August 2007


Robert Manne

Pearson’s gamble, Stanner’s dream

The past and future of remote Australia

In 1934 the Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, AE Elkin, published a small pamphlet which called for "a positive policy which aims at the welfare and development of the aborigines". To us, Elkin's words seem anodyne. For his contemporaries, they had a galvanising effect. Before Elkin's pamphlet, Aboriginal policy had passed through just two phases. In the first, the Aborigines, an impediment to the steady expansion of the pastoral economy, were subdued. By the end of this phase, as a result of disease, removal from hunting grounds and water sources and the impact of armed force, perhaps half of the 500 or so tribes that existed at the time of the arrival of the British settlers had vanished altogether from the face of the Earth. In the second phase, those Aborigines who had survived the initial onslaught were segregated, either voluntarily on government stations, Christian missions and reserves or involuntarily in detention camps, and protected by an ever-tightening net of special laws that controlled movement, marriage, sexual behaviour, the fate of children, employment, savings and the consumption of alcohol. At the time of Elkin's pamphlet most Australians believed it was only a matter of time before the surviving remnant would die out. Following his call for a positive policy, a 70-year journey of government-led policy experiments to build a future for the Aborigines began. The mood of these experiments has since lurched erratically between rather pessimistic realism and over-optimistic hope. The most recent experiment was the decision in June to dispatch police, troops and medical workers to protect Aboriginal children on the remote settlements of the Northern Territory. The Howard government has now altogether abandoned the hopes embedded in the language of reconciliation. Realism once more rules. How did we arrive at this point?

It took a decade and a half for the first positive policy to be formulated clearly. It was labelled assimilation. The postwar Minister for Territories in the Menzies government, Paul Hasluck, was its philosophical driving force. For Hasluck, assimilation was not a set of administrative devices but a destination. The destination was this: "All Aborigines and part-Aborigines will attain the same manner of living as other Australians, as members of a single community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians." The policy was frankly paternalistic, although the word was not used. Hasluck described welfare work among Aborigines as "sheltering, protecting, guiding, teaching and helping, and eventually, as the perhaps most difficult act ... quietly withdrawing without any proud fuss when the Aboriginal entered the Australian community". The policy was also gradualist. Hasluck assumed that the destination might not be reached for all Aborigines for three generations or more. He did not believe that assimilation implied racial inter-marriage and biological absorption, as many inter-war Australian native administrators did. He did not believe that it was necessary that all Aborigines would ultimately leave their ancestral homelands, although he thought that as a matter of fact very many would.

But where he was insistent was that Aborigines had no future as a distinct or separate people. The government might not actively work to destroy Aboriginal language and culture, but Hasluck believed that eventually both would have to go. In a letter to a churchman he put the point like this. Australians could not "have it both ways". If the aim was to facilitate eventual Aboriginal entry into the wider Australian society "on equal terms", such an ambition was quite simply "incompatible with full and active preservation of their languages and culture without any changes".

Towards the end of his life, after his policy had been discredited, Hasluck stated his case about the inevitable end of the Aborigines as a distinct people, about assimilation as their inevitable fate, with uncharacteristic polemical sarcasm. Were Aborigines, he asked in Shades of Darkness,

to be living museum pieces? Or a sort of fringe community whose quaint customs are stared at by tourists? Will the drone of the didgeridoo, the clicking of the boomerangs and the stomping in the red dust in the red centre of Australia still be the sufficient employment for the grandchildren of the people of Ularu? Will the separate development that is being pursued with a beneficent purpose today have the result that after two or three generations persons of Aboriginal descent find that they are shut out from participation in most of what is happening in the continent and are behind glass in a vast museum, or are in a sort of open-range zoo?

Aborigines were, in his vision, destined to be nothing more than an ethnicity. At most, Aborigines would have vague memories of what their people once had been. For Hasluck, the idea of a separate people was separatism; apartness was apartheid. He stared at the total destruction of the way of life of the people the British had encountered in Australia, and did not blink.

