Why don’t we get anywhere on Indigenous policy? #SorryDay #NRW2013

Each year, National Reconciliation Week draws attention to the stats regarding Indigenous welfare.  They’re horrifying.  For me, the worst part is the comparison to previous years: how is improving conditions for Indigenous Australians such a slow process?

Let’s put it into perspective.  The largest engineering project in Australia’s history, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, began with the establishment of a committee in 1946 and was completed by 1974.  It was controversial.  It was heated.  It was important.

It was over and done within 28 years.

Compare this to Indigenous policy.  It’s controversial.  It’s heated.  It’s important.  It’s going nowhere.

Where the Snowy Mountains Scheme had a clear set of objectives, Indigenous policy is a fractured arena.  There is no clear understanding or agreement about what the problem is (with the stats being the symptom of some underlying cause), or what principles should frame the discussion.  Is the problem that Australia was invaded in 1788?  Is the problem that Indigenous Australians don’t live the same lifestyles as Anglo Australians?  Between these two extremes are a million different positions.  Should Indigenous Australians be able to continue their traditional lifestyles, or should Indigenous Australians have the same access to economic opportunities as Anglo Australians?  Are those goals compatible in any way?  It’s difficult to conceptualise what the problem is, let alone what the goal should be.

Even the Australia 2020 summit encountered the same difficulty.  In the final report, it proffered the following as the ambitions of Indigenous policy:

Our ambition is an Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have formal recognition in the Australian legal framework and Australia’s global identity is one that is recognised as being enriched by a living culture that is 50 000 years old. In this Australia in 2020, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same health, education and economic participation opportunities and outcomes as other Australians, are able to realise their hopes and aspirations and are affirmed in their cultural identity. This can only be achieved by taking measures now to urgently transform society to nurture today’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and children. [Source]

One obstacle to the conversation is the tradition of the conceptualisation of Indigenous Australia as a monolithic, heterogeneous group, rather than a diverse range of individual nations.  This conception does violence towards the policy discussion in two ways.  First, it robs the conversation of nuance.  Imagine aliens arrive by ship to settle Australia.  When they discover that the local human population is capable of rationality, culture, and equality with the aliens (initially denied by the alien First Fleet), they declare: ‘Hello there, humans!  We’ve appointed a half dozen humans from this area called “China” to represent the entirety of your needs and issues to us.  Our policy will be filtered through them to you.’  Any conversation is going to require a sophisticated understanding of Indigenous Australians, but our political conversations are not easily aligned with difficult conversations.  Anglo Australia’s main encounter with Indigenous Australia is via the 6pm news, usually in the depiction of an angry, violent outbursts (sometimes in the form of loud, shouty rallies).

Second, the conception of Indigenous Australia as monolithic creates the idea of the ‘authentic’ Indigenous Australian.  I don’t even know the language appropriate to this conversation, knowing it only in terms of ‘Urban Aborigines’.  The people affected by these terms hate the idea of being ‘categorised’, and with fair enough reason: categorisation provides a tool for further disenfranchisement (‘You’re not authentic, you’re urban‘).  On the other hand, these terms and categories help us to conceptualise the issue: how do we recognise Indigenous Australia in its entirety and in its multifaceted nature if we don’t have the language to describe it as a diverse, nuanced, intricate entity?

Some policy analysts describe this sort of thing as a ‘wicked’ problem.  ‘Wicked’ is shorthand for ‘too hard’.  We don’t want to offend anybody, we don’t want to upset anybody, and we don’t want to be criticised if our policy is misrepresented — therefore, we have decided not to engage with the issue.

It’s easy to see that the Snowy Mountains Scheme would have been described as a ‘wicked’ problem back in the 1940s had our current generation of policy analysts been around.  ‘We can’t find a solution that will please everybody, so we’ll continue with a do-nothing approach that will please nobody.’

I think politicians and policy advisers were burnt by the Intervention.  It was an inelegant policy and the optics were worse (having to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act for technical legal reasons gives critics an easy emotive argument).  On the other hand, it was a departure from the previous ‘do nothing’ policy, it required political determination and courage, and — although it annoys me to say — it was well-intentioned.  The whole thing really blew up in Howard’s face, and it appears to have scared people away from the big, bold,  courageous policy options.  Thus we end up in the current situation where the biggest Indigenous policy issue under discussion is whether or not Andrew Inglis Clark’s anti-racism mechanism in section 25 of the Constitution is secretly racist (Mick Dodson: ‘In relation to section 25 you say ‘do you want to repeal this or not? Yes or no?’ If you say no, you’re actually supporting a racially discriminatory provision in the Constitution‘).

We would never have had a Snowy Mountains Scheme if the political parties of the day had taken this ‘low hanging fruit’ approach to policy.  Our current generation of politicians and policy advisers should look back to the 1940s for the inspiration to rejuvenate and reignite the Indigenous policy discussion.  We need the language to have the discussions and some credible options on the table to debate.  This namby pamby mollification by committee approach is pushing us further and further away from a resolution that all Australians need.

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