Twilight of old radicals INDIGENOUS FUTURE

By: Peter Sutton

The vested interests in indigenous policy are those who still support the old rights campaigns that began in the 1970s, writes Peter Sutton

IN the colonial era and soon after, progressives had pushed for the protection of indigenous Australians from violence and exploitation, for the recognition of their humanity, and for the formation of inviolate reserves in remote regions. This phase merged into and was also outflanked by a later postcolonial movement for racial equality and the acceptance of indigenous Australians as fully capable of integration into the wider community. This period spanned the 1920s to the '60s.
Assimilation, for some decades before 1960, was thus argued for by people of the Left as an opportunity not to be unjustly denied to indigenous Australians. There was not the sentiment for traditional culture then that there is now. Anti-assimilationists in the inter-war years were either compassionate protectionists or dyed-in-the-wool racists who thought indigenous people genetically incapable of modernisation. The protective and educative impulses spanned the colonial, inter-war and post-war eras, and were most manifest in the missions, which not only provided havens and training for the people but also dispensed medical treatment.
While some mission regimes were undeniably harsh and a good number were heavily oriented to destroying the older cultures, there were also many where aspects of traditional culture were encouraged to persist, bilingual education was instituted, and the approach was basically one of compassion rather than conquest.
The missions generally either voluntarily relinquished or were made by governments to relinquish their administrative control of indigenous residential communities, mainly in the '70s.
The new progressive consensus was that these communities should be free of missionaries, self-managed through elected councils and relatively autonomous. Land rights would ensure their inhabitants' security of tenure and, where possible, a source of income.
Traditional culture would be encouraged, not discouraged. Pressures to assimilate to a Euro-Australian way of life were racist and should be curtailed.
Liberation, not retraining, was what would lift people's self-respect and pride, and enable them to enter a new era in which the quality of their lives would improve. There was an expectation that collective decision-making would be premised on regard for the good of the community.
That emergent consensus of the early '70s has come undone. Progressivist moral politics dulled our instincts about the sanctity of indigenous people's right to be free from violence, abuse, neglect, ignorance and corruption. Links between the morality of humaneness, the moral politics of being left of centre and a progressive rights-oriented view of indigenous policy seemed simpler and more intimate then. The destructive naivete of that consensus has been destroyed more than anything else by the issue that was so often central in pre-'60s Australia, and which took a backseat for so long afterwards: Putting the children first.
FOR years, Queensland Aboriginal activists and administrators have punched above their weight on the national scene. I'll hazard a guess as to why this is so. First, Queensland government approaches to indigenous affairs were probably the most draconian, and would thus have aroused the most ire. In addition, large concentrations of people as inmates of places such as Palm Island, Yarrabah, Woorabinda and Cherbourg created local schools of a fairly intensive political education that could at times be translated into the big picture arena; on the other hand, a strongly assimilationist approach to education in Queensland gave people pathways into the wider world of ideas, literacy, and a good command of the English language.
A large proportion of Aborigines in Queensland had long lived in cities and towns and had never been institutionalised, and thus were more likely to be confident in dealing with non-indigenous people; and perhaps the example of the large numbers of African-American servicemen stationed in Queensland during World War II had some effect on how people saw their condition and envisioned future possibilities.
IN retrospect, I now see the political demise of older-style Queensland Aboriginal radicals as occurring quite suddenly. I witnessed the moment when it began to change at a conference in the Cairns Ramada Hotel in early May 1991.
The crunch point was a vitriolic attack on, and attempted censure of, Marcia Langton by Bob Weatherall, Mick Miller and Clarrie Grogan. Unlike these men, Langton had grown with the times. She had been a tireless front-liner and earned her stripes. Arrested by police in the heady days of the Springbok rugby protests in 1971, she had later taken an interest in the American Black Panthers. By 1991 she had transformed herself into a state government bureaucrat and was on her way to a successful academic career, while remaining politically active.
At the conference, Weatherall, Miller and Grogan castigated Langton for working on developing land rights legislation for the Goss Labor government.
A very young and fearsomely articulate Noel Pearson quickly came to her defence and mounted a lethal attack on the old guard of activists who sat in the front row of the conference hall at the rather posh hotel.
He held the audience in his hand as he opened with words that went something like: ``Bob, Mick, Clarrie. I am astonished at the stunt you have tried to pull here today.'' The head-on howitzer attack worked.
Terry O'Shane immediately backed Langton, and then the others did as well. The meeting overwhelmingly defeated the motion to censure her. It was the end of the old activist mental framework, not just a change of leading voices.
It marked the rise of a national indigenous intelligentsia of university-educated and articulate people who could write persuasively and engage politically. John Newfong spanned this shift, though at the end of the Ramada Hotel conference he more or less dictated (to me) the resulting press release, not quite writing it himself.
A few weeks later in Brisbane, in the Family Services Building on May 23, 1991, Pearson and his Cape York Land Council representatives Bob Holroyd, Frankie Deemal, Goombra Jacko, Peter Costello and Godfrey Gordon, with David Byrne and myself as advisers, sat trying to negotiate the contents of impending land rights legislation with Queensland Labor premier Wayne Goss.
Goss was accompanied by his family services and Aboriginal and Islander affairs minister Anne Warner, Kevin Rudd (who then had recently become Goss's cabinet office director-general), Ross Rolfe, Langton, department head Ruth Matchett and adviser Frank Brennan. Public servants Rolfe and Langton had conducted a vigorous pro-Aboriginal campaign from within government, and Pearson had also been providing input to government, though by this stage he had withdrawn.
As the principals talked, I pondered the changing of the watch in Aboriginal politics that was audible at that moment. From outside and below, through the windows, we could hear the old guard activists' street-march demo as it reached the entrance to Parliament House, and the hard men of the '70s proceeded to tear the gates off their hinges. One thing they were correct about: they knew Labor's promise of land rights was so watered down in the parliamentary drafting instructions that it was not much more than scraps from the table. Holroyd had prophetically predicted this earlier in the year. At a meeting at Dhiidhaarr near Hopevale, he said: ``The government got the reins, we got the bit.''
I realised later this gatecrashing was a prevision of the end of a period. The marchers were still trading slogans. Pearson and his land council, by contrast, had workshopped alternative legislation at meetings on the beaches of Cape York for months. They had developed a 100-page submission of positive proposals for the government to consider.
I put the document together, printing it at the eleventh hour under the Cairns house of former Aurukun mission staffer John Adams. Adams was a trusted and active participant. He had played a central role in resisting the state takeover of Aurukun in 1978, had twice worked with me mapping country south of Aurukun, and was the appointed minder of the $300 collected at James Cook University on July 13, 1990 -- and the $645 collected the day after -- to help found the Cape York Land Council.
Goss seemed unhappy that he had not received the document until the last minute. It had been submitted a fortnight before. The meeting began shrouded in tension. Holroyd opened by asking for an apology for a public statement about Aboriginal drunken violence that Goss had made not long before: ``You damage me, you kick my teeth,'' Holroyd said. Goss said he had not intended to insult anyone, but apologised all the same.
Goss had been hurt in turn by Pearson's ``breach of trust and honour'', although he respected his right to resign from his government job. Goss and I debated some technicalities about national parks and the problem that the bill could not invalidate inadequately grounded consents over land use. Things seemed to calm down.
Towards the end of the meeting, Goss agreed to negotiations on the legislation: something his team had been resolutely refusing. My record of an earlier meeting with Rudd had ended with the note: ``Grim atmosphere as we left.''
Just as we were rising to leave the meeting with Goss and his advisers, Old Man Bob suddenly gave the premier a blast of Cape York-style political invective: ``You give me nothing, you broke your promises. You're a liar.'' This was a classic Wik way of saying: This is not over yet, this thing's not settled yet, I still want satisfaction.
We did not know at the time that this clash wrecked the newly hatched agreement, or perhaps provided an excuse to recommend a change of mind. Soon afterwards, as we sat enjoying the doomed victory in the Coronation Motel restaurant, we were joined by Brennan. He had stayed behind in the room when the meeting ended and brought the news that Holroyd's accusation meant further discussions were now cancelled, and that Rudd had been influential in this.
The next day, Byrne's massive mobile phone rang (this was 1991). Negotiations were off. The legislation would go through unchanged. Pearson wrote a letter of apology from Holroyd to Goss and requested a further meeting. This was futile. Tactically, Holroyd should probably have been at the gates outside instead of inside at the meeting.
The basic cleavage was between the symbolic and rights agenda that had made activists' careers in the past, and a grasp of the complex pragmatics of governance that was to make leadership careers in the future.
