The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement: A Speculation (2002+)

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UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?  Apology Magic?  Incorporating the Alienated: A Challenge to Australia's Civil Society   Taking the 'Racism Card' Out of the Deck   Racial Discrimination is Not the Only Cause of Ethnic Distress   The Church of Political Correctness Threatens National Progress   Don't Just Blame the 'Haters'
An Hypothesis +

Addenda [>]

An Hypothesis

An hypothesis is suggested that some aspects of their cultures are now (and historically always have been) a major factor in the material disadvantages suffered by Australians with indigenous ancestors - referred to here as 'aborigines', a term which is not intended here to apply to Torres Strait Islanders. Moreover their communities still face great difficulties in creating a viable future.

This paper does not seek to insist on any particular 'answer' - but merely suggests that little is likely to be achieved until aboriginal leaders / people consider the implications for economic success of the behavioural and institutional implications of their cultures.

Addenda (added since 2010) started by considering the relevance of this hypothesis in the light of proposals for a referendum to recognise Australia's 'first peoples' in the Constitution, and other public policy questions.

The Past

The Past

It is understood that Australia's first settlers were from SE Asia who arrived in successive waves about 40-60,000 years ago - and subsequently maintained hunter-gatherer lifestyles typical of human societies of that era.

With the introduction of European settlers in the 18th century Australia's aboriginal peoples were: often dispossessed; long denied education; exploited by some (and helped by others); discriminated against by legislation (eg denied the vote until about 35 years ago); paternalistically protected without reducing their need for protection; given extensive public resources through ineffectual organizations or as charity; and otherwise ignored.

Genocide? A more extreme version of this history (ie that aboriginal communities were subjected to a process of quasi-genocide) has been tending to lose support [1, etc].

On the other hand it has been suggested that there would be advantages in regarding the frontier conflicts in Australia which accompanied European settlement as genocide (and draw a parallel with the Holocaust) to encourage a shift in national consciousness towards political humanism. This is seen to be needed because there are 'illiberal and exterminatory tendencies' at the heart of Western civilization [1]. However, the present author's detailed comments with the latter reference suggest that:

  • communities who are the victims of genocidal attacks do recover - so viewing aboriginal peoples as genocide victims does not explain their continued disadvantage in Australia;
  • such issues should be analyzed objectively, rather than subjectively, because:
    • demonstrating objectively whether injustices have done (and by whom) is a better way to resolve such concerns than is examining how those involved perceived what was going on;
    • there seems to be no certainty that forcing those who have suffered trauma to relive it aids their recovery;
    • destructive ideologies (such as Nazism which gave rise to the Holocaust) may arise from philosophical idealism (ie from assuming that reality is, or should be, determined by one's subjective understanding of it);
  • cultural challenges are a better explanation of, and way to reduce, the current disadvantage facing Australians with indigenous ancestry than an examination of historical trauma;
  • the strength of Western societies does not derive from 'illiberal or exterminatory tendencies'. Adverse consequences for others emerged from the growth and expansion which resulted from that strength. However this must apply to any civilization or species - and was less in the case of Western societies

There is little doubt however that aboriginal peoples have experienced only slow progress - though isolated individuals overcame the natural obstacles they faced, as well as some artificial obstacles.

Artificial obstacles arose presumably because (a) aboriginal peoples did not 'fit in' to the environment created by the economically-capable European community that was introduced in the 18th century and (b) it was believed (wrongly) that education would do no good. Unfortunately the people who slowed aboriginal advancement by denying education (and also others who tried to accelerate it with primarily 'social' re-engineering  irrespective of aboriginal people's real needs and ambitions) were not blessed with perfect wisdom or fore-knowledge.

Stolen generations? Debate about the extent of forced assimilation of aboriginal people's into Australia's mainstream (European) culture has occurred in relation to the (so called) 'stolen generations' - which involved children (especially those of mix race) being removed from aboriginal parents in the early 20th century in the belief that they were at risk and removal would improve their life prospects. They were placed in foster care, and the results in many cases were poor. Claims have been made that many thousands were 'stolen' (ie removed without parental approval) - though the latter aspect may not stand up to critical evaluation [1]. Furthermore the effect which this process may have had on equipping some aboriginal people for effective participation in mainstream society (and politics) does not seem to have been examined.

The aboriginal leader Noel Pearson argued in 2001 that dependency on passive welfare (which was supposed to help) and alcohol are now damaging aboriginal communities. The latter conclusion was also supported by Court of Appeal president Tony Fitzgerald in a report to the Queensland Government and (in a different way) by an Indigenous Women's Council (see Fitzgerald Report on Cape York Justice).  

However this is only part of the story as the likely causal chain is:  

culture     leads to    
  >> weak economic and commercial capabilities >>
>> negative community attitudes >> racism   
which leads naive 'reformers' to support  
    >> passive welfare which leads to
      >> alcoholism 
>> social breakdown

That culture is a major factor in a community's potential for economic success is considered in a different context in Competing Civilizations  and also in Comparative Development Theory: Indonesia / Australia.

The cultures of Australia's aboriginal peoples were highly developed (ie complex and sophisticated), and adapted to the environment which existed prior to the arrival of European settlers.

However it seems those traditional aboriginal cultures were not well adapted to their new environment. In particular they seem to contain features which impede economic gains as outlined below.

However any serious discussion of, or attempts to reduce, the disadvantages that may be implicit in aboriginal cultures seem to be discouraged by implying that doing so is racist (see also Complexities in the Refugee Problem and Racial Discrimination is Not the Only Cause of Ethnic Distress).

For example:

  • a key obstacle to reconciliation between mainstream and aboriginal communities is seen to lie in the lack of a formal apology from the former for the latter's historical experiences. However there is a reasonable case that a major part of the latter's problems lies in its traditional attitudes and beliefs - which required aboriginal communities to travel an immense cultural distance over many generations. If there is no receptiveness to any discussion of this dimension of the problem, is it reasonable to expect others to 'apologize' for the resulting stresses?

  • the removal of half-caste children from some aboriginal families (the 'stolen generation') is popularly portrayed as an abuse of human rights rather than as a well-meant effort to rescue abused children from what was (at the time) realistically seen as a dangerous / hopeless predicament;

  • it was suggested that it was racist not to treat the aboriginal tradition of payback (killing those responsible for other's deaths) as equally valid as dealing with offenders through a process of law [1] [Comment: Surely traditions that encourage families to take their own revenge are likely to create an ongoing cycle of violence]

  • charges have been laid against a member of the Senate for suggesting (aggressively) that there were problems in aboriginal cultures (Russell M. 'Senator to face race trial',  Courier Mail,  14/6/02);

  • government agencies were forced to return aboriginal children to abusive families because of fear of being labelled racist [1, 2];

  • it was seen to be racist to suggest that family pressures on those with ability to commit public money created problems for aboriginal organizations in managing public money [1] - though in Indonesia (and other Muslim nations) the dominance of family loyalties over community obligations seems to be widely regarded as a factor in corrupt administration;

It has been noted that there has been a great deal of 'talk about cultural sensitivity and autonomy' - with the implication that this needed to be taken further. Unfortunately this 'talk' can obscure the critical question of whether culture is a major determinant of people's ability to be be materially successful. This can lead to the perception that, if aboriginal people's have not succeeded, the only possible explanation must be discrimination and racism [1].

A further complexity is the risk that such 'talk' also leads to racial discrimination. For example:
  • cultural separatism, which some aboriginal groups advocate, could constitute racial discrimination - if individuals were to be forced on the basis of their race to live within cultures which disadvantaged them so that aboriginal leaders could maintain power over them. For example:
    • the case of of a 15 year-old aboriginal girl forced to have sexual relations with a 50 year old man to whom she had been betrothed by her parents illustrates the clash between cultural rights and human rights (Brunton R 'Women in chains', CM, 10/10/02)
    • an aboriginal man asserted his conjugal rights over a 15 year old girl ('Victim trapped between two worlds', A, 9/10/02). But no aboriginal leaders spoke out against this. This is a conflict between cultural rights and human rights. Coming from India it is clear that cultural rights are changing - and where lower caste's and women were once exploited this is now unacceptable (Thite M 'Tradition does not excuse sex exploitation', A, 12-13/10/02)
  • unjust accusations of 'racism' against those who might seriously discuss the practical advantages and disadvantages of particular cultural features potentially provides a kind of 'moral shield' for those who might practice real discriminatory racism;

One observer has suggested that the violence against women and children which pervades aboriginal communities may be an indirect result of a refusal to recognize that aboriginal cultures contain no concept of 'community' (and thus do not breed 'community leaders' to suppress such behaviour) - because doing so would have exposed the weakness of 1970's indigenous-liberation politics [1]. 

Other views: 

Research suggested that violence arose from customary law - rather than from the imposition of European standards (and was considered normal and acceptable by those affected) so that social dysfunctions within aboriginal communities would not be eased by greater autonomy [1]. 

The growing legal practice of recognizing customary law (which involves and can be used to rationalize violence) has the effect of perpetuating the violence that cripples aboriginal communities - and creates second class citizens [1]

Concerns about sexual violence related to aboriginal culture are misplaced. The problem is that traditional aboriginal culture where roles were determined by sex, knowledge and skill have been displaced by a culture where power is based on access to government funding. Bureaucracies are to blame [1]

'Men's business' in remote aboriginal communities often led to males freely breaking the law and committing appalling crimes. Young men who are initiated feel they can do anything they like [1]

Realistic attempts to address the core of aboriginal disadvantage has probably been made even more difficult over the past 20-30 years by post-modern ideologies which (in a dramatic over-reaction to flaws in earlier epistemologies) have adopted the concept that 'truth' is largely or entirely a social construct (ie 'knowledge' primarily reflects the assumptions that particular groups make for their own political advantages). This leads to the view that cultures are mere matters of personal preference which have no practical consequences.

An aside: In the international arena, a similar assumption may be a major contributor to the 'conspiracy theories' that lead to risks of conflicts (see About Conspiracy Theories).

These assumptions led to attempts to develop remote aboriginal communities living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle on traditional lands - an 'experiment' which some observers suggest has isolated aboriginal communities from mainstream society and led to most of their current deprivation [1]

Current Proposals

Current Proposals

For much of the past 30 years hope for aboriginal advancement revolved around native title - on the assumption that people require land to gain respect. However, despite its advocates' enthusiasm it is not clear how native title can lead to very much in the way of economic opportunities.  The consensual view after 10 years of experience seemed to be that native title on its own has changed the position of aborigines in Australia's community but has not improved it.

Ironically, the major strategic beneficiary of native title has probably been Australia's mainstream community. The latter's dependence economically on natural wealth in land and resources had kept them from developing economically, and made Australia (in the words of a previous Prime Minister) into a potential 'banana republic' and the 'a… h... of the earth'.

Mainstream Australia's ability to depend on natural wealth has been severely curtailed in the 1990s by the sterilization of land and resources through native title - and, to some degree, this massive developmental burden has been laid on the shoulders of aboriginal Australians (see comment on the Resource Curse hypothesis).

Noel Pearson has argued that to overcome disadvantage aboriginal peoples need to be able to cope with / prosper in the modern world [1] - a goal which he later described as compatible with simultaneously maintaining traditional cultures [1].

A quite different view is that the problem is due to aborigines' inability to live within traditional cultures due to dispossession (eg consider the views of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Taskforce on Violence in Indigenous Communities)

A similar view has been put forward by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, William Jonas ('Native title the key to real equality', Australian, 22/5/02) who appears to favour a form of separate development (a self-imposed apartheid?) based on what was seen as the inherent rights of aboriginal peoples (which was said to lead, through native title, to: economic opportunities; equality for aboriginal culture; and appropriate governance structures for aboriginal communities).

Combining both these viewpoints to some extent, Reconciliation Australia sponsored an impressive depth of research into:

  • aboriginal self governance (see abstracts from Indigenous Self Governance Conference 4-5 April 2002) because this is seen as a key factor in the improved prospects of native peoples in North America, and poor governance can frustrate economic success; and
  • access to banking services (see Banking on Indigenous Communities) because, such economic success requires more than good self governance.   

Unfortunately neither the cultural modernisation nor the cultural separatism views offer easy solutions.

Even what could be called the 'Native Title Plus' agenda (as illustrated by the work of the Reconciliation Australia) faces serious difficulties. Dependence on socially and culturally corrosive welfare payments would not be removed, and many aboriginal communities would continue to live in quasi-apartheid pockets of  third-world disadvantage within Australia.

Why: While it is apparently being recognized that more than self-governance is needed for economic success (so banking access is being examined), the problem is that MUCH more than self government would be required (see below), and it is grossly simplistic to assume that access to finance could be enough.

Illustration: It was argued that there has been a long term difficulty in commercializing the products of Queensland science because of a lack of venture capital (eg Franklin M, 'Germ of an idea grows bigger than Texas', Courier Mail,  15/6/02). However the real gap Queensland faces lies in the lack of skills and organizations able to succeed with innovation (eg commercialization of technical ideas). If there had been such a pool of commercial competency, then capital would have been readily available. Changes in the financial system (eg the provision of 'venture capital' funds as Queensland's government intends - see Odgers R. 'State fund of $100m for biotech ventures', CM,  10/5/02 ) can never overcome the much more complex real problems (see Queensland's Biotechnology Bubble).

A major school of thought in development theory was that which focused on 'missing strategic factors'. This involved the assumption that if the key missing factor was only provided, then all would be well. However in practice the result was that developing regions wasted whatever 'missing strategic factor' was provided (eg capital, skilled people) because a lack of balanced / integrated development meant that that factor could not be properly used.

Furthermore even to the extent that (say) self governance and access to finance are necessary ingredients, these need a great deal of care to ensure that they are not only culturally but also economically effective. For example, a rule of law confers great economic advantages on European communities but is not generally relied upon in East Asia. It is not clear that Reconciliation Australia's Self Governance conference considered what style of governance would allow aboriginal Australians to gain economic success.

A likely impact of the 'Native Title Plus' agenda of governance and finance initiatives will be found to be inadequate (because of limiting effect of the hundreds of other constraints that are not addressed).  This will apply even if the substance-abuse issue that Noel Pearson has seen as the most critically important (see 'Substance abuse must be stopped', Australian,  11/7/02) is added to the agenda. The real problem is that this inadequacy may not be recognized for yet another wasted decade.

Far faster means of removing ALL aspects of aboriginal disadvantage simultaneously are needed today not in 10 years time - and suggested below.

Other proposals for creation of champions for aboriginal communities at senior levels in the bureaucracy are likely to lead to further frustration because (at best) the support which such 'champions' would be able to mobilize is not what aboriginal communities are likely to really need (eg see 'Freshly baked idea goes stale' which refers to the effect of due administrative procedures on a project proposed under the Cape York Partnership scheme).

The major challenge is that prospering (in the present environment) requires amongst other things (a) the ability to be near the leading edge in understanding and applying the mechanisms of the natural world (science and technology) and (b) an orientation to, and social institutions, which enable economically productive changes (eg financial institutions and business enterprises). 

Cultural Obstacles

Cultural Obstacles

Not every culture lends itself to the latter achievements.

Under the author's undoubtedly too limited understanding, it appears that though aboriginal cultures have significant traditional strengths (eg sense of community, relationship with the land), they also have features which are likely to impede independent success within Western economic models. These include: 

  • lack of individualism - which is a particular problem because rationality is a very powerful means for problem solving - which does not work well at the level of communities as a whole because the complexity / interconnection of the issues that arise. The East Asian communitarian models show that (given other demanding conditions) this obstacle can be overcome (see Transforming the Tortoise (Chapter 4); and Asia Literacy). However because cultural obstacles aren't discussed, no one seems to have done any work on possible options for aboriginal communities; 

  • lack of emphasis on private property (especially communal ownership of land [1]). Without private property access to the lending securities needed to participate in a money based economy is limited. Property rights have been argued to be vital to lifting poor peoples out of poverty - by providing means to participate in the formal economy [1]

  • a tendency [according to a WA public servant involved with indigenous affairs] to learn in the concrete, rather than in the abstract. This creates difficulties in dealing with rationality and science, and with planning / finance etc; 

  • an attitude to time which does not clearly distinguish past and present [1], and an orientation to the past (ie towards who they ARE) rather than towards future progress. These are particularly critical issues because economic productivity (ie achieving high value added to pay high wages, profits and taxes) does not result from being efficient, but from having competitive advantages - which requires constant change and learning as individuals, enterprises and communities.;

  • an apparent lack of leadership - which is a critical constraint because of the vital importance of change for economic productivity. A lack of effective leaders has been seen to arise from (a) living in survival mode and (b) the lack of a concept of the public good [1]. However it also seems likely that aboriginal elders see their role as reinforcing the past rather than creating a future.

Diverse sources have drawn attention to the differences and incompatibilities between indigenous cultures and Western world-views (eg see Joseph B. Indigenous Peoples Worldviews vs Western Worldviews, 26/1/16 ; Graham M. Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews , Australian Humanities Review, Nov 2008; Hart M., Indigenous Worldviews, Knowledge, and Research: The Development of an Indigenous Research Paradigm, Journal of Indigenous Voices in Social Work, Feb 2010); Indigenous Wordviews: A Comparative Study, 21/2/02; etc)

In 2009 claims were made about practical dysfunctions that result from traditional cultures, including: (a) pursuit of family loyalties over common good; (b) traditional medical practices block preventative / curative medical processes (c) a philosophical assent to tragic terms of human life (d) a belief that things are as they were meant to be - thus rendering notions of social progress or any sort of change quite alien; and (e) an orientation towards self help / self redress including frequent recourse to violence [1]

In 2016:

  • a linguist (Margaret James) drew attention to cultural difficulties that aboriginal children had in schools. When they start school they are expected to read and write in a language they do not speak. This is a big issue. Also they come from an oral background not a print-literacy background - and that is another big shift as well [ABC TV news, 9/2/16];
  • it was argued that there was a need to build bridges into formal education for indigenous university students. Those who lack formal education may still hold valuable knowledge (eg by drawing on their cultural background). Including indigenous culture in course content can improve their ability to learn. Indigenous students need to be recognised as 'yarners' / 'story-tellers' in developing curricula. Both ways methods need to be used which incorporate both indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge. And success should not be measured in terms of whether an individual completes a course / moves on to higher education. Self-esteem / being strong in one's identity / understanding what Western education is / gaining some sort of employment should be accepted as success [1].
  • There has been a view that aboriginal people only counted 1, 2, 3, 4 and many - though there is evidence that in some communities aboriginal number systems dealt with high numbers. The myth about the limit of aboriginal counting could be related to the 'terra nullis' concept that regarded aboriginal people as barely human, without culture, civilization or counting. Aboriginal children could count to 50-60 - the number of seconds they could stay under water even though they might not be able to do so in English. But the original generalisation is maintained - and taken to mean that aboriginal people can't count. A study of aboriginal astronomy (on the boundary between the physical sciences and the humanities) shows major differences between sciences and humanities. In physics data rule supreme. In the humanities the data is often more dependent on the skills / interpretation of the researcher. Ethnograpic information suffers from potential errors of understanding. Ethnographic experiments are not repeatable.   [1]
  • It was noted that oral cultures (such as those of Australian aborigines) had the ability to memorize / recite large amounts of information - a capability that is not needed in an era where human knowledge is instantly available online [1] [CPDS Comment: An ability to rote-learn and recite information is of limited use for problem solving in a modern context]
  • It was argued that indigenous peoples need to recognize that they have no written language and that they live in a world that was 'made in England' - so those with part English heritage should ensure that understanding of this is introduced to others

 Policies related to indigenous Australians have failed over the years - as indicated, for example, by statistics related to life expectancy and imprisonment. A new policy option should be considered - especially in relation to those of mixed race. I come from India - where sensible decisions were made about adopting a secular constitution and not over-emphasizing traditional cultures that dated back 5000 years - but rather that to recognise that in practice we lived in a world that was 'made in England'. Hindi and English became official languages - and the latter is increasingly emphasised in modern India. Indigenous people need to recognise that, no matter how proud they are of their cultural heritage, they have no written language and they live in a world that is made in England. Fluency in English is a pre-requisite for success. Brexit may make English even more significant as Britain emphasizes its own identity while EU sinks into economic socialism and an uncontrolled migration morass. Indigenous Australians with mixed bloodlines should teach their children about Europe. There were consequences from British colonial rule in India that have been extremely beneficial (eg Westminster system of government). India decided in 1947 not to regard British as adversaries / invaders / conquorers - but as part of its own history  [1]

The basic problem of economic underdevelopment is the same world-wide - namely that peoples do not have the cultural or institutional tools to make the constant changes required to be economically productive. 

This is not to say that everyone has to be the same - but that societies have to create successful means for achieving economic change (either by adapting to the Western models or by finding other models). 

Rapid development in East Asia show that alternatives to the Western models do exist - but the alternative East Asian economic models are no less demanding in their own way, and also suffer weaknesses which, though different, may be even greater than those in Western models (eg see China's Development: Assessing the Implications). 

Thus education, investment, advice etc are not sufficient to overcome disadvantage unless there is rapid progress in addressing the cultural and institutional dimensions. The innovative Cape York Partnership that Noel Pearson inspired using the theory of 'social entrepreneurs' and Reconciliation Australia's 'Native Title Plus' agenda may not achieve much.

And the complexity of the challenge can be illustrated by Noel Pearson's proposals for giving aboriginal elders legal power over others in their communities to control social dysfunctions (eg alcohol abuse, conflict). The restriction on individual freedoms he proposed would re-create to some degree the social and political environment of tribal society - an environment that would be fatal to independent initiative and to the constant change needed for economic success under Western economic models.



The major obstacle to advancement usually seems to lie in people's own attitudes.

For example, Islamic societies tend to have a belief that all outcomes are the result of the will of Allah - and thus do not attach enough importance or credibility to the possibility that they themselves can make a difference. They thus tend to fail economically, and then extremists blame their failure on their lack of obedience to Allah (and some of those societies than collapse into a fundamentalism which disregards all human knowledge except that found in the Koran). 

