Tony Abbott and the white man’s burden

Tony Abbott is the ‘prime minister for aboriginal affairs’, but the height of his ambition appears to be employing Indigenous rubbish collectors. Tony Abbott is committed to ‘closing the gap’ … except that his Indigenous staff are paid less than their colleagues. Tony Abbott promises Indigenous engagement and reform but he has done little to break the cosy Canberra consensus.

Most politicians are grievous hypocrites and Tony Abbott is most politicians. That he claims one thing yet does another is not surprising. This is the same prime minister who claims to oppose racism while planning to dismantle protections against it.

It is tempting to frame Abbott’s commitment to Indigenous people in similar terms: rhetoric, not reality. But that explanation is too simple and does nothing to capture the complexity of Indigenous affairs. Abbott is not a paradox but a perfect product of colonial history.

See, Tony Abbott is a paternalist. He favours centralisation, not self-determination. He favours top-down management, not bottom-up solutions. Abbott is an ideological descendant of the Aborigines’ Protection Society and the London humanists of the nineteenth century.

Instead of devolving power to Indigenous people –the trend in Canada, New Zealand and the United States – Abbott is centralising it in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. While noting concern at the ‘top down nature’ of the Northern Territory Intervention Abbott indulges his totalitarian instincts and supports top-down income management. While he is all for ‘closing the gap’ – in health, wealth, education and incarceration – he is pursuing cuts that will reinforce them. Abbott’s policy programme is a nod to the nineteenth century.

While there might be an element of magnanimity in Abbott’s rhetorical commitment to Indigenous people, his policy programme is anything but magnanimous. Indigenous policy is an outlet for his ideological vanities and it represents a return to – or a reaffirmation of – the destructive doctrine of primitivism.

Paternalism is rooted in primitivism. During the colonial era, primitivism provided moral cover for imperialism. The idea was that Indigenous people – as illiterate and debauched – could not make decisions for themselves. Governing the savages was the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Whites had a moral obligation to give the gift of civilisation.

In 2006, Abbott had the confidence to declare that Indigenous self-determination had failed and a ‘new form of paternalism’ was needed. Abbott claimed that Australians’ ‘sense of guilt about the past, and naive idealisation of communal life, may now be the biggest obstacle to the betterment of Aborigines’.

There it was, perfectly expressed: the white saviour complex, rooted in primitivism and expressed as paternalism. Abbott was reaching into the colonial past and repurposing the top-down policies and rhetoric of that time. The White Man’s Burden – but framed in the language of a policy imperative rather than a ‘divine duty’ to impart civilisation. Abbott pitches himself as the corrective patriarch, with Indigenous people as wayward children.

But paternalism is not a solution. Paternalism is the problem.

From the ‘Native Institute’ (a school for assimilating and correcting ‘the very wretched State of the Aborigines of this country’) in the nineteenth century, to the Stolen Generations in the twentieth, paternalism has not worked. From the ‘Protectorates’ of Victoria to the ‘Reserves’ of wider Australia, paternalism has not worked.

I remember the 2007 intervention vividly. I was 15 and visiting my grandparents in Melbourne. I remember thinking that Melbourned’s affluent Sandringham – where my grandparents call home – is about as far removed from the squalid communities of the Northern Territory as you could get.

Unlike New Zealand where history is closer and Maori are a fact in public life, it is remarkably easy to treat Indigenous people as an abstraction in Australia. They are only part of public life when they become a ‘problem’ and, therefore, a target for paternalism.

My grandparents – bless them! – were firmly opposed to the Intervention. I felt that in their earlier years they would have thundered at what they called ‘the national shame’: Australia’s treatment of the – note how I did not say ‘its’ – Indigenous people. But on that day they were merely resigned to another paternalistic intervention, feeling that opinion and practice had barely moved in the decades they had lived in Australia.

I wonder how many other Australians had the energy to oppose yet another paternalist intervention.

But Australia does not have to conduct its Indigenous affairs in a vacuum. There are models other than the paternalist past and the bleak present. From the former English settler colonies to the settler colonies of South America, the rest of the world is blazing a trail. Progress can be made when Indigenous people can participate in the political economy on their terms, when the constitution recognises them on their terms and when society accepts them in that way.

I do not want that to be a trite declaration. What I mean is self-determination. The Indigenous people of Australia are not just a minority but a nation within a state. The corollary of nationalism is self-determination.

I recognise this is a foundational argument and a consequentialist one. Self-determination is both the means and the end. That is unhelpfully circular, but I do not think there is a contradiction.

Self-determination is an Indigenous right. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, The Human Rights Council and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People make that plain. It is not merely a matter of legalism. Extensive research from Harvard University has revealed that sovereignty matters in a social and economic context:

When Native nations make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental form, natural resource management, economic development, health care, and social service provision.

I do not claim to know the best solution but it is clear paternalism has not worked. It is abundantly clear that self-determination has worked overseas. In New Zealand, Maori tribes have made significant social, political and economic progress as the government devolves functions to local communities. Maori enjoy the right, at least to a certain extent, to engage the political economy and New Zealand society on our terms. That is a big step in decolonisation.

Indigenous progress does not require an ill-informed technocrat. It needs, firstly, an acknowledgement of Indigenous people as human and, secondly, the extension – to borrow the New Zealand framing – of all the ‘rights and privileges’ of Australian citizens to Indigenous people. That means Indigenous people must have the right to decide what is best for them. Self-determination is decolonisation.

The Indigenous people of Australia are the oldest continuing civilisation in the world. Their cultural patterns, political habits and their roots in the land have sustained them for thousands of years. Is it not obvious that the solution to their problems lies within their communities, not in dictates of government? Only self-determination will break the cosy Canberra consensus on Indigenous affairs.

Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a writer and trade unionist. He lives in Dunedin and works at the University of Otago.

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  1. It seems that Indigenous practices with respect to community, land and sustenance are in direct opposition to capitalist private property rights, working and production for trade and fierce individualism (alienation). Self-determination is not acceptable within capitalism or, if it is, is defined fairly strictly within the limits of capitalist practices. That’s what I think you are up against. Do you think that is a useful way to frame it?

    1. Hi Anitra,

      As a general rule, yes. Though we must be careful in generalising. Indigenous cultures are neither uniform nor static. We are never going to return to pre-colonial, pre-industrial indigenous cultures. I don’t think anyone actually wants that. Indigenous people across the world are trying to figure out how to integrate with western systems rather than separate and run some idealised form of indigenous culture.

      There are different approaches. In New Zealand, Maori iwi (tribes) have integrated into the political economy. There are points of tension, but the integration has been relatively successful. For example, many iwi run successful businesses and distribute the benefits collectively. For the most part those businesses are run according to Maori values. Many hapu (sub-tribes or extended families) continue to own land collectively. The advantage Maori have is guaranteed representation in Parliament. Parliamentary representation has meant that Maori have always been a factor in the distribution of public power. Unfortunately many indigenous people don’t have that advantage.

      However, others have benefited from the doctrine of benign neglect. So often an attempt to put indigenous people out of sight and out of mind, many Native Nations in the United States have turned that into a benefit. For example, some Native Nations run their own forms of government – from police services to the judicial system (e.g. the Navajo). The limit on their power is the US Constitution. Maori in New Zealand don’t run their own governments. But as in New Zealand, some Native Nations have been very successful in integrating their government systems into the capitalist economy.

      Ultimately I think you’re right. Capitalism will always moderate self-determination. As will liberal democracy. There can only be one sovereign power in a liberal democracy. After all, the logic of colonialism is chiefly economic. Anyway, I’m rambling now. I hope this helps. Thanks.

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