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2335 words

A welcome touch of modesty

9 May 2013

Tim Rowse’s new book shows the strengths of an evidence-based approach to Indigenous policy, writes Frank Bongiorno


Careful readings: the Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson, shown here with Melbourne University’s Marcia Langton. Rebecca Hallas/The Age

Careful readings: the Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson, shown here with Melbourne University’s Marcia Langton. Rebecca Hallas/The Age

Rethinking Social Justice: From “Peoples” to “Populations”
By Tim Rowse | Aboriginal Studies Press | $39.95

INDIGENOUS policy remains one of the shoutiest areas of Australian public life, with views seldom held tentatively or modified in the light of observation or experience. Among certain non-Indigenous critics, opinions are gripped as a marker of ideological correctness to the point of whitening knuckles. Among Indigenous intellectuals and activists, attitudes towards such controversial matters as the federal Intervention are a marker of something like Aboriginal authenticity, with the urban– rural divide playing a fundamental role. To criticise the Intervention is supposedly to reveal that one is a privileged urban Aborigine, out of touch with the problems of people in the bush. Or, if you’re white, you’re an intellectual wedded to “leftist” policies aimed at appeasing your conscience rather than solving real-world problems. Sometimes, the accusations are even less restrained, so that Boris Frankel’s criticisms of Marcia Langton’s recent Boyer Lectures were greeted with the dubious accusation from Langton that they reflected “racism.”

In an age when the instruments for measuring populations and testing policies are more sophisticated and sensitive than ever, alarmingly few people seem open to rational, evidence-based argument. That’s one reason why Tim Rowse’s Rethinking Social Justice: From “Peoples” to “Populations” is so welcome. Rowse isn’t shouty. Indeed, the more ideologically charged participants in debates about Indigenous policy may well find frustrating his apparent lack of commitment to an entrenched position and his reluctance to provide clear-cut answers to complex problems. But these habits might just as easily be treated as a source of strength. This is a scholar who, in adjudicating the dispute between Keith Windschuttle and Peter Read over the size of the Stolen Generations, can write: “Until we see an informed rebuttal of Windschuttle, then I suggest that we cease citing Read’s estimates for New South Wales and use Windschuttle’s estimate for New South Wales: 2600 ‘in care.’ Given Windschuttle’s tendency to methodological and emotional parsimony, I suggest that we treat his figure as a minimum.”

This advice sits in a detailed chapter on the ambiguities and difficulties of the term “Stolen Generations,” which make calculating numbers a fraught, if not impossible, task. As Rowse explains, the term “is becoming metonymic: what happened to certain people signifies what happened to many more. The Stolen Generations have become an allegory of colonisation itself, evoking many different experiences of colonising authority.” To recognise as much, however, is not to deny injustice, and Rowse concludes that we know enough to be certain “that the state’s interference in Indigenous family life was so widespread, persistent and negative in its effects” as to warrant the apology of 2008.

Rowse’s chapter on “The Politics of Enumerating the Stolen Generations” in many ways captures his method, purpose and basic thrust as well as any other. He might articulate a dispassionate argument based on the evidence, but his approach is not therefore passionless. Rather, Rowse’s close attention to a small fragment of the Australian population quietly registers the overwhelming moral importance of its experience to Australia’s identity and standing as a settler nation.

Rowse’s distinction between “peoples” and “populations” is the thread that ties together the book’s eleven chapters. In Australian public thought and language today, he suggests, Aboriginal people comprise both a “people” and a “population.” But it is analytically possible and necessary to distinguish between these two senses. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise a self-conscious collectivity with its own “legal and governmental heritage,” a “people” able to claim certain rights. Yet they are also a “population” whose members’ experiences can be measured by a state increasingly adept at producing statistical data on health, life expectancy, employment, educational attainment and so on. This distinction helps us to see what is missing in prescriptions such as John Howard’s “practical reconciliation” or even in calls to “close the gap.”

