The silent politics of Aboriginal Australia

Posted on August 11, 2010 by

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At the tail end of the special ‘Prime Minister’ edition of the ABC’s Q&A program last Monday night, an audience member asked why there has been a great silence around ‘giving the first peoples of Australia a fair go’ in this election campaign. Unsurprisingly, Julia Gillard flatly denied the claim, voicing her commitment to further ‘close the gap’ in Indigenous life expectancy, health and education, as well as pointing to Kevin Rudd’s Apology as a defining moment in Australia’s history. Specifically, she noted Jenny Macklin’s recent talk of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians as proof that the Government has not sidelined Aboriginal issues.

I suppose on the technical definition of ‘silence’, Gillard has a point. Macklin’s announcement, the first on Indigenous policy in the election campaign thus far, directed attention to the fact that there remain significant systemic blockages to the realisation of Aboriginal equality and justice. While committing only to the convening of a panel of experts to draft an amendment to the constitution which will, at some point in the future, be put to the people in a referendum, there is at least some hope that this Government will seek to build on such acts as the Apology in pursuit of true reconciliation.

There is, however, much ambivalence about just what this entails. In the fraught realm of Aboriginal politics we have come to somewhat of an impasse between pragmatic action – such as the Intervention and Close the Gap initiatives – and the symbolic – encompassing acts such as the reconciliation march, the Apology and now constitutional recognition. Justifiably, many question just what tangible benefits the latter are actually bringing to the everyday experience of Indigenous Australians. As I have said before, my opinion on the Intervention, for example, has been muddied by the qualified support for its continuation expressed by various experts in Indigenous affairs; while still rejecting the policy on the basis of its paternalism and bypassing of basic human rights, the argument that ‘children must come first’ is one that I find hard to dismiss.

What I am much more sure about, however, is the need for a change in the way Australian society views and positions Aboriginal people – to that extent, I think symbolic acts promise a great deal. In The Age this morning Sarah Maddison wrote that what needs to change ‘is not so much the content of individual policies as the context in which policy is made.’ This ‘context’, I would add, is not on the whole defined by overt racism, but is rather characterised by a much more nuanced tendency to speak of Aboriginal people in a pathological light – as disadvantaged, uneducated and forever in need of a ‘leg up’ to reach the standards of the broader population. Gillard committed this very act on Q&A by immediately pointing to the Government’s pledge to address ‘educational disadvantage’ which would, she seemed to suggest, inevitably encompass the problems facing Indigenous children. The generalised assumption that educational disadvantage and Aboriginal concerns fall in the same policy basket represents clearly here the broader problems surrounding the highly politicised realm of Indigenous Affairs.

I of course don’t mean to condemn attempts to improve the broad social issues confronting many Indigenous people, but I think there is a great need to change the dynamic perpetuated by politicians and the media, whereby Aboriginal people are placed in a subordinate and inherently powerless role, as natural ‘receivers’ of government assistance. This can only come about through continued dialogue, recognition and an increasing prominence of Indigenous voices in Australia’s mainstream media and political institutions. With the nation’s attention in the final run to the election, now would be a good time for our leaders to get that process in motion.

Words – Dylan Bird

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Posted in: Analysis, Dylan Bird