CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Leftist Ideology is Not Helping Aboriginals

Jul 23, 2007

It has become the accepted wisdom today that somehow the political left is all about compassion and concern, while the political right is just hard-hearted, cold and uncompassionate. Thus the left is supposed to be the champion of the underdog and the oppressed, while the right is seen as working against the poor and the marginalised.

Take Aboriginal policy, for example. The left is said to be there to rescue Aboriginals from the neglect and oppression of the right. Yet things are not always as they seem. One key Aboriginal leader, who describes himself as a man of the left, is not at all happy with leftist ideology. He in fact claims it is keeping Aboriginals in poverty and misery. He instead favours conservative policy as the real hope for helping Aboriginals.

I refer to Noel Pearson, a leading Aboriginal spokesman and director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. Of late, he has been solidly supporting Prime Minister John Howard – much to the chagrin of the lefties – claiming he is better placed to deal with the problems Aboriginals are facing.

He had a column in the Weekend Australian laying out his case. His words are well worth hearing: “The contention of mine that has caused most consternation when I have challenged the Left during the past eight years is that the result of progressive policies can be at odds with the good intentions that inspired them.”

He continues, “I developed a (provocative) rule of thumb when it comes to examining the nostrums and prescriptions of the middle-class culture producers, who often come from the progressive cultural Left: whatever they say our people should do, we should look at the opposite of what they say because that will usually be the right thing to do.”

He then lists eight examples of this. I present four of them:

“They say substance abuse is a health issue and should be approached with tolerance. We say it is a behavioural and social order issue and we need to rebuild intolerance. They say education should be culturally appropriate. We say this should not be an alibi for anti-intellectualism, romantic indigenism and a justification for substandard achievement. They say we should respect Aboriginal English as a real language. We say we should speak our traditional languages and the Queen’s English fluently. They say poverty is our main problem. We say passivity is our main problem because it prevents us from taking advantage of opportunities to get out of poverty and the resources we get are squandered.”

Brilliant stuff. He goes on: “I believe liberal and conservative policies have more to contribute to indigenous uplift than outdated progressive thinking. It became clear to me that some elements of leftist ideology contribute to the barriers that keep our people down. The key to understanding this is to recognise the profound change in the role of leftist theory.”

And finally, “The challenge for the Left today is to stop assuming that leftist policy by definition is policy that will help the most oppressed. The most obvious example that this is not the case is the rise of a political and intellectual industry that explains, defends and facilitates behaviours that keep people in the underclass. A young Aborigine today who follows the conventional leftist recipes of the past four decades is destined to stay at the bottom of society.”

Such honesty and moral clarity are greatly appreciated. If Pearson is convinced that the left has gone wrong here, and that the conservative side of politics is more in tune with the realities of Aboriginal policy, then perhaps we should pay more attention to the right.

The point Noel Pearson made about “romantic indigenism” is made by another commentator, also by the name of Pearson (but unrelated). Christopher Pearson wrote an important column recently entitled “Myth of the noble savage”. In it, he argues that we must jettison the romanticised picture of some idyllic Aboriginal past. He refers to the recent move by the Howard Government to step in to the booze and porn-soaked Aboriginal communities, to clean up child sexual abuse. His whole article is well-worth reading.

It is especially important reading in the light of what was on the front page of today’s Australian. There we read of an 11-year-old Aboriginal boy who forced two girls, aged five and six, to have sex with him, infecting them with sexually transmitted diseases.

There are some very deep problems in the Aboriginal communities, and the left either underplays them, or continues to foist unhelpful ideologies onto their communities. It is time for some realism and some tough choices in this area. The Howard Government is seeking to do that, and the two Pearson articles featured here should be required reading for all concerned Australians.

theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22105969-5013477,00.html
theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,22069310-7583,00.html

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7 Responses to Leftist Ideology is Not Helping Aboriginals

  • Excellent article.
    Graeme Cumming

  • Thanks Graeme.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • As someone involved in ANTaR, a group you would probably describe as “leftist”, I am not aware of ANY “lefties” espousing what you and Pearson are characterising as leftist views.

    ANTaR’s position, consistent with many from the “leftist” side of politics, is that top-down change imposed from without doesn’t work, and in fact is exactly where you get problems like unmanned police stations and funding being yanked out of successful local initiatives. There are plenty of Indigenous people in local communities trying to make change for the better who know far better than some Canberra bureaucrat what needs doing. But they are NOT interchangeable; what might work in Cape York will not necessarily work in Mutitjulu. The problems each community faces vary hugely, which again is why local leadership, supported (or at least not impeded) by the resources of the state or Commonwealth, will produce better results than decisions made remotely.

    Phil M

  • Noel Pearson’s voice should be heard a lot more. Aboriginal people should not be imprisoned by their culture. I’m glad the word it out! Thanks to you also Bill.
    Dawn McGregor

  • Thanks Phil

    But you break all my blog rules here. You have not supplied me with your full name; you belong to an advocacy group with your own website, and your comment is way too long. Thus I have just featured your intro. The rest of your comment is mainly arguing that Noel Pearson is wrong or uninformed about these issues. I suggest you take up your concerns with him, if you believe he has so little proper understanding of the issues at hand.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks for posting my intro anyway, Bill – I appreciate it. I wasn’t aware a surname was required, but here it is. And I’m in no way speaking on ANTaR’s behalf, just indicating where my sympathies lie.

    I’m posting again because you misrepresent the excluded commentary on Pearson’s position, possibly because of the exact assumptions about “leftist” views I’m trying to explode. What I was saying wasn’t that Pearson’s generally wrong on the broader issues (though he gets “leftist” views wrong the same way you do), but that he calls for most of the same things as the “leftists” he bags, notably local self-determination and responses based in local Indigenous culture rather than imposed solutions. That’s evident even in the quotations you supply above, and has come through very strongly in his comments on the NT intervention.

    There is a lot of common ground that gets eradicated by artificially imposing a left/right divide on these issues – it’s generally a fairly sloppy taxonomy anyway, but here it’s particularly inept. Arguing against a centralist/statist approach would generally be deemed rightist, wouldn’t it?

    Phil Minchin

  • Yes, in some ways leftist ideology is not helping Aboriginals. But I honestly think a real problem is that various Governments have not had a long-term goal for this region. There are (some) good ideas, but funding stops after 6mths, a year, or 4 years – in that climate regardless of ideology, nothing will work.

    What I write below is the reality in aboriginal communities.
    I sat in on a community meeting which complained that the Government was giving Aboriginals the ‘hamburger with the lot’. There has been NO community consultation. They are stopping the permit system, scrapping CDEP, making Council amalgamations, pushing 99year leases (or is it now 5 year leases), mandatory health check-ups for children under 16 (or is it now voluntary?), banning Kava, banning pornography (I agree with the last 2). All this is happening!! People in the communities are confused and are asking what does the above have to do with child abuse? I don’t know what is really happening, and neither do the communities. How can they fight when they don’t know what is going on? And are some of the programs going to be replaced with others or will there be a huge vacuum?
    As one lady said, I guess they want us to live off the land again. One Aboriginal man painted the bleak picture of how if 50% of a welfare payments is frozen for schooling/food it will force people into prostitution – to aboriginals and the itinerant Balanda (whites) who they can’t get rid of because the permit system is to be scrapped, and they have no police in the community (and can’t find proof enough to make police happy) to get rid of them.

    The CDEP (to be scrapped in Sept) started as a program which Trained people and created work, and over the last 30 years has degenerated (through funding cuts, and lack of monitoring) into an organization which calls almost anything work to enable people to get their payments. In the Aboriginal community where I live there is no/very little work, and no access to training. So how do people ‘work’ or even ‘work for the dole’? One man is trying to start a large vegetable garden, he has people lined up for work, but because of politics he cant get the funding to start this up – the CDEP the very organization which is supposed to help him would not due to the manager at the time.

    One Aboriginal lady in Yirrkala said, the Government/ media is making it sound like we havnt been trying to fix the problems and thats why they are stepping in. We have been asking for alcohol and pornography to be banned, but in the past the Govt wouldnt do it. We’ve been asking for more police, but not sent any. We need more housing (not happening) Now, like we said would happen, we have the problem and are being blamed for not fixing it. She was so happy to learn that alcohol/pornography were to be banned, but now is extremely disappointed because mining towns like Nhulunbuy (only 10mins drive from a ‘dry’ Aboriginal community, where at work pornography is in lunch rooms, trucks etc, and is regularly swapped) is excluded. This is the reality for the people here. A minority culture being swamped by the dominant one. And the dominant culture does not know or care about what is happening here.

    People here are thankful for the mission days. The Aboriginal teachers, nurses, workers were all trained by the missions. They will say ‘it was hard work but a good time’. One man said ‘the Government will never admit that it did the wrong thing by getting rid of the missions’. This is the reality. Now that its at the stage that there is abuse something is being done (ad-hocly) – but child abuse is not the only thing being targeted.

    Catharine Carpenter

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