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Monday, 11 February 2013
Page: 806


Mr LAMING (Bowman) (16:39): Indeed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 allows this nation more time to debate the issue of constitutional recognition, to build consensus and to work on increased awareness right across this great country. The debate, I think, has had two important contributions made by the previous speakers. On our side, from the member for Wentworth, there was a very, very clear elucidation of just how complex a referendum change can be, and the previous speaker referred to 'an adult conversation for an adult nation'. It is a theme that I would like to pick up, because the one component of that discussion that has not yet been added to this debate in this parliament is the conversation within Aboriginal Australia about their role in succeeding in this very, very important course of events.

I would like to focus a lot of my speech on a 2009 quarterly essay by Noel Pearson, not because I do not believe that it is, for the very simple and self-evident case, a very important piece of work that will be remembered as really expanding on the role of Indigenous Australia in its own journey towards constitutional recognition but because large elements of this quarterly essay have yet to find their way into Hansard. I believe that important parts of this debate on this day will be looked back on, and we will see the important role that this piece has played in this journey.

Of course Pearson, like many people, is inspired by the readings of others. In this quarterly essay, he focuses on Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, a work in 2006, where Lear asks the important question: what would it be for such radical hope to be justified for Aboriginal Australia? Those who hold, harbour and project such hope must be serious in order to succeed. Pearson makes the very important point that determination alone is not enough, that it is necessary but not sufficient, that we will need more than that. When you are struggling against all odds, determination is no guarantee of success. He makes the very important observation that discipline is just as important. The 'great vulnerability' that he observes in Aboriginal people has been that the institutions of their culture mandated a seriousness that, met long ago, fell apart and has really struggled to restitute itself. It has been inadequately replaced or inadequately rejuvenated. In the midst of the ruins of the old world and facing the mutations of the new, Aboriginal Australia is seeking an accommodation of those things that make Aboriginal culture something of a serious people.

Pearson postulates that all pre-modern peoples face this very challenge, that they carry within their culture 'some institutional essence of what made and maintained them as peoples', but at the same time they are facing modern people—to use that vernacular—who are secular and unanchored. Modern people come to feel a double-edged sword, because modern people in many ways are free of that traditional orthodoxy. That includes the ability that we have to lose our own identity as modern people and to also succumb to and assimilate easily into a dominant culture, which is not the characteristic of pre-modern people. That is a fascinating observation by Pearson. Those who resist assimilation really have no protection against its inexorable advance, so Pearson asks this very question: what will it take to seriously engage that challenge ahead? Obviously, he makes his case that education is something that can, in a parallel world, be pursued with other elements like constitutional recognition. If I am reading his quarterly essay correctly, he says, 'Never make constitutional recognition something upon which we become utterly reliant but let it be something that we engage in, in parallel.'

Pearson makes two observations about what it takes to be a very, very serious people. The first of those is to live in hard places—the very self-evident observation that, the harder the place, the more serious must be the people. Human societies occupy some of the hardest and most inhospitable and economically irrational corners of the world. They are places on Earth that require serious people to sustain them as homes, and strong rationales are needed to maintain that hearth in hard places. The second element is when people are striving to maintain and transmit to future generations their pre-modern culture in a language of a modern and global world. The more esoteric and the less economically rational that these cultures may be deemed and that languages are to the imperatives of the modern global world, the more serious a challenge these people will face and the more serious they will have to be in order to retain their culture and language.

I think he very, very simply elucidates that the challenge facing elements of traditional and often remote Aboriginal Australia is even more than we can understand as modern people, to use his expression. His notion of seriousness is about orthodoxy—a 'serious person' in the sense that we are concerned with an orthodox person. Pearson makes the interesting observation that one of the great challenges to the traditional life has been alcohol. He notes that in a range of orthodox cultures around the world alcohol is anathema but that that is not the case in traditional Aboriginal Australia where they have faced a range of European vices that are unprecedented and where, he notes, 'Aboriginal Law did not evolve to proscribe these vices according to comparable principles of precedent'—principles that you might find in other cultures. The whole point that he makes about orthodoxy is that in many of the cultures—but not in Aboriginal Australia—elements like alcohol, gambling and illicit drugs have become anathema but that that has not yet occurred in many elements of traditional Australia which have survived to the present but remain 'fatally compromised by the assumption that the Law which underpins this High Culture does not have anything to say about the European vices'.

This is an observation that I was privileged enough to be part of in 1994, when petrol sniffing first arrived at the Central Desert community of Lajamanu in the mid-nineties. These were the first images that senior Aboriginal people on the traditional council had of their grandchildren: with half-cans of Coke tied around their noses and filled with petrol. They called a community meeting in Lajamanu in the first few weeks that I was there. I had no language to understand the discussion, but in their Warlpiri—their emotional, heartfelt Warlpiri—they had no words to describe these very vices, so they simply borrowed from the English. The only parts that I could understand of the entire communication at this community meeting were the English words for the vices for which they had no traditional response. And so what really started these contradictions that we see between a traditional strong culture based on kinship and the almost impotent powerlessness of dealing with external threats is something that Pearson challenges his own people with. He challenges them to have that conversation and to walk in both worlds, where there is both a traditional and a mainstream response to those challenges.

