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November 15th 2013 print

Frank Pledge

Aboriginality as a Profession

"In Kulgera, I heard the view expressed that Aboriginal elders effectively fulfill the same role as judges in mainstream courts, and therefore should be paid at the same rate as magistrates"

dot bonesIn my dealings with Aboriginal people, doing drilling clearances and the like, I increasingly find that a new meme is taking hold.   There is an alternative, parallel agenda moving in the opposite direction to the one advocated as a solution to resolving Indigenous disadvantage, viz. real employment. Aboriginal people are increasingly being “taught” that they are not required to work, not required to integrate, and have no need for a formal education.

For example, Aborigines tell me, that just being Indigenous person is a full time job:

“I do traditional fishing three days a week!” 

and, since it is specialist work which non-Indigenous people cannot do, they should be remunerated as professionals. I have even heard suggestions that different levels of initiation should be equated with defined remuneration levels (rather like public servants – Aborigine, Grade 1; Aborigine, Grade 2; etc.) It appears that the good intentions of the new Pearson/Mundine strategy are already being undermined.

In Kulgera, I heard the view expressed that Aboriginal elders effectively fulfill the same role as judges in mainstream courts, and therefore should be paid at the same rate as judges (with a car, no less). There is some traditional support for this in the payment of Tjaurilja meat, traditionally food paid to elders in payment for performing sacred ceremonies and the like.

Part I of this three-part series can be found here

I have heard women say that when they teach their children to speak their Indigenous language, they should receive a wage at the same scale as a specialist language teacher in the non-Indigenous community.  After all, they are specialist language teachers so why should they not be paid to teach their children these specialist languages? I’m not sure that this process is not already underway. It is only a small step away from the publicly-funded, make-work projects that seem to proliferate in the communities.

“The eight Anangu women from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands received their qualifications yesterday, and can now teach in classrooms in South Australia’s remote northwestern communities. …

“We want to help them be strong in Pitjantjatjara with reading and writing,” she said. “English is a second language and they are losing Pitjantjatjara. We want to see Anangu teachers take over the classes, it is very important for cultural classes as well.

Just to complete the picture Martin adds:

“Census data reveals that 40 per cent of children in Anangu schools do not speak English well, or at all, despite it being the primary teaching language.”

It remains to be seen how promoting Pitjantjatjara as a first language when 40% of students “do not speak English well, or at all” will enable students to find work other than, say, as Pitjantjatjara teachers. Or perhaps as rangers

The girls laugh and tell us that the job of the (indigenous) rangers’ is driving around Wangupeni in their four-wheeled drives whenever they have fuel.   …  I know that the literacy and numeracy skills of Charlotte’s and Margaret’s uniformed Ranger brothers, cousins and uncles are as limited as theirs.   They cannot perform any tasks necessitating measurement, spraying noxious weeds with chemicals, or controlling feral animals.”

This new meme is being driven primarily by “progressive” attitudes which constantly re-enforce the importance of Indigenous culture, the importance of customary law, and that, because of dispossession by Europeans, they are “owed” reparations. Writing in Quadrant in 2008, Patrick McCauley identified the white bureaucracy as the main source of this reinforcement, the very same white bureaucracy expected to implement Pearson’s changes.

“The Aboriginal leaders are painfully consumed in an uneducated anger fed by misinformation and ideological groupspeak, reinforced by the vast majority of public servants and teachers who are allowed into the community.”

 McCauley cites examples from Wadeye; the one below illustrative of how the bureaucracy reinforces the sense of Indigenous self-worth, even at the expense of the educative function of the schools:

She [the most influential teacher at the school] informs me that English is not the first language of this country, and we have no right to expect these (Indigenous) kids to speak English at school.”   

How all this is to fit with the Pearson/Mundine agenda has not been addressed.

On top of this, I am aware of accusations against at least one community said to be using its “gated” status to deny access by labour-hire companies in order to prevent young men leaving.   Even so, increasingly, it appears to me Indigenous men and women who are capable and willing to work have already left the communities, and it is those advocating “entitlement” who remain behind. Those, like Stephen Hagan or my Indigenous co-worker, who try to juggle the two — work and community life — have a very hard time of it.