In the meantime, the old rights-based progressivism in indigenous political thinking had a few more years to go before a relentless decline in the standard of living and safety of people in Aboriginal communities forced so many of us to ask an appalling question: Why did this descent into a seriously dysfunctional state seem to coincide with liberal progressive policies based on the rights agenda, and the creation of new degrees of community autonomy? The taboo on raising this was finally broken by an avalanche of evidence no one could ignore.
The evidence had been building for some years. At the Remote Communities Futures Conference in Townsville in 1990, where the Cape York Land Council had been born, Judy Atkinson, Rick Streatfield, Gracelyn Smallwood, Joe Reser and others relayed to us the dire state of the communities, in some cases giving statistical evidence of a rapid decline since the '70s. However, this meeting was essentially in-house.
Then Pearson broke the logjam of public discourse about community dysfunction in several hard-hitting papers published in 1999 and 2000. Those critical months can now be seen as a watershed, and the key events happened in Queensland. Pearson's publications had been stimulated by some searing journalism by a fearless Tony Koch in Brisbane's The Courier-Mail in 1999.
Koch, now with The Australian, exposed the then dire state of several Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal communities. Pearson took the issues to a national audience, and his Aboriginality guaranteed that many more people listened to him and were prepared to agree with him.
It also mattered that Pearson was from Cape York. He began his reform agenda that year, confronting one by one the more questionable planks of past practice and systematically proposing new directions, careful to speak only for his own region. The once unmentionable became debatable. Many more joined the increasingly raw debates over where to go next. As it had been in the past, Queensland was again the crucible of new directions in indigenous political life.
SEVERAL issues became intertwined in the debates and furores that came in wave upon wave, driven strongly by media revelations and commentary, supported by bureaucratic and political pronouncements, plus some academic noises. The issues now included welfare dependency, community autonomy, organisational corruption, the future of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, frontier history wars, racially differential morbidity and life expectancy, poor school attendance, declining literacy and numeracy, substance abuse, violence against women, child sexual abuse, customary law as a criminal defence, staying in versus leaving versus orbiting in and out of the ghettos, service mainstreaming, gang warfare and public rioting, the entry permit system and restrictions on media access, the future of funding for remote settlements, and the imminent expectation of rocketing urban migration by Aboriginal people leaving failing outback communities.
In the period after 1999, the gap between the main media outlets in their approach to this general story of Aboriginal community dysfunction continued to narrow. This may be a broad generalisation, but in my view the print media led the way in terms both of honest reporting of the story and bringing the Aboriginal leadership to account. It's also pretty clear that the northern media led the way. In 2000, Peter Botsman made a scathing attack on the southern media for taking 18 months to catch up with Koch and Pearson. His article was charmingly titled ``Pearson, Weipa, and the damned southern media''.
Other changes were afoot. By the middle of the new century's first decade, we were regularly being treated to news coverage of the indigenous leadership in a way that had formerly been inconceivable. More taboos came down. The private lives of leaders had tended to be under some kind of unofficial D-notice. Issues of personal behaviour, and the sometimes linked exercise of sexual power and preferment power, now became intertwined with the politics of bureaucracy and policymaking. The two key behaviours getting exposure were violence against women and financial corruption.
It is not really clear whether ATSIC leaders Geoff Clarke, accused of rape, and Sugar Ray Robinson, convicted of rape and investigated for corruption, were taken down by ATSIC's fall or whether the two descents were incapable of separation.
About the same time, the chairman of the Central Land Council was convicted of assaulting a woman with a tomahawk and lost his position. A bit later, national figure Galarrwuy Yunupingu's court appearances over alleged violent assaults on one of his wives made front-page pictorial news and reporters were prepared to ask questions.
PART of the new debate was over what some critics referred to as the reimposition of colonial controls, as against the view espoused by Pearson and others that the political cost of repression was worth the community advantage when crisis conditions obtained.
In Cape York, this approach started to bite well before the Northern Territory intervention. For example, severe alcohol restrictions were imposed on Aurukun in 2003. Aurukun hospital figures in late 2006 indicated the average number of sutures required each week, as a result of trauma induced by physical conflict, had gone down by 90 per cent. From 1999 to 2002, there were six suicides and six homicides in this community of less than 1000 people. That was an annual murder rate of 150 per 100,000, nearly 40 times the national average. In the almost four years after the introduction of alcohol controls, there were only two suicides and one death caused by trauma, and no confirmed homicides.
