seen as a negative outcome of assimilation. Waters seeks governance other than capitalism, be that socialism, communism or Black nationalism, but he is silent on how these translate to a better life for the individual. Similarly, Waters’ problem with higher education is not Aboriginal capacity to handle university, but rather the alleged problem of Australian universities’ ‘hegemonic approach to institutional racism which keeps grassroots community Blackfellas out’.

Nor does Waters agree that the capacity for hard work is a necessary attribute for success. He associates the work ethic with missionaries and exploiters of cheap labour. He is rather vague on the way his El Dorado of Aboriginal self-government will actually function. The impression is given that Waters would not favour a meritocracy but, rather, a socialist community which claims equity of opportunity but doesn’t actually function as a real democracy in which initiative is rewarded. The idea of individual well-being being merit-based may scare idealists who see competition as anti-social.

So if, like Waters, you don’t like mining because you believe it exploits people, and you don’t like capitalism because you believe it encourages mean-spirited individualism, you had better come up with an alternative system which allows your people to hold their own in a globalised economy that rewards both efficiency and effectiveness.

Let us turn to language as the vehicle for transmitting culture. Discussions about language can never be rational because it’s not the usefulness of language as a tool for living that counts, rather it’s the emotions and feelings of belonging which mother-tongue education engenders, which give it value.

marcus watersIt is pertinent to this debate that Waters seems always to be introduced in his articles as a Kamileroi language speaker. Why is this, and why don’t other Aboriginals make a point of noting such capacity? One can only surmise that it is because, as a self-identified ‘fair skinned Blackfella’, Waters (left) gains street cred, thus advertising his native tongue and advancing his bona fides as the real thing. It has, in fact, long been considered that language-competence would be a useful additional criterion of Aboriginality – eliminating the charlatans who immorally claim Indigenous benefits while enjoying all the advantages of mainstream suburbia.

Language has always been the battleground for ethnic recognition, and with 450 Indigenous languages Australia has a problem recognising them all. The hard facts however, as published by the Bureau of Statistics, are that only 12% of Aboriginals speak a traditional language, most of these in remote communities. Only just over half of today’s Aborigines identify with a clan, a language group, or an extended family. The urban majority are largely indistinguishable at a glance from the mainstream – not even by skin colour, as a result of 80% out-marrying from their city-based mob.

This matter of identity and values is well illustrated when Waters tries gallantly to explain why his own Griffith University banned Bess Price, the outspoken Alice Springs Aboriginal activist and politician, from addressing a meeting on campus. Waters exposes his own, very human discomfort when trying to assess Price’s several contentions about the disadvantage of remaining traditionally and culturally pure, allowing nostalgia to get in the way of admitting what’s best for the grandchildren’s future. Price represents a particularly interesting case because she displays very Aboriginal physical features, is married to a whitefella, is a Liberal member for Central Australia in the Northern Territory Parliament, and because she wants her offspring to benefit from modernity. She sees the customary separatism holding her mob back, and she is angry at Indigenous intellectuals demanding that the evolution toward modernity, i.e. better education and improved health, be sacrificed on the altar of Aboriginality.

The reader can sense Waters’ tussle with his own traditional demons as he calls for a debate among his people as to who we are, where we want to go and whether we actually still believe our own stories. In this process Waters challenges his people to explain why, with an Indigenous population of most commonly estimated at betwen 518000 and 700,000, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples can only muster 5942 as eligible to vote and, of those, only 809 who actually bothered to cast ballots in the 2013 election of office bearers. It could be a very important message in these figures and it seems Waters has picked it up. He recognises that his tone of voice and his choice of words will be crucial in determining how his challenge is received by his mob. He is probably about to find out how Pearson grappled with similar realisations 20 years ago. Whether he displays Pearson’s strength of character remains to be seen.

It is important that this Great Divide on identity and future roles in the future Australian society be clarified and agreed on by Aborigines sooner rather than later.