The urban elites advocating the Pearson/Mundine agenda for remote communities are talking at cross purposes.   This is exemplified by the 2012, Australia Day, race riot in Canberra, and the somewhat shocked response on display amongst the Indigenous urban leadership to this raw militancy. This militancy also is reflected in the remote communities as the growing sense of “passive revolution”, referred to by McCauley,  suggesting that there is little inclination to take part in the new agenda of individual responsibility now being proposed. The urban leadership group believe they own the debate, but there is an undercurrent among the remote communities that is heading a different direction and over which the urban elites have no control.

Effectively, significant numbers, especially in the remote communities, want “sit down money” to become a permanent professional career option, paid for out of the public purse.

They wish to pursue, as W.E.H. Stanner put it in The Dreaming and Other Essays the “rational calculus” of a “least-cost solution”:

“The ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ façade concealed a rational calculus of gain and loss in terms of return for allocations of time, energy, and skill, and exemplified a least-cost solution of maintaining an acceptable plane of material and social welfare.   The least-cost routines left free time, energy, and enthusiasm to be expended – as they were without stint – on all things for which life could be lived when basic needs had been met: the joys of leisure, rest, song, dance, fellowship, trade, stylized fighting, and the performance of religious rituals

The business model being pursued in remote communities is not necessarily the new, Pearson/Mundine economic model of an end to welfare dependence and more engagement with the mainstream economy. Quite the contrary. In remote communities, the term “welfare” is increasingly no longer considered appropriate and is being replaced by “entitlement”, as in a sense of being owed. The on-ground, re-enforcement of the value of traditional culture has resulted in an alternative business model which requires the maintenance and strengthening of the very traditional cultural artefacts, the traditional child-rearing practices, the kinship obligation system, the resort to customary law, that the Pearson/Mundine agenda seeks to weaken.

This re-enforcement has led to a situation where the general community consensus is moving to one of moral blackmail – where the blackmailer in this case holds the knife to his own throat. The business model leverages Aboriginality and “dysfunction” to extract economic rent.   Enterprise has been abandoned in favour of rent.  Roger  Sandall raises this question in The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism: “Should Aboriginal Australians be urged to preserve their traditional culture at all cost?”   The promoters of romantic primitivism say yes.  Aboriginal culture is “rich”, “complex” and “sophisticated”.  Why then would someone not pay the market price for its preservation?   It would appear that Indigenous culture is becoming more valued by Indigenous people precisely because they see its usefulness as a tool to extract entitlement.   In a sense, Indigenous communities are preying on Middle Australia’s guilt over loss of culture.   If white people really value Indigenous culture, must pay to preserve it.  If they won’t pay the culture will die.

It is likely that this new sense of “professional” entitlement is reinforced by its deep resonance with the kinship obligation / demand sharing aspects of traditional culture.     As described above, in traditional tribal cultural setting, the degree of relatedness determined kinship obligations which were of primary importance in deciding who owed who. The obligations were regarded as L-A-W:

“Again, as far as I know, no Aboriginal language has words for please and thank you. Things were done for another person, not as a personal favour, but because the ‘law’ demanded it. So there was no need for words like please or thank you. Individuals did what they had to do, or another demanded from them what under the ‘law’ they had a right to demand. This is not to suggest that no favour or gratitude was ever involved in transactions. Just that normally, actions were not rooted in favour or gratitude.”— Paul Albrecht in The Nature of Aboriginal Identity

Nor were these obligations based on the idea of future reciprocity.  Those that “had” were obligated to provide without invoking any feelings of indebtedness.   Moreover, the traditional obligated transfer from the “haves” to the appropriately-kinned “have nots” is increasingly being normalised into Indigenous relationships with non-Indigenous perspectives and institutions. The following personal anecdote illustrates both this sentiment of entitlement and an underlying element of “demand sharing”:

“I was driving some Indigenous men to a meeting and listened in to them as they talked.   One was saying that another member of the remote community had needed to get into the city in a hurry so they stole a hire car and together drove it the 600 odd kilometres into town.   There they decided to dump it.   They kicked in all the panels and smashed all the windows when he suddenly remembered he needed the car to get back to the remote community.   He then drove the trashed vehicle the 600 kilometres back to the community.  ‘When I got back’, he complained to the audience in the back seat of my vehicle, ‘… (the owner of the hire car business) got all cranky.  What did he want?  I brought the car back, didn’t I?  Anyway, he’s got plenty of other cars.’  ”

On that same trip one man complained about being ordered into Centrelink for an interview before he could receive a benefit.