During the late 1960s and early '70s the policy of assimilation was abandoned. The most general explanation for this was the impact in Australia of the profound revolution in sensibility which took hold in the West at that time: the belated recognition of racism as a dimension of Western civilisation. Perhaps only now had the meaning of the Holocaust been grasped. Europeans and European settler societies realised that their history had for centuries been sullied by the assumption of their superiority and the barbarous actions which had been granted permission as a result. In the US the civil-rights movement grew. Western opinion became increasingly sympathetic to the anti-colonial liberation struggles of the peoples in the European empires. White dominance in South Africa and Rhodesia came to seem intolerable. And in Australia, not only were the cultural assumptions underlying the assimilation policy questioned; more deeply, the fate of the Aborigines, which had interested a small segment of the educated public since the 1930s, now became for the first time a matter of general political significance. The old indifference lifted. It was as if, from this moment, many Australians came only now to see with moral clarity what had been in front of their noses since the arrival of the British: what their presence had meant for the original inhabitants, what they and their forebears had actually done. Nor was recognition of racism all that was required of Australians. It seems plausible to suppose that all nations yearn for a noble myth of origin. As Australia was founded by an act of dispossession, coming to terms with what had been done was to prove unusually hard - far more difficult, for example, than for Americans to come to accept the ignominy of black slavery.

Grasping the true meaning of what had occurred in the settlement of Australia required something far less abstract than what I have written so far implies. It required an intimate understanding of the nature of the people which had been dispossessed. For this understanding Australians relied on the work of the anthropologists. Although many were important - Howitt and Fison; Spencer and Gillen, Walter Roth; Radcliffe-Brown; Elkin; Ronald and Catherine Berndt - in this vital task of national education, no one was of more significance than WEH Stanner, in my opinion if not the greatest of the anthropologists (I am in no position to judge), then certainly the most interesting writer on Aboriginal society Australia has ever seen.

The older anthropologists had looked on the Aborigines they studied as a Stone Age people on the edge of extinction. Baldwin Spencer, for example, introduced his two-volume 1928 memoir, Wanderings in Wild Australia, with these words: "Australia is the present home and refuge of animals, including man himself, that have elsewhere become extinct and given place to higher forms." Stanner, by contrast, never tired of trying to convince his readers that the Aborigines were a contemporary people. To think of history as "a linear sequence", with the primitive Aborigines at the beginning and Europeans at the end, he wrote as early as 1958, and to suggest that "all we have to do is to instruct them in the manifest virtues of our style of life" and wait for them to "‘unlearn' being Aborigines in mind, body and estate", was a malignant and self-centred "fantasy", whose consequences were to be seen "in a thousand miserable encampments around the continent".

The older anthropologists never doubted their superiority to the people they studied. "The idea of putting any of their beliefs to the test of experiment never entered their heads," Spencer typically informed his readers during a discussion of magic. This was a tone of which Stanner was incapable. Perhaps the finest essay ever written by an Australian is Stanner's portrait in White Man Got No Dreaming of one of his lifelong Aboriginal friends, Durmugam. In it, Stanner sails assuredly between the customary rocks of peril waiting for writers on Aborigines - condescension and sentimentality. It is hard to convey the flavour of the essay, but here are snatches from its final pages:

He was for me the most characterful Aboriginal I have known ... I am sure he was deeply moved to live by the rules of his tradition as he understood it. He wanted to live a blackfellow's life, having the rights of a man, and following up the Dreaming ... He venerated his culture ... I do not believe he ever formed a deep attachment to any European, myself included. He knew I was making use of him and, as a due for good service, he made use of me, always civilly, never unscrupulously or importunately ... [One] young man's remark, ‘If I live I live, if I die I die' had seemed to Durmugam monstrous. To him, how a man lived and what he lived for were of first importance. But he himself had in part succumbed. He now spent much time playing poker (there were five aces in one of his pack of cards) ... He still went bootless, but wore a hat and well-kept shirt and trousers ... Durmugam came to good terms with Europeanism, but found it saltless all his days and, at the end, bitter too ... it never attracted him emotionally, it did not interest him intellectually, and it aroused only his material desires. 

Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen's The Native Tribes of Central Australia is probably the most influential book ever written by Australians. It provided the source material for Freud's Totem and Taboo and Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life. And yet, when Spencer wrote of Aboriginal ceremony it was as if he was peering through the glass of an aquarium. These passages are taken from his memoir:

The ancestor is rarely represented as doing anything more interesting than looking around, wriggling his body in an extraordinary way, or perhaps eating something ... The natives were very anxious that we should see everything, which sometimes resulted in our spending a good many uncomfortable hours watching dreary performances of no special interest. 

WEH Stanner's most important work concerned Aboriginal religion. For him there is no aquarium glass: "While at song, the celebrants vie rather than compete ... The men's faces take on a glow of animation and tender intent. At the last exclamatory cry - Karwadi, yoi - everyone shouts as with one voice. An observer feels that he is in the presence of true congregation, a full sociality at the peak of intimacy, altruism and union." Because Stanner does not feel superior to what he is observing or to the people he is among, he is capable of entering the Aboriginal world of meaning in a quite extraordinary way. No one has explicated more lucidly for outsiders the metaphysic of the Dreamtime, for which he coined the neologism "everywhen". No one has taken us more profoundly to an understanding of the Aboriginal world view:

Murinbata religion might well be described as the celebration of a dependent life which is conceived as having taken a wrongful turn at the beginning, a turn such that the good life is now inescapably connected with suffering ... The Murinbata, like all the Aborigines, gave the impression of having stopped short of, or gone beyond, a quarrel with the terms of life. 

And no one other than Stanner could capture the Aboriginal sense of life more vividly, and in a single phrase: "A joyful thing with maggots at the centre."

Stanner's 1968 Boyer Lectures are probably the most influential radio broadcasts in our history. For one thing, Henry Reynolds tells us that it was only after hearing them that he decided to study Aboriginal history. Most famously, Stanner identified and analysed what he called the Great Australian Silence on the dispossession. "Inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness ... Simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale." But he also captured the depth of Aboriginal attachment to country more powerfully than had any writer until that time:

No English words are good enough to give a sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland ... A different tradition leaves us tongueless and earless towards this other world ... What I describe as  "homelessness", then, means that the Aborigine faced a kind of vertigo of meaning. 

In the lectures Stanner provided the most devastating critique of the policy of assimilation that had yet been given by a non-Aborigine: "We are asking them to become a new people but this means that we are asking them in human terms to un-be what they now are." And, in addition, he provided the most plausible explanation of why the Hasluck policy of assimilation would eventually be rejected:

Just as in the nineteenth century a sense of physical and biological principle steadily permeated the public mentality so a sense of what I will broadly call "anthropological principle" may be permeating our own century's mentality. I mean by that a steady awareness that there are no natural scales of better or worse on which we can range the varieties of men, culture and society. 

AE Elkin stood, in sensibility, halfway between Spencer and Stanner. He could write movingly of the enchanted Aboriginal world, but also about the Aborigines as a primitive people and the supposedly smaller size of the Aboriginal brain. As mentioned, he was the original source of the positive policy that ended in the idea of assimilation. For both these reasons I found very telling indeed an incident recorded in the biography of Elkin by Tigger Wise. Elkin had invited Paul Hasluck to address the 1959 annual congress of Australian and New Zealand anthropologists. In his speech, Hasluck told the audience: "Looked at from one point of view the weakness of the old Aboriginal society ... is an advantage. The more it crumbles, the more readily may its fragments be mingled with the rest of the people living in Australia." Elkin was agitated. Wise tells us that he saw in these remarks "all his ideas twisted and misapplied". He took to the rostrum to deliver a rebuke: "The Aborigines themselves will observe a partial and voluntary segregation - an apartness for an unpredictable period ... This apartness is a sense of belonging ... Our task is to see that the phase of apartness does not become apartheid ..."

Elkin had spent his life studying the Aborigines. He had come to admire deeply their way of life. Faced with light-hearted talk about the end of Aboriginal Australia, even Elkin, the intellectual father of assimilation, blinked. So did the political leaders of Australia in the 1970s - Malcolm Fraser no less than Gough Whitlam - as the policy of assimilation was abandoned in favour of a policy of self-determination and reconciliation.

There were very real achievements in the new, post-assimilation era. Land rights were granted by statute throughout Australia. In the Mabo and Wik judgements native title was discovered to exist in common law. In 1975 the Racial Discrimination Act was passed. In the new school of history pioneered by Charles Rowley and Henry Reynolds, the Great Australian Silence was shattered. The reports of both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Human Rights Commission on Aboriginal child removal shook the nation. In 1991 a formal structure aimed at achieving reconciliation was established.

Yet it must be stressed that the generation educated by WEH Stanner, which had finally opened its eyes to the full moral meaning of the dispossession, now hoped for more than this. What this more consisted of is best revealed in the thought of the most influential intellectual figure of the post-assimilation era, the former Treasury head Nugget Coombs, Stanner's close friend and political collaborator. Coombs believed that through the policy of allowing Aborigines self-determination or, as he often preferred to call it, their autonomy, the traditional way of life of the Aborigines need not die. He advocated government support for hundreds of small, decentralised Aboriginal communities in what he called their homelands. He hoped these communities would be formed so far as possible, according to the pre-conquest divisions of language, tribe and even clan. He hoped for nothing less than the rebirth of the Aboriginal world.

Coombs was not the kind of Rousseauian, ‘noble savage' dreamer that his ideological enemies on the Right invariably suggest. He did not believe that these re-established groups would be unaffected in a multitude of ways by the undeniable fact of the dispossession, and by the existence alongside them of an advanced Western materialist-industrial civilisation. This presented no unsurmountable problem. He argued that far from being hidebound or inflexible, Aboriginal culture was dynamic, flexible and adaptive. Coombs imagined a future for the homeland communities where traditional hunting and gathering would be able to be combined with a monetary economy based on welfare payments and small-scale market activities, like cattle raising, emu or crocodile farming, land management, and the production and sale of arts and crafts. He did not deny that all Aboriginal children needed an education that equipped them for some participation in the contemporary world by providing them with basic modern skills. In one of his essays he wrote that he had yet to meet an Aboriginal parent who did not want his or her children to be literate and numerate. Nor did he ignore altogether the evidence of the social ills affecting the remote Aboriginal communities he knew. Coombs wrote from time to time about male violence against women, the indiscipline of the younger generation and the problem of alcohol. After visiting Yuendumu with Stanner, the pair accepted that there was need for a police presence to deal with "brawls and other disorder arising out of ... abuse of drink".

And yet, if Coombs' critics on the Right, like Peter Howson or Helen Hughes, offer a distorted picture of him as nothing but a utopian collectivist fantasist, his defensive friends on the Left, like Tim Rowse, now offer an even more distorted portrait of Coombs as a moderate economic rationalist, eminently capable of passing a contemporary neo-liberal respectability test. In the last two decades of his life Coombs was a critic of Western materialist civilisation, capable, for example, of calling it the "beer and Coca-Cola" culture, or quoting with approval a description of it as "life without reverence for the past, love for the present or hope for the future". Because he was open to such a bleak view about his own society, it is not surprising that he often wrote as if he genuinely believed that the Aboriginal way of life was superior to the one in which he lived: "That human beings are at home in a hunter-gatherer society is not surprising. They have been adapted to it for more than 500,000 years." Nor is it surprising that he was fiercely opposed to the imposition on Aboriginal children of a Western world view. On one occasion Coombs described purely Western education for Aborigines as "cultural genocide". On another he expressed opposition to the idea of compulsory school attendance. Rather, Coombs advocated a "two-way education", with not only a Western but also an Aboriginal dimension. This would help, he believed, to "decolonise" the Aboriginal mind. Coombs also wanted to "Aboriginalise work". He was enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the Fraser government's Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme, which allowed Aborigines to be paid while continuing their hunting and gathering, and gave them time to devote to their religious ceremonies. He supported the re-institution, wherever possible, of Aboriginal customary law. He regarded attempts to interfere with traditional punishments, like leg spearing or the system of "pay-back", as "ethnocentric".