The solution for Islamic societies might be to consider the Genesis claim, which is part of their heritage, that God created a reality in which humanity is a significant creative influence.

[See also Culture Makes a Difference in Complexities of the Refugee Problem and Competing Civilisations]

Australia has a new challenge similar to that aboriginal communities face, as indicated by the 'One Nation' phenomenon. This political phenomenon reflected the fact that marginal (regional, coastal and metropolitan) communities failed to cope with the effect of massive economic change and were thus socially disadvantaged (see Assessing the Implications of Pauline Hanson's One Nation ).

However Australia's elites, rather than being sympathetic to their plight and moving to ensure that they could cope, often confined themselves to criticising and marginalizing the disadvantaged for the ignorance that was the source of their weakness - which was exactly the same as their predecessors did with aboriginal peoples.

However it was difficult to do anything different, because many of the (One Nation) disadvantaged (like their aboriginal predecessors) also haven't wanted to hear that they might have to 'get their act together' to escape from their plight. Rather they simply wanted to re-create their past.

The Future

The Future

There are growing global difficulties with modern mainstream economic models - eg in terms of unstable financial systems, and excessive environmental pressure due to economic and population growth. Thus alternatives will need to be developed - which in part will involve recognition that humanity's creative influence in the world brings ecological responsibilities - an area in which aboriginal communities probably have contributions to make. A key issue here may be to invent practical alternatives that would moderate the way in which money drives change and growth.

None-the-less alternative economic models that must be found can't be all that different to the current mainstream without bringing disaster - because creatively processing large quantities of materials and energy is now essential to sustaining current human populations. Thus finding a way to participate in this successfully will remain a key challenge facing aboriginal (and 'One Nation') communities. Ongoing change will further complicate the position, because (to be anything but permanently marginalised) it is not only necessary to catch up with what the leading edge of the mainstream world has been economically, but also necessary to catch up with what it is becoming.

It can be noted that a key to the economic 'catch-up' which East Asian societies are achieving (which no others achieved) was that they targeted Western societies most productive industries, rather than following expert advice about undertaking low-quality activities that were 'appropriate' for less developed societies and that would have permanently kept them relatively poorer.

Educating individuals one at a time will achieve progress .... eventually. For faster progress, learning by whole communities through identifying attractive opportunities from change is likely to be needed.

Methods whereby 'catch-up' might be achieved (through accelerating grass roots learning) are available (eg see Developing a Regional Industry Cluster - though this is presented solely in terms of 'economic' development, and has not been adapted to the needs of aboriginal communities).

However the fact that this article identifies a focus on 'real estate' as the first of Seven Secrets to Failure is probably not irrelevant to the now-diminished expectations about what can be achieved via native title.

Grasping the Nettle

Grasping the Nettle

One critical problem aboriginal communities face is that others try to 'do it' for them [1].

For example: A report by the House of Representatives standing committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs identified many different program activities through which government could help these groups ("We can do it: the needs of urban dwelling Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders", August 2001).

The committee did not even appear to consider whether aboriginal peoples' main disadvantage could be that 'they couldn't do it' for themselves. 

And: discussions about aboriginal disadvantage may be a major contribution to it [1];

Similarly the Productivity Commission's report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2003, gave a list of 7 priority areas for improvement [1] - all of which were perfectly reasonable. The only problem was that the Commission took the view that aboriginal people should wait until political leaders get around to doing it for them.

The other side of this problem is that aboriginal communities have been prepared to play the dependency game - concentrating on disadvantages and telling government what government or others should do for them, rather than concentrating on opportunities and doing it for themselves.

However this should not be seen as a one-way street. As noted above, aboriginal cultures contain many attractive and highly functional features, and Australia generally faces significant changes requiring adjustments. Thus, in addition to pro-actively learning to advance themselves, aboriginal communities might consider identifying how features of their traditional cultures would be of more general relevance and then doing some 'educating' of their own.

June 2002 (based on paper first drafted 20/12/01 and modified subsequently)

Addendum A: 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism? +

'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism? (Email sent 9/11/10)

Patrica Karvelas and Joe Kelly
The Australian

Re Indigenous recognition ‘must be real’: Marcia Langton, The Australian, 9/11/10

Your article recorded comments on an announcement by Australia’s prime minister about what you described as a ‘referendum on the recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution’, which the ALP had promised during the recent federal election campaign.

Ms Gillard did not, however, suggest what form this recognition might take, but rather established a panel to report back by December 2011. However this merely deferred dealing with a difficult issue, and is unlikely to produce an outcome of any real benefit to Australians with indigenous ancestry.


There are basically two alternatives for such a Constitutional provision:

  • Firstly it could say that some Australians have ancestors who migrated to the continent tens of thousands of years before European settlement, and that those individuals must in the long term have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, though many may require short term support to get to the point where this is possible;
  • Alternately it might say that Australians with indigenous ancestry (either as individuals or as communities) have rights and responsibilities that are different to other Australians.

This is in some ways the difference between giving recognition to ‘aborigines’ (which your article referred to) and giving recognition to ‘aboriginal peoples’ (which was referred to in the joint media release by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Attorney General).

The former position is consistent with the spirit of inclusiveness that led to overwhelming support for the 1967 referendum (which recognised ‘aborigines’ by allowing special laws to be made for them, and including them in census counts). It would undoubtedly gain popular support in a future referendum. However, for reasons outlined below, it would not deal with the real obstacles facing ‘aborigines’.

The alternative proposition would seem unlikely to get popular support. Moreover (for reasons suggested below) this would actually increase the difficulties facing Australians with indigenous ancestry.

What is ‘Real’?

Your article quoted Professor Marcia Langdon as suggesting that indigenous recognition ‘must be real’, and (a) involve more than a paternalistic / token mention in the preamble; and (b) put an end to making different laws for aborigines (ie to the major outcome of the 1967 referendum).

However, unless and until Australians with indigenous ancestry pay serious attention to the cultural factors that limit their achievements, it seems likely that official recognition in the Constitution can be no more than another exercise in symbolism (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement , 2002). Australians with indigenous ancestry must get themselves into a position where they can succeed on their own merits, rather than aspiring to be merely a protected species.

Constitutional changes might achieve no more of any practical relevance than the (so-called) ‘Apology to the Stolen Generations’ (see Apology Magic?, 2008). Furthermore the risk of simply doing ‘more of the same’ policies that have failed in the past is indicated by:

The prospects of again going around in circles is further increased by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is likely be considered in drafting any proposed changes to Australia’s Constitution. The UN Declaration seemed unfortunately to be something of a ‘dog’s breakfast’ (see UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?, 2007). For example the Declaration sought to simultaneously achieve the apparently incompatible goals of improving the position of indigenous people as individuals, and the status of their traditional cultures.

Thus it is hard to see that ‘recognition of Aborigines (or alternately recognition of ‘Aboriginal peoples’) in the Constitution’ is more than a symbolic diversion from enabling them to stand on their own feet.

John Craig

RE: 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism? (Email received 12/11/10)

Dear Mr Craig

Thank you for providing a copy of your email of 9 November 2010 sent to Patricia Karvelas and Joe Kelly of The Australian, expressing concern that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians may be little more than a symbolic gesture.

It is important that Indigenous disadvantage is tackled on a number of fronts, including recognising the special place of our first people, driving long term change on the ground through investment and reform and supporting people to take responsibility for themselves so they meet their potential and pursue their aspirations.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is an important step in strengthening the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and building trust. There are complex legal, policy and cultural issues involved in changing our Constitution which is why the Government is establishing an Expert Panel to develop options for change. Proposals will need to be developed in close consultation with Indigenous people, and experts with a strong understanding of the Constitution and it will also need to be meaningful to and supported by the broader community

The Expert Panel will lead broad consultation during 2011 to build consensus on the recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution. It will be asked to develop options for constitutional change which will attract broad support from the Australian community and will work closely with organisations with expertise and a history of engagement on this issue. The Panel’s terms of reference are purposely broad in scope. The Government does not wish to constrain the work of the Expert Panel or pre-empt a form of wording that could be put to a referendum. This is a matter for all of Australia, not only Indigenous people and a key role for the Panel is to consult widely with the public, including Indigenous people, to determine the best way forward.

Thank you again for writing.

Indigenous Constitutional Recognition Secretariat  | Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

Reply sent 13/11/10

Indigenous Constitutional Recognition Secretariat

Thank you for your email of 12/11/10 concerning the purpose and process of the consultation on the recognition of Indigenous people in Australia’s constitution.

There is no doubt about the importance of: building trust; on-the-ground change through investment and reform; and support for Australians with indigenous ancestry in taking responsibility, achieving their potential and pursuing their aspirations.

If mention in the Constitution assists in building trust, it will be of value. However unless and until the process of support for Australians with indigenous ancestry enables them to address the practical consequences of traditional cultures, their ability to take responsibility, achieve their potential and pursue their aspirations will be severely limited. And, as noted in my earlier email, there are ways in which Constitutional recognition could seriously impede their advancement.

It is submitted that these concerns need to be considered in the consultation process.

John Craig


Addendum B: A 'Cultural Blending' Scenario for Indigenous Australia

A 'Cultural Blending' Scenario for Indigenous Australia (email sent 10/11/10)

Dr Sarah Maddison and Professor Patrick Dodson,
Indigenous policy and Dialogue Research Unit,


Re: ‘Seize this one chance for a reconciled future’, The Australian, 10/11/10

In the context of the Prime Minister’s proposal related to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Constitution, I noted your Unit’s interesting proposal (in Scenarios for Indigenous Australia) for the development of scenarios as a means for informed dialogue about the future of Indigenous Australia.

I should like to suggest that one of the scenarios that should be developed as the basis for dialogue involves cultural blending, eg by Australians with indigenous ancestry collaborating in examining their cultural heritage in terms of both: (a) features that might be advantageous if shared more widely within the Australian community; and (b) the adverse implications for their economic welfare of some behavioural and institutional consequences of traditional cultures. My reasons for suggesting this are outlined in 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism?

However, having noted Professor Dodson’s 2009 So What? lecture, I have a suspicion that a ‘cultural blending’ scenario such as suggested above could be outside the range of those that your Unit would be willing to contemplate.

John Craig

Addendum C: Improving the Position of Australians with Indigenous Ancestry  +

Improving the Position of Australians with Indigenous Ancestry - email sent 21/1/11

Noel Pearson,
Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership

Re: Aboriginal referendum a test of national maturity, The Australian, 26/1/11

Your article both expressed reservations about the prospects for success of the proposed referendum, and suggested the need to recognise the status of indigenous peoples without fracturing the notion that all Australians are equal citizens.

My interpretation of your article: Mark Leibler suggested that the referendum is needed to complete unfinished business, but not everyone will get what they want. Patrick Dodson saw a need to acknowledge indigenous peoples in a proper and respectful way, while Ken Wyatt believes there is little appetite for significant change. I was reluctant to participate in the expert panel because: (a) conservative leadership is usually needed for successful constitutional change; and (b) the federal ‘new political paradigm’ was turned into a quagmire. Rudd shook Australia’s faith in competent governance. However as the Opposition endorses constitutional reform, there may be hope. Some see a need to change Australia’s constitution in the light of social and cultural change, while others object to change (eg thinking that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). The constitution has served 97% of Australians well, but not the 3% of indigenous Australians. There would be no need to change it, if (for example) Australia became a republic. Some see that 1967 referendum fixed problems in the constitution by voting for Aboriginal citizenship. However this merely made the originally-negative constitution neutral, for original Australians. There is a need to recognise the status of indigenous peoples without fracturing the notion that all Australians are equal citizens. The proposed constitutional amendment must be one in which all see themselves as winners. This requires that the expert panel proposal must first be subjected to a preliminary vote of indigenous Australia, and if they do not support it then it should not be put to referendum. Also any referendum should be separated from elections to ensure it is not politicised. The referendum will be a test of the maturity of indigenous Australians and their leaders, as much as of Australians generally.

I should like to endorse your radical proposal for reasons outlined in 'Recognising Aboriginal peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism?. Any constitutional amendment that did not make clear that Australians with indigenous ancestry have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else would: (a) be unlikely to get general acceptance; and (b) be likely to disadvantage those subjected to positive or negative discrimination. The referenced document also suggested that the most effective way to improve the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry could be to provide them with leadership (eg through the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership) in examining the effect that cultural assumptions have on people’s ability to be materially successful.

In relation to other points made in your article it is submitted for your consideration that:

  • The Rudd Government was by no means to first to show that governments can be incompetent (see Failure was not confined to the Rudd Government);
  • Making Australia a ‘republic’ could not be achieved without constitutional changes (see Politicisation of the ‘Crown’). The foundation of Australia’s system of government is that the ‘Crown’ holds all executive power but uses it only on advice from elected governments. Under any republican system the head of state could be expected to have their own (different) political agenda and power base, and thus create potential conflicts requiring extensive constitutional changes;
  • There would seem to be an incompatibility between your suggestion that all Australians be regarded as equal citizens and your suggestion that any constitutional change recommended by the expert panel be first submitted to a vote by a particular group of Australians (ie those with some measure of indigenous ancestry). Moreover, as I understand it, ‘voting’ was not the traditional methods whereby decisions were reached in indigenous communities. A better alternative might be to ensure that proposals from the expert panel are communicated clearly to Australians with indigenous ancestry, and that they are given every opportunity to make their reactions to those proposals widely known. A constitutional amendment that was generally perceived to be inadequate by the individuals whose ancestors it was intended to acknowledge and whose position it was intended to normalize would be unlikely to be endorsed by the community generally.

John Craig

[Further note on the above-mentioned apparent inconsistency in Mr Pearson's argument: In a subsequent article (Seek indigenous views ahead of full referendum, The Australian, 29-30/1/11), Mr Pearson suggested:

"......... that indigenous Australians should first decide their position on any referendum proposition.

First, is the effort of recognising indigenous Australian people worth pursuing through a national referendum if the objects of that recognition do not support it? If indigenous Australians say no, then our people will have to wear the decision. That is a possibility the process must be prepared to allow.

Second, without a preliminary vote we will never know what position was taken by indigenous Australians, because the vote of 3 per cent of the population will be submerged in the overwhelming 97 per cent national vote. Surely both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians would want to know whether or not indigenous Australians supported the recognition.

Third, the very concept of recognition implies there are two groups in the national community of Australia, indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians [emphasis added]. To say a preliminary vote of indigenous Australians creates an offensive division overlooks the fact that recognition is about one recognising the other.

Fourth, for the nation to truly settle unfinished business the indigenous Australian voice must be active in the process. If the voice of indigenous Australia is submerged within a national voice, there is a danger our people will play a passive role in the process. The voices of some indigenous Australian leaders will be heard loud and clear. My concern is the voices of ordinary indigenous Australians, in the city suburbs, in the country towns, in the remote communities, all have the opportunity - and indeed the responsibility - to give active expression to their view."

The third point above (ie that two different groups of Australians would recognise each other - presumably those having or not having some measure of indigenous ancestry) is clearly incompatible with Mr Pearson's suggestion in the earlier article that all Australians be recognised as equal citizens. 

Recognition of the simple fact that some Australians have indigenous ancestry does not require now trying to classify individuals into one of two separate groups. Such a classification process would be:

  • pointless if all Australians are to be recognised as equal citizens;
  • exceeding difficult (and thus virtually arbitrary in many cases) in relation to Australia's inhabitants at the time of European settlement given the degree of intermarriage that has occurred over the past couple of centuries, and the lack of reliable records; and
  • inappropriate given that pre-European migrants to Australia arrived in successive waves over tens of thousands of years, each of which tended to partly displace their predecessors - who would logically need to be regarded as a separate / earlier 'indigenous' group]. 
Addendum D: Base 'career and financial benefits' on needs and means, not on ancestry

Base 'career and financial benefits' on needs and means, not on ancestry (email sent 2/4/11)

Karl Quinn
The Age

Re: Bolt put in place in race case?, The Age, 2/4/11

The case that has ‘amused, if not transfixed, Melbourne this week’ raises important questions that seem to be being ignored by those commenting on it. Though I know nothing about what actually happened, your article suggested that a journalist, Andrew Bolt, had written:

“….. a series of articles that named and arguably shamed a number of light-skinned Aborigines who, he contended, had claimed one small element of their mixed genetic heritage as significant above all others. Their choice to identify as indigenous Australians, he added, just happened to confer all sorts of career and financial benefits. How fortunate.”

Australia has a serious problem of racial discrimination – namely that individuals with any indigenous ancestors can obtain benefits not available to Australians generally, merely because of their ancestry.

Many Australia’s with indigenous ancestors suffer from serious social and economic disadvantage, and require support to overcome those disadvantages. However such support should be based on individuals’ needs and means, rather than based on their ancestry – and universally available to anyone with similar needs and means.

Noel Pearson has argued that reference to indigenous peoples in the constitution should not prevent all Australians being recognized as equal citizens (see Improving the Position of Australians with Indigenous Ancestry. Likewise Professor Marcia Langdon suggested the need to end the practice of making special laws for individuals with indigenous ancestors that was authorized by the 1967 referendum (presumably because such special laws can be a two edged sword) – see 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism?

I am sure that many people would be interested in coverage of the current judicial action that mentioned the broader policy issues involved.

John Craig

Addendum E: Inadequate proposals for advancing the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry
Inadequate proposals for advancing the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry (email sent 9/12/11)

Michael Gordon
The Age

Re: Step to honour our first people, The Age, 9/12/11

If your article accurately represents the outcome of the panel’s efforts to develop proposals for recognition of indigenous Australians in the Constitution, it is clear that that the panel been a failure. Your article suggested that:

“AUSTRALIANS will be asked to change the constitution to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and languages, prohibit racial discrimination and remove the last vestiges of racism in the nation's founding document under a blueprint approved yesterday.

An expert panel appointed by the Gillard government has proposed that recognition of indigenous Australians be attached to a new power to legislate for the advancement of the original Australians, their languages and their culture.


The [possible] new power [to replace Section 51 (xxvi)] would have its own preamble, acknowledging prior occupation of the lands and waters by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and respecting their culture. It would give the Commonwealth power to make laws for the advancement of indigenous peoples and for the protection of their culture and languages. There would also be a prohibition on racial discrimination."

Making special Commonwealth laws for the advancement of ‘indigenous peoples’ would clearly be a case of racial discrimination. Moreover advancement of indigenous peoples arguably requires that they consider the practical consequences of their cultural traditions, not simply that the Commonwealth (or anyone else) recognize those traditions (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002).

Why it is hard to know what legislation would be advantageous [Note added later]

It is anything but easy to know what legislation would advance the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry.

Several decades ago, after the 1967 constitutional amendment to allow the Commonwealth to make special laws for indigenous Australians,  it was believed that access to welfare services (ie direct government assistance) was what was needed. This degenerated into welfare dependence. Then land rights / native title was seen to provide a solution. Irrespective of any benefits, this seemed to worsen the desperate position of communities living remote from opportunities.

Now recognising cultural traditions may lead to disadvantage if (as suggested above) those cultures actually need to be reviewed to eliminate dysfunctional features.

Also a constitutional provision empowering the Commonwealth to legislate to benefit particular groups will necessarily focus those groups on lobbying the Commonwealth for benefits, rather than seeking success in other ways. The example of tariff protection of Australian manufacturing industry is relevant - as, for decades, this focused manufacturers collectively on lobbying the Commonwealth Government rather than on individually addressing global market demand. And the dependency this created was a political nightmare to unwind. Similarly the Australian states' enforced focus on lobbying the Commonwealth Government for funding seems to be the major factor in the distortion and inefficiency of government functions in Australia generally (see Federal Fiscal Imbalances).

What the panel is proposing seems to be based on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the latter: (a) gives no consideration to practical issues; (b) is full of internal contradictions; and (c) is something of a ‘dog’s breakfast’ (see UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?, 2007).

An alternative approach to this issue that was likely to have been more successful in genuinely advancing the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry was outlined in 'Recognising Aboriginal peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism? (2010).

John Craig

Addendum F: Indigenous Recognition (Related Note)
Indigenous Recognition - email sent 21/1/12

Nicholas Rothwell
The Australian

Re: Simplicity the missing link in a complex proposal, The Australian, 20/1/12

Your article validly noted the inconsistency of proposals to both prohibit and explicitly endorse racial discrimination in relation to the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians that has been suggested by the expert panel established by the federal government.  Clearly one cannot simultaneously reject racial discrimination and provide for (say) native title for Australians with indigenous ancestry.

A similar point was made in Inadequate proposals for advancing the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry, and this may be of interest. It includes reference to suggestions about ways to eliminate this inconsistency, and hopefully genuinely advance the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry.

John Craig

Related Note: Added Later

It was reported in Indigenous rights: constitutional amendments likely (Jamieson A., Crikey, 20/1/12) that a justification had been put forward for prohibiting racial discrimination whilst providing for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:

"One of the chairs of the panel which presented the report, Mark Leibler, wrote in The Age about the panel’s decision:

“Some people might question why you would want to remove race from the constitution and then replace it with a power to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I would say we have to get away from this 19th-century idea that Aboriginal people are members of a “race”. Their identity is based on ancestry, ethnicity and belief systems, not race. We need to have laws that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people just as we do for many groups in society — women, the elderly, the disabled, veterans, people living in remote areas — but these laws should be based on need and the national interest, not race.

