Framing discussion of Indigenous issues in Australia

20 Aug

Some have a problem with the word “indigenous” – I don’t. To me it is clear that a rabbit, though the current rabbits are “native”, is not indigenous; a kangaroo is. Similarly except for a small part of my DNA inheritance I am a native of Australia but not indigenous. The word “native” derives from Latin “natus” = “born [in]”.

Another framing issue for me is this. In the Gospel of John there is a very theological statement attributed to Jesus: “before Abraham was, I Am.” Now consider our Australian Aboriginal people: before Abraham was, they were – and had been for some 35,000 years. Reflect on that. This is not to deny that there is a complex story behind these first settlers, when they came, whether there were several waves of incomers, and so on. Anthropologists and archaeologists are still working on that.

The ever forthright Patrick Dodson has an opinion piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. Patrick Dodson is himself a substantial figure in the story of Indigenous policy and politics in the past twenty or thirty years. Referring to framing theory himself, Dodson writes:

…Progress was made in this endeavour during the early years of the decade of reconciliation but at the final hurdle the nation turned its back on reconciling its past.

Instead, a new Australian story has been forged. The persistent inequity and deprivation of the colonised exist in a historical vacuum.

Community dysfunction is now understood as the fault of the colonised and their persistent cultural practices, rather than as a result of violent dispossession, brutal colonisation and authoritarian state intervention.

The nation has been told that indigenous disadvantage is also the result of four decades of failed government policies designed and perpetrated by progressive liberalism and romantics who believe in the integrity of indigenous culture and its place in modern Australia.

And those who have dared to tell the story of dispossession, exclusion and injustice – now apparently dated and short-lived in the manufacture of Australian history with its accompanying policy prescriptions for restitution and national reconciliation – are condemned for entrenching victimhood and dependence.

The relationship between indigenous people and the nation state is framed by two opposing forces. On the one hand there is an aggressive polemic, often masquerading as scholarship, which portrays traditional culture and the structures that protect and support Aboriginal society as reasons for chronic disadvantage and impediments to closing the gap.

On the other hand, there is the reality of contemporary indigenous nations throughout Australia whose people want liberation from material deprivation, sickness and social disorder, but at the same time to defend what is most important to them – their culture and identity.

Our inability to reconcile or mediate these two opposing views reduces debate in indigenous affairs to a scramble for the moral high ground, leaving most of the population confused and disengaged. As a result, we are a nation trapped by our history and paralysed by our failure to imagine any relationship with first peoples other than assimilation, whatever its guise…

Look, I do go along with this up to a point – and that point is that Dodson is also being driven by an urge to dichotomise. I suspect – and I offer the thought tentatively – that we need to see these stories as aspects of current and past reality, not as opposing forces, even if admitting the tension between them. I can’t help feeling that driving a wedge between so they are seen as in conflict rather than in tension is likely to lead to some unfortunate decisions affecting the desired outcome – a better position over-all for Indigenous Australians.

Dodson goes on to commend Australian Dialogue and his own work as founding director of the Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of NSW. I am sure both are and will be valuable to us all.


3 responses to “Framing discussion of Indigenous issues in Australia

  1. Jim Belshaw

    August 20, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Neil, as you know, my argument in this area is that we need more facts and analysis. Analysis of the historical record, analysis of the arguments presented from all sides. I don’t want to do a semantic analysis of of what Mr Dodson says. beyond noting that while I agree with him on some points I have problems with his frame.

    I am a bit too tired tonight to properly respond. My own recent experience has both toughened up some of my attitudes, no one owes any mob a living, but also made me much more sensitive to underlying discrimination. As I said, too tired. But I will try to wite something on this.

  2. Jim Belshaw

    August 21, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Just as well I did not respond last night. A new day brings new perspectives. Yesterday the Australian was carrying further stories about problems with service delivery in the NT, while the Herald featured problems with the Aboriginal Medical Centre at Taree.

    I think that there is widespread agreement that new approaches are required, yet we seem to replicate the past. I am very sympathetic about the argument re cultural retention, but what culture? Aboriginal Australia is not uniform.

    I think that your points at the end are well taken and Professor Dodson deserves respect for his contribution and sometimes clarity of view.

  3. Neil

    August 21, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Thanks, Jim. BTW, I think “what culture?” should be “which culture?” The first could be misinterpreted.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: