Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Depression about indigenous policy - and a challenge to North Coast Voices



This photo is of an Aboriginal ball at Moree in 1937.

As I write, the media is full of the report (copy here) on the Howard Government's intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. I found the discussion depressing in the extreme.

I wrote my first post, Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post, in December 2006. There I said in part:

I have so far hesitated to write anything on issues connected with Australia's aborigines because this area has become a bit of a mine field, especially for some one like me who does not have much direct contact with aboriginal people.

As I explained in that post, I had been drawn back to the topic (I did my honours thesis on the Aborigines back in 1966) because of my work on the history of New England. Since then I have written the best part of 100 posts on indigenous issues and history, a fair bit dealing with New England. I now feel like giving up.

In writing, I have tried to articulate key principles that should be followed in the development of official policy towards Australia's indigenous peoples. These principles have been been developed against a background of, and are intended to address, a record of constant policy failure.

The two principles can be summarised as follows.

First, Australia's indigenous peoples are not a single, homogeneous, unit. Any policy that treats them that way will fail, especially if it is driven by needs or problems in a particular area or a particular group.

Second, to be effective, indigenous policy must address those things that are unique to indigenous communities or which deal with the relations between the indigenous and broader communities. Where a problem is a subset of a broader one, like absence of regional jobs or local doctors, attempts to treat it through indigenous policies will fail.

These two key principles are supported by three further principles:

First, indigenous Australia must be made part of the broader Australia. This is a difficult one to explain. In simple terms, so long as our indigenous people are seen as a separated minority group, others in the broader community will see them as just that. The indigenous heritage must become part of the heritage of all Australians.

Second, to achieve this, indigenous history must be localised and should tell the full history of specific local language groups. People, indigenous and otherwise, find it easiest to understand their area and history.

Thirdly, we need to focus on the successes of our indigenous peoples, not the failures and problems. Of course we have to address problems, but that is all we seem to do at present.

Celebrations of success cannot be done through the ghettoisation of indigenous Australia. This is what happens at present whether it be the Deadlies or Message Stick. Indigenous reporting and celebration has been consigned to the special interest programs, programs that very few Australians watch.

I said that I felt like giving up writing on indigenous issues. Simply, I see little point.

When I look at what has happened in the broader New England over the last two years, and despite some successes at local level that I have tried to identify and write about, I cannot see a single overall gain in terms of the advancement of New England's large indigenous population. Nor can I see anything that might change this in the next two years.

I stand to be corrected, I would love to be corrected, but this is the position as I see it now. Worse, I cannot see a single reason why this should change.

To finish with a challenge to one of my fellow blogs.

North Coast Voices is New England's most active political blogs. Its first post was, I think, in October 2007. Since then there have been 983 posts. Yes, it is active!

If you look at those 983 posts, just 27 deal with indigenous issues. Of these, only two have any local flavour.

Now the North Coast was the highest Aboriginal population area in NSW at the time Europeans arrived and, reflecting this, is a major Aboriginal centre now. When is North Coast Voices going to join in my attempts to advance New England indigenous development?

Addendum

My challenge in this post drew the following response in a comment from North Coast Voices. I have included it in the main post as a matter of factual record since it corrects things that I said.

clarencegirl said...

Jim,

The stats you have quoted for North Coast Voices are in error.

Not only is the total number of posts at this site currently standing at 1,286, the total number which speak to indigenous issues and indigenous life on the NSW North Coast is also higher than the 27 and 2 respectively quoted in the your post of 15 October.

This is because the tag "indigenous affairs" mainly speaks to policy matters and, there are more local entries relating to indigenous life under tags such as "local government", "media", "arts" for example.Indeed, many posts featuring the North Coast would not always specifically identify the indigenous element in them, because for us the local community is one.

North Coast Voices is always conscious that the various groups within the Bunjalung nation have their own voice and that they speak out strongly on issues that concern them and, we are careful not to speak to local issues where we have no permission from these groups or the elders.

We do not apologise for this, nor do we intend to rise to a spurious "challenge".

No further comment will be entered into concerning your post.