Need because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain Australia’s most disadvantaged citizens. The national interest because their cultures and languages are unique to this country to be celebrated as part of our common heritage.”  "

Whilst interesting, this suggestion does not seem to be particularly solid because:

  • the notion of 'ancestry' and 'ethnicity' are not readily separable from 'race'. For example, the relevant Wikepedia article asserts that "The concept of ethnicity differs from the closely related term race in that "race" refers to grouping based mostly upon biological criteria, while "ethnicity" also encompasses additional cultural factors" (ie biological 'race' is seen as a component of ethnicity). Likewise two of the definitions of ethnicity on appear to adopt a similar approach, ie they define ethnicity as: (a) "relating to or characteristic of a human group having racial, religious, linguistic, and certain other traits in common "; and (b) "relating to the classification of mankind into groups, esp on the basis of racial characteristics " [While the idea of identifying Australians with indigenous ancestry on something other than the basis of 'race' has appeal, these linguistic obstacles would need to be overcome];
  • while 'need' is a relevant basis for providing support for Australians with indigenous ancestry (because they frequently suffer disadvantage), such needs apply to individuals rather than all people with indigenous ancestry (because increasingly some individuals are becoming successful in their own right). Moreover it is not possible to justify some legal provisions (eg native title) on the basis of 'need';
  • while the cultures and languages of Australians with indigenous ancestry are unique and worthy of recognition as part of Australia's heritage, it is not clear what this implies in terms of the national interest, because: (a) it seems likely that traditional cultures have been a significant factor in the disadvantage often suffered by Australians with indigenous ancestry (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement ); and (b) there seems to be a more general requirement for Australia to review its approach to multiculturalism by serious considering the consequences of cultural assumptions (see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism ).
Addendum G: Why Unite to save Indigenous Referendum?

Why Unite to save Indigenous Referendum? - email sent 6/7/12

Patrica Karvalas,
The Australian

Re: Parties told: unite to save indigenous referendum, The Australian, 6/7/12

Might I respectfully suggest that there seems to be a need for a deeper analysis on the proposal for a referendum to recognise indigenous Australians in the constitution? There is no current proposal for such a referendum that makes any real sense.

Your article correctly drew attention to the fact that:

“In January, an expert panel recommended that the Constitution be altered to remove racist sections and create power for the advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the protection of language and culture. It also called for a clause against racial discrimination.”

However, even this brief outline shows how ridiculous the expert panel’s proposal was. How can one both end racial discrimination and provide for legislation for the advancement of particular racial groups?

This and other reasons to doubt the seriousness of the panel’s proposals are outlined in Inadequate proposals for advancing the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry. The latter also referred to:

  • the difficulty of knowing what sort of legislation would be ‘advantageous’ – as legislation in recent decades has always been intended to be advantageous, but has often failed in practice;
  • the benefits that Australians with indigenous ancestry might gain from reviewing their cultural traditions, rather than having the latter ‘protected’ (as ineffectual manufacturers used to be); and
  • a reference to suggestions about a possible alternative.

I submit that there is a need to do more than report on political infighting in relation to the apparent need for someone to be seen to be ‘doing something’.

John Craig

Addendum H: Aboriginal Recognition: Moving Forward or Going Round in Circles

Aboriginal Recognition: Moving Forward or Going Round in Circles - email sent 23/4/14

David Penburthy
Herald Sun

Re: Tony’s secret communist race plot, Herald Sun, 19/4/14

The indigenous recognition changes to Australia’s constitution that were mentioned in your article seem to perpetuate racism and to be unlikely to benefit Australians with indigenous ancestry.

An extract from your article: “These are the changes: remove section 25 — which says the states can ban people from voting based on their race; remove section 51 (xxvi) — which can be used to pass laws that discriminate against people based on their race; insert a new section 51A — to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian Government’s ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; insert a new section 116A, banning racial discrimination by government; and insert a new section 127A, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country’s first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia’s national language.”

One can’t eliminate racism from the constitution (eg by deleting Section 51 (xxvi)) if one simultaneously inserts a section 51A which: (a) ‘recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strut Islander peoples” as special racial groups; and (b) ‘preserves the Australian government’ ability to pass laws for the benefit of’ those racial groups.

Moreover making laws for such peoples is by no means a certain way to ‘benefit’ them. There has been a determined effort to ‘help’ Australians with indigenous ancestry since the Commonwealth’s ability to make special laws for such people was introduced by referendum in the 1960s. Much of the ‘help’ that followed took the form of welfare payments. This increased such peoples’ dependence and disadvantage.

While the weakness of past initiatives to ‘benefit’ Australians with indigenous ancestry are now generally recognised, the initiatives that seem to be currently favoured to provide such ‘benefits’ (ie recognition of the collective ‘rights’ of such peoples) would be equally damaging.

Advancing the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry probably primarily requires boosting their capabilities and ability to think as individuals (for reasons suggested in The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002 and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?, 2007). Any laws to boost the position of tribes at the expense of individuals would be likely to severely limit the prospects of those who were constrained by their membership of such tribes.

An option to get around this was suggested in 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism? (2010). The latter involved providing for: (a) the equality of all Australians; (b) acknowledging that some Australians’ ancestors had been indigenous at the time of European settlement; and (c) laws treating all Australians equally (eg providing benefits on the basis of individual needs and means).

John Craig

Proportional Representation for Australians with Indigenous Ancestry?

Proportional Representation for Australians with Indigenous Ancestry? - email sent 15/9/14

Dennis Shanahan
The Australian

Re: Push for indigenous Senate seats on Abbott’s mind as bush visit begins, The Australian, 15/9/14

I noted with interest your report of the Prime Minister’s interest (in the context of possible moves to recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution) in the possibility that up to three Senate seats might be reserved for Australians with indigenous ancestry in something like a New Zealand style (ie proportional representation) system.

It seems strange that a proposal to introduce explicit racism into Australia’s electoral system is being considered as part of a process of constitutional change which many had seen as seeking to eliminate racism from Australia’s constitution.

The proposal also raises questions about: (a) whether other special (not necessarily racially-based) interest groups might need to be given some sort of proportional representation; and (b) whether proportional representation makes for effective government. As I understand it, the European / NZ style proportional representation systems tend to suffer from an inability to make executive decisions because so many narrow interest groups have a seat at the table. I would have thought that Australia already had its fair share of political sclerosis.

John Craig

Indigenous Recognition without Creating a Legal Quagmire

Indigenous Recognition without Creating a Legal Quagmire - email sent 3/11/14

James Roskam

Re: Indigenous recognition will hand power to judges , The Australian, 3/11/14

Your article drew attention to Professor James Allen’s book, Democracy in Decline, which argued that: (a) judges and lawyers have taken it upon themselves to overturn decisions by democratic majorities to give effect to their own political agendas; and (b) amending the constitution to recognize indigenous Australians would create additional scope for politically-motivated judges to subvert parliament.

I should like to suggest for your consideration that:

John Craig

Recognising 'First Australians' in the Constitution: What a Bad Idea

Recognising 'First Australians' in the Constitution: What a Bad Idea - email sent 14/3/15

Michael Westaway (Griffith University) and
Joe Dortch (University of WA)

Re: Who we should recognize as First Australians in the constitution, The Conversation, 13/3/15

Your article concerned a debate that seems to have arisen about whether it would be desirable / possible to identify some particular racial group as the ‘First Australians’.

While I am anything but an expert in this area, it seems likely that decades of research would be needed before anyone could offer reliable conclusions about who was ‘first’. We are talking about a process of migration by groups of people presumably from Asia that started (say) 60,000 years ago (and continued over tens of thousands of years). And, as occurred with such migrations elsewhere in the world, established populations / tribes would sometimes have been displaced by new arrivals (eg consider what happened in the 18th century). It may well be that a particular racial group had come to dominate the Australian mainland at the time of European settlement (perhaps by killing off earlier racial groups) – but this does not prove that they were ‘first’.

Surely all that can be said with any reliability in any constitutional amendment is that there were people who were indigenous to Australia at the time of European settlement in the 18th century. And, to improve the prospects of their descendants and to avoid introducing racism into the constitution, the latter should avoid making any distinction in terms of rights and responsibilities between the descendants of indigenous Australians and everyone else (Aboriginal Recognition: Moving Forward or Going Round in Circles, 2014). Academic debate about who was ‘first’ could then continue without having any legal or political implications.

John Craig

Recognising What?

Recognising What? - email sent 18/4/15

Patricia Karvelas
The Australian

Re: Negotiating a way towards indigenous recognition, The Australian, 18/4/15

Your article, which highlighted Noel Pearson’s new proposal, highlighted the fact that agreement about constitutional change is proving elusive.

As I understand it, Mr Pearson’s initial aspiration was to remove racism from the constitution altogether. My amateurish suggestions that headed in much the same direction were in 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism? (2010). This basically involved recognition that some Australians had ancestors who were indigenous at the time of European settlement – and that they now have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.

As the expert committee working on a proposal for constitutional change seems to be seeking changes that would permit ongoing racial discrimination providing it ‘benefits’ Australians with indigenous ancestry, Mr Peason now favours: (a) a declaration of recognition outside the constitution; and (b) constitutional changes to remove discriminatory clauses as well as constitutional recognition of an indigenous body to advise parliament on legislation.

There are problems with both these alternatives.

It is incredibly hard to be sure that legislation intended to ‘benefit’ Australians with indigenous ancestry would actually do so. Welfare support was a major outcome of the post 1967 referendum empowerment of federal legislation in relation to Australians with indigenous ancestry. This was meant to help, but it didn’t. More recently artificial support for traditional cultures has been viewed as an important factor in the ‘rights’ of such groups – and this also is likely to prove counter-productive (see UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?, 2007).

And Noel Pearson’s alternative (ie the creation of a constitutionally-endorsed lobby-group seeking benefits at the expense of Australians generally) would seem equally counter-productive. Malaysia tried an arrangement under which native Malays were given special benefits, and the result was a dependency on those benefits and a constraint on native Malays’ ability to really get ahead.

Eliminating racism from Australia’s constitution (perhaps as I suggested in 2010) still seems to me to be the best option.

John Craig

Promoting Racism Through Sport +

Promoting Racism Through Sport - email sent 29/7/15

Chip Le Grand
The Australian,,

Re: “Why are they booing uncle?’ Why indeed?”, The Australian, 29/7/15

Your article suggests that no one can understand why Adam Goodes is being booed by crowds while at the same time pointing out that he has spoken about his rights and his peoples’ rights.

I would like to suggest that the problem is obvious. The crowds see Goodes as promoting racism (ie the notion that race matters and that people should have special rights because of their race) through sport. There is a strong resistance now in Australia towards racial inequality and anyone who promotes racial inequality can expect to attract opposition even if they are a sporting star.

The proposal for constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians will presumably run into exactly the same sort of public opposition if it tries to make distinctions on the basis of race (see Recognising What).

John Craig

Comments on a 'Good Racism is a Bad Idea' by Syd Hickman

Booing Adam Goodes is sad - but media analysis has been worse. It produced more of the righteous nonsense that caused the problem. The AFL has a great record opposing racism. Booing Goodes is not simple racism and reflects recent events. Booing has a long tradition in Australian sport - and booing is often directed against politicians at sporting events. Goodes became Australian of the year with the self-appointed task of telling everyone to stop being racist - ie he became a politician. Media commentators have no idea what it feels like to have no public voice. Goodes broke the rule about not reacting to crowd provocation - and performed a war dance towards spectators that had even greater impact. Not surprisingly people react to racially-charged aggressive acts. But there is a wider race debate. Ordinary Australians are getting tired of being told by the self-righteous how racist they are. People do not see themselves as others do. Goodes sees himself as a proud aboriginal man battling racism. However those who battle to survive each week may seem him as a rich successful footballer who has had a great life and does not need to work. The core problem is a desire for 'good racism' - ie the 'Recognize' campaign (of which Goodes is an active part) aims to eliminate racism from constitution while making the constitution inherently racist by singling out one particular group for special mention on the basis of race. This is a pale repetition of the 'Sorry' campaign which was more successful in boosting understanding of aboriginal oppression and making aborigines more willing to take advantage of their opportunities. . Activists now are much happier talking about racism than about solutions to the real financial and social problems of aboriginal people.  Goodes himself has been quite active in dealing with real problems . He and the cause of aboriginal advancement would be much better by promoting that work rather than inventing war dances and criticizing ordinary Australians for their lack of sympathy for wealthy / successful people who decide to emphasize the aboriginal side of their multicultural heritage. Aboriginal people should not become pawns of self-righteous white people whose main aim is to prove that they are morally superior to others . It is not a good idea to try to impose 'good' racism while arguing that all racism is bad [1]

Syd Hickman's observations seem very relevant. He notes that:

  • there is no such thing as 'good' racism and it is foolish as (as Goodes seems to want to do) to advocate 'good' racism while criticizing what are seen as 'bad' racists. Likewise the 'Recognize' movement can't eliminate racism from Australia's constitution if it seeks to build that document on a foundation of supposedly 'good racism' (see also Recognising First Australians in the Constitution: What a Bad Idea, 2015);
  • it is more important to enhance the ability of Australians with indigenous ancestry to succeed than it is to suggest that it is the racism of ordinary Australians that is primarily responsible for their disadvantage (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002+ which highlighted the constraints of traditional cultures and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage which considers the same issue in a global context);
  • Goodes has a multicultural background which has enabled him to become very successful and rich.  Other Australians who are relatively disadvantaged are unlikely to be impressed by his claims that he is a victim because of his aboriginal background.

It is worth considering the parallel with the One Nation phenomenon in the 1990s. Large numbers of Australians who lived mainly in economically marginal regions had been unable to cope with policy changes designed to boost Australia's economic competitiveness. They were put under increased pressure to compete but little was done to ensure their ability to compete successfully. When they expressed their discontent as well as they knew how (eg by by arguing that special privileges should not be provided to some disadvantaged people) they were widely criticized for their ignorance (and frequently labeled racists) rather than being helped to cope by the elites who were responsible for the inadequate economic adjustment policies that had led to their problems (see The Implication of 'Pauline Hanson's One Nation, 1998).

As in the 1990s there is very little now to be achieved by criticizing relatively disadvantaged Australians for the fact that they object to special benefits being sought for just one disadvantaged group (ie a group based on race).  Australia is experiencing significant economic challenges (see How Durable is Australia's Luck?). This is generating severe problems for many on the margins of society (see The Challenge and Potential Cost of Inequality and Insufficient Income and What is Happening in Australia). Large transfer payments through the tax / welfare system funded by last-decades' resource investment boom had maintained a reasonable level of income equality despite the incipient emergence of an underclass. However this is no longer possible given large federal government structural deficits. And business and political leaders are doing essentially nothing that is likely to be effective in dealing with the cause of disadvantage for those on the margins of Australian society . Most emphasis is placed on changes to government budgets to deal with structural deficits. The more critical need is to change / develop the economy and community in order to increase community incomes and the tax base and to reduce demands on government. Likewise emphasis is placed on the 'things' that governments can do, whereas accelerated development of the economy / community primarily requires empowering apolitical leadership (see Lifting Productivity: Considering the Bigger Picture, 2010+).

The provision of special benefits to a particular racial group would not only promote significant disunity and political instability (like that but potentially more radical than that associated with One Nation in the 1990s), it would also perpetuate the disadvantages suffered by the racial group that received the special 'benefits'. And official (eg AFL) encouragement of racism by individuals such as Adam Goodes will merely exacerbate those likely risks.

Racism Is Unlikely to Help David Jones or Indigenous Reconciliation

Racism Is Unlikely to Help David Jones or Indigenous Reconciliation - email sent 21/10/15

Mark Ritson,
Melbourne Business School

Re: Will Adam Goodes deliver the goods for David Jones?, Business Day, 21/10/15

Your article sought to analyse whether David Jones will benefit from involving Adam Goodes as a brand ambassador and indigenous reconciliation adviser. I should like to suggest that David Jones will not do so because Adam Goodes’ racism not only attracts boos, but is incompatible with what is needed for indigenous reconciliation.

It was recently noted that Goodes’ sins / virtues include ‘pride in his heritage’ (Caro J., Adam Goodes: Backing Australia's David Beckham is a stroke of genius for David Jones, Brisbane Times, 20/10/15). However what Goodes is presenting is also overt racism (see Comments on ‘Good Racism is a Bad Idea’) – and will presumably be viewed as such by many of those who mainly react with anonymous anti-racist boos. It is a pity that David Jones has chosen to censor the comments that have emerged in response to its dealings with Adam Goodes. This enables those comments to be claimed to be ‘racist’ – though it seems very likely to me that many would be classified as anti-racist if viewed without bias.

Moreover, for reasons suggested in Comments on ‘Good Racism is a Bad Idea’, Goodes’ emphasis on one of his races is incompatible with real reconciliation between Australians with indigenous ancestry (which Goodes has) and everyone else.

Media commentators who endorse Goodes’ racism are probably not helping to eliminate racism in Australia. And alignment with Adam Goodes’ racism is unlikely to benefit David Jones.

John Craig

The Failure of Academics and Politicians to Acknowledge the Practical Consequences of Culture

The Failure of Academics and Politicians to Acknowledge the Practical Consequences of Culture - email sent 13/2/16

Andrew Bolt,
Herald Sun

Re: Indigenous Australians Must Stop the Excuses and Accept Responsibility, Herald Sun, 10/2/16

Your article suggested that the culture of Australians with indigenous ancestry is primarily to blame for their ongoing disadvantage. The constraints implicit in traditional cultures have been obvious for years (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002+). However those who suffer disadvantages because of their cultures should not be blamed as much as the academics and politicians who don’t want to accept that culture is not just part of a group’s ‘identity’ but has major practical consequences.

My Interpretation of your article: White racism should not be blamed for black poverty. 20 years of the ‘reconciliation’ circus has failed. Aborigines won’t become richer or healthier because whites are nicer. They must do it themselves. Problems are clear in latest Closing the Gap report (eg high unemployment, low life expectancy, high jail rates, low school attendance). Professor Tom Calma (Reconciliation Australia) suggests that problems lie with bureaucracy / politicians – not with Aboriginal people. Jackie Huggins (National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples) argues that the problem lies in white’s lack of engagement and racism. However absolving Aboriginal culture while blaming racism kills any hope of real improvement. Whites don’t make: aboriginal children twice as likely to wag school; aboriginal women 34 times more likely to be hospitalized by their men; aboriginal children 5 times more likely to be hospitalized after assault or 10 times more in need of being removed from dangerous homes; aborigines want to live where there are no jobs. While aborigines have suffered racism and dispossession – and need help. And many aborigines lead sober / productive lives. However it is not helpful to continually focus on past hurts. Racism is no longer most relevant to black poverty – except the sort that treats aborigines as pets / spiritual gods / museum pieces who are excused from the standards others must meet. And lack of government funding (now $43,500 pa each) is not the problem. Noel Pearson agrees that spending is vast. But bureaucracy, not aboriginal culture, is blamed for its failure. And Pearson was extensively consulted and offered huge additional sums ($150m) for 3000 people in Cape York. Despite the additional spending on Cape York Initiative its was concluded that in one area (Aurukun) there had been an increase in criminal convictions / unemployed young adults / unemployment. Pearson now agrees that aborigines biggest challenge is not the trauma of history but a 20 year alcoholic binge. Whether or not it is fair, the poor have to be the main agents of change in their prospects. Welfare can’t help those who would rather drink than work. Changing the constitution to recognize aborigines won’t make them richer or live longer. And a treaty to divide Australians by race will only add hatred to failure. The real hurdles today aren’t white racism and stingy or arrogant governments. They are more likely to be Aboriginal culture eg communistic land ownership, putting ceremony above school, living where there’s no work, celebrating the martial, leaving child-raising too often to the collective, and feeling owed. The failure of 20 years of Reconciliation Australia shows that making whites nicer won’t fix black poverty. Responsibility not reconciliation is the key.

Your article suggested that the irresponsibility of Australians with indigenous ancestry is primarily to blame for the lack of progress achieved by the Reconciliation Australia and Closing the Gap initiatives. However such people have typically had no way to understand the cultural requirements for advancement (which is a VERY complex issue) – and thus that traditional indigenous cultures impeded their prospects and needed to be reconsidered.

As suggested in Competing Civilizations (2001+) culture makes a major difference to people’s prospects because of the effect that it has on their ability to learn and change. For example rapid progress in Western societies depended on contributions from their: (a) classical Greek heritage – ie an ability to learn in the abstract; and (b) Judeo-Christian heritage – ie liberal institutions that allowed rationality to be reasonably effective and the belief that nature would be lawful that allowed the development of science. Other societies that did not copy Western practices have: (a) succeeded if their cultures allowed different methods of learning and changing (as East Asia’s ancient Chinese cultural heritage did); or (b) failed if they did not (eg in the Islamic world).

There seem to be major obstacle to learning and change in the traditional cultures of Australians with indigenous ancestry (eg a tradition of learning to ‘do things’ rather than to ‘understand’ in the abstract). Recent research has apparently suggested that: (a) children brought up in those traditional cultures have serious difficulties with Western-style education (eg in learning to deal with ‘text’ rather than ‘talk’); and (b) that ‘success’ in educating those who are struggling to bridge such gaps can involve very low levels of achievement by the standard of what is needed for success in the modern world (eg just starting to understand what Western education is).

It does no good to blame those whose traditional cultures do not provide a foundation for success in the modern world. Likewise it does no good to pretend that culture is merely part of a person’s identity and has no practical implications. Doing so seems to follow from the post-modern ideologies that dominate the humanities faculties of Western universities – ie the assumption that what is traditionally seen as ‘truth’ in human affairs: (a) is merely a claim that is convenient to those who are politically dominant; and (b) does not provide any guide as to what is likely to work best in practice (see A Case for Restoring Universities, 2010).

Australians with indigenous ancestry (and others with different cultures) need to be given reliable guidance about the practical consequences of culture (see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism, 2010). Academic and political irresponsibility in misleading indigenous peoples about the practical significance of a community’s culture is by no means confined to Australia (see UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?, 2007).

John Craig

Interchange with Norm Sheehan (Southern Cross University) - reproduced with permission

Response to a copy of the above email from Norm Sheehan received 14/2/16

You have missed the point it is not culture that is problematic it is colonialism where the desire to 'improve' is a disregard of difference and an inability to perceive the impact of forced change to fundamental social frames.

Reply to Norm Sheehan - 14/2/16

Thanks for that feedback. I would appreciate permission to add your observation to my web-site (ie with The Failure of Academics and Politicians to Acknowledge the Practical Consequences of Culture).

There is no doubt about the disruptive effects of forced changes. However severe disruption of established systems is a very common occurrence in human history (as well as in the history of other species and ecological systems). Consider the effect that Homo Sapiens had on Homo Erectus and Neanderthal Man and the umpteen invasions that that the British Isles experienced (and that the people in those Isles either: (a) had great resilience to rise above those disruptions; and / or (b) gained strength from them). What matter most in the long term is the ability of the disrupted society / system to adapt and to prosper in its new environment.

I see no reason to believe that Australians with indigenous ancestry can’t adapt and prosper – but only if they are encouraged to appreciate the need to do so.

There is now increasing recognition that trying to force peoples to adapt to conform with the modern world does not work (see Muslims Must Lead the ISIS Fight - But Muslim Armies Can't – and also note Fatal Flaws re invasion of Iraq). However pretending that there is no need for adaptation is just as irresponsible – for reasons suggested in Muslims' Problems are Not Limited to Islamist Extremism, and Can't Be Solved Simply by Reclaiming Islam's Past Intellectual Traditions.

Response from Norm Sheehan received 14/2/16

These instances are all related to intrusion and violation not culture but behavioural anomalies ... if you include this ok

Reply to Norm Sheehan - 14/2/16

I will include your later observation. However such intrusions (violations?) are part of the way in which nature works. In an area where I lived there used to be many attractive bird species that have been largely displaced by Noisy Minors – and the whole ecosystem had to adapt to some extent. The latest science news involved the detection of gravity waves that resulted from the collision of two black holes – and this was almost certainly somewhat disruptive of anything it the near vicinity 1.2bn years ago. There are large numbers of highly disruptive technologies on the economic horizon that business and communities need to get to grips with. Adaptation to disruption is what matters. Simply hoping that disruptions won’t happen is foolish.

China now seems to be seeking to create a new authoritarian international order to displace / disrupt the liberal Western-style international order that has prevailed since WW2 as a geo-political extension of the successes of neo-Confucian methods for rapidly building economic power (see Creating a New International 'Confucian' Financial and Political Order?). Most people in Western societies have been hoping that there is no need to adapt – but doing this indefinitely would be stupid. It would also be unlikely because of the existence of fairly effective methods for learning and changing in Western cultures.

Response from Norm Sheehan received 14/2/16

Saying that this is the way 'nature' works is a false ontology.

Reply to Norm Sheehan - 14/2/16

There is no doubt that nature doesn’t always work through intrusive disruptions. But they are certainly not unusual. And in human affairs intrusive disruptions are not the only source of change. But here also they are not all that unusual.

And in nature it is the fittest (ie those that best adapt to the new environment that emerges incrementally or disruptively) that survive. In human affairs there are better non-disruptive ways of achieving change – but here also those who are least able to adapt to their incrementally or disruptively changed environment that are at greatest risk.

Response from Norm Sheehan received 14/2/16

Is nature really only about survival? What does nature say about that.

Reply to Norm Sheehan - 14/2/16

Good question. What do you think nature says?

Put Indigenous People Before Political Gamesmanship

Put Indigenous People Before Political Gamesmanship - email sent 25/5/16

Adrian Little and Mark McMillan,
University of Melbourne

Re: On the wrong track: why Australia’s attempt at Indigenous reconciliation will fail, The Conversation, 20/5/16

Your article was useful in highlighting the likely difference in goals that risks undermining indigenous reconciliation through constitutional recognition. In brief you suggest that: (a) non-indigenous aspirations seem to focus on promoting equality / sameness; and (b) indigenous activists are seeking to ensure ongoing recognition of difference, and righting historical injustices. Somewhat similar points seemed to be being made in ‘Recognise the Limits of Indigenous Constitutional Recognition (The Australian, 30/4/16) in which Stephen Fitzgerald overviewed a recent book by Megan Davis and Marcia Langton, It’s Our Country: Indigenous Arguments for Meaningful Constitutional Recognition and Reform.

However a bigger problem lies in the failure of the whole process to take account of the practical consequences of cultural differences (eg the way in which some cultural differences have disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people in the past, and would presumably continue to do so in the future as long as those consequences are not systematically studied and understood by ATSI people). The reasons for suggesting that the practical consequences of culture are important are outlined in Culture Matters (2001); The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement (2002+); and Racial Discrimination is Not the Only Cause of Ethnic Distress (2016).

My Interpretation of your article: Julia Gillard put indigenous constitutional recognition on the political agenda in 2010 – and gained bipartisan backing. An expert panel was appointed to formulate a proposal – after consulting widely. It proposed: (a) preventing people from being banned from voting or discriminated against on racial grounds; (b) allowing the federal government to make laws to benefit ATSI people; (c) banning racial discrimination by government; (d) recognising aboriginal languages as Australia’s first – while English is the national language. The proposal to put this to a referendum has put pressure on ATSI people and there is no clarity on what it is about. Non-indigenous Australians focus on equality /equal treatment. ATSI people see it as about recognising difference and their relationship with the state. The constitution already allows special laws to be made for ATSI people – which could potentially disadvantage them. ATSI people see constitutional change as about righting injustices in current recognition of difference, rather than promoting sameness. Many Indigenous activists would object to discussion of sameness / equal treatment. They also relate recognition to longer term aspirations for a treaty / sovereignty. The latter might allow Indigenous nations to be dealt with as distinct legal polities. ATSI people might reject the current process. Transitional processes elsewhere demonstrate the need for representation across political division if progress is to be achieved. However the National Congresss of Australia’s First peoples has been defunded. Current recognition debates occur without any process for consulting with indigenous peoples. Also the rushed timeline limits scope for progress. A ‘yes’ vote for recognition might happen regardless of of claims by ATSI people for a lawful relationship with settler Australians that reflects historical injustices against them and the need to recognise their difference.

The alternative interpretations that could be put on the purpose / outcome of the constitutional recognition process that have now emerged were obvious in 2010 when the process was first established (see 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism?). The first possible purpose / outcome was to recognise that some Australians have ancestors who were indigenous at the time of European settlement – and that (though some such people may need a lot of help initially) they should have the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as everyone else. The alternative was that Australians with at least some indigenous ancestry should have different rights, responsibilities and opportunities to everyone else.

The difference is whether the goal is to improve the position of: (a) ATSI ‘people’ (ie as human beings); or (b) ATSI ‘tribes’ as a whole (ie as groups of people with particular racial heritage) – irrespective of the effect that this may have on ATSI people as individuals. Those goals are incompatible for reasons suggested in UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage? (2007).

The expert group on indigenous recognition clearly made no progress in dealing with the question of what would be in the best interests of Australians with indigenous ancestry. In fact doing so was not even in their terms of reference and the proposal they put forward was nonsense. As your article noted, the panel suggested that there should simultaneously be: (a) racial discrimination in law amongst Australians; and (b) no such racial discrimination (see also Inadequate Proposals for Advancing the Position of Australians with Indigenous Ancestry, 2011).

The current standoff that your article mentions involves the question of whether or not the position of ATSI people would be promoted through: (a) equality; or (b) establishing a legal framework for a new racially-based political process. Political gamesmanship on the basis of race is not going to advance the position of ATSI people to the extent that this requires their recognition that culture (which Indigenous activists want constitutional recognition to prevent changes to) is not just a matter of ‘identity’ but has practical (and sometimes dysfunctional) consequences. To prevent the constitutional recognition process degenerating into political gamesmanship, serious research (which does not ignore the practical consequences of culture) is needed into what is most likely to improve the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry. To date the process has been far too narrow.

A similar change in emphasis (ie to take account of the practical consequences of cultural traditions / assumptions rather than merely treating them as a feature of a group’s ‘identity’) is arguably needed if Australia’s approach to multiculturalism generally is to be more in the interests of ordinary people than of those who primarily want to play political games (see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism, 2010).

John Craig

Broadening, Rather Than Distorting, the Indigenous Recognition Debate

Broadening, Rather Than Distorting, the Indigenous Recognition Debate - email sent 24/6/16

Paul Kildea

RE: Treaty debate will only strengthen Indigenous recognition process, The Conversation, 23/6/16

Your article pointed to the fact that considering treaty issues will ‘broaden’ the debate related to Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples. However the consultation process that the Referendum Council now proposes to undertake would unfortunately only ‘broaden’ the debate in one direction. There is a need to decide whether the Recognition process should aim to promote the welfare of Australians with indigenous ancestry or the influence of those who want to play political games.

My Interpretation of your article: Opposition leader Bill Shorten said he was open to considering a treaty with Indigenous Australia. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed concern that this could derail the constitutional recognition process – support which is already cooling. However constitutional recognition could never be separated from treaty issue. Australia is only Commonwealth country without a treaty with indigenous peoples – and this has been debated for decades. Council for Aboriginal Recognition recommended treaty in 2000 as a path to reconciliation. Victoria has started considering possible treaty. Turnbull is concerned that this could cause recognition referendum to be lost. However there is no uniformity of opinion about what form recognition should take – minimalist or substantive. Neither major party has been willing to take the lead in debating this. However the goal should not just be to win the referendum but to forge a stronger political settlement between Australia’s government and the First Peoples. This requires open / robust debate. This has been happening in indigenous communities for four years – and could have taken place in broader community if politicians had shown leadership. Treaty consideration needs to be part of this – as Indigenous leaders (Dodson and Hosch) have indicated. Referendum Council will soon start consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – and won’t stop treaty issue being raised. This has the potential to promote wide ranging debate what could help Australia work towards pragmatic consensus on recognition, treaty and other reform options.

As your article indicated there is no uniformity of opinion about what the Recognition process should involve. It has been obvious from the start that the key question was whether it would involve recognition that some Australians had ancestors who were indigenous at the time of European settlement and now have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, or whether Australians with at least some indigenous ancestry would have different rights, responsibilities and opportunities to everyone else (see 'Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism?, 2010).

It also seemed likely that, in the spirit of the 1967 referendum, Australians generally would favour inclusion of those with indigenous ancestry rather than the creation of a racist constitution.

Reasons for favouring what is likely to be Australians’ majority view are considered further in Put Indigenous People Before Political Gamesmanship (2016).

There is a need (as your article suggested) to broaden and strengthen the debate about indigenous recognition. However what the Referendum Council apparently now proposes to do would be counter-productive. It would only ‘broaden’ the debate in one direction (ie towards increasing emphasis on political gamesmanship – eg through a treaty process). The Council also needs to commission someone to broaden the debate in the direction of improving the welfare of Australians with indigenous ancestry. This requires ensuring that they are made aware of the adverse practical consequences of some aspects of their traditional cultures. They would thus be positioned to overcome some of the internal causes of their frequent disadvantage, rather than being led to believe that their problems are mainly due external factors. Broadening the debate in the latter direction can’t be achieved just by consultation with indigenous communities if they lack that understanding.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations

John Craig

Interchange with Les Malezer - reproduced with permission

Response from Les Malezer  (24/6/16) - the result of receiving a copy of the above email

Thanks for your contribution on the treaty debate. I am pleased to see people taking up these issues but I urge that you be more careful in regard to certain views which are not backed by the modern concepts of equality and non-discrimination.

Let me take the opportunity to pick up one matter which I think you should reconsider. You consider there are two alternatives for founding policy on Aboriginal issues, viz. as individuals who integrate into the Australian community and hold the same rights or as ‘peoples’ who hold different rights.

At no time has there been a suggestion that Aboriginal peoples hold rights denied to other peoples. In fact the rights of Indigenous Peoples are the same rights enjoyed by all peoples of the world. In this instance we are considering whether Aboriginal peoples are recognised to enjoy the same rights that Australian peoples enjoy. If you look at the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and removed the word ‘Indigenous’ entirely from the Declaration you would see that it accurately describes the rights of the Australian peoples. E.g. Australian peoples have the right to self-determination, to develop their lands, territories and resources, to choose their own representatives and to exercise free, prior and informed consent over matters which affect them. These rights have been steadfastly ignored for Indigenous Peoples of the world.

When Martinez Cobo delivered his study to the UN he gave the following description of ‘Indigenous' to summarise his findings:

“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

When the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 it ultimately defined and determined that Indigenous ‘Peoples’ are ‘peoples’ equal to all other peoples of the world. In UN ‘speak’ peoples is the terminology used to encompass the populations of States and other colonised populations. In other words the population of Australia is, apart from the Indigenous population, regarded as one peoples irrespective of the diversity within the society.

I shall not go into further detail but hope you will be able to extrapolate from this information.

Ultimately the Aboriginal peoples seek to exercise the very same rights that all other peoples enjoy or otherwise anticipate. Land rights, rights to cultural heritage and rights to development are not special or different rights.

The challenge for Australia is to accept that these rights, held by our peoples in 1788, continue to be held and should be respected by the dominant society that has invaded their territories. Would Australians not expect the same rights if Japan, Indonesia or China were to take over the continent?

CPDS reply to Les Malezer - 25/6/16

Thanks for your comments which I will add to my website (here) if you have no objection. You are absolutely right that I am suggesting that our primary concern should be with the welfare of 'people' as compared with the rights of 'peoples'. A problem with an emphasis on ‘rights’ is outlined in Revisiting Ancient Grievances.

Response from Les Malezer (25/6/16)

I read the comments in ‘Revisiting Ancient Grievances’. I think the words you wrote do not refer to the contemporary situation. Indigenous Peoples are not ancient civilisations but continuing societies and cultures. The truth is that after WW2 the world under the UN was quickly decolonised. The UN Charter requires that the UN continue to pursue self-governance or autonomy for peoples whose territories are under control by another government, and there is a list of such territories where the ongoing work continues.

The significance of the Declaration in 2007 is that the UN realised that vast populations of Indigenous Peoples, almost 400 million people in up to 80 different countries, continue to be colonised and suffer inequality and discrimination under alien government.

In Australia the Aboriginal people have been segregated and deprived since colonisation but have not disappeared as a peoples. In Queensland, as an example, the ‘Black Acts’ continued to lock up our people on reserves under administration by ‘protectors’ until 1984. There are discriminatory laws which continue to today and the facts show that the Constitution does not provide for a relationship with Aboriginal peoples and recognition that they have rights and freedoms which have been denied from the lowest to the highest levels in Australian society.

These are not ancient grievances.

Equality for our peoples means the right to develop politically, socially, economically and culturally without being forced into the invading society. Sadly we cannot develop without the territories, lands and resources that belong to us. This is a fundamental of ‘self-determination’ and embedded in international law. To our disadvantage international law has no jurisdiction in Australia unless domestic legislation is enacted to apply such laws. (This is what the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is - a domestic embodiment of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.)

In summary the Australian lawmakers (government) refuse to apply universal rights as embodied in international law for the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. It is definitely not a case of digging up ancient grievances.

CPDS Reply to Les Malezer (25/6/16)

The UN may have believed that the problems that Indigenous people in 80 countries suffered could be eased by its 2007 Declaration. However the reality is that this was probably not so in most cases (see UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?, 2007). Once again the issue is whether the goal should be to improve the welfare of Indigenous ‘people’, or the rights of Indigenous ‘peoples’ (ie the rights of Indigenous ‘people’ to be relatively disadvantaged).

And the question about ‘ancient’ grievances is not irrelevant. At every stage in history invaders and the people they invaded have usually tended to gradually integrate – with both sides adjusting to some extent. It takes time but it happens. And as I understand it Britain was one of the most invaded regions of the world – and, after the effects of conflicts wore off, it benefited enormously from this (ie by learning from its invaders, who tended to be more advanced in some respects, while converting them to many advantageous local traditions and practices). There are umpteen current examples of partially complete integration processes. The UN’s 2007 proposal to identify 80 countries where the integration process is still in an early stage and to advocate the creation of an ongoing political division on the basis of race (which, as is the case in Australia, would tend to leave the Indigenous people relatively disadvantaged) was anything but constructive.

Response from Les Malezer (26/6/16)

I see now where we depart in our views of the situation.

You prefer to think of the contemporary situations of existing civilisations / societies / peoples in terms of a bland and incorrect account of ancient history. When we talk of rights of Indigenous Peoples we are not talking here about disappeared populations.

You are wrong in your presumption that invaded populations integrated into the invading population. There are many accounts of genocide throughout ancient history. There are also many accounts of invading armies withdrawing after centuries of occupation. You only need to consider the invading armies such as Rome, Hannibal or Ghengis Khan to see that there is no truth in the eventual integration of populations.

Nor are we contemplating that invasion of another country is now acceptable because eventually there might no longer be distinctions between populations. In that case USA had no reason to go to war with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait. (You also might look at the Middle East situation where the rights between the jewish and palestinian populations are still in disputation after thousand of years.)

However you again conveniently ignore and skip over the fact that in modern times, essentially and indelibly since WW2, but going back to the beginning of the 20th century, the right of peoples to self-determination has been universally accepted. The British withdrew from their empire base in Africa, Asia and the Pacific after WW2 but the British colonies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and USA maintained their hold over the territories of Indigenous Peoples. Australia stands out because even though it was one of the last colonies established by the British they failed to negotiate a treaty with the Indigenous Peoples.

The United Nations has called upon these States, along with many others, to recognise and respect the rights of the Indigenous Peoples. The recent resolution of 2014 addressing the rights of Indigenous Peoples - a resolution where Australia and these others committed themselves to recognise and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples - was unanimously adopted by all 194 member States of the UN.

We know who are the Indigenous Peoples of the world, and those peoples continue to hold their identity, association with their territories and reliance upon their resources. In West Papua for example the Indigenous Peoples maintain their right to self-determination despite Dutch colonisation four hundred years ago. Didn’t we see that proven in the case of East Timor. Clearly, Australia advocated for self-determination by the Indigenous Peoples in East Timor and sent in armed forces to make the point.

You advocate a position which belongs to you alone. There are no references or quotations from legitimate authorities. Your comments have no more status than as an opinion. Your opinion is your human right as an individual. However if you wish to shape the world around you as part of a legitimate authority then you should perhaps appreciate and follow the golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. What rights would you claim if China or Indonesia were to take over Australia? So far, it seems your position is that you have no right other than to integrate into the invading population. Having allies like USA or UK would serve no use if that were the legitimate position.

Human rights law respects that each individual is entitled to express freely their own viewpoint. However that right exists only so far as it does not impinge upon the rights of others.

Email Reply to Les Malezer (1/7/16)


Many points you made were relevant. Sometimes genocides occurred (and sometimes constructive integration resulted). Sometimes invaders withdrew - sometimes they didn't. Sometimes disputes about rights continued for thousands of years - and the outcome of eternal disputes rather than just getting on with life can be disastrous for all concerned (eg in the case of Israel and Palestine).

'Rights' to self-determination have been widely accepted. European colonization tended to come to an end from the early 20th century with the establishment of independent states - sometimes with close links to the former colonising power. In quite a lot of cases those independent states became failed states - because their cultural traditions were incompatible with success / progress in the modern world (eg in Africa and the Muslim world). The rights of indigenous people to self-determination were accepted by UN - and for reasons I suggested this has tended to perpetuate, rather than ameliorate, the disadvantages suffered by those populations. The success / progress achieved on the basis of Western cultural traditions are not automatic in all contexts. Success has also been achieved in East Asia on the basis of quite different and very specific cultural traditions – but these are: (a) incompatible with a Western-style emphasis on anyone’s ‘rights’; and (b) likely to lead to ultimate failure (eg see Understanding East Asia Requires More Than a Study of Confucian Values).

There is no doubt from what you are writing that the case for political gamesmanship so as to advance the ‘rights’ of Australians with indigenous ancestry will be made in the Referendum Committee’s consultation process. My suggestion is merely that a case for improving their ‘welfare’ also needs to be made. Some reasons to suspect that those goals are incompatible are in Problems with Perpetuating Traditions.

Your style / sophistication of argument does not reflect the traditional cultures of Australians with indigenous ancestry. It is a produce of escaping those cultural limitations through education. It would be highly desirable for large numbers of Australians with indigenous ancestry to achieve a similar breakthrough. But this won’t be achieved if the emphasis is on such people’s ‘right’ to operate within cultural traditions that disadvantage them. There has been a vocal expression of concern by mothers and other adults at Aurukun about the potential loss of the advantages that children can gain from education through Noel Pearson’s school. The gains from education will come from breaking the bounds of cultural traditions – not from preventing change.


Australians with Indigenous Ancestry Deserve More than Survival

Australians with Indigenous Ancestry Deserve More than Survival - email sent 4/7/16

Dr Meg Perkins,
Good Therapy Australia

Re: First Nations people have a lesson in survival to benefit us all, Sunday Mail, 3/7/16

Your article’s emphasis on the welfare of Australians with indigenous ancestry was very constructive. Unfortunately it seemed to provide them with some overly-simplified information.

My Interpretation of your article: In the face of electoral concerns about what governments do (or don’t do), it is good to look at the success of First Nations peoples. They survived despite neglect of their health and welfare. Prison statistics illustrate this and are associated with poverty, child abuse, mental illness, head injuries, substance abuse and illiteracy. However 89% of First Peoples nations have not been to prison. Incarceration rates are higher than for white Australians but the latter were not invaded, massacred, removed from their country, incarcerated on missions / reserves and discriminated against on the basis of race (which was particularly damaging economically). Welfare payments / wages / home loans / rentals in white towns / (sometimes) schooling were withheld. Despite this aboriginal identify is positive in the sense of belonging to each other and the land. Sovereignty was never ceded. Aboriginal land always was and always will be. Michael Rutter (child psychologist) says that children at risk are protected by their relationships / other people and that ‘social progress’ (eg care-giving / teaching) produces resilience. Relationships with others are determined by our culture – and so the practice of culture builds resilience. Ian Heavyrunner noted this in Native American tribal colleges. Students with support from families, elders, tribal identity succeeded at school despite poverty, substance abuse and violence. First Nation peoples have preserved their families, elders, tribal identities, spirituality and ceremonies through many years of attempted assimilation. People like Mervyn Eales, Ngalla May and Gayle Munn are working to support our people without government funding. Some like Isabel Toby win awards. If white Australia chooses to work with this powerful cultural resilience, instead of against it, lasting change could be achieved quickly (eg support for bi-lingual schools allows languages to be recovered; better support for remote services; supporting families rather than incarcerating children; and facilitating aboriginal approaches to mental health care). Governments have ignored the fact that we are not just Australians. UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous peoples recognises the rights of all peoples to consider themselves different and be respected as such and to maintain / strengthen their social / cultural institutions. The First Peoples of the Great South Land have maintained their culture to a very large extent and respect is owed to them. To close the remaining gaps we may need to follow their lead.

Your article pointed to emerging examples of successful leadership by some Australians with indigenous ancestry. However it is my understanding that their ability to do this does not derive primarily from traditional indigenous cultures – but rather from the influence on them of non-indigenous cultures as a result of their partial non-indigenous ancestry and / or other circumstances in their history. My reasons for suggesting this are indicated in Cultural Obstacles (2002) and Practical Difficulties (2007). It is not helpful to lead Australians with indigenous ancestry to believe that their traditional cultures are the key to overcoming their chronic disadvantage and dependency on Australians who don’t have indigenous ancestry.

Your account of the difficulties that Australians with indigenous ancestry experienced following European colonisation is reasonable. However (for reasons suggested in The Past, 2002 and Racial Discrimination is Not the Only Cause of Ethnic Distress 2016) it is not correct to argue that their difficulties were simply a consequence of what others did (eg because other’s actions damaged their economic prospects).

Economic success depends critically on flexible market-oriented change and an ability to deal with complex technologies. As I understand it, traditional indigenous cultures were geared to resisting change and did not involve the use of abstract concepts as a basis for learning which is critical for dealing with science, technology and many aspects of modern economies. Rather they tended to involve learning in the ‘concrete’ (ie learning while dealing with ‘things’). Certainly many Australians with indigenous ancestry are now overcoming those constraints (eg as is also illustrated by your writing). But those who cannot yet to do so should not be misled into believing that their traditional cultures are a sufficient basis for overcoming their chronic problems. Cultural traditions (eg involving families, elders, tribal identities, spirituality and ceremonies) may provide the social resilience needed for survival, but they don’t provide the basis for the economic success required to overcome disadvantage and ongoing dependence on non-indigenous Australians.

An emphasis on improving the welfare of Australians with indigenous ancestry should arguably be the major focus of the referendum process in relation to the recognition of indigenous Australia (see Put Indigenous People Before Political Gamesmanship and Broadening, Rather Than Distorting, the Indigenous Recognition Debate, 2016). However as the latter suggests this primarily requires: (a) a refusal to make that process into a political ‘game’ to gain special racially-based benefits at the expense of other Australians; and (b) enabling Australians with indigenous ancestry to understand the real cultural issues involved.

That they have been prevented from doing so to date seems largely to be a consequence of the post-modern ideologies that have come to dominate in academic study of the humanities. In essence this involves the assumption that culture is simply a matter of preference and has no practical consequences for affected communities. That assumption is simply false (see Culture Matters, 2001). Post-modern ideologies seem to be a significant (though not the only) component in the ‘political correctness’ phenomenon which has been a major obstacle to progress by Australians with indigenous ancestry – and in relation to many other challenges that Australians now face (see The Church of Political Correctness Threatens National Progress ).

A serious approach to analysis of the effect that cultural beliefs and practices have on people’s economic prospects is necessary to genuinely boost the welfare and independence of Australians with indigenous ancestry. However this probably won’t be feasible until the obstacles to their progress that are posed by: post-modern ideologies; ‘political correctness’; and political gamesmanship in relation to indigenous recognition are challenged and overcome.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations

John Craig

Northern Territory Child Protection and Youth Detention Royal Commission: The Risk of a Cover-up

Northern Territory Child Protection and Youth Detention Royal Commission: The Risk of a Cover-up - email sent 7/8/16

Janet Albrechtsen, The Australian,
Thalia Anthony, University of Technology Sydney,
Matthew Cooke, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation,
Grant Hoole, University of NSW,
Rosemary Neill, The Australian,
Wendy O’Brien, Deakin University and
Jeremy Sammut, Centre for Independent Studies

You have all argued publicly for diverse reasons (see Interpretation of Your Key Points) that to make any significant difference the Royal Commission needs to take a ‘big picture’ view. It would be inadequate to focus on the heavy-handed and presumably counter-productive methods sometimes used not just as-officially-intended for staff / detainee safety but also to control otherwise-apparently-uncontrollable children in the Youth Detention system. Rather you have implied that priority needs to be given to how to prevent large numbers of indigenous youths being in detention in the first place.

This will clearly be addressed by the Royal Commission as its Terms of Reference include the Northern Territory’s Child Protection System - a system that (amongst other things) tries to ensure that any abuse or neglect at-risk children have suffered from inside or outside their families / communities doesn’t cause them to become entangled in the judicial system. On the basis of a long interest in The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement (2002+), I should like to suggest that the diversity of your reasons for arguing that the Royal Commission take a ‘big picture’ view implies that the Royal Commission needs to take an even ‘bigger picture’ view to achieve useful progress.

Observer’s Views (on my web-site) outlines many contributions (including yours) to the public debate about issues related to problems in the Northern Territory’s Child Protection and Youth Detention systems. It starts with a summary of the range of views expressed. This suggests that many observers believe (as I do) that the Royal Commission’s current terms of reference are still too narrow – even though the Northern Territory Government insisted that they include the Child Protection System.

There is nothing unique about the problems in the Northern Territory that gave rise to the Royal Commission (ie the fact that young people with indigenous ancestry seem to be in over-represented in detention facilities and that it has proven difficult to remedy that social problem). Indigenous ancestry characterises a high percentage (about 47%) of youths in the Northern Territory - and almost all youth detainees (about 95%). And Australia-wide young people with indigenous ancestry are 25 times more likely to be in detention. And, in the US, it has been suggested that ‘people of colour’ (often “convicted of non-violent crimes, uneducated and unemployed, drug dependent”) suffer high rates of incarceration (see Unlocking Indigenous Incarceration).

Reducing the disadvantage, distress and recalcitrance that often affects children with indigenous ancestry and then leads some to socially-disruptive criminal activity that then places them at risk of detention requires understanding and eliminating the main sources of disadvantages that affect indigenous communities as a whole. The problems that such communities currently experience clearly create a poor foundation for affected children’s prospects in life.

As Interpretation of Your Key Points indicates, your articles seem to strongly emphasise the need for a ‘big picture’ view – but for two quite different types of reasons. Children’s problems are seen to remain unresolved because reliance has either excessively or insufficiently been placed on indigenous communities to do so. Thus to make progress in understanding and reducing the underlying social problems that place children in need of protection services or at risk of detention would clearly require that the Royal Commission devote a lot of effort to considering both the strengths and weaknesses of indigenous communities in seeking to resolve children's problems.

My suspicion is that traditional cultures can provide a basis for supporting children in communities with indigenous ancestry (an assumption with which various observers, notably several women with indigenous ancestry [1, 2, 3], apparently vigorously disagree), but that those worldviews severely limit collective and individual prospects of material success / prosperity in the modern world and thus need to be adapted to prevent individuals and communities suffering ongoing disadvantage and alienation. Current multicultural and indigenous rights policies need to be changed to deal with this, as they make it impossible to debate, much less deal with, any adverse practical consequences of traditional indigenous worldviews.  My reasons for suggesting this are developed further on my web-site (see The Need to Review Indigenous Worldviews).

There is no point in a Royal Commission that ‘covers-up’ serious social problems by merely investigating the difficulties that institutions (eg the Child Protection System) have in dealing with them. Australia already has one prominent Royal Commission that effectively just ‘covers-up’ a serious social problem, child sexual abuse, because it is limited to investigating the difficulties that institutions have had in dealing with the tiny fraction of child sexual abuse that is perpetrated by their employees or associates (see Child Sex Abuse Inquiry: Another Official Cover-up?, 2012).

Unfortunately yet another ‘cover-up’ (ie an emphasis on defects in the Child Protection system's efforts to deal with a social problem rather than on eliminating the social problem itself) seems all that the Northern Territory Royal Commission’s current Terms of Reference allow. Their only reference to culture involves the culture of detention centre staff (presumably because staff racism might contribute to problems in youth detention centres).

While it may still be ‘politically correct’ to ignore the likely cultural causes of the problems in achieving material success experienced by Australian communities and children with indigenous ancestry, it seems to be increasingly recognised that ‘political correctness’ (ie blankly refusing to even consider politically challenging possibilities) has become a major obstacle to progress (see The Church of Political Correctness Threatens National Progress).

John Craig

Addendum: Interpretation of Your Key Points:

  • It is superficial to blame particular people or institutions. Decades of poor policy have entrenched welfare dependency and promoted symbolism over substance (eg apologies and talk of treaties / indigenous recognition, rather than of the toxic effects of welfare dependency). There is a need to get indigenous kids to stay in school and get real jobs (Albrechtsen);
  • An ingrained 'law and order' approach to the indigenous community has been associated with increased criminalization of NT indigenous communities. The underlying problem (associated, for example, with NT's sentencing laws) involves removing children from their families / communities (Anthony);
  • There is a need to address the policies that have hindered achievement of the "Close the Gap' targets. Aboriginal organizations need to be resourced and empowered in their communities (Cooke);
  • There is a need to address deep-seated social and political structures that contribute to over-incarceration of indigenous youth. Many inquires have recommended ways to achieve but their recommendations were not implemented. Governments need to commit in advance to implementing this Commission's recommendations (Hoole);
  • Little has been achieved despite the resources poured into 'Closing the Gap' initiatives. NT's mandatory sentencing laws are part of the problem - but the crisis can be traced to three factors in indigenous communities: alcohol abuse; chronic youth unemployment; and disengagement from education (Neill);
  • There is a need to address the conditions that cause children in out-of-home care to come in contact with the judicial system. Children's welfare must be considered comprehensively. Considering what happens in closed institutions is not enough. Reform proposals need to be developed by indigenous people (O’Brien);
  • Vulnerable children suffer irreparable harm because child protection systems focus on keeping families together rather than on properly protecting children - even though their parents suffer from substance abuse, domestic violence and other social problems. They need placement in residential care facilities to receive round-the-clock professional support (Sammut)

The Need to Review Indigenous Worldviews

The key issue that the Royal Commission needs to address is: what would be the best way to reduce the numbers of youths (almost all of whom in the Northern Territory have indigenous ancestry) who are in need of child protection services or at risk of detention.

While there are other complicating factors (eg the legacy of history, the failure of past policies and community / official actions based on negative community perceptions) overcoming some constraints that traditional worldviews impose on economic success by communities and individuals with indigenous ancestry would both: (a) contribute to positive community attitudes; and (b) address the source of the problems that manifest as (for example) individuals' difficulties in education and employment as well as a perceived need for enhanced Child Protection Services and detention of many young people. This also requires changes to Australia's traditional multicultural and indigenous rights policies - as the latter are an obstacle to understanding the constraints on material success implicit in traditional cultures and thus mainly provide Australians with indigenous ancestry with a 'right' to ongoing disadvantage and other problems.

Culture is the principal determinant of a community's ability to be materially successful and to live in relative peace and harmony (see Culture Matters in Competing Civilizations, 2001+). Culture affects: people's goals and aspirations; the way they understand reality (and thus how they go about solving problems, and whether they can develop technologies); their ability to learn, to cope with risk and to change; the way people relate; the scope for initiative; and the institutions a society maintains. 

Australia has been relatively successful / prosperous because it inherited economic and political institutions from the UK that are built on a liberal social foundation. And these enabled reasonably effective rational / analytical problem solving by individuals in all walks of life. This was a formula for progress / prosperity for reasons suggested in Cultural Foundations of Western Progress: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual (2001).  While other cultural foundations for progress / prosperity were found more recently in East Asia, these may be transitory for reasons suggested in 2009 and 2010 which were clearly coming to a head in 2016. And serious cultural obstacles to progress / prosperity have existed in the Muslim world and proven highly disruptive of Muslims' relationships with others (see Encouraging Reform of Islam: Mr Turnbull's Opportunity to Counter Islamist Radicalization, 2015).

Traditional indigenous cultures in Australia also appear to constrain progress / prosperity by affected communities and individuals (see The Past and Cultural Obstacles in The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002).

For example, those worldviews do not have the classical Greek heritage that was the source of Western societies' ability to achieve practical progress through abstract understanding, rationality, and analysis. Indigenous cultures traditionally involve learning in the concrete (ie by doing things - such as fixing cars) rather than in the abstract (ie by gaining understanding how things like cars work). This is a significant obstacle to the education that is often needed to have good job prospects in a modern economy. Many children with indigenous ancestry reportedly gain little more from schooling than a 'start' in understanding what education is (ie they did not gain much actual education / abstract understanding). And, while constant change is critical to progress and economic prosperity, tribal elders in indigenous cultures apparently traditionally resist change.

Such cultural constraints on material success have not been overcome by policies and programs implemented in recent decades. Native Title encouraged many Australians with indigenous ancestry to live well away from areas of economic opportunity and well developed infrastructure and government services. Passive welfare has led to alcoholism and social breakdown. 'Closing the Gap' initiatives paid no attention to cultural obstacles to progress / prosperity. Huge resources have been devoted in Australia and elsewhere to study of differences between indigenous and Western worldviews without apparently making the slightest attempt to identify the practical consequences of those differences.

Though some Australians with indigenous ancestry are now getting beyond the educational and employment obstacles implicit in their traditional worldviews, many other have not been able to do so - and are thus left with poor economic prospects and negative community perceptions of their capabilities.  Resentment of, and perhaps-criminal reactions against, the wider community result - which puts offenders on a path to detention in order to provide security for the general community.

It has reasonably been argued that parents and others in communities with indigenous ancestry need to be encouraged / enabled to provide better support to their children. This could not be done by boosting community-controlled social programs (eg under the 'justice reinvestment' policies that Co-Commissioner Mick Gooda has apparently advocated - see Unlocking Indigenous Incarceration below). 'Justice reinvestment' seems to require very significant government funding (ie a non-trivial fraction of the cost of prisons). Thus it must make entire communities 'welfare-dependent' and lock them into bureaucratically-managed processes. Moreover so long as the adults who are expected to provide better support are kept in ignorance of the obstacles to material success that are implicit in their traditional cultures, they have no real prospect of either eliminating the social dysfunctions that plague their communities or guiding their children to achieve material success and break free of the corrosive effects of individual or collective welfare-dependence (for reasons outlined in Australians with Indigenous Ancestry Deserve More than Survival). 

Australia's prevailing multicultural and indigenous rights policies have been a major obstacle to overcoming these problems. The former does not allow any consideration of the practical consequences of different worldviews (see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism, 2010) while the latter effectively involves a 'right' to ongoing disadvantage (see UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage?, 2007). The latter highlighted the serious inconsistencies in the UN Declaration that has unfortunately come to be regarded as providing useful policy guidance. The fact that post-modern ideologies (which basically maintain that claims of 'truth' in human affairs are simply a reflection of elite assumptions) have come to dominate university humanities' faculties is also a major obstacle to progress - because it has apparently prevented serious analysis of the practical consequences of cultural assumptions (see A Case for Restoring Universities).

Observers' Views  >

Overview of the Issues Observers Raised:

About Detainees

  • 96% of youths in detention in NT are indigenous;
  • NT government maintains that incarceration of violent children is needed to protect others;
  • 40 youths are in detention in the NT (out of 720 nationwide). The number has fallen 25% over the past 5 years - while the costs / detainee has risen; 
  • the youth whose restraint was emphasized by Four Corners had a history of crime and threats to harm others and himself. This arose from anger management problems that started (as a result of abuse) when he was a child;
  • Royal Commission needs to be the starting point for an inquiry into why young aboriginal children are 25 times more likely than others to be locked up;
  • the law and order approach to problems in indigenous communities represented by the 1996 federal intervention has increased children's risk of being placed in detention;

Detention Centers

  • restraining devices used in the NT are legal, widely used and intended to protect children against self-harm and staff against infections. They would not be legal / ethical however as a means for punishment / discipline;
  • mistreatment of youth in NT detention centres could be classified as torture or as crimes under international law according to a UN expert;
  • Media coverage of youth detention situation in NT made it seem far worse than it actually is. It lacked balance - as it reported only what happened to a hard core group of thugs;
  • the question of whether racism was part of the problem can be addressed by the Royal Commission by studying culture in the system;
  • what happened in the Don Dale centre in 2014 (which the Four Corners program publicized) has already been investigated; a systemic crisis was identified; and recommendations made for change. It is more important to implement those reforms than to conduct another inquiry while a dysfunction system continues to operate;

Northern Territory Government

  • NT Government sees itself as above the law and is not competent to run prisons;
  • CLP was blamed for the problem though it has only been in power since 2012 - and the problems pre-date this;
  • NT Government maintains that (though the juvenile justice system is imperfect) it was being improved;
  • The NT has an immature government which trying to deal with Australia's worst social problems;

The Royal Commission

  • the NT Government was included in controlling of the Royal Commission despite some calls for it to be sacked;
  • there have been concerns that one of the Co-commissioners (Mick Gooda) might be biased;
  • a Royal Commission is the wrong way to deal with this issue. Commissions are useful for uncovering hidden facts - but the problems here have been investigated many times and are well known;
  • the issues that Royal Commission will deal with are similar to those addressed by Howard Government's emergency response.  Establishing it shows that Turnbull Government does not understand the structural issues involved;
  • a Royal Commission can only deal with part of the problem. There is a need to address: (a) conditions that make it likely for children to come in contact with the judicial system; and (b) abuse that occurs in non-institutional settings;
  • the Royal Commission should consider the victims of the youths in detention;
  • there is a need for a broader inquiry into incarceration - as this merely entrenches harm / crime and does not lead to rehabilitation. Offenders come into custody profoundly damaged / traumatized and imprisonment just compounds this;
  • there is a need to consider not only events at Don Dale but the deep-seated social and political structures that result in the over-incarceration of indigenous youth;
  • the Commission's terms of reference are silent on why indigenous children are over-represented in detention centres;
  • the NT Government's insistence on including the child protection system (as well as the detention system) will make it possible to deal with the main reason so many children are in detention (ie the emphasis on family preservation);
  • the Royal Commission needs to not only examine ways to improve the juvenile justice and youth detention system - but also ways to provide education, support and opportunity to young indigenous people;
  • the Royal Commission will be a band aid at best. It will blame particular institutions / people - but ignore decades of poor policy that have promoted welfare dependence and symbolic actions to address indigenous people's problems;
  • it will be easy to investigate events at the Don Dale Centre as there has already been a report on those events - which resulted in some staff being sacked and the Centre being closed down;
  • governments need to commit in advance to implementing Royal Commission's findings - as many previous inquiries have achieved little because their findings were not implemented;
  • the process of establishing the royal commission was affected by 'identity politics' which presumes that only people with a particular (eg racial) identity can judge some issues - and this is a significant obstacle to getting to grips with the source of the problem;

Suggested Solutions

  • It is wrong to blame corrections system for high rates of indigenous incarceration or destroying children's lives; Problems arose much earlier - and changes in indigenous communities are what need to be emphasised;
  • NT Labor leader advocated implementation of a 2011 review of NT Youth Justice System;
  • in the past indigenous youths were kept out of detention by programs to occupy them;
  • 'justice reinvestment' (ie diverting some prison funding to community programs) was developed in the US and fairly successful in some trials. Some (including co-commissioner Mick Gooda) have advocated this in Australia);
  • there is a need to shift from a 'tough on crime' approach to integrating children into society;
  • while children were guilty of adult crimes, brutality is not justified. Restrained corporal punishment by parents would head off the problem early. Parents who don't apply discipline are as bad as those who apply excessive force;
  • effective parenting in aboriginal communities needs to be emphasised - rather than giving young people a high level of autonomy at a very young age. Abuse in detention centres may the closest to 'parenting' that some have ever had;
  • at risk indigenous children should be adopted to keep them from their families;
  • more should be done to empower indigenous communities;
  • there is a need to overcome resistance to facing up to the rampant violence, abuse and neglect of children in remote indigenous communities that leads many into contact with police;
  • there is a need to end claims of racism against non-indigenous people who raise concerns about the problems (eg alcohol abuse and child neglect) in indigenous communities that lead children to child detention detention centres;
  • race based policies since the 1970s (ie the assumption that only aboriginal-controlled programs can solve indigenous problems) created the huge problems indigenous communities now face and need to abandoned not extended;
  • indigenous children should not be removed so often from their families / communities - and the latter should have more control of the child safety system;
  • the emphasis on family preservation in the youth protection system needs to be eliminated as it creates children's risk of detention - by keeping them in dysfunctional families or moving between such families and (say) foster care;
  • traditional aboriginal cultures tolerate violence and sexual abuse by men in the view of an indigenous woman - and need to be changed to allow aboriginal people to succeed in the modern world;
  • policies that seek to maintain indigenous communities racially and culturally separate from other Australians have generated massive problems and should not be implemented again;
  • youth training programs can provide better outcomes than detention;
  • Australia should sign onto the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

Other Contexts

  • there are indications of similar problems in Queensland's youth justice and youth detention system;
  • all jurisdictions have complaints-based systems children in detention - and since 2010 there have been many complaints Australia-wide similar to those at the Don Dale Centre;
  • serious problems in dealing with highly disruptive children are emerging in schools;
  • the conclusions of any inquiry in the NT should subsequently be extended to other jurisdictions;

If Royal Commission is to be effective it will need to go beyond criminal justice reforms to consider why so many NT youth (especially indigenous youth) are in detention - especially given the resources poured into 'closing the gap' initiatives. NT's mandatory sentencing laws are part of the problem - but the crisis can be traced to three factors: alcohol abuse, chronic youth unemployment; and disengagement from education. Young people disengaged from work and education are more likely to commit crimes. Unemployment is also an issue and it is common to find 3 generations where no one holds a permanent / full-time job. People from  Left and Right want to make a difference - but none have done so. Tighter control of school truancy and real jobs (not work-for dole roles) might help. Royal commission won't make a difference unless it looks behind why many indigenous youths spend formative years in detention. Homicide rate in NT is 13 times the national average - and most violence is inflicted by aborigines on other aborigines. The damaging effect of alcohol also can't be over-stated. The hospitalization rate for assaulted aboriginal women can be up to 80 times that of others (Neill R., 'Youth detention: Too many kids in custody to start with', Australian, 27/7/16)

On 26/7/16 NT chief minister referred to changing culture in youth detention system. Australia's PM announced Royal Commission hours after video was released at Don Dale facility were aired.  Mere description of what was happening had had no effect on public. In NT restraining devices had been legally approved. The Don Dale facility is only one manifestation of the use of excessive force (a form of torture) against youths who defied the social order. 96% of youths in detention were indigenous - as are 30% of NT citizens. NT chief minister has been indifferent to this, unaware of what has happened, and now believing that abuses have been covered up. The same applied to NT police minister and federal ministers. This is implausible given operating assumptions of detention system. Giles paints a picture of necessary incarceration of violent children who are street menaces to the security of everyone else. The community was seen to be sick of youth crime (involving smashing cars, house break-ins and assaults on citizens).  It was acknowledged that youth detention was imperfect - but was seen to be being improved. The primary need was seen to be to have a safe community. Inmates were blamed for abuse they suffered - because others were behaving. NT indigenous politician, Bess Price, endorsed Giles approach by suggesting that families supported youth imprisonment as bad boys needed to be taught a lesson. The Royal Commission may achieve little as political mentalities can be immovable.  (Kampmark B., The Northern Territory, torture and Australia's detention disease, Online Opinion, 28/7/16) 

Turnbull government will resist calls to exclude NT government from joint stewardship of Royal Commission into human rights abuses in NT's youth justice system. Calls had been made for NT government to be sacked - or stripped of juvenile detention responsibilities (Kenny M. Malcolm Turnbull to keep Northern Territory involved in Royal Commission, Brisbane Times, 28/7/16)

There has been an over-reaction (by liberal left, Human Rights and indigenous bureaucracy and much of the media) to Four Corner program on NT juvenile detention. Program made a bad situation seem worse - with detention conditions compared with Abu Ghraib prison - and the youth who featured most in the images (Voller) was given a positive description even though he had an appalling criminal record. Four Corners program was not based on recent events nor for a particular time period. It entirely lacked balance. The footage used to damn the entire NT juvenile detention system was of what happened to the six of the most belligerent inmates. The CLP was blamed for what happened. It has been in power since 2012 - and the procedures shown in video were probably in place years earlier. 'Spit hoods' (to protect officers from HIV and hepatitis) have been widely used elsewhere - while mechanical restraining chair is legitimate tool for use in preventing inmate from self-harming (as Voller repeated threatened). What was videoed would have been within officers' understanding of correct procedures - as they knew what was happening was being recorded. Ken Middlebrook (former NT Correctional Services Commissioner) said that restraint chair and spit hood had been use twice and once with Voller. John Elferink (former NT Corrections minister) said that affected kids has been pushing the envelop since coming into custody. They saw themselves as hard-core group of thugs and behaved accordingly. Voller before being pepper sprayed and restrained had been violent enough to cause lacerations to an officer's arm. Voller is one of NT's most notorious young offenders - who has been found guilty of over 50 offences (including violence) over yjr past 5 years. The Royal Commission will now examine NT's treatment of juvenile detainees. It will be slow and profitable for lawyers. The corrections system is wrongly seen to be responsible for high rates of indigenous imprisonment and for destroying childhood of those imprisoned. However the main causality relates to early lives of offenders. Rather than wallowing in victim-hood indigenous community needs to take responsibility for underlying problem (poor parenting - partly due to substance abuse and family breakdown). Historic factors are partly responsible for this, but communities themselves need to make massive changes. Indigenous communities have been unwilling to face up to sky high levels of child sexual abuse and domestic violence. There won't be any quick fix to juvenile justice system - as putting chronic young offenders back on the street is not a solution (O'Reilly B., What will the NT Royal Commission achieve?, Online Opinion, 28/7/16

The images of children being mistreated in NT is sickening / despicable. However there is a better way to deal with this than a Royal Commission. There is already a lot of evidence about what happened. There is also a public appetite for dramatic change. A Royal Commission is expensive, combative and slow. What Four Corners showed had been documented in NT Children's Commissioner's report in August 2015 - and amplified by Amnesty and Law Council of Australia.  It will be years before Royal Commission's recommendations will be produced and considered.  Royal Commissions are designed to get at 'hidden truths' - but these don't exist in this case. All that will be achieved is to line lawyers pockets (Fynes-Clinton J. 'Pointless inquiry will not solve problem of abuse in detention, Courier Mail, 28/7/16)

All jurisdictions have complaints-based systems for children in detention - and since 2010 there have been many complaints Australia-wide similar to those at the NT's Don Dale Centre (Cunneen C., 'Abuse in youth detention is not limited to the Northern Territory, The Conversation, 28/7/16)

'Justice reinvestment' has been seen by some observers as a solution

Bourke is likely to become the center of an experiment in 'justice reinvestment' - according to Alistair Ferguson (Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party). This is an idea first suggested by George Soros which involves spending money that would have been spent building prisons into community projects to help young aborigines. About 1/3 of Bourke's population are indigenous and it has one of Australia's worst youth imprisonment rates. While what is being done is not publicly known, results of a two year experiment are positive. A Bourke liquor accord was achieved. Pub licensees are helping with the problem of young people hanging around and looking for ways to improve parental responsibility. The time is right. It is 24 years since the Royal Commission into aboriginal deaths in police custody and juvenile detention - and a new Amnesty report shows that the incarceration rate for young aboriginal people has doubled since then. Indigenous young people are 26 times more likely than others to be in detention. The Abbott Government promised to improve the life of indigenous Australians in the context of proposals for aboriginal constitutional recognition - yet it has said nothing about the Amnesty report. And Australia has not complied with UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - which requires only imprisoning children as a last resort. Gillian Triggs (Australian Human Rights Commission) has referred to locking up of asylum seeker children. The Amnesty report cites reasons for increased incarceration rates to levels that Mick Gooda (ATSI Social Justice Commissioner) calls one of Australia's most challenging human rights issues. Western Australia has imposed mandatory prison sentences on young people under 'three strikes' law for those convicted of home burglaries. 81% of youths convicted under that law were aboriginal. WA has recently toughened its mandatory sentencing laws. Queensland has also imposed tougher mandatory detention laws. Amnesty has called for the federal government to over-ride those laws as it is responsible for Australia's human rights obligations. The idea of 'justice reinvestment' first emerged in a 2003 article by Susan Tucker and Eric Cadora for the Open Society Institute. It attacked the notion of 'prison fundamentalism' (in relation to the war on drugs, three-strikes sentencing laws, elimination of judicial discrimination and parole and abandonment of rehabilitation) which led to unprecedented imprisonment rates in US. Prison inmates were often 'people of colour' convicted for non-violent crimes, uneducated and unemployed, drug dependent. It was argued that prison money could be better spent on schools, training, healthcare, better public spaces and other 'human resources'. Devolving responsibility to communities where incarceration rates are high is critical. NSW tried elements of justice reinvestment under Barry O'Farrell as premier and Greg Smith as attorney general. However it was later abandoned in the face of strong opposition. Tom Calma advocated justice reinvestment in his 2009 Social Justice Report - as the methods used in two decades since the Royal Commission were not working. Mick Gooda has subsequently taken this up - and cites the benefits achieved in US states where justice re-investment has been implemented (eg Oregon / Texas). NSW would have to build another prison every two years (costing $170m pa) to keep up with current rate of increase in prison populations. David Brown (UNSW) argues for the need to shift from imprisonment as default response to social marginality, dysfunction and crime. There are over 30,000 imprisoned in Australia at any time - more than 25% of whom are indigenous. This costs $3bn pa - and even a 10% decline in indigenous imprisonment would save $10m pa. Long before this Royal Commission into aboriginal deaths in custody called for community-led solutions to keep young people out of prison. There has bipartisanship on this in US, but not in Australia. A senate committee recommended trialing these methods in 2013 - but this was not taken up by the Abbott Government because the criminal justice and prison systems were state responsibilities (even though the federal government is responsible for human rights issues). Amnesty wants incarceration rates added to the Closing the Gap (between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians) targets.  While some progress has been made on those targets - that for employment has worsened. Eddie Cubillo (NATSILS) welcomes Amnesty proposal. Priscilla Collins (North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency) supports Amnesty view as investing in youth is needed rather than locking them up. Being tough on crime isn't working. Young indigenous people in remote regions suffer a lack of the suitable accommodation needed for magistrates to release them on bail - so they are more likely to be locked up on remand. NT government introduced provision for 'paperless arrest' enabling police to hold someone for 4 hours without charge. This has been challenged by Collin's agency. The law was used 700 times in the first 3 months - involving indigenous people 75% of the time.  John Elferink (NT Attorney General) argues that new arrest law is needed to reduce paperwork burden on police and that high incarceration rates are due to aboriginal peoples' lifestyle. Tony Abbott referred to indigenous people's life-style choices in relation to WA's proposal to close 150 indigenous communities. Eddie Cubillo and Priscilla Collins believe that closing communities in WA and NT would send more young people to the urban fringes where they would be vulnerable to poverty, high crime rates and the justice system's vagaries. Rising incarceration rates for young indigenous people 25 years after Royal Commission suggest that authorities have not responded to this national crisis. Amnesty has now exposed this issue in an international human rights context.  Julian Cleary (Amnesty International Australia) notes that Australia is not unique in having high jail rates for people in poverty - but the legacies of poverty and land dispossession for aboriginal people in Australia are significant issues. Amnesty's report shows that government policies (eg for mandatory detention and bail) have made things worse. The population of young indigenous Australians is growing faster than for country as a whole - so incarceration rates will continue rising until new methods are tried. Eddie Cubillo argues that aboriginal people are the last to be engaged when it comes to finding new approaches. The 'justice reinvestment' project at Bourke could change this [Milliken R., 'Unlocking Indigenous Incarceration', Inside Story, 28/7/16]

In Queensland five Queensland Youth Justice staff have been sacked recently for the use of excessive force (Killoran M., 'Detention staff sacked for force', Courier Mail, 28/7/16)

NT Labor leader (who could head the next NT government) threatened to hold separate judicial inquiry into juvenile detention abuses if royal commission is too narrow. He would immediately implement recommendations of 2011 Review of NT Youth Justice System - which included separating youth justice from adult prison system. The author of that report argued that NT government had shown callous disregard for children's welfare  (Aikman A,. 'Snub of Labor Party puts abuse inquiry at risk', Australian 28/7/16)

It costs $1000 / day on average for incarceration of youths in Australia - and the cost has been rising as the number of youths in detention has fallen. In Australia's 17 youth detention centres the numbers of inmates fell 25% (to 720) over the past 5 years. The total detainees in the NT is 44 (Burrell A., Detention costs rise as fewer youths are incarcerated, Australian, 28/7/16)

 Former (1980s) NT Chief Minister and former CLP minister for prisons and juvenile justice (Ian Tuxworth) says Giles Government betrayed the NT. There seemed to be a view that it could operate above the law. He supports the view of WA Premier that NT Government is not competent to run prisons and that they should be taken over by the federal government (or other states) until they were in better order.  Tuxworth was concerned about stress faced by Voller. He had grown up with aboriginal children - and coached some. Most of those children could have wound up in somewhere like Don Dale - except that programs to occupy them kept them out of jail. Fewer children went off the rails in the past. He believes that 30-40 people (including ministers) would have known what was happening at Don Dale and done nothing about it. (‘They thought they could carry on above the law’, Australian, 28/7/16)

New federal Labor MP, Linda Burney' has attacked NT chief minister over his attitude and approach to juvenile crime.In 2010 he has said in parliament (as a reflection of frustrations about street crime by youths in NT) that he would put bad criminals in a concrete hole if he were corrections minister.    (Lewis R.,  Linda Burney launches attack on Adam Giles over to juvenile crime, Australian, 28/7/16)

Abuses in NT's youth detention were reminiscent of Howard government's emergency response - where issues of child maltreatment were also involved. A decade after that intervention the problems it exposed still exist. What can Turnbull's narrow Royal Commission into issues that have already been the subject of many reviews achieve? The real problem is that NT is immature administration burdened by some of the worst social problems in the country. NT government receives 80% of its funding from Canberra much of it earmarked to tackle indigenous disadvantage. Turnbull's response indicates a failure to understand structural obstacles in NT governance that create conditions in which abuse can occur.  (Aikman A., 'Tacking the NT's structural problems is the key to any reform', Australian, 28/7/16)

Mistreatment of juvenile detainees in NT could be classified a torture - and perhaps as crimes under international law - according to Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment ('Mistreatment of juveniles in Northern Territory detention could be classed as torture: UN expert', ABC, 28/7/16)

Images of shackled children has provoked public outrage and a prime minister's resolve to establish a Royal Commission to 'get to the bottom of it'. However the terms of reference show that Commission will only be able to deal with part of the problem. The NT Government's involvement raises questions about Commission's independence. Inquiry will consider failings of NT child protection and youth detention systems - and whether they have breached laws. Effective reform requires understanding / addressing conditions that make it likely that children in out-of-home care will come in contact with criminal justice system.  It is also essential (but not in terms of reference) to consider children's welfare comprehensively. The inquiry will deal with abuse in closed institutions - but there is a need to consider other setting in which abuse can occur. Fixing this requires close consultation with indigenous people - and reform proposals should be developed by indigenous people. It would be wrong to believe that problems are confined to NT. Thus a second stage inquiry is needed to confront deeper, more troubling questions about why children are incarcerated and how it might be possible to better ensure children's welfare. There is international work that could guide reform (eg from UN). There is a need to shift from 'tough on crime' approach to promoting children's integration into society.  Trauma counseling, education, rehabilitation programs and ensuring that children have access to their culture are needed. As well as establishing this inquiry the Australian government needs to demonstrate human rights leadership. The latter is a national responsibility - even though juvenile justice is a state / territory matter (O'Brien W., The NT Royal Commission: it's a good start but more leadership is needed, the Conversation, 29/7/16) 

Child welfare advocates acknowledge that the use of physical force by guards against children providing it is 'reasonable' and a last resort. Mechanical restraints can be used in all jurisdiction to protect children from self-harm or to maintain security. There are however various actions which are prohibited  (Burrell A., ' Reasonable physical force ‘acceptable as a last resort’, Australian, 29/7/16)

NT Government is counter-suing two boys who appeared in the video about abuse at the Don Dale Centre - in relation to damage associated with their escape from that centre in 2015 [NT government counter-suing Don Dale Youths, Australian, 29/7/16)]

Royal Commission will examine both youth detention facilities and child protection. The question of whether racism was part of the problem could be addressed because culture within the system was in terms of reference. Commission will examine whether: NT government should have done more; effectiveness of oversight mechanisms; why 2015 reports on problems were insufficiently implemented; whether treatment breached laws or inmates human rights; the availability of appropriate care for children in custody; and past reports back to 2007 (Baxendale R.,  Ex-NT chief judge Brian Ross Martin to lead youth detention inquiry, Australian, 29/7/16)

Dylan Voller had over 50 offences to his name 2 years ago when his counsel told a judge that he would spit at people who was upset with. Images of Voller in a 'spit hood' and tied to a prison chair gained world-wide attention - but was the end point of an anger management issue that emerged when Voller was a child    (Edwards V., 'Childhood marred by abuse, violence and family neglect', Australian, 29/7/16) 

No psychologist would have been surprised by abuse of young prisoners at NT Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. An experiment at Stanford in 1971 showed that putting good people in an evil situation generated abuse. It simulated the role of guards and prisoners in a student experiment - and found that those involved took their roles seriously to the point of abuse. The treatment of prisoners at Don Dale, the cruelty of guards and the consequent damage to and dehumanisation of young prisoners could have been taken from that experiment (Sweetman T., 'Lessons in evil learnt in just six days were ignored at Don Dale, Courier Mail, 29/7/16).

Concern has reasonably been expressed about the treatment of inmates at youth detention centre. However the victims of those young criminals and the bullying / disruption / chaos they caused at schools should not be ignored. The violence, theft and damage they have been responsible for needs to be revealed. There is also a need to identify alternative programs / treatments which prevent these louts flouting laws and terrorizing others (Royal commission into abuse isn't the answer, Letters to the editor, Courier Mail, 29/7/16)

There is a need to address the root cause of what leads children to end up in detention centers. Fortunately the NT's chief minister, Adam Giles, demanded that the Royal Commission examine problems in the youth protection system as well as those in youth detention. Giles is right in pointing out that many of the wild / uncontrollable children that end up in detention come from troubled family backgrounds characterised by parental abuse and neglect. The role that child protection plays requires attention - as incarceration of children who have committed crimes is just part of a much bigger problem. The most vulnerable children often suffer irreparable harm because child protection policies focus on keeping families together rather than on properly protecting children. Child protection services practice 'family preservation' at any cost - so that too little is done too late to rescue children. Children are left with highly dysfunctional parents (affected by substance abuse, domestic violence and other social problems) after being reported many times because of welfare concerns. When ultimately removed, children have suffered massive damage. Child protection systems have become mental illness factories. Children suffer harm first in family home, then in unstable care as attempts are made to restore them to family homes. Those who go through this become 'hard to help' - given their crime, risk of suicide, substance abuse and potential death by misadventure. It is no longer safe for such people to live in family homes or normal kinship / foster care settings. They require placement in residential care facilities where they receive round-the-clock professional support. The number of children in residential care have doubled nationally over past 10 years (to 2300). 30 years after most orphanages were closed, governments have been forced to re-institutionalize care for children damaged / disturbed by family preservation. This could be avoided by earlier and permanent removal of children from dysfunctional families. The scandalous state of child protection systems must be the main focus of royal commission (Sammut J., 'Don Dale the Tip of Child Protection Scandal, 30/7/16)

84% of youngsters locked up in Queensland have not been sentenced by a court - well above the national average of about 50%. Queensland's official child advocate is to probe this - following concern about a 'flogging squad' at Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville - where excessive force and verbal abuse have been applied to children. Though that group was disbanded, it is understood that excessive force is still used though Youth Justice is unaware of this and seeks evidence. The Queensland Family and Child Commission will investigate why the length of time children are held in demand is higher than national average. Siyavash Dhoostkhah (Youth Affairs Network of Queensland) said this would be a counter-productive waste of money. "It is basically a training ground. There are a handful of hardcore kids who run a training scheme in how to become future criminals for the others who have to show they are tough to survive."  The $400,00 pa cost of detainee was 3 times state governments budget for children's services. Attorney General's Department said that targeting remand was a key goal of state's youth justice reforms. New legislation will make remand a last resort [Passmore D. and Tin J., 'Remand on demand soars', Sunday Mail, 31/7/16] 

Teachers are concerned about worrying rise in numbers of highly disruptive children in classrooms. Judith Howard (QUT) said that teachers are questioning their career choices or suffering health problems. Many of those who exhibit extreme ('red zone') behaviour have suffered trauma at home (violence / neglect / substance abuse). Such children are commonly disruptive and display verbal / physical aggression - and can't regulate their emotions effectively. Normal behavioural management strategies do not work with 'red zone' students - any more than exclusion / suspension does. They need an informed / individual approach. Teachers need help to work with 'red zone' children.  [Martyn-Jones L., 'Students a pain the the class', Sunday Mail, 31/7/16]

The founder of Boys Town believed that there were no bad boys - just bad environments, bad training, bad examples and bad thinking. Other factors include bad priests / teachers / scoutmasters / police / prison guards / politicians. However some Australians think that badness exists that justifies brutality at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. This is more so in NT. Many people were disgusted by brutality - though this was more muted in NT reflecting a society under pressure. Sometimes naked racism was tarted up as rationalism. Without dealing with complex root causes in a barely functional territory, it is no doubt some boys were guilty of adult crimes.  However this does not justify organised violence against people ho are children legally and developmentally. Assaulting children is a cowardly abuse of power - equivalent to sexual abuse. The 'bad' children can vary from troubled, to damaged, to misled, to deranged.  It is hard not to see those who those who steal, damage property or assault us as 'bad'. However 'badness' can't be eliminated by beatings. Restrained corporal punishment used to be used in families to promote desired behaviours - but brutality did not do so. A boy was observed to be transformed to a pent-up keg of fearless violence by regular thrashings. Children can't be reformed by lock and keys. Fear can't develop character. It is unfortunately necessary to sometimes put children behind bars. But the children seen at Don Dale were being given lessons in hate. On the other hand, free range parenting (ie allowing anything) is as bad as past strapping by parents.  There may be little difference between children raised with violence and those without discipline  [Sweetman T., 'Suffer the Children', Sunday Mail, 31/7/16 )

The Royal Commission will seek accountability for abuses at Don Dale Centre. However there is a need for a broader inquiry into incarceration - as this entrenches harm / crime and does not lead to rehabilitation.  This is why international law requires detention as last resort for children.  When many offenders come into custody profoundly damaged / traumatised, imprisonment compounds those problems. Some hardened offenders do have to be locked up.  But few of these are women and children.  Large amounts are being spent incarcerating women and children who need more protection from the community, than the community does from them.  (Hulls R., and Campbell E., Should we be locking people up in prisons at all, The Conversation, 1/8/16) 

Hopefully Royal Commission will be the starting point for broader inquiry into why young aboriginal children are 25 times as likely to end up in detention than others - while those in regions such as the Kimberley are 6 times as likely to commit suicide. There is a need to change policies that have hindered the 'Close the Gap' targets. Aboriginal organisations need to be resourced and empowered in their communities. Self determination and the use of culturally-appropriate programs are essential. 80% of funds under National Indigenous Reform Agreement have gone to non-indigenous organisations.  National Community Controlled Health Organisations (Aboriginal Medical Services) are recognised to be the most effective. Royal Commission also needs to look at why so many young aboriginal people wind up in detention / despair. The use of non-indigenous health and social services is a failed policy.  (Cooke M., Aboriginal self-determination key to life saving health efforts, The Australian, 1/8/16)

Bill Shorten is playing politics with the Royal Commission into juvenile justice in NT - by publicly (rather than privately) calling for indigenous co-commissioners to be involved (Van Onselen P., Bill Shorten's political game cruels acceptance of valuable idea, Australian, 1/8/16).

Indigenous advocate Mick Gooda and Queensland judge Margaret White have been appointed joint heads of Royal Commission into the Northern Territory juvenile justice system - after resignation of former NT chief justice (Brian Martin) following perceptions of bias  (Owens J., and Fox Koob S., 'Mick Gooda and Margaret White to be NT Royal Commissioners', The Australian, 1/8/16) 

Brian Martin stepped down as head of Royal Commission and was replaced by Margaret White and Mick Gooda. Liora Salter suggested that Royal Commissions suffer basic contradiction. They offer rare opportunity to broker social change - as those on margins of society can be heard equally with those in authority while at the same time financial, institutional and legal interests must be defended. Most commissions seek incremental politically-acceptable changes. Those that attempt more are rare. There has been concern about a joint NT and federal Royal Commission and about the speed of defining its terms of reference. There is a need to address not only events at the Don Dale Centre - but also deep seated social and political structures that contribute to over-incarceration of indigenous youth. The fact that NT chief minister played a major role in defining terms of reference - while also presumably being subject to investigation by Commission - is of concern. The Commission is not directed to consider fundamental questions about the youth detention system itself. The initial appointment of Brian Martin reduced confidence in the integrity of the Commission. White and Gooda need to rebuild this - but allowing those excluded from government's consultation to provide input on inquiry's future direction. They should appoint staff that represent and command the respect of communities most affected by NT's youth criminal justice system. Their offices should be located in an area whose youth have frequent contact with the system - and facilitate youth testimony on terms that are both compassionate and dignified.  (Hoole G., Juvenile detention Royal Commissioners must reach out to rebuild public trust, The Conversation, 1/8/16) 

There have been concerns that Mick Gooda could be seen to be biased “given his public call last week for federal intervention to “sack the NT government” and his criticism of John Elferink, who was dumped as the NT corrections minister last week but remains the Attorney-General” (Crowe D., Malcolm Turnbull rushes into fresh NT juvenile detention inquiry row, The Australian, 2/8/16)

Mick Gooda had suggested that: “This inquiry could really help to turn the tide by looking into the life-saving and cost-saving potential approaches such as justice reinvestment, which diverts a portion of funds earmarked for imprisonment expenditure to local communities with a high concentration of offenders.”(Fitzpatrick S,. Commissioner Mick Gooda’s best chance to ‘turn the tide’, The Australian, 2/8/16)

Just after Malcolm Turnbull announced a Royal Commission into juvenile justice and detention in the NT, two new commissioners were announced to replace former who NT chief justice Brian Martin who resigned because of perceived bias. Governments should not rush such matters. The focus has to be on the failure of NT Government to take action to deal with the problem and what the federal government can do to correct their indolence. There have been calls for broadening that inquiry - eg to include indigenous commissioners. The appointment of Mick Gooda should satisfy that - though protecting indigenous people from discrimination and systematic mistreatment has been part of his responsibility for years. Politics should be kept out of inquiry. The goal must not only be to improve the juvenile justice and detention systems but to provide education, support and opportunity to give indigenous youth the prospect of a productive future along with the personal responsibility to seize it  (NT detention abuse inquiry hits new territory already, editorial, The Australian, 2/8/16) 

Thankfully the scope of Royal Commission was widened to include failings in the child protection system which is one root cause of the disadvantage long suffered by indigenous Australians. But some indigenous leaders don't want to look at the cause of the problem - and are only interested in who does the looking. They called for two indigenous commissioners to conduct the inquiry. - because of their supposed greater insight into the problems facing other indigenous peoples. However any appointed to head a Royal Commission would be unlikely to have much in common with indigenous people who live in appalling circumstances in remote communities. Race does not necessarily imply expertise. Identity politics is behind a political solution to the problems facing indigenous people (eg through reconciliation, recognition and a treaty). The irony is that current problems are derived mainly from notions of Aboriginal Self-Determination introduced in the 1970s - ie that only aboriginal controlled solutions could fix aboriginal problems. This race-based approach has worsened the situation of indigenous communities. The debate needs to be focused on decades of failed policies - rather than doubling-down on more of those same policies (Sammut J., Failure to protect children a root cause of disadvantage', CIS, 2/8/16)  

The abuse that children suffered at NT Don Dale Centre may be closest they have come to 'parenting' - because they have grown up in environments where parenting barely happened at all. The juvenile justice system (with psychologists, psychiatrists, magistrates, lawyers and social workers) can't substitute for parenting. And in dealing with juvenile justice system current biological parents are likely to be even more helpless and childlike than the actual child. Some see affected children as needing more love - but for many love is likely to be an alien concept. Foster carers know how hard it is to establish the delicate balance between nurturing and discipline that parenting involves. Social work students are taught that aboriginal parenting involves children a high level of autonomy at a young age. This would be regarded as extreme and dangerous neglect in a non-indigenous family - but has to be respected to avoid the risk of another Stolen Generation. Workers in juvenile detention centers see the results of this extreme cultural sensitivity (ie children who know little of safety, security, routine, hygiene and consistent discipline). Correctional officers should not be expected to provide the sort of care / nurturing needed to compensate for a child's lifetime of dysfunctional parenting - though they should introduce children to this. The spit hood can be seen as either an artifact of torture or as a piece of safety equipment. In itself it is not the problem - as the question is whether it is used as a disciplinary or a safety measure. Simply banning its use is not the answer - even though this would have public image benefits. Prison officers are constantly exposed to bizarre human behaviour which neither journalists nor the public ever see. Some of what occurred at the Don Dale Centre appeared unprofessional - but this is what can happen in the absence of anybody in charge who cares. This is a problem that could be easily fixed. However dealing with the reasons that children end up in these settings (and why so many aboriginal children are in detention) is a much harder challenge - and one that could easily be put in the 'too hard' basket (Pholi K., NT juvenile detention footage points to parenting deficiency, The Australian, 2/8/16)

Exposing mistreatment of boys in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre is only the surface of a serious, deep and complex national issue. The proposed Royal Commission is likely to be a band-aid at best.  It is superficial to blame particular people or institutions.  Decades of poor policy have entrenched welfare dependency and promoted symbolism over substance (eg apologies, talk of treaties / indigenous recognition rather than toxic effects of welfare dependency). There is a need to get indigenous kids to stay in school and to get real jobs - not make-believe jobs. Marcia Langton points out that indigenous leaders don't mention personal responsibility. Self-determination means nothing if not linked to personal responsibility. NGOs live off large populations of victims who need to be told to stop sitting around waiting for handouts. However 'diversity' leaders criticize the educational programs that provide real benefits and strength to indigenous children. The Royal Commission needs to explore the cultural and systemic failures by elites that explains why children are in detention rather than at school. Many people point to problems at the Don Dale Centre - but don't address the failures by children's parents. When 97% of children in detention in the NT are aboriginal, the problem can't just be the use of restraint chairs and spit hoods. There is a need to ask families who young boys wind up in detention / are violent / take drugs / don't go to school / end up unemployed. Real leadership requires calling on parents to lift their game. Without this the wrong sort of behaviour becomes normal in indigenous communities. Parenting is hard - but also rewarding. Four Corners did not explore this issue - and neither will the Royal Commission (Albrechtsen J., Deadbeat parents failed the Don Dale Detention Centre boys, 3/8/16)

Mick Gooda has provided sound leadership to his community - but his appointment as co-royal commission was a mistake. His initial reaction to what happened in Don Dale Centre was to call for NT government to be sacked. He has already made up his mind and thus can't preside over an impartial inquiry. His conflict of interest is much clearer than that which forced Brian Martin to stand down. His appointment (a reaction to Bill Shorten's call for indigenous commissioners) represents a shift towards 'identity politics' under which it is assumed that people can only get justice from others of the same race. This idea has become accepted in the US - but is a step towards apartheid [Merritt C. Mick Gooda’s passion points a finger at why he is unsuited, The Australian, 3/8/16]

Prison officers fear they have already been convicted by public outrage over treatment of juveniles in NT justice system. Noel Pearson questioned whether Commission would make a real difference to the problems Aborigines face - as this requires adults to take responsibility for their children Brian Newman (Australian Prison Officers Association) raised questions about Mick Gooda's capacity to lead the Commission impartially - given his passion about indigenous youth issues. Tass Liveris (NT Law Society) said appointing an indigenous person would bring therapeutic benefits for aboriginal people. Pearson said that more should have been done to empower indigenous communities - rather than supporting a Royal Commission. While not all agree he believes that indigenous responsibility is critical part of solution.   (Akerman Pia, Mick Gooda’s passion questioned for royal commission role, The Australian, 3/8/16) 

Repeating history is farce - but this is a risk with NT child protection and youth detention inquiry. After inquiry was established and Brian Martin resigned, Pat Dodson reminded all parties of the failure to implement recommendations of Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (eg related to duty of care, pathways to court and incarceration, health / education / housing issues). Regimes talk tough about incarcerating people - and permit all sorts of things to be done legally). Stolen Generation's inquiry recommendations were only partly implemented. Stan Grant spoke of rage about what had been happening - of lives at the coalface of bigotry and poverty. A Royal Commission won't fix this - though it might help if both sides of politics commit in advance to implement its recommendations. Past experience shows that indigenous royal commissions without implementation are simply an excuse for wallowing in white guilt. There had been calls for appointment of indigenous co-commissioners before Martin quit - which led to perceptions of a 'whitewash'. Though this was changed this does not guarantee positive outcomes.  (Sullivan P., A quarter of a century later, how much have we learned, Inside Story, 1/8/18) 

Programs that provide youths who might have been locked up with practical training that can lead to jobs and apprenticeships have benefited hundreds. Children who had spent time in detention have been completely changed. A 'law and order' response to at risk youth simply makes their situation worse (Schleibs M., BackTrack project saving kids from lock-up, Australian, 3/8/16)

The terms of reference of the Royal Commission are silent on the over-representation of indigenous children in the detention system. Australia wide they are 54% of children in detention and 26 times as likely to be in detention.  A Royal Commission set up to investigate failures in an interventionist law-and-order approach needs to identify ways to get indigenous children out of jail and back with their families. NT's youth detention rate is six times the national average. It has the highest number of children in juvenile detention per 100,000 10-19 year olds. About 60% are in the care of NT's Department of Children and Families. NT's juvenile detention systems are mainly filled with children on remand - ie the have not been convicted of a crime. The federal government's 2006 intervention involved a law-and-order approach to NT indigenous communities. Police powers were extended to indigenous communities and the racial discrimination act was suspended. Since then there has been a steep rise in the criminalization of indigenous young people. There are complaints that police have been heavy-handed with young people when investigating crime. Increased spending on policing was not matched by increased spending on Corrective Services. There are also problems with NT's sentencing arrangements - as this required mandatory detention for those convicted of violent offences. The problem could be reduced by increasing the age of criminal responsibility; allowing all young people a right to bail; strengthening the ability of indigenous communities to provide support and programs for young people. Indigenous communities need more control over child safety issues. The Royal Commission's terms of reference risk implying that NT is particularly bad - though there are problems everywhere. The underlying issue is removing indigenous children from their families and communities and placing them in coercive environment and with non-indigenous families. Governments have regarded locking up vulnerable indigenous children - and their treatment has deteriorated. Systematic incarceration / removal of young children needs to be redressed as the NT experience shows that this increases rather than reducing their problems. (Anthony T., 'Why are so many Indigenous kids in detention in the NT in the first place?, The Conversation, 4/8/16)

Don Dale is the end of the line - where juvenile indigenous Territorians go (to be owned by justice system) after being failed by education, training, welfare, community and diversionary programs. Locking up people for misdemenours does not help - it merely shifts problems in many welfare programs to corrective services. This is common everywhere - eg in law and order elections. Over-representation of indigenous youth in detention has long been known. This is a long term failure by both Australian and NT governments.  NT economy is overly dependent on Commonwealth funding. Much of its population is employed looking after others on welfare. It is not correct to claim that there were not problems at Do Dale before 2012 election. Royal Commission needs to look at NT justice system and detention centre management - but there is also a need to consider government support programs that help or fail young people. There were calls for indigenous co-commissioners to be selected (ie from 3% of the population). Those in Don Dale desrve the best commissioners available - but this is not what happens in dealing with indigenous affairs where party and race politics prevail. Troubled youth need the best available help - but many get 'special' race-based programs. Indigenous youth in Don Dale may have suffered a lifetime of institutional interactions based on the view that cultural strength would fix everything - but what emerged at Don Dale had nothing to do with cultureand everything to do with politics  (Aird W., 'Don Dale Scandal: When Race becomes issue we have lost the day', The Australian, 4/8/16)

Amanda Meade (Guardian) asked for an explanation of a cartoon that implied that indigenous children came in contact with the law because their parents did not teach them a sense of individual responsibility. The root problem is the Chronic Truth Aversion Disorder (CTAD) which makes impossible any intelligent debate on serious social issues (eg rampant violence, abuse and neglect of children in remote indigenous communities). The reactions by those affected by that disorder makes others afraid to speak the truth. The cartoon was inspired by indigenous people who feel compelled to tell the truth no matter what - and was endorsed by Anthony Dillon (whose father Colin was Australia's first indigenous policeman) (Leak Bill, 'Bill Leak cartoon: what are you tweeting about?, The Australian, 5/8/16)

Bill Leak's cartoon referred to the damage that alcohol abuse and irresponsible parenting are doing to many aboriginal children. I did not view this positively just because I am part aboriginal but because aboriginal children deserve what other Australian children have. The cartoon and the tragedy it reflects is not a racial issue - though anyone who is not aboriginal who raises those concerns will be labeled racist. Most people want to see an end to the consequences of alcohol abuse and parental neglect as shown by images of children in detention centres. Leak's cartoon showed the need to look further - at the factors that lend children in detention centres in the first place. Unless the causes are addressed, many children will continue to be raised in detention; few will go to university or get a secure job; and many will go on to parent children who will experience the same sort of childhoods that they did. Others (Jeremy Sammut, Kerryn Pholi and Janet Albrechtsen) have written recently about the seriousness of the situation Leak's cartoon depicts. The victim brigades and race hounds have attacked them - and this is much easier than dealing with problems of employment in remote areas as well as violence and child abuse. While there have been accusations of racism, race is not the issue. The children who are ending up in detention and fast becoming another 'stolen generation' are Australian children. Australians should not be prevented from talking about problems in aboriginal communities because they are not aboriginal (Dillon A., 'Bill Leak cartoon is right when it comes to the big picture', The Australian, 5/8/16)

Bill Leak's cartoon which portrayed aboriginal men as neglectful of their children is not representative of aboriginal life and has been widely criticized as racist (eg by Muriel Bamblett, Richard de Natale and Nigel Scullion). It merely continues Leak's practice of demonizing aboriginal men. Liz Conor's book (Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women') reveal white imagining about aboriginal women and men.  Focusing on aboriginal men's brutality enabled sexual abuse of aboriginal women by white men on the frontier to be ignored. The moral authority of white men and their claims of truth about aboriginal people need to be tested (Bond C., The white man's burden: Bill Leake and telling the truth about aboriginal lives', The Conversation, 5/8/16)

The scandals at Don Dale Centre have shed light on causes and consequences for abused and neglected children damaged by dysfunctional parents. Such children are failed by a flawed youth protection system and wind up in detention facilities due to their wild / uncontrollable behaviour. There may be a silver lining in Turnbull Government's decision to include Mick Gooda in commission. Given the sensitivities surrounding the Stolen Generation, current practices (which most indigenous stakeholders support) would not be able to be changed without indigenous leadership  (Sammut J., Don Dale inquiry: silver lining and sliver of hope, CIS, 5/8/16)

Public outrage about violence in the Don Dale Center is warranted but unlikely to change anything. The issue is not race but how difficult it is to deal with children who have been failed by their families to such an extent that they become child criminals. Removing children from families can't be discussed no matter how much harm is being done to children  because of fear of another stolen generation. Dylan Voller's upbringing was marred by intergenerational abuse, family intransience, neglect, family violence, physical abuse, parental mental health issues and substance abuse. However nothing about this was presented by Four Corners coverage of what happened in Don Dale Centre. It did not provide publicly available information that would have given balance to its program. The 2014 events its program covered were subject to Vita's review (which showed a system in crisis), staff sackings and moving detainees to another centre where problems associated with detainees behavior continued. The NT's detainee problem has risen steadily over the past two years - resulting in severe resource constraints. Four Corners said nothing about this. Can a royal commission make any difference - when the recommendations of Vita's earlier review are still to be implemented. From the age of 10 Voller was at risk in a dysfunctional family and became a serious risk to the community. His case required better management. There is no excuse for waiting for another report while children like him continue to be created by a failing system (Langton M., Families, Funding and Four Corners Failed the Kids of Don Dale, Australian, 5/8/16) 

Identity politics (which attacks rational, honest debate and the quality of public policy) is now tangible in both indigenous and gender issues. It was demonstrated in relation to NT detention crisis. Identity politics is about laws and norms to protect /advance identity causes. Since the failure of communism class consciousness has been supplemented by a focus on racial, sexual, gender and ethnic identity. Historic grievances suffered by such identities leads to contemporary demand for redress. Identity politics speaks of deep human need - yet in application it involves narcissism, censors public debate and leads to vicious campaigns of intimidation. This was shown by politicians reluctance to mention underlying cause of problems at Don Dale Centre - the breakdown of indigenous social and family order through family dislocation, neglect, violence, parental abuse and drunkenness. The debate focused narrowly on proposed royal commission and need for an indigenous commissioner. Noel Pearson criticized the selective outrage involved and argued that 'blackfellas' need to take care of their own children. Australia used to be famous for straight talking - but is now afraid to do so, The essence of identity politics is that those who don't share one's identify haven't shared the same oppression / pain and thus can't say how others should behave. This is hostile to ideas / debate. There has been a deep reluctance to confront the causes of problems in NT youth detention. The same problem arises in relation to the gay marriage issue. A plebiscite which would allow the people decide the issue is opposed it could release hate and homophobia that would cause offence. While identity politics is well established in US it is still limited in Australia - being dominated by political correctness (Kelly P., Race, gender: The risk of identity politics, Australian, 6/8/16) 

What should be done about atrocious conditions in remote indigenous communities? Another centrally planned / bureaucratic solution is not going to help.  The Whitlam Government had tried to make remote indigenous communities self-sufficient - with what they produced directed to home consumption. Exports would largely be confined to arts and crafts. Not only was a racially segregated economy endorsed, but it was envisaged that schooling would be limited to basic literacy and numeracy to minimize assimilationist influences. Living in decentralised homelands would allow Aboriginal people to revive ancient rituals and make it easier to contact sacred sites and Dreaming tracks. Now 80,000 Australians live in the wretched conditions this policy created. (Cater N., What a wicked game we play with indigenous social engineering , Australian, 9/8/16)

It is easy to report on the Don Dale Centre -as there has already been a report on events at that centre, various officers were dismissed and the centre was closed down. Proposing a royal commission to investigate this relies on the view that any problem can be solved by more public spending. The case of Madeline Downman illustrates the problem. She committed suicide in a NT Government residential facility. Here parents were separated. She had been reported to child protection services at 18 months of age - because of excessive alcohol, drug consumption and domestic violence in her family. Her criminal behaviour started early (at 13) and in 2010 she was remanded to Don Dale Centre facing 27 criminal charges.  She smoke marijuana, drank alcohol and sniffed deodorant. She had started hurting herself and considered suicide. She was placed in care - had 26 placements and absconded 63 times . She had been exposed to domestic violence in her father's care and to sexual abuse by a male cousin from 8 years of age. A safe family placement was considered impossible. She was seen to need one-on-one care and a full time social worker. Her family argued that department did not address 'reunification' or her 'cultural needs'. She had been worried about what would happen when she turned 18 and the protection order on he came to an end. She had been afraid to leave the system despite its inadequacies. She had been mainly failed by her family.  The PM should consider whether assigning social worker to every troubled youth would solve the problem. Ex-nuptial births to aboriginal mothers are 87% - and in 18% of cases paternity is never acknowledged. The aboriginal teenage fertility rate is 4 times greater than for others. Teenage females in remote centres are 5 times more likely to give birth than those in cities. Neither constitutional recognition nor a treaty will help those youths. The protection and detention system is not at fault. poorly socialized families and welfare dependence create each generation of troubled youth. Contraception for youths and adoption for at-risk children would be the best solution (Johns G., The other Don Dale report: lessons from the tragedy of Maddy, The Australian, 10/8/16)