While the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous experience in terms of, say, employment or life expectancy might seem amenable to purely objective statistical measures, Rowse insists that all theory is value-laden. So when policymakers talk of “closing the gap” on “economic participation” they are faced with the problem that Community Development Employment Projects, which run exclusively in remote communities, don’t generate non-Indigenous rates of participation. There, the notion of “closing the gap” makes little sense, just as it fails to deal adequately with regional variation within states and territories when it relies on averages across a jurisdiction.

Most fundamentally, “closing the gap” has nothing to tell us about governance: what, Rowse asks, is “the quality of political engagement between Australian governments and Indigenous people?” It is at this point that the distinction between “peoples” and “populations” becomes clearest, for to talk of Aboriginal governance is to talk about a “people” assumed to have a right to a say in their own future through political forms they have some role in devising. The status that “closing the gap” has achieved in national political discourse about Aboriginal social justice, says Rowse, has sidelined this political dimension.

RETHINKING Social Justice contains a number of chapters devoted to individual commentators on Aboriginal affairs. Rowse’s refusal to engage in personal abuse of those with whom he disagrees is most evident here, especially when it is clear that he is unable to accept the argument being advanced, and possibly even more so when he feels that an author’s rhetorical framing obscures the weaknesses in his or her case. His treatment of the anthropologist Peter Sutton’s The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus (2009) is especially notable in this regard.

For Sutton, the “liberal consensus” is the set of ideas and policies that came to dominate Aboriginal affairs between 1968 and 2000 — in other words, the set of policies that John Howard’s government eventually rejected. Rowse accepts that his own views have been formed partly by this “consensus,” and concedes that he has tended to overestimate the Indigenous capacity for “self-determination” and to see Aboriginal failure in this respect as marginal or as a legacy of colonialism destined eventually to fade away. For Sutton, by contrast, the lack of progress reflects enduring and unhelpful characteristics of traditional Aboriginal culture — such as poor child-rearing — combined with policies that were tolerant or even welcoming of such practices.

Rowse is clearly unsatisfied with Sutton’s argument. Just how important, he asks, are cultural practices compared with the other factors that contribute to problems in remote communities? He also argues that Sutton underplays two critical aspects of “the liberal consensus”: the way its confrontation with racial discrimination was actually the culmination of the assimilation policies promoted by a Liberal minister in the Menzies government, Paul Hasluck; and the way it accepted the need for government funding to overcome disadvantage, which made Aboriginal policy vulnerable to claims that money was being wasted on people who did not deserve special assistance. Here, Rowse suggests, Aboriginal policy was, on the one hand, more continuous with the pre-1968 past than implied by Sutton and, on the other, vulnerable at the point of its alleged ascendancy. Its strategy of handing over public resources in order to assist vulnerable people was, moreover, open to objection at a time when there was growing hostility to state welfare in general.

Rowse also has broader concerns about Sutton’s argument. He was surprised, he says, that Sutton presents the “liberal consensus” as “a stupid structure of perception and feeling” in “so many scornfully worded pages.” Given the passions unleashed by the Intervention, though, and the shouty nature of discussion of Indigenous policy in this country, I’m not sure Rowse’s surprise is really warranted. He doesn’t suggest that it is illegitimate for Sutton to depend on his own witness (and grief) in order to lend his book reliability, but in his exposure of this aspect of Sutton’s method and rhetoric I sensed Rowse’s uneasiness about the extent to which the anthropologist’s argument rests on anecdotes derived from his own extensive experience among Aboriginal people.

Rowse insists on the diversity of Indigenous circumstance and experience, and on this basis he criticises what he calls “Noel Pearson’s economic history.” Pearson, Rowse shows, has frequently written about the experience of his own people on Cape York and is highly conscious of their particularity. Yet in order to function as a player in a national political context, he has had to construct a more generalised account of Aboriginal peoplehood and populations. Rowse sees problems here: to what extent is Pearson’s account applicable to Aboriginal people in the southern states, with their very different history of settlement?

