This book would never have been published in Australia by an Australian university press or, indeed, written by an Australian academic with an interest in Aboriginal politics and policy. Separate but Unequal follows Associate Professor Frances Widdowson’s brilliant book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, co-authored with her husband Albert Howard and published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2008.
Widdowson thanks a number of academic colleagues at Mount Royal University, Calgary, in her current book for their “impressive leadership in supporting academic freedom and freedom of expression”. Australian vice-chancellors have displayed a craven attitude and obeisance to the Aboriginal industry in Australia. As far as they are concerned, you follow the party line or remain silent. Academic freedom and freedom of expression, in this field at least, are strictly limited.
The term “parallelism”, unfamiliar in Australia, is described as “Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities travelling side by side, coexisting but not getting in each other’s way”. “Self-determination” is the more familiar term in Australia, although parallelism is more expansive and explicit in as much as it assumes that Aboriginal cultures and the wider society “should exist separately from one another, continuously reproducing distinctive economies, political systems and ‘knowledges’”.
The result is that all conversation must be framed as conversations between nations: Aboriginal “nations” and the nation-state. Repulsive as this formulation is, it has crept into Canadian society and has begun to do so in Australia. Remnant bands of family groups with barely an original word of language and fighting like cats and dogs among themselves are said to be nations. If only nation building were that easy.
The hideous belief that one is born into a culture and must remain there forever is Widdowson’s target. She asks how Canadian intellectuals, in particular a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996, fell for this fascist idea. Consequently, the book threatens an industry and numerous academic careers. It does not threaten Aboriginal people.
Widdowson’s critique is firmly rooted in a political economy tradition. Relax, this is not Marxist ideology in service of the destruction of fascism. It simply questions the economic base consistent with the maintenance of a separate culture, and whether such a base would always lead to dependence among Aborigines. Widdowson argues that a culture which exists largely in the minds of anthropologists and fellow travellers cannot create the conditions for economic parallelism.
The key insight is that while the Royal Commission argued that loss of culture caused dependence, it was instead its retention that caused it—the same conclusion reached by Gary Johns in Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman’s Dream (Connor Court, 2011).
A second front in this analysis is similar to that stated succinctly by Ian McLean in Why Australia Prospered (Princeton University Press, 2013) that “the reproducible stock of the Australian economy was constructed from scratch beginning in 1788 in the Sydney area”. In other words, Aborigines brought nothing to the table of the modern economy, which explains why they want rent for their land.
Widdowson wields the scythe at the Royal Commission’s acceptance of “neotribal rentierism … a process whereby lawyers and consultants working for indigenous groups … use legal arguments to extract transfers from the government”. The reader should forgive the resort to arcane labels—after all the book is based on her doctoral thesis—but the strength is that she manages to overcome an almighty wall of language-in-service-of-the-industry constructed by academics and Aboriginal leaders, co-conspirators in the great deception that is parallelism.
The ultimate conceit expressed by the Royal Commission is that achieving equality cannot come at the expense of culture—that is, culture outranks equality. This is difficult territory for the Left. In Australia, Diane Austin-Broos tries hard in A Different Equality (Allen and Unwin, 2011), in which she is an advocate for “first rate” primary education for remote communities: but what then? Her solution is to condemn Aborigines to a level of preparedness for society consistent with most Australians at the turn of the twentieth century, not the twenty-first century.
The chapter on the Royal Commission’s postmodern conceptions of history will tickle the interest of Australian readers, especially of this journal, who have suffered the embarrassment of the success of Bruce Pascoe’s elaborate post-truth transformation of Aboriginal hunter-gatherer society into a nirvana of horticulture and agriculture. Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest is a treasure as it cuts down the postmodern invention of parallel history in the service of narrow political interests. Widdowson does a fine job in the Canadian case, making generous reference to Keith Windschuttle’s The Killing of History.
There is a call to compare and contrast the circumstances of urban and remote Aborigines in Canada. Such distinction is also made in Australia. Although it will take some time to creep into policy, there are at least two indigenous peoples, those who have, to all intents and purposes, completed their journey to modernity; and those, perhaps not sufficiently able to break free of the gifts of guilty white men and a no longer fit-for-purpose culture, who are struggling in their journey. These matters were canvassed in “The Cruel Deception of Aboriginal Self-Determination” (Quadrant, September 2020).
An important observation of Widdowson’s is that ideologies can creep into the most senior levels of government thinking. While Justin Trudeau’s governments have embraced parallelist ideology, it grew on a foundation that Stephen Harper’s Conservative governments (2006 to 2015), “not known for supporting group rights”, built, or at least accepted. The same is true in Australia. Coalition governments have failed to provide a convincing critique of self-determination, instead falling back on references to “practical reconciliation”—hardly enough to halt the tide of a rent-seeking Aboriginal industry. A simple “No” or “Stop it” would be enough to start the conversation, if not halt the tide of damaging delusions associated with self-determination. Alas, we wait for such voices in government.
The true worth of Widdowson’s book is that a fresh voice has emerged to call out the nonsense and venality inherent in special deals for Aboriginal people and their organisations. The Widdowson voice, while sympathetic to Aborigines (isn’t everybody?) is keen to call a halt to proceedings. A voice, joining others, that argues there is no parallel path without dependence; that there is no “voice” without the English language; that there are no jobs without a labour market; no mortgages whilever extended families humbug those who seek to get ahead; and no functional family inside a dysfunctional culture.
There are two lessons here, and Widdowson makes them well. The attempt to maintain parallel worlds is not possible without inviting the crushing dependence of Aboriginal people; and the path out of dependence requires leaving behind the worst aspects of those cultures built on the now long-gone economies of hunter-gatherers.
Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency
by Frances Widdowson
University of Ottawa Press, 2019, 312 pages, CA$39.95
Lyn Wesley is an Australian author and researcher