“Those racist white c…s!   They work for me, I don’t work for them!”    

Effectively, instead of the message of self reliance and responsibility coming from the Indigenous urban elites and personified by the likes of Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine, the Indigenous people of the remote communities are increasingly being taught that they are “owed” a living.

And this message is being well learned.

However, in the end, it should be recognized that attempts to support Indigenous culture in remote areas are already well funded.   Estimates have been made that remote Indigenous communities receive the equivalent of $100, 000 for every man, woman and child and if you add in mining royalties, tourism royalties, and the not inconsiderable sums for art sales, they actually have economies which are comparable with many equivalent, remote, mainstream communities.   The problem in remote communities stems from the fact that an economy tuned to hunting and gathering is being expected to absorb mainstream levels of welfare.   It would appear that Stanner’s “least-cost” calculus is inconsistent with this massive welfare-ism.   To repeat Sandall’s question:

Should Aboriginal Australians be urged to preserve their traditional culture at all cost?”

The promoters of romantic primitivism say yes, but then neglect to say, ‘How do you spend money to preserve a culture which has no monetary base, without turning it into a Disney theme park of paid actors?’

Clearly, there appear to be two divergent agendas in the remote communities.   So what are the implications for the proposed constitutional amendments?

Recognition of Traditional Culture

The Constitutional recognition of Indigenous culture represents the re-emergence, or even a continuation, of the same “self-determination” policy agenda driven by romantic primitivism that championed the role of traditional Indigenous culture over all considerations, and which, as an unfortunate bi-product, included the championing of the traditional patterns of forced marriage of under-aged girls.  It is a policy agenda that should have been discredited years ago, but has been allowed to persist because effectively the same people who presided over the pre-“Little Children are Sacred” report era still hold key positions in the policy-setting and policy-implementation bureaucracy.

Alarmingly, if examined objectively, there is actually some inescapable logic to their argument.

Alarming because I understand that at least one proposal to change the Australian Constitution incorporates a test that Indigenous culture should not be disadvantaged by any government decision with respect to mainstream culture.  That in itself should give the rights’ lawyers enough ammunition to argue that Indigenous culture should receive sufficient financial support that it can maintain some sort of parity with mainstream culture.  Support for Indigenous languages appears to be explicitly mentioned in the proposed constitutional changes, and therefore by inference, support for Indigenous language teachers is there too.    Effectively, it appears as though there is a move to get “entitlement” permanently written into the constitution, and thereby putting the entitlement permanently onto the Government payroll.

Additionally, explicit support for Indigenous culture is arguably implicit support for customary law. If the High Court were to accept the point that “customary law” is a genuine part of Indigenous culture (and who could argue against that!), and that Indigenous culture would be disadvantaged by the extinction of customary law, then it is hard to imagine on what grounds the High Court could deny customary law the protection granted explicitly in that proposed constitutional amendment.   It is then hard to imagine how the Indigenous community could be denied their own parallel court system, perhaps even their own parallel police system.  The mainstream police system could hardly be expected to administer two opposing systems of law.   It is also then difficult to see how one can argue, given the principles of equity and disadvantage, that this “customary law” court system would not be considered as fully equal to the mainstream court system.

This championing of customary law, implicit in the recommendations for the constitutional amendments, could have serious ramifications due to the conflicts with mainstream legal principles.    Consider rules of evidence: how do avoidance laws affect who is able to give evidence? Are the contents of dreams admissible evidence?  Of further consider the presumption of innocence, the death penalty, the transfer of punishment onto kin…

In particular though, I fear that constitutional recognition provides a road map leading to the formal recognition of traditionally sanctioned, forced marriage of under-age girls.   My fear is that the law of unintended consequences means that the well-meaning but muddle-headed bureaucracy at the heart of the push for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people and culture will take us back full circle by further strengthening bureaucratic legitimacy to turning their backs on the rights of young Indigenous girls.         After all, is this not the same well-meaning but muddle-headed bureaucracy that gave us the existing disaster of “self-determination” in the last constitutional adjustments?

The third installment will  be published next week

Frank Pledge is the pseudonym of a veteran geologist who has spent much time in the developing world and, more recently, in and around Amata, Oenplli, Yalata and other remote communities