Need To Decide On The Divide

The present great divide in the philosophies of  traditionalists and modernists centres on two elements: (1) the place and role of culture and identity for Aboriginal individuals and (2) the extent to which non-elected policy advisers can satisfy the demands of ‘representative’ Aboriginal organisations. Currently, there are significant differences between the priorities of Noel Pearson and the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee and those of the Congress of First Peoples.

The co-chairs of the Congress of First Peoples are understandably cautious in their current public criticism of the Abbott government’s procedures and priorities, but the editorials in the National Indigenous Times reflect a similar philosophy, listing the 12 decisions they wish for, from this government. These are:

  1. A Sovereignty Treaty.
  2. Delivery of full economic land rights to Indigenous owners.
  3. Dedicated Indigenous seats in all parliaments.
  4. Expansion of quality education, including cultural education, to all Aboriginals.
  5. Improvement of health services in all regions with comprehensive community control.
  6. Serious nation-wide attention to significantly reducing Indigenous suicides.
  7. Putting an end to Indigenous homelessness, and reducing the proportion of unserviced houses in Indigenous areas.
  8. Urgently reducing the jail rate among Indigenous youth and eliminating deaths in custody.
  9. Ensure that the official apology is followed up by full compensation for loss of land, wages, culture and children.
  10. Approval of a new truly national flag and national anthem which recognise First Nations People, followed by the erection of invasion memorials honouring all Indigenous people killed by colonising invaders over 225 years.

In general terms the above points reflect the major priorities of the separatist/sovereign traditionalists. Overall, it appears that loss of identity through integration, Westernisation and white values, drives the traditionalists. Contrasted with the above ‘culturally appropriate’ priorities, the present (2014) Commonwealth Government has laid down 10 Terms of Reference for its Indigenous Advisory Council:

  1. Improving school attendance and educational attainment.
  2. Creating lasting employment opportunities in the real economy.
  3. Reviewing land ownership and other drivers of economic development.
  4. Preserving Aboriginal and Islander cultures.
  5. Building reconciliation and creating a new partnership between Black and White Australians.
  6. Empowering Aboriginal and Islander communities, including through more flexible and outcome-focused program design and delivery.
  7. Building the (productive) capacity of communities, service providers and governments.
  8. Promoting better program evaluation to inform government decision-making.
  9. Supporting greater shared responsibility and reducing dependence on government within Aboriginal and Islander communities.
  10. Achieving constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Islander people.

Given that both lists of priorities are open to various interpretations, there are still several principal differences in emphasis between the two underlying philosophies. These can be summed up as differences in the value placed on culture, identity, recognition, compensation, tradition, rights, Sovereignty, representation, community control, incarceration rates, suicide, health, housing, national emblems and memorials.

But what is the central philosophical difference between the government and Aboriginal community spokespersons? In essence, the choice offered by traditionalists is couched in terms of ‘loyalty to the mob’. Young people are confronted with the only choice being ‘one of us or one of them’. By pressuring the next generation to side with one mutually exclusive racial identity, tension and confusion are exacerbated.

At the heart of the opposing views is the question of whether by mainstreaming, individuals can maintain their cultural identity and self-esteem. One emphasises the group, the other the individual. One stresses rights, the Pearson/Abbott perspective stresses responsibilities.

Fundamental to Pearson’s approach has always been a different assessment of causality of the condition in which Aboriginal communities find themselves. Whether the fault lies with policy or the people themselves is the crux of finding solutions. Pearson’s ‘individual responsibility’ stands out as his fundamental driver of change. The keywords in his values are pure Pearson: attainment, lasting employment, real economy, ownership, preserving, partnership, empowering, outcome-focused, building capacity, better evaluation, shared responsibility, reducing dependence and recognition.

Needed now is a meeting of the minds to seek agreement across the divide on unified goals for Aboriginal futures, the place of culture in future generations, the case for sovereignty and an agreed governance model. That is what is required. Whether we wil live long enough to see such an accord is another matter entirely.

Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow