Look for Strength in the Mainstream
When Australians voted overwhelmingly in favour of the 1967 Referendum, it is inconceivable that they wanted Aborigines to develop separately from the rest of Australia. The Referendum was an act of inclusion. Aboriginal leaders from the 1930s to the 1950s wanted equality. With the support of the Australian people, they achieved it. Unfortunately, the next generation of leaders wanted something else, collective self-determination.
When Aboriginal policy encouraged inclusion, it was good. It has since overshot the mark and needs to be reined in. Orthodox thinking in Aboriginal policy is that Aboriginal people have the right to establish their own society within the dominant society. The orthodoxy forgets that traditional Aboriginal society was a gerontocracy, the rule of old men. That world, and that authority, broke down a long time ago.
The technologically naÃ¯ve, closed, geographically limited Aboriginal society was never going to survive European settlement. Moreover, the conditions that make possible a modern re-creation of Aboriginal culture destroy the old. Democracy destroys the authority of the elders, and new knowledge makes the old knowledge less powerful. The new language, necessary to communicate the solidarity of Aboriginal people, destroys the need for the old languages. Science destroys the need for much belief in myth. Material wealth destroys every aspect of the previous economy, and the social organisation based on those practices.
The new authorities in Aboriginal society---ATSIC, Land Councils, separate Aboriginal services and programs---stand in the way of the bounty of the 1967 Referendum. ATSIC is rallying support for a Treaty, an apology and reparations to the Stolen Generations, and the recognition of customary rights. This agenda suits a political class, not necessarily Aboriginal people. There are no Aboriginal nations with whom Australia could or should make a Treaty. The democratic nation-state is one of the great triumphs of political organisation. It is an insult for its title to be applied to tribes or clans, especially those that enjoy state protection and sponsorship. The question of apologies and reparations are legal matters; individuals are at liberty to pursue damages in the courts. Customary rights are a misnomer; customs derive from acceptance and use, not codification and enforcement.
Aboriginal people won their freedom in 1967, but they lost their livelihood and they lost their protection---the missions, rural employment, remoteness---from the onslaught of the modern world. The task now is to help them adjust to that world. Failing that, we condemn them to poverty and domination by the new authorities. Aboriginal politics remains family and clan-based, and centres on the disbursement of someone else's surplus. It is the same as the internal politics of political parties, personal and vicious.
Self-determination and self-government are not exercised by toy parliaments like ATSIC. They only occur when a group taxes itself and disburses its own surplus. Norfolk Island is seen as the political model for Aboriginal self-determination, but politics is not enough. Norfolk pays its way, it is integrated into the modern economy. Aboriginal people must make the transition that Norfolk Islanders made.
The new land rights deny traditional elders their land and the freedom to dispose of it as they think fit. Aboriginal domestic violence services deny Aboriginal women protection from family violence. CDEP keeps Aboriginal people trapped in poverty and meaningless activity. Myriad other services---housing, health, legal---keep Aboriginal families in thrall of those who dispense government largesse. Government largesse has destroyed self-respect. With that comes drug abuse, and violence to women and children.
Any number of initiatives can sensibly assist Aboriginal people, but only those programs that assist the inclusion of Aboriginal people into the wider society should be supported. All publicly-funded separatist programs must be phased out. For example, buying and claiming land comes at a time when land resources have never been less valuable. Spiritual attachment to land will not sustain communities, only the skills necessary for survival in a modern world can do that.
The policies Aboriginal people need are those that allow them to engage in the wider world. At present, too many Aboriginal children are school truants. Parents lack the authority to send them, schools are too afraid to make them attend. In the NT, some Aboriginal parents are eschewing the local school system, where their children are treated as cultural curios, and are sending them to boarding schools where they will learn skills.
Dignity for Aboriginal people does not lie in the ideology of state-sponsored cultural solidarity and separate political and social institutions. Aboriginal people need the same skills as every other citizen, skills that will allow them individual self-determination.