Coombs believed that in the era of self-determination and land rights an authentic revival of Aboriginal life was indeed occurring. "There are," he wrote, "widespread reports of increasing activity in Aboriginal ceremonial life." Distinctive forms of education were, he believed, thriving: "There is a quality of enthusiasm, indeed exuberance, about Yolgnu education at present." As traditional life revived, he thought the problems of young people fell away: "Almost universally the problems of delinquency appear to decline and disappear." While alcohol abuse might presently be a problem, he seemed convinced that it was coming under control. Indeed, "Aboriginal concern and action in this matter," he wrote on one occasion, compared "favourably with that in Western society". In the conclusion to his collection of essays, Aboriginal Autonomy, published about the time that John Howard regained the leadership of the Liberal Party, Coombs summarised the meaning of all this in the following way:

In the years since the apparent "consensus" in approach by the Whitlam and Fraser governments, the direction of change has inexorably been towards greater independence for Aboriginal Australians. Despite the repudiation of that "consensus", Aboriginals have made by their own initiatives, intelligence and dedication, remarkable progress in the achievement of a lifestyle more healthy, more creative and more characteristically Aboriginal than has previously been possible since their dispossession. 

A miracle was occurring. Traditional Aboriginal life was in the process of revival. At the time, few members of the left-liberal intelligentsia would have disagreed strongly with these words.

In the 1960s the British anthropologist David McKnight first began fieldwork on Mornington Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He continued regular visits over a period of 30 years. In 2002 he published a study of social life on Mornington Island, From Hunting to Drinking. It is the most remarkable portrait of an Aboriginal community in the age of self-determination I have read. For McKnight, by far the most significant event during the period of his visits was the opening of the canteen in 1976. For the vast majority of Mornington Islanders drinking now became the "main social activity". McKnight noticed that those who used to go hunting until dusk now returned by two in the afternoon, so as not to miss the opening of the canteen. "It felt," he tells us, "as if all the people were drunk all of the time or at least most of the people were drunk most of the time." Dreadful alcohol-related deaths soon began occurring: "Teddy Bell and his brother were drinking and in the middle of the night Pat Bell woke up and discovered that Teddy was drinking methylated spirits. He tried to stop him and in the resulting struggle Teddy accidentally stabbed himself to death."

By the '90s, of the 900 or so Indigenous inhabitants, McKnight calculated that there were 40 women and eight men who did not drink. Most drunk to wild excess. McKnight also calculated that by the '90s, on average 50% of income was spent on alcohol. The effects on health were catastrophic: "After ten years of drinking people were dying at such a rate that the carpenter built spare coffins." Wild drunken fights became common. Fights had once been about something - kinship loyalty or women - but now they were about nothing. Although McKnight continued to do so, it was now dangerous to walk about the community at night. Going to a film had been a pleasant experience when McKnight first came to Mornington Island. Because of the likelihood of a violent drunken incident, it ceased to be. The cinema was closed.

Children were badly affected. Babies were often neglected. Girls became vulnerable to sexual abuse. Although the community was awash with money, cases of malnutrition occurred. After ten years of schooling most children were illiterate. Even more, some could barely speak. Marital relations deteriorated badly: "Women appeared to be treated as objects, as if they were things." Rape had not been a problem in the past. It became so now, especially for white women or Indigenous women who associated with whites. Among the three tribal groups on Mornington Island - the Lardil, the Yangkaal and the Kaiadilt - suicide was unknown before the arrival of Europeans. Before the 1980s it remained virtually unknown. Yet between 1996 and 2000 there were 22 suicides on Mornington Island. In Queensland the rate of suicide for these years was 13.7 per 100,000; on Mornington Island it was 466. Between 1914 and 1978 there was one homicide on Mornington Island. Since the opening of the canteen there had been 15. All but one of the killers were male. Most of the victims were wives.