I stand corrected on the factual record and apologise for misunderstanding the stats - I based these on a quick site search. I remain depressed, however, on the general issues I raised. I don't want to do a forensic analysis of the NCV reply, I understand CG's position, but I do think that as a general comment the exchange of itself illustrates just how difficult it is to discuss these issues.

6 comments:

clarencegirl said...

Jim,

The stats you have quoted for North Coast Voices are in error.

Not only is the total number of posts at this site currently standing at 1,286, the total number which speak to indigenous issues and indigenous life on the NSW North Coast is also higher than the 27 and 2 respectively quoted in the your post of 15 October.

This is because the tag "indigenous affairs" mainly speaks to policy matters and, there are more local entries relating to indigenous life under tags such as "local government", "media", "arts" for example.

Indeed, many posts featuring the North Coast would not always specifically identify the indigenous element in them, because for us the local community is one.

North Coast Voices is always conscious that the various groups within the Bunjalung nation have their own voice and that they speak out strongly on issues that concern them and, we are careful not to speak to local issues where we have no permission from these groups or the elders.

We do not apologise for this, nor do we intend to rise to a spurious "challenge".

No further comment will be entered into concerning your post.

Neil said...

So difficult, isn't it? I do see where you are coming from, Jim, and -- as you know -- converge with you in many respects. But there is a really thorny problem -- well, not just A problem! -- in the whole concept of "Indigenous policy", because it can smack of what "we" do to/for "them", and that is something that cruelled much that the Howard government did.

I don't think, though, that The Deadlies and Message Stick etc are ghetto-ised. They are out there as much for all of us as they are for those featured in them, or presenting them; we are not excluded. Unfortunately not enough of the rest of us seem to be interested, though I suspect in some circles -- I think for example of Country Music -- The Deadlies do have quite a following.

I actually think The Deadlies, Message Stick, Living Black and so on are good because they are so much the products of Indigenous groups, and they reflect their concerns and values in ways I think only Indigenous people can. That's not ghetto culture necessarily; it's owning culture and asserting culture and showing pride in culture. And it is there for all of us if we want it. That was one of my own major discoveries through 1988, meeting Kristina, and so on.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the understanding, Neil. Obviously, or perhaps not obviously as it should be, I hate paternalism (Government knows best) wherever it is applied.

I suppose my key point about policy, and about Aboriginal programing,is that creates a complicated set of relationships, interactions and special interest groups that have the effect of creating a ghetto outside the mainstream.

This does not mean, however, that individual progams do not have value in their own right.

Aboriginal involvement in country music, or in rugby league for that matter, is mainstream, although both country music and rugby league themselves are niches within the broader community.

Country music itself has consciously sought to provide the training and opportunities that will facilitate indigenous involvement in the country music scene. This is in fact one of the New England successes that I referred to.

I wrote about this in http://belshaw.blogspot.com/2006/11/australian-idol-2006.html.

Perhaps the most depressing thing in all this from a personal writing perspective, is the need in writing to constantly define terms, to be always aware of differing meanings.And that's just in the non-Aborigianl community!

Jim Belshaw said...

A further comment.

"You wrote:I actually think The Deadlies, Message Stick, Living Black and so on are good because they are so much the products of Indigenous groups, and they reflect their concerns and values in ways I think only Indigenous people can. That's not ghetto culture necessarily; it's owning culture and asserting culture and showing pride in culture. And it is there for all of us if we want it. That was one of my own major discoveries through 1988, meeting Kristina, and so on."

How could I disagree with the first part of this? My challenge is the second part - one of my key points has been (and this bears upon my comments on the Firat Australians, that indigenous material is not easily available to the broader community.

Look at the difficulties I have found as someone who is interested and does write on these matters in finding the most basic information.

Time to get off my soapbox!

Neil said...

Much as I bridle at the term "mainstrean media" because quite a few fruitloops invoke it, the MSM could do more than they do in drawing attention to the kinds of things we see at The Deadlies, on Message Stick, and so on. It wouldn't take much, but no -- conflict and shock sell better...

Jim Belshaw said...

Again, I agree with you, Neil. They do do some positive stories, but it all gets swamped.