Rowse also points to important differences between Pearson’s and Sutton’s approaches. Sutton sees the persistence of certain traditional cultural patterns as disabling, producing young Aboriginal people unable to function in either Aboriginal or mainstream communities. In this sense, the problem is the continuing influence and authority of adult Aborigines. Pearson, on the other hand, laments older people’s diminishing authority in the face of challenges from the young. He believes that Aboriginal law and custom exist irrespective of whether they have been acknowledged by settler society, yet they are liable to disappear if Aboriginal people themselves do not act to preserve them. But changes in Indigenous policy since the late 1960s have created a welfare dependency that has undermined custom and law, the authority of elders, and Indigenous psychological resilience and personal discipline. While such policy has appeased the white liberal conscience, says Pearson, it has been deeply damaging to Aboriginal people.

In arguments about the legacy of the policies of the 1960s to 1990s, the figure of H.C. “Nugget” Coombs is never far away. Rowse is Coombs’s biographer, and here he provides a very powerful defence of the distinguished public servant’s approach to Aboriginal policy. Coombs’s critics hold against him the idea that he was engaged in an “experiment,” but for Rowse all policy is fundamentally experimental, and Coombs’s willingness to recognise as much, and to allow himself to be persuaded to change his mind, was a mark of his humility. Coombs saw that the Aboriginal people of the 1960s and 1970s had to adapt themselves to an unfamiliar order. He hoped that through a measure of self-government, and a process of trial and error, they could draw on their traditional culture to negotiate their way through treacherous waters. But he was not dogmatically committed to the policies so often attributed to him. Absurdly, he is sometimes even credited with moving Aboriginal people to remote homelands as part of a romantic socialist agenda.

Despite Rowse’s tolerance of those with whom he strongly disagrees, the economist Helen Hughes surely tries his patience. On the one hand, she advocates an Indigenous policy that would replace collective with individual land title and concentrate remote Aboriginal people in larger towns and settlements to promote Indigenous economic development. On the other, when she’s confronted with an actually existing Aboriginal middle class, she dismisses its members as “Big Men” fattening on the proceeds of their exploitation of other Aborigines and the goodwill of taxpayers. Rowse’s chapter on Hughes’s writings is about as comprehensive a demolition of a shoddy argument as it would be possible to conceive, a project lent even greater weight by his willingness to concede the occasional point, such as her argument about the need for great financial accountability by Aboriginal organisations.

ROWSE explores ideas largely through the individuals who have developed them — Hasluck, Ted Strehlow, A.P. Elkin, Coombs, Don Dunstan, Read,Windschuttle, Hughes, Pearson and Sutton. As in his earliest work on Australian liberalism, this is a study of ideas through careful interpretation of the writings of their bearers. He pursues the manifold meanings of social justice, and explores intellectuals’ sometimes troubled efforts to grapple with the challenges of accommodating both the difference suggested by peoplehood and the sameness associated with citizenship. He is not the type to construct policy blueprints and, to the extent that he makes recommendations at all, they are modest and tentative. He is rightly sceptical about Hughes’s schemes of social engineering because of her apparent unwillingness to grapple with the consequences of her proposals. Where and how will these more concentrated populations be created? What kinds of responses would such a policy evoke in those places? How would such problems be managed?

Rowse’s modesty in relation to policy is not just a personal trait. It is also a considered position, outlined most eloquently in his chapter on “The Coombs Experiment.” I think that Rowse, like Coombs, would see himself as operating on the basis of “limited knowledge” and “frail conjecture.” His engagement with each author and text recognises that evidence- based argument has the potential to be enabling, placing anyone engaged in Indigenous affairs in 2013 in an advantageous position compared with a Hasluck or a Coombs. This will strike some as a strangely old-fashioned faith. But among the writings about Australian history and society that I’ve encountered, I can recall no more eloquent case than this one for the progressive potential of rational, evidence-based argument in the social sciences. •

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