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Indigenous people,democracy, power « Previous | |Next »
June 19, 2007

In an op-ed in The Australian Noel Pearson, the director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, says that though Indigenous disadvantage stems from dispossession and the historical denial of rights poverty is also behavioural. Thus:

Disengagement from the real economy, passivity and dysfunction are not only symptoms of oppression, they are also unnecessary behaviours that can and must be changed at the same time as we fight for our rights. That is why we pursue welfare reform in Cape York Peninsula and why we want urgent responses to the grog, drugs, gambling and social order problems.We can't wait patiently.

He then adds that:
To those community leaders who reject land title arrangements ....I say: by all means wait, but you have an immediate and inescapable responsibility to stop the suffering of your children and your most vulnerable. You can't sit back and place all the blame on the Government for the suffering that happens tonight and the suffering that happens next week. To their political and public supporters I say: you have a responsibility to find alternative solutions to the crises because you cannot expect the entire cost of the strategy that you laud to be borne through the continued suffering of the most vulnerable.

So there is a need to tackle grog, welfare dependency and sexual abuse.As Pearson says there is an urgency in the concern to tackle the behavioural dimension of indigenous problems.

He adds:

But just because we admit that our problems are behavioural, that does not mean that we do not believe there are also structural barriers to indigenous progress. The principal structural problem faced by indigenous people concerns our power relationship with the rest of Australian society through its structures of government: judicial, legislative and executive. Australian democracy just does not work to enable the solution of our problems. Democratic participation in the existing judicial, legislative and executive institutions of governance in Australia is the only means available to indigenous Australians to achieve and exercise power. But do the existing mechanisms of democratic participation by such a small minority, who are unique in that they are indigenous to the country, and whose socioeconomic circumstances are so egregiously out of step with the rest of the country, work to ensure my people enjoy the same expectations of life as their fellow citizens? No, they do not.

Pearson then spells out the lack of structural power of Indigenous people. Indigenous people are too small a minority to make government work for them.. When it comes to indigenous dealings with the executive of government, again indigenous people - as a result of their small numbers - are not in a position to make government work for us.

Pearson then says that there are three ways to think about how to address this lack of structural power on the part of a small minority within an otherwise functioning democracy that serves its mainstream well.

First, one could seek to increase representation and participation of indigenous people in the institutions of power and in administration. This is the usual response and this aim should continue to be pursued. But even if aggressive affirmative action were adopted, the comparative weight of numbers means an increase in representation and participation would not fix the structural power deficit. Affirmative action is likely to be strongly resisted. Although proposals for special provisioning of parliamentary representation have been put on the agenda in Australia, the fight for such an outcome is likely to be far greater than the benefit of the outcome. Getting a small minority of political representatives into legislatures will not fix the nub problem.

He says that that secondly, one could establish separate institutions of governance for the indigenous community--as in the creation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and other national, regional and local institutions have been supported by federal and state governments from time to time for this purpose. Though Indigenous governance institutions are important it is their interface with government that is the nub question.

How do these indigenous institutions relate to the real sources of power in Australia, namely its governments? What is the relationship? Is the relationship based on negotiation and is there mutuality in the relationship?
It is one thing for governments to delegate to indigenous institutions certain space for governance of their own affairs (as was done with ATSIC), but the crucial question remains: what is the nature of the interface between the indigenous institution and government?

This was particularly important in the case of ATSIC because its jurisdiction did not cover the whole field of indigenous affairs.The commonwealth continued to be responsible for important components of indigenous affairs (such as education, health and income support), and state and territory governments also held a jurisdiction unconnected with ATSIC.

ATSIC's purview was not comprehensive and in any case its relation with the commonwealth was in the nature of a client commission, subject to direction by a commonwealth minister and accountable through various mechanisms to the federal government. This accountability relationship was not mutual; it did not impose return obligations on the federal government and no attempt was made to establish equality between the indigenous commission and government. The point of ATSIC was not to establish an interface with government; rather, it established an indigenous affairs ghetto away from the main game.

So we move onto the third option:

Third, one could focus on the interface between indigenous people and governments, state and federal, and construct mechanisms that ensured equality between them. Partnerships between grossly unequal partners are not real partnerships; rather, they are master-servant, boss-client relationships.If consultation and not negotiation is the principal official means of transaction between the parties, then there is not a true partnership. Rather, there is one party with the power to act unilaterally and one that is subject to that power.

Pearson concludes that there has never been a serious attempt to focus on the institutional interface between indigenous people and governments in Australia. To construct an interface that creates greater parity and mutual accountability (and true shared responsibility) would require governments to agree to limitations on their existing powers and prerogatives and to make accountability a two-way street rather than the existing one-way street. It would also require governments to be bound not just by policy commitment but by law.

This is not likely to happen in the near future.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:20 AM | | Comments (2)


This is not likely to happen in the near future.

No, it is not likely. So what to do about the urgent problems facing us right now?

It's a problem.

There are six Aboriginal members of the NT parliament, and two ministers -- but despite a raft of plans and legislative efforts, genuine progress to date has been hard to discern.

Do what Noel Pearson does I guess. He is making a difference in Cape York isn't he? This is community-led action, premised on governments being prepared to listen to and trust local community leaders, and by supporting communities themselves to make the abuse of alcohol a socially unacceptable behaviour.

What won't work is forcing programs on anyone by a Government hungry for power and control, and prepared to ignore evidence to use it.

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