McKnight is an anthropologist. He offers some cultural explanations for this disaster. The Mornington Islanders were not a "moderate" people. They lived traditionally on "the edge", with dancing, initiation ceremonies, violent clashes. Drinking is also an exciting activity, with people living for the time at a heightened pitch. The Mornington Islanders have egalitarian traditions. Drink drags everyone down to the same level; no one is better than anyone else. They have no tradition of regulated consumption; everything available was and is instantly consumed. They were also a single-activity people. Once they were hunter-gatherers; now they are drinkers. Yet he also offers more political explanations. Work under CDEP has become meaningless. What the Mornington Islanders have learnt, he tells us, is that "a job not worth doing is not worth doing well". Ironically, in the age of so-called self-determination, almost everything is done by the whites who bowl in to work for the shire. They establish less human connection with the Indigenous Mornington Islanders than did the missionaries. The Mornington Islanders, especially the men, feel powerless and humiliated. Life has been stripped of meaning. A people that once lived vibrantly as hunter-gatherers is now profoundly, existentially, bored.

It is difficult to know how typical Mornington Island is of remote Aboriginal communities, at least of those where for some time alcohol has flowed; how far McKnight's terrifying portrait is coloured by his sceptical and sardonic disposition; and whether life has improved on Mornington Island since attempts began in recent years to restrict alcohol there. But there is one thing at least that seems clear. The contradiction between what McKnight and many others observed on remote Aboriginal communities, and what Nugget Coombs and a generation of left-liberals imagined was happening on such communities and, even more, what they dreamt might eventually happen there - nothing less than the revival of a healthy and authentic Aboriginal life - would sooner or later require some new and radical thinking to be done.

It was Noel Pearson who broke the ideological stalemate over Aboriginal policy and the remote communities. Pearson had been a land-rights activist and a man of the Left. At one memorable moment in the early years of the Howard government, during the political skirmishes surrounding native title, he had labelled his conservative opponents "racist scum". In 1999 he shifted gear. Pearson now acknowledged that over the past quarter-century or so the communities at Cape York had experienced what he would call "a descent into hell". For the Left, insofar as problems of violence, sexual abuse, suicide, alcoholism, drug dependency, petrol sniffing, gambling, illiteracy, truancy and child neglect were acknowledged, the historic process of colonisation and the trauma associated with the dispossession were blamed. Although this explanation might in the most general sense be true, for Pearson it was not only useless - by explaining everything it explained nothing - but also misleading. Pearson had grown up on the Lutheran mission of Hope Vale. He knew that conditions then were far less grim. In the early '70s not one Hope Vale Aborigine was in prison. Thirty years later, there were a dozen who were either in prison or had narrowly escaped that fate. Murder on the Cape York of his childhood was unknown. "In one of our communities," he wrote in 2000, "there were three murders within one month."

The Left was committed to Aboriginal rights. It focused, for example, almost exclusively on the provision of legal aid to Aborigines charged with criminal offences, and was neglectful of the fate of the women and children who suffered abuse at their hands. The Right was responsive to talk of Aboriginal responsibilities but was hostile to Aboriginal rights like native title, the cause for which Pearson had been struggling in recent years. At one level, Pearson's breaking of the ideological log-jam in 1999 was an attempt to refashion the agenda of Aboriginal politics, by marrying the idea of rights with the idea of responsibilities. Yet this formulation is somewhat misleading. In ideological politics, activists are invariably more hostile to the camp from which they have defected than they are to the camp of the former enemy, even when they keep their distance from it. Although Pearson was theoretically opposed to the Right, he was far more emotionally engaged in his conflict with the Left. For their unwillingness to confront the reality of the remote Aboriginal communities, he held the soft-headed Left to blame. Even though he remained committed to native title and Indigenous rights, he postponed the resolution of his differences with the hard-hearted Right for a later day.

What then was to be done? In Pearson's analysis, there were three inter-connected causes of the post-1960s catastrophe of the communities: alcohol, the poison of passive welfare, and disconnection from the real economy.

