As “Life Sentence” comes closer to fruition and a range of alternative titles arise, recent developments in the sphere of politics focussed on Australian Indigenous peoples have come into sharp relief for me And let me be clear: I am not an Aboriginal person or a Torres Strait Islander individual. I have Caucasian heritage that seems to go back deep into the mists of antiquity.
But I read with interest about Tony Abbott’s week in the Kimberley and Malcolm Turnbull’s comments in Western Australia for the Liberal Conference. In both cases, I found myself asking the question of what constitutes progress. (Bill Shorten, to date, as the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, has said little beyond advocating the need for more Aboriginal representation in Parliament and his desire to listen carefully to Senator Pat Dodson. I wait with bated breath for more from him but make a comment below anyway.)
Tony Abbott is very clear that his recent week in remote communities convinced him that his theme of improving attendance at current schools is essential to bridge the gap for Indigenous children.
Malcolm Turnbull was just as emphatic that use of the welfare card has the backing of a greater majority of Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginal people. And I’m not saying either person’s intentions are misplaced or even wrong. Both themes may well, in the long term, be useful solutions to issues that face Indigenous people, as long as consideration is given to Indigenous people having the right to choose either, and the potential negative consequences of each if they are chosen. But so far, I see no evidence of either happening, historically or now.
My learning over the past thirty years is that before the coming of non-Indigenous people to this land, there were perhaps 300 (if not more) Indigenous nations or language groups existing. In reading and hearing from Abbott and Turnbull, their language conveys the sense that Indigenous people are an entity: one group with like values and goals. While there has been some recognition of the difference between Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, at the next level down, difference becomes extended and extensive.
For me, the lack of a genuine process to speak with and define the needs of different Indigenous groups across Australia still hasn’t been explored. Bill Shorten’s desire to increase Indigenous representation in Australian parliaments to equate with their population numbers (three per cent), is a Westminster notion of democratic representation. Many will applaud the intention but have they ever thought about its genesis and potential consequences? Non-Indigenous thinking doesn’t seem to have moved beyond being enamoured with a solution, just as the diversity of Indigenous groups at many levels isn’t recognised.
We still operate on the basis of a desired outcome, rather than a process involving the various groups. With all respect for Senator Dodson, and Noel Pearson, whose efforts on behalf of their people can only be admired, from what I know of Indigenous cultures, that they no more speak for groups other than their own than I do. That all brings into perspective the importance of the heritage of people in various groups, each one’s right to speak for or on behalf of their group or groups or not as the case may be, and the opportunities for all groups to communicate their wishes.
In summary, my first point is that there are no simple solutions to an historically created situation. My second point is that an outcome of what is currently occurring is the increased possibility of assimilation, which means cultures, with values that don’t align with the majority, wither and die.
As I have said before, I have no objection to assimilation occurring if those being assimilated choose it. To date, however, I have to argue that very few Indigenous people have had the choice, and current political messages seem to be making it less and less likely.