This brings me to the fifth Closing the gap report, where, in a presentation from the Prime Minister that was just touching on some levels of early data about which we can all be optimistic, she then switched back to very much a focus on the banned drinkers registers, on Alice Springs and on disputes between jurisdictions—something which I think belittled that report. I think we were really there for a distillation of the evidence, to be hopeful for where there is promise and to be rightfully concerned where there is not progress. But, in the end, quoted in that very important—and landmark—fifth anniversary speech was data provided by the then Labor minister from the Northern Territory and released prior to the Northern Territory election which compared the impact of the Banned Drinkers Register to its impact the previous year.

What was not known to anyone—not to those listening to that speech nor even to the Prime Minister who read it out—was that the data attributed to the use of the 'Enough is Enough' Banned Drinkers Register in Alice Springs had actually had lifted out of it all of the alcohol-related antisocial behaviour reports attributed to domestic violence. These reports were not included after the Banned Drinkers Register came into effect, but they of course had all been included prior to the Banned Drinkers Register. This is a comparison of apples and oranges, and a false attribution of the impact of the Banned Drinkers Register when, on any fair and balanced assessment of the data in the Northern Territory, the Banned Drinkers Register had very little impact at all on dysfunctional behaviour or antisocial behaviour in Alice Springs. But that is not what has been carved into stone in the fifth Closing the gap report. That is genuinely unfortunate.

To emerge from these challenges that are fundamentally destructive of any culture, be it traditional or otherwise, the challenge for Aboriginal Australia will be to incorporate into their own belief systems having one foot in mainstream legal systems, and of course to continue also the culture of their people that have for millennia dealt with an enormous number of challenges but are yet to deal with some of the Western vices that I have outlined.

The late Maria Lane, a South Australian Indigenous academic who was mentioned in that quarterly essay, also made an important, though unpublished, contribution which Pearson picks up in his essay. In that paper, Lane observes that, effectively, we have seen a division—which Marcia Langton in her Boyer Lectures this year picked up on again through a slightly different prism. Lane refers to: 'A Welfare-Embedded'—Aboriginal—'Population which is risk- and work-averse, and benefits-, wealth- and security-oriented', and to the other leaf of the dichotomy, 'An Open-Society Population which is opportunity-, effort- and outcome-oriented'. She described this division very early, long before the Boyer Lectures of this year where Marcia Langton referred to a north and a south: a north economically engaging in the mining opportunities of remote Australia, and then very much a more eastern seaboard, urban Aboriginal debate that is predominantly focused on the rights-based debate. She makes the obvious point: 'Why can't we have both?' or 'Should we even be learning from the activities of the north and making sure that we don't become preoccupied with the former?'

Interestingly though, it was Lane who first described this. She talks about the origins of the open society population being found in the forties and the fifties when Indigenous people first started leaving the settlements to move to urban areas and often picked up very menial and basic work. Their children grew up within that ethos. Secondly, she talks about a number of the settlements where people either chose not to, or were unable to, move from remote Australia, predominantly because the welfare system trapped them there on a pedestal—to move from those communities was, effectively, to walk away from a lot of the welfare supports that one relies on in a community. It is interesting that this has been picked up a long time ago and is still informing debate today.

I think the most important thing that Lane talked about was that this open society population has developed almost independently of many of our Indigenous-specific educational interventions. It occurred simply by movement to opportunity, and that is why it is very important to make sure that we never prohibit, or never make it difficult through government policy, for Aboriginal Australians to move to where opportunities are. We should never say to them, 'Well, you'll lose your publicly funded housing'. We should never say to them, 'If you move to take a job, there go your entitlements'. We have to find a way to transition into grasping opportunities, because through capability of course comes opportunity.

Lane scathingly characterised a lot of the programs as being preoccupied with questions of relevance, cultural sensitivity, language and racist theories such as learning styles, theory-appropriate curriculum, role of elders, parents or community, self-esteem, cooperativeness, need for outdoor activity, focus on sport, love of art and all those Aboriginal exceptionalism arguments, which failed to identify that, at the heart of it, all Australians are just wanting the same thing for their children. As a result of the irrelevance of many of these specific policies, Pearson argues that there will be a predicted shift away from this exceptionalism, and back towards a focus that every opportunity that Australia offers should be available to all Australians.

In that ideal, we are now seeing break-outs right across the country, not just in Cape York. Great work is being done in the Kimberley and great work is being done in parts of outer metropolitan urban Indigenous programming as well—not to mention in Queensland the great work being done by QAIHC and the establishment of a range of Aboriginal-controlled medical centres that are working in this area to run on a mainstream model but deliver Indigenous-tailored and Indigenous-centred and controlled care.

In Cape York there is of course the focus on education. They are initiating this debate that says, 'We can walk in both worlds and enjoy the best of both, and that we can realise that by starting with the children.' Chris Sarra, Noel Pearson and a range of others around the country are working on that.

I have explicitly focused on this, because I think the most important thing of all is not to have a mostly non-Indigenous discussion about our Constitution. We also need to have a discussion with Indigenous Australia about the shape of the next Indigenous studying, training and working population. At the moment we have a great dissonance. We have a falling out of educational opportunities for a whole host of reasons, and an expungement of Indigenous language out of a range of state educational curricula. We have children falling out of the system the minute they drop out of school, and we have no community-wide system to ensure that working-age cohorts all get an opportunity. And ultimately, we have not yet developed a mature welfare system that is prepared to support not just an Aboriginal Australian but any Australian who is willing to move further than the 90-minute Centrelink rule to take up an opportunity. Only when our welfare system can mature to that point can we absolutely grasp the opportunity that every Australian family wants, be they Indigenous or otherwise.