Pearson believed that the Left saw alcohol as a symptom of deeper problems. For him, it was vital to interpret the emergence of the alcohol epidemic not as a symptom but as a cause. In part, this was because the grog culture on a small community developed a momentum of its own, becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to resist. And in part, it was because seeing alcohol as a symptom of something deeper provided splendid justification for the easy option of inaction. Pearson advocated total prohibition on the communities, total abstinence, rehabilitation programs for drinkers and tough criminal sanctions for those who brought the alcohol in. He saw alcohol abuse as a paradoxical consequence of the citizenship rights won in the '60s. And he saw how the traditional hunter-gatherer ethic of kinship and reciprocity could prove disastrous under conditions of modernity when it was grog rather than food that was being shared.

For Pearson the liberation of Aborigines from the poison of welfare dependency and their return to the real economy was as vital as alcohol control. Here his thought developed. In 2000 he offered a social-democratic distinction between the virtue of the redistributive welfare state and the vice of a life of complete welfare dependency. This year, with the help of seconded Treasury officials, his Cape York Institute completed From Hand Out to Hand Up, a sophisticated, fully neo-liberal plan for the future of his people. The plan recommends that all welfare payments be made conditional. Those who are convicted of drug or drink offences, who fail to pay their rent, or who fail to care for their children or ensure their regular school attendance will lose control of family welfare payments, which are to be redirected to those who will act responsibly. The system is to be administered by a Family Responsibilities Commission with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members. Welfare payments, including CDEP, will be reduced to remove what are called perverse incentives against employment. Worthwhile CDEP activities, like teaching aids, will be converted into real jobs. CDEP will not be available to anyone under 21. Various attempts will be made to let children break out of the cycle of inherited social breakdown. The talented will attend boarding schools. Those seeking work training outside the communities will be supported. Although native title will in general be staunchly defended, residents will be encouraged to purchase their present homes or newly built ones, which taxpayers will heavily subsidise. Businesses will be attracted to the communities with 99-year leases. Because it is accepted that there will never be sufficient employment available in the communities, many members will have to "orbit" in and out, throughout their lives. "Orbiters," we are told, "are people who periodically return to their communities or homelands and thereby retain their cultural heritage, their languages, their hunting skills, their rituals and cultural rights." In this way, the very idea of community is re-defined. Membership will consist not of those who live in a settlement but of those who feel connected with it in some way.

Pearson's plan is not merely an audacious (and very expensive) neo-liberal blueprint for the revival of Aboriginal community and the adaptation of Aboriginal identity to conditions of modernity. It is based on the paradoxical belief that the sticks and carrots of a transformative, interventionist policy of social engineering can create the character of the responsible, acquisitive individual on which the philosophy of neo-liberalism is premised. This is Pearson's gamble. It is very far indeed from Stanner's dream - many will think too far. Yet for the hope of the survival of autonomous and viable Aboriginal communities, it seems to me the most coherent policy which has yet been offered. If it too fails, it might turn out to have been the last throw of the dice.

As Noel Pearson was handing his report to the enthusiastic Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, the prime minister, after reading another report into the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children on the remote communities of the Northern Territory, decided to declare a state of national emergency and to send in the troops, police, administrators and doctors. Like the majority of Australians, I was relieved that a decision for action had finally been taken. I am absolutely convinced that the crisis in the communities is real. The analogy drawn by some between this intervention and the children-overboard affair struck me as absurd. I opposed Howard over the question of the detention or military repulsion of asylum seekers because of the almost unbelievable cruelty it showed towards vulnerable children. On this occasion the aim was to protect children from abuse. Nonetheless, like many of those who support passionately the idea of reconciliation, I was dismayed but not surprised at the arrogant disregard for Aboriginal people and their leaders revealed by the failure even to pretend to consultation over issues as sensitive as land rights and the permit system for communities.

There is a Napoleonic streak in the present prime minister. As with the Tampa and the blank cheque commitment to the US in the War on Terror, he has a capacity for advancing basic policy trajectories through apparently instinctive and improvisatory acts. Although much of the policy over the Northern Territory settlements showed signs of being made on the run, behind it the Howard government's new remote-communities strategy was advanced. Those who wish to grasp the general direction of the government's policy should read Helen Hughes's new book, Lands of Shame. Hughes is a senior fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies, the most important ideological engine room for Australian neo-liberalism and the Howard government. Hughes supports the elimination of passive welfare and the introduction of private home ownership. In the short run, she advocates the liquidation of most of the settlements but continued support for a small number where decent education and medical services can be delivered, through a population-concentration policy. In the long run, she shows sympathy to the views of the Canadian conservative John Ibbotson, who recently advised young indigenous Canadians living on their settlements to pack their bags and permanently leave. Although Hughes thinks she is sympathetic to traditional Aboriginal values, it turns out that she is hostile to customary law and regards what Stanner called the Aboriginal "low culture" as little more than contemptible superstition. The policy Hughes outlines - cogently and persuasively, it must be said - is generally unsympathetic to land rights and self-determination, frankly paternalistic, opposed to those who presently exercise power in the Aboriginal communities and openly assimilationist in its ultimate ambition. Lands of Shame undoubtedly reflects the general thrust of the thinking of the Howard government and conservative Australia.

The considerable overlap between this and the neo-liberal dimension of the thought of Noel Pearson is clear. Yet the differences between Pearson and Howard are no less important. Pearson supports land rights and native title. Howard is hoping for their erosion. Pearson supports genuine, not phoney, Aboriginal self-determination. Howard supports assimilation, in fact if not in name. Pearson detests Windschuttle's denialist history of the dispossession. Howard is the country's most influential supporter. Pearson regards the rights of indigenous peoples as politically fundamental. In a recent essay in the Griffith Review, he tells us that when he discussed first peoples' rights with a senior and sympathetic member of the Coalition government, he was told, "I just don't understand the Indigenous-rights stuff." Pearson's life has been dedicated to the struggle for the survival and health of the remote Aboriginal communities. There is no reason to suppose that Howard would be concerned if they all eventually collapsed.

In the final essay of White Man Got No Dreaming, WEH Stanner, a supreme realist, warned against the temptation of pessimism. I take the warning seriously. My present hope is that in the next few months, if Labor is elected, Noel Pearson will be able finally to act upon his fundamental differences with Australian conservatives and join cause with Aboriginal leaders like Pat and Mick Dodson, Lowitja O'Donoghue and Patricia Turner and, as importantly, with a new generation of leaders, in their common struggle for the future of the remote Aboriginal communities.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

August 2007

From the front page

Pub test: restart the boats

The Coalition’s scare campaign is no sure thing in the suburbs

Image of Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley’s Buzzcocks: 40 years on

The history and legacy of a punk pioneer

Image from ‘Camping’

Unhappy ‘Camping’

Lena Dunham’s new comedy series is an accidental portrait of toxic femininity


From Hillsong to the Bible Belt

Christine Caine’s Australian brand of evangelism has found its flock in America

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Arthur Calwell & Peter Kocan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The optimist

Embers re-flamed

Meg Baird’s ‘Dear Companion’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Trunk call

More in The Monthly Essays

What the government thinks you’re worth

Our nation’s economists have a price on your head, dead or alive

What is life?

In search of a unified theory of everything

Image of Malcolm Turnbull

The war on Malcolm

Behind the scenes of an overthrow

Image of Barack Obama voting in Chicago, Illinois

Losing the plot: the American midterms

Caravan conspiracies, dead candidates and a miasma of acrimony … welcome to the 2018 US campaign trail

Read on

Image from ‘Camping’

Unhappy ‘Camping’

Lena Dunham’s new comedy series is an accidental portrait of toxic femininity

Image from ‘Russian Doll’

A bug in the code: ‘Russian Doll’

This existential comedy is 2019’s first must-see Netflix series

Image of crossbenchers Derryn Hinch, Adam Bandt, Nick McKim, Kerryn Phelps, Tim Storer and Andrew Wilkie discussing the medical transfer bill in November

Debate over asylum seeker medical transfers reaches new lows

The government’s scare campaign against the crossbench bill denigrates doctors and detainees

Image from ‘Capharnaüm’

‘Capharnaüm’: giving voice to the voiceless

Nadine Labaki on what motivated her exploration of turmoil’s impact on children