In Cape York as a whole, in the four years from January 2000 there were nine murders, and alcohol was a factor in each.
By contrast, in the 18 months until January 3, 2007, during the alcohol prohibition period, there were no murders. The one murder later in 2007 was in a community that had not adopted the alcohol controls.
There was no evidence of a mass exodus to places where alcohol was freely available, and the direct relationship between alcohol consumption and stupendous levels of violence and death had again been demonstrated.
THE '70s had seen the rapid entry of a new kind of frontier person into the Australian outback. They were predominantly people who had grown up in Bob Menzies' stable suburbia in the southern towns and cities, including Brisbane, or in similar conditions overseas, and had the benefit of post-war liberalisation and affluence after times of austerity. They were influenced by anti-authoritarian, liberationist philosophies. They were interested in new knowledge of the exotic and its role in protecting the natural and ancient from the creeping mower of industrialisation and its uniformities.
Biologists, ecologists, national park rangers, archeologists and others benefited from the four-wheel-drive revolution that remote Australia had enjoyed since the post-war period. Anthropologists were just one variation on this theme. In a sense, these people opened up the new outback as much as tour buses, Cessnas and beef roads did.
These modernists overlapped in many regions with the last of the generations of Aborigines socialised in the bush or on remote cattle stations, who had a rich and complex grasp of their traditional landscapes, languages, religious life, mythology and song. Much of the research we did then could not be carried out now, as so many of those people have died and their kind of knowledge has not generally been reproduced to a similar extent in the young. On that score we can be happy to have recorded so much that otherwise would have been lost. That this massive quantum of knowledge has been able to play a constructive part in providing evidence for land claims and cultural heritage management, and in promoting Aboriginal arts, is also a source of satisfaction.
But Australian anthropologists have also left the wider public potentially puzzled as to the lack of fit between their accounts of the distinctively Aboriginal communities and the overwhelming evidence of levels of dysfunction and abuse suffered in them in recent decades. We have tended to be protective of the people with whom we have worked, to the point where the recent descent of so many places into dire conditions seems almost scientifically inexplicable.
This is not literally true, but we are struggling. Some of us have attempted such explanations, but it must be said that anthropologists, with few exceptions, have neglected two important areas of indigenous Australian life that now seem of vital importance to understanding why things have become as they are: the social and cultural factors influencing mental health, and the nature of changes in sexual behaviour.
In early-'70s Aurukun, when I first went there, there were occasional large-scale battles, but mostly there was peace. Alcohol found its illicit way in, but only every now and then, and was drunk in secret. Homicide, a common feature of the region from earliest records to the '50s, had been eradicated. Suicide was unknown. People who survived the rigours of infancy and early childhood had a good chance of living to their 70s. Child abuse, if it occurred, found the records only on the rarest of occasions. Local men mustered cattle and ran the local butcher shop, cut and sawed the timber for house building, built the housing and other constructions, welded and fixed vehicles in the workshop, and worked the vegetable gardens, under a minimal set of mission supervisors.
Women not engaged in child-rearing worked in the general store, clothing store or post office. It wasn't heaven, but it certainly wasn't hell. That was to come later.
Truth is not necessarily a good uniter of people. Fictions or simplifications so often better bind us, at least for a time.
The end of political consensus on Australian indigenous policy has been a casualty less of the standard Left-Right tensions of race politics than of a battle to get vested interests to acknowledge and deal squarely with the various profound failures of policy and practice, rather than to re-emphasise alleged solutions that will magically materialise after further changes in stratospheric rights. Even people who support a treaty, formal reconciliation and reparations, for example, can no longer be counted on to believe the myth that these things will put food in the bellies of toddlers in the bush.
Some, who might be identified as the southern urban soft Left, have now become targets of criticism and rejection even by those for whom they have long formed a key supportive audience. There is a sense that the old political alignments have been thrown up in the air. No one yet knows where the pieces will fall. Are we in an interregnum between illusions? I hope not. My feeling is, though, that the present wave of unusual honesty and self-examination in indigenous affairs needs to proceed a while longer before the future becomes any clearer.
Edited extract from an essay titled After Consensus in Griffith Review 21: Hidden Queensland (ABC Books), $19.95, or by subscription.
Anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton is a professorial fellow at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum, and author of 12 books.