A great deal of violence in aboriginal communities (especially those near towns) is the result of alcohol. Aboriginal cultures accept violence. Those who suggest that this should not be changed are either so far away that they don't see the results or are very old and could not cope with change. Customary law has been used in court to defend men who violently and sexually assaulted teenage girls who were their traditionally promised wives. Kidnap and rape of girls can be accepted without comment.  All women I know have experienced physical or sexual abuse. There is no word for 'rape' in traditional languages. One can be killed as punishment for accidentally coming upon a ceremonial party. In my culture men are never seen to be capable of doing anything wrong. Older people have instilled the idea that aboriginal people have been the victims of colonisation, white government and oppression. The current city-based victim brigade reinforce this view.  This argument is drowning out the voices of those who are victims of their own cultural oppression. Activists look outward for sources of problems - but can't look within. Universities have become places of censorship - and educational content is controlled on the basis of activists rather than the knowledge of educators and the lived experience of the less educated. Truth is not what university aboriginal units are interested in - but rather ideology / popular opinion expressed through social media. Sexual abuse and domestic violence is excused in aboriginal communities - because it happens elsewhere. But aboriginal women are 35 times as likely to be hospitalized due to domestic violence. the thought police and politically correct deny facts and truth to elevate their own moral standing - while further suffocating the victims. Why to aboriginal people have to live under 40,000 year old laws when the rest of the world has evolved their cultures to enable them to survive in the modern world? (Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Women’s abuse shows Aboriginal culture must change, Australian, 12/8/16)

Cathy McLennan (Innisfail Magistrate) has written about  horrific experiences of mainly-aboriginal young offenders / victims she has encountered. Detention is often a haven for neglected or abused youth offenders. It was saddening to see what happened at Don Dale Centre because children who end up in detention have been hurt, abused, and broken long before they end up in detention. There was a story about children in detention being denied Christmas dinner to teach them a lesson about poor behaviour. However being in detention was probably the best Christmas they ever had - because they had a safe bed to sleep in; food and no one around who would bash them up. Girls who come into detention have usually been sexually abused. Solving these problems requires that children have stable home lives (Neill R.,  'The kids deserve to have their stories told’ , The Australian, 13/8/16)

Mistreatment has been alleged in youth detention centers in Queensland - resulting in suggestions that the NT royal commission should deal with problems in Queensland also   (Mitchell-Whittington A., Footage shows alleged mistreatment at Queensland youth detention centre, Brisbane Times, 18/8/16)  

A top ABC producer (Sally Neighbour) has suggested that those who accuse the Four Corners program on the NT's juvenile justice system of omitting key facts of 'political motivations'. NT Chief Minister suggested that program was disgraceful and resulted in himself and public servants being spat on. ABC reporter Carlo Meldrum had praised NT government improvements to corrections in seeking access to detention facilities to provide a balanced report. This was seen as a 'Trojan horse'. Neighbour said the letter had been misinterpreted - and was written before CCTV footage of abuse of young detainees was seen. The NT Department of Corrections had issued a statement before program went to air noting that the incidents were historical and had been dealt with by earlier independent investigations. The material in Four Corner's program had been shown before - eg by the ABC.  The program alleged that the abuse had continued - and did not point out that the guards involved had been investigated. ABC also failed to mention that some of its key sources had been involved in legal action against NT government over youth justice. The ABC and NT Government accuse each other of political motivations in relation to presenting and criticizing the program. NT Chief Minister had initially taken a different approach to Four Corner's program - and played a role in establishing the royal commission.  Four Corners was seen to have published reports on problems in live cattle exports that were seen to have unfairly damaged NT industry. A former Victorian premier suggested that royal commission should be into ABC (Aikman A.,' Four Corners producer defends NT juvenile justice system report', The Australian, 22/8/16)

ABC's 7.30 program confirmed that the harsh and possible illegal treatment of young detainees in Australia is not confined to NT. The debate started when scenes of abuse at NT Don Dale Centre were shown. This was so shocking that a royal commission was established. However what was really shocking was that this occurred in a wealthy country like Australia. Prior work for the Association for the Prevention of Torture showed both the extent of the problem and what could be done to counter it. The UN has established minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners - and what happened at Don Dale may have violated Australia's obligations under UN Convention on Torture. The US adopted an Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture in 2002 - which Australia should sign on to.  (Fletcher A., NT royal commission is the cost of failing to meet international standards on torture', The Conversation 6/9/16 

NT royal commission could be a watershed moment for Australian justice according to lawyer for one of the abused boys (Peter O'Brien) - who had appeared in ABC program which sparked the royal commission. Mr Gooda and Ms White plan to proceed with a high degree of cultural competence to ensure a safe environment for those giving evidence which will consider the treatment of juvenile offenders over 10 years. Ms White's opening statement referred to the need to find ways to significantly reduce child offending [1]

Don Dale royal commissioner (Mick Gooda) has pledged to be impartial and look only at evidence in a bid to head of a challenge to his position following allegations of bias. Commission co-chairwoman (Margaret White) said that terms of reference were wide and required historical investigation over 10 years. Counsel assisting (Peter Callaghan) said that definition of detention centres would be board and commission would not only look at how such centres were run but at the culture in which they were run. The child protection elements of commissions terms were potentially very wide in scope - involving complex issues in intersection between family, community and state roles. NT's Children's Commissioner (Colleen Gwynne) said commission was very ambitious. NT Chief Minister (Michael Gunner) is seeking clarification about how the commission will be paid for. Warren Mundine (PM's top indigenous adviser) said that commission would be a 'lawyers picnic' and that there were better ways to deal with known child-welfare problems [1]

Publicity was given to problems at the Don Dale Centre - yet simultaneous killings of two aboriginal women received no publicity. Both had suffered years of domestic violence in a community where the perpetrators would have received most support. Indigenous people need to confront the existence of such problems in their communities  [1

Indigenous women are subjected to pressure to prioritize racial solidarity rather than speak up about domestic violence in their own communities. Doing so was believed to betray the indigenous cause [1]

The architect of the 1990s Bringing Them Home Report has warned that Australia is on track to create a new stolen generation - because the rate of removal of children from their families returns to assimilation era levels [1]

Former attorney general Michael Lavarch warned about a 'new stolen generation' because of the high rate of indigenous child removals. Similar assertions have been made by others in relation to the escalating crisis in indigenous child welfare. However this risks perpetuating the gaps in social outcomes between the most disadvantaged indigenous Australians and other Australians - and relies on an outdated view of the relationship between aboriginal identity and culture. Over past 10 years the percentage of indigenous children removed from their families has risen from 3.2% to 6.5% - but this was not driven by a racist motivation (and a desire to breed out colour) but rather to protect children from abuse and ongoing neglect. Over 15,000 indigenous children live in care reflecting worsening dysfunctions in Aboriginal communities - especially in rural / remote areas [1]

Many suggest that aboriginal women need to speak out against family and community violence. However they have been doing so - the problem is that no one has been listening [1]

Bill Leake's controversial cartoon was described by WA's police commissioner as an accurate reflection of the every day refusal of aboriginal fathers to take responsibility for their children. It portrayed an indigenous policeman presenting an indigenous youth to his father and suggesting that the father needed to teach the son about personal responsibility - in response to which the father asked what his name was [1].

Warren Mundine (head of PM's Indigenous Advisory Council) has attacked Attorney General (George Brandis) for asking the Australian Law Reform Commission to examine factors that lead to over-representation of indigenous Australians in detention.  Mundine suggested that this was a waste of time as he could tell them what to do. The Opposition and Australian Bar Association President (Patrick O'Sullivan) welcomed the inquiry. Rod Little (National Congress of Australia's First People) said government should look at findings of 1991 Royal Commission into Indigenous deaths in Custody - and at the effect of implementing or not implementing recommendations [1

 High rates of domestic violence amongst indigenous Australians are being excused as a 'matter of culture' and left unpunished to reduce the numbers being sent to jail according to three seniour aboriginal women. Indigenous communities and their supporters were seen to be guilty of reverse racism though indispensible adherence to traditional law that was denying women and children their human rights. Outrage about Bill Leak's cartoon about an irresponsible aboriginal father ignored the fact that around 10,000 indigenous fathers were in prison for injury, sexual assault and other crimes. And over 30,000 neglected children have been removed from their homes [1]

Progress is being made in indigenous affairs that is not being recognised because of gaps / failures in official policies [1]

 Royal Commission's interim report is headed for an ideological dead end. Aborigines are not mentioned in the terms of reference - yet report is covered with aboriginal art. Report notes that 94% of children in detention in NT are aboriginal. This is true but makes report into another chapter in 'Aboriginal resistance' game. Commission says aborigines have suffered from 'colonisation and loss of culture and land' which reduced their capacity to participate fully in their own lives and community. However the most troubled young people come from groups whose European contact was most recent; who retained their language (which is inadequate in modern world); and retained their land (which is almost useless as an economic base). Commission suggests that past inquiries have not stopped the deterioration in child protection and youth detention system in NT. The numbers apprehended / receiving child protection services / potentially harmed has risen. Is this a fault of the 'system', or in the lives of some aborigines? Insular aboriginal communities have been blighted for years but this fact was hidden by aboriginal elders and politicians. There are over 1000 aboriginal communities in NT - and most are isolated. Commission will recommend dealing with isolation issues - eg with public transport (to 1000 communities?).  Health issues are a major feature of report. This issue grows with every inquiry - as do the list of programs to deal with it. Commission was told by communities and experts that it is important to maintain connection with land and culture as a protective factor for young aborigines. Is this a culture that endorses: violence to settle disputes; bludging off family; sorcery; and forced teenage marriage to old men?. Pat Anderson (author of Little Children are sacred) suggested that 'traditional kin-based Aboriginal law is closer to a conventional constitution tht it was to Western law which can be changed by governments. She suggests Aborigines already have a complex legal system which should be seen as equal to Western system. It involves spearing, hearsay evidence and payback. If Commission wants to get beyond conditions in facilities and staff training into anthropology, it should trace the lives of Aborigines who have succeeded despite 'colonisation and loss of culture and land' [1

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A Smarter Approach to Reinvesting?

A Smarter Approach to Reinvesting? - email sent 17/9/16

Dr Tom Calma
University of Canberra

Re: Reinvesting in a smarter approach to youth justice, The Australian, 16/9/16

Your article suggested reducing imprisonment by reinvestment of money currently spent on prisons into community services and support – especially in Aboriginal communities.

I should like to suggest for your consideration that there are limited benefits from programs whose effect is to make Aboriginal communities dependent on yet another type of social welfare. A more fundamental approach, which should be even more effective in achieving the benefits sought through reinvestment in community services while also freeing Aboriginal communities from the distorting effects of welfare dependence, is outlined in Northern Territory Child Protection and Youth Detention Royal Commission: The Risk of a Cover-up.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations

John Craig

Cultural Factors and the Overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in Prison

Cultural Factors and the Overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in Prison - email sent 30/10/16

Australian Law Reform Commission

It was recently reported (see outline here) that the Federal Attorney-General (George Brandis) has asked the Commission to ‘examine the factors leading to the overrepresentation of indigenous Australians in prison’.

On the basis of a long term involvement in the study of relationships between societies’ cultures and their prospects of achieving economic and political process (see Competing Civilizations, 2001+) I have put forward suggestions about the need to consider the implications of the traditional cultures in Australia’s indigenous communities in relation to: (a) their prospects for advancement generally; and (b) the high rates of incarceration that Australians with indigenous ancestry suffer. The latter was written in the context of the issues being addressed by the Northern Territory Child Protection and Youth Detention Royal Commission.

I should like to submit that (for reasons like those submitted to the Northern Territory Royal Commission) the key issue that the Australian Law Reform Commission needs to investigate in relation to reducing the high rates of indigenous incarceration generally is the constraints that aspects of traditional cultures impose on individuals and communities in achieving success in the modern world and the consequent high incidence of disadvantage and social dysfunction.

John Craig

What is Racism - and is Bill Leak a 'Controversialist' or a 'Realist'?

What is Racism - and is Bill Leak a 'Controversialist' or a 'Realist'? - email sent 3/11/16

Professor Janna Thompson,
Latrobe University

Re: What is racism - and is Bill Leak a 'controversialist' or a racist?, The Conversation, 2/11/16

There is a need for a complete rethink of the nature of racism in modern Australia.

Your article sought to examine the nature of racism and to determine whether Bill Leak’s cartoon in which “A policeman tells a drunken Aboriginal father to take responsibility for his child. But the man can’t even remember his son’s name” should be seen to be racist. It concluded that, though Bill Leak is not racist, he was wrong to presume that all the troubles of aboriginal youth could be blamed on irresponsible parents.

On the basis of a long term involvement in the study of relationships between societies’ cultures and their prospects of achieving economic and political progress (see Competing Civilizations, 2001+) I have put forward suggestions about the need to consider the implications of indigenous communities’ traditional cultures in relation to: (a) their prospects for advancement generally; and (b) the high rates of incarceration that Australians with indigenous ancestry suffer.

The latter was written in the context of the issues being addressed by the Northern Territory Child Protection and Youth Detention Royal Commission – which was also the context to Bill Leake’s cartoon. My NT Commission comments were accompanied by an outline of suggestions from diverse points of view about the causes of the problems experienced by children in indigenous communities. The latter included many suggestions (including some from Australians with indigenous ancestry) that dysfunctions in their communities (one of which Bill Leak’s cartoon had portrayed) were a significant factor. One article had noted that:

Bill Leake's controversial cartoon was described by WA's police commissioner as an accurate reflection of the everyday refusal of aboriginal fathers to take responsibility for their children (Laurie V., Bill Leak 18C cartoon accurate, says WA Police Commissioner, The Australian, 21/10/16)

Thus the question that needs to be considered is whether Bill Leake is a ‘controversialist’ or a ‘realist’? It also highlights the importance of the core question considered in your article: ‘What is racism?’.

Your article drew attention to, and endorsed, a dictionary definition of racism:

“A racist is someone who both believes that people of a particular racial or cultural group are inferior or inherently bad and who deliberately and persistently attacks them verbally or physically, or seeks to denigrate, expel or eliminate them.”

I should like to submit that in Australia today the most significant racism is directed against non-indigenous Australians (eg by alleging that their racism is: (a) mainly responsible for the problems that Australians with indigenous ancestry experience; or (b) the only issue that needs to be considered in relation to expressions of concern about Islamic influences in Australia – eg see Racism Is Unlikely to Help David Jones or Indigenous Reconciliation and Dismissing Political Opponents as 'Racists' is Part of the Problem, Not a Solution).

The problems that indigenous youth suffer has arguably much less to do with outsiders’ racism than with the constraints that their communities’ traditional worldviews impose on achieving success in the modern world and the consequent high incidence of disadvantage and social dysfunction in those communities.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations

John Craig

Is Noel Pearson’s Attack on ‘Racist ABC’ Unjustified?

Is Noel Pearson’s Attack on ‘Racist ABC’ Unjustified? - email sent 23/11/16

Quentin Dempster,
New Daily

Re: Noel Pearson’s attack on ‘racist ABC’ unjustified, New Daily, 22/11/16

Your article suggested that Noel Pearson was incorrect in claiming that the ABC, and diverse other groups, are ‘addicted to the pain of Indigenous Australians’.

Extract from New Daily report on Pearson’s statements: Indigenous leader Noel Pearson has described the ABC as a racist organisation that is addicted to the pain of Indigenous Australians. Pearson, speaking at the launch of former prime minister Paul Keating’s biography, also criticised “ignorant ministers” ,”malign bureaucrats” and “provincial apparatchiks” who, he says, ruin promising reforms “aided and abetted” by the media. “Not the least the country’s miserable, racist national broadcaster: a spittoon’s worth of perverse people willing the wretched to fail,” he said in Sydney on Monday. “They need blacks to remain aliened from mothers’ bosoms, incarcerated in legions, leading short lives of grief and tribulation – because if it were not so, against whom could they direct their soft bigotry of low expectations?” “About whom could they report of misery and bleeding tragedy?”

While I have no special insights into Mr Pearson’s reasons for making those allegations, I have to suggest that your article demonstrated the validity of his claim.

Your article asked whether there might be some ‘white patronising righteousness’ about the ABC’s editorial judgment. It then documented a large number of occasions on which the ABC has exposed ‘institutional or genocidal racism or exploitation’. This, your article implied, clearly demonstrated the ABC’s lack of ‘white patronising righteousness’.

This fully justifies Mr Pearson’s accusation. The implication is that Australians with indigenous ancestry suffer significant disadvantage simply because of ‘racism or exploitation’ by nasty non-indigenous Australians. And those who expose the nasties’ ‘racism or exploitation’ then preen themselves as the ‘good guys’. The problem is that they are not.

They are in fact blocking attempts to deal with the main causes of ongoing indigenous disadvantage – namely the world-views embodied in traditional cultures that make it impossible for many / most Australians with indigenous ancestry to get the good education that is needed for success in the modern world and thus to escape from chronic disadvantage (see The Need to Review Indigenous Worldviews).

If there was not a complete absence of ‘white patronising righteousness’ in politically-correct organisations such as the ABC, there would be some recognition of the fact that people’s worldviews / cultures are a major determinant of their ability to be materially successful and that the cultural traditions that Europeans brought to Australia were the basis of their success. A complete refusal to consider the practical consequences of culture has characterised Australia’s highly dysfunctional approach to multiculturalism. In practice this means that that Australian’s with indigenous ancestry have been left to cope within the framework of their traditions rather than being systematically informed about alternatives that might help.

As indicated I don’t have any insider insight into the logic of Mr Pearson’s claims – but I do submit that what he said can be justified. As your article concluded: ‘the facts of continuing Aboriginal dispossession and disadvantage require a more intellectually honest and tougher editorial judgment’. If only there had been some sign of this in organisations like the ABC.

John Craig

Creating Chaos in Indigenous Affairs?

Creating Chaos in Indigenous Affairs? - email sent 23/2/17

Stephen Fitzpatrick,
The Australian

Re: New day dawning as Turnbull pushes grassroots agenda, The Australian, 18/2/17 (outlined here)

Broader inputs were clearly needed in relation to proposals for improving the process of facilitating indigenous advancement in Australia that your article mentioned. Those proposals involved:

  • establishing a new panel of advisers to the Prime Minister;
  • seeking greater engagement through that panel with leaders involved with non-governmental initiatives in communities;
  • establishing an indigenous productivity commissioner; and
  • (perhaps) creating a parliamentary group to represent the interests of Australians with indigenous ancestry.

However as Senators McCarthy and Dodson indicated, the new panel would have no clear brief.

The panel would apparently be expected to both: (a) mobilize grass-roots advice to government; and (b) be a clearing house to coordinate initiative by community leaders. In my early career I was involved with Queensland’s 1970s’ Regional Coordination Councils which also had dual advise government / coordinate action roles. Those on the ground saw the Councils mainly as a new way to lobby government for more resources, while government had apparently hoped that they were creating an arrangement to help people on the ground to organise themselves to ‘do things’ more effectively. Government soon lost interest in the Councils because the main outcome was demands for more government action and resources, rather than more effective on-the-ground initiative.

Another complexity is that it is unclear what relationship would exist between the new advisory panel (and its community-level connections) and government Indigenous Advancement Strategy programs in a financial, operational and policy sense. This needs to be clear because:

  • Significant public resources have been (and are being) provided under Indigenous Advancement Strategy programs, and (amongst other things) a depth of knowledge and a length of experience of government administrative and accountability arrangements is vital in managing such programs;
  • Those involved in community-level initiatives are unlikely to have that knowledge and experience. If they were to gain influence over the funding of operational programs through the panel, experience suggests [1] that funds could be diverted to favoured activities that do not accord with approved policies or were not subject to proper financial controls.

 Whistleblowers have suggested to Prime Minister's Department that a policy designed to reward indigenous business owners with easier access to government contracts is exposing taxpayers to fraud and corruption. Indigenous procurement policies are enriching a few already affluent indigenous business people, allowing large corporations to escape competitive tendering processes through sham joint ventures and allowing departmental staff to commit forms of corruption by handing profitable work to friends  [1]

  • The proposed arrangement could turn into a type of ‘Justice Reinvestment’ strategy whereby huge government resources would be made available to communities to do what their leaders hope will improve their positions. This could be dysfunctional because:
    • It would tend to create a form of ‘welfare dependency’ for communities as a whole in relation to whatever service leaders believe communities need. Counter-productive dependency often develops in relation to apparently-desirable assistance, eg consider: (a) individuals’ dependency on welfare; and (b) companies’ dependence on government ‘assistance’ where tariff protection is provided;
    • Populism, ie wide support for ideas that are neither practical or beneficial, has become a hazard for governments. Consider US President Trump’s difficulties in dealing with issues that are more complex than he or his supporters knew;
    • The process of establishing a new panel did not seem to have involved any consideration of the need to overcome what is arguably the main obstacle to indigenous advancement;
  • On the other hand, if the hazard of giving control of public finances to those with little experience is recognised the new arrangement is likely to empower the bureaucrats who are knowledgeable of the requirements of government administration and accountability to exert behind the scenes influence over community-level initiatives, and the ‘bureaucratic’ (ie political accountability) requirements they would be obliged to introduce could cause the latter to become less effective;
  • It is unclear what criteria would be used by the proposed 'indigenous productivity commissioner';
  • In terms of policies, some bureaucrats who have administered the Indigenous Advancement Strategy will have gained useful policy insights. How would such insights be brought together with those of the new panel? Would one group assess the other’s advice and pass on their interpretation to government, or would both report independently? If so, how would a coordinated policy position be determined?

The other proposals your article mentioned (ie constitutional recognition and the creation of a special parliamentary group) would give special rights and roles to Australians with a particular racial heritage (see Recognizing What? , 2015). Arrangements that do not involve ongoing racism would seem be more likely to gain public support (see 'Recognising Aboriginal peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism?, 2010).

The changed arrangements for dealing with indigenous affairs that are being considered need much broader inputs than they have had to date as the basis for a fundamental rethink.

 John Craig

Outline of New day dawning as Turnbull pushes grassroots agenda, The Australian, 18/2/17

Malcolm Turnbull’s hand-picked indigenous advisors will first have to wind back the damage caused by Tony Abbott's relationship with his former chief councilor (Warren Mundine). The six person council met after a disappointing ‘Closing the Gap’ report. But amending community dissatisfaction with the previous 12 member body established in 2013 and the $4.8bn Indigenous Advancement Strategy which followed. New council member Roy Ah-See says that there is a need for credibility with people on the ground. He has experience of necessary engagement with people on the ground. No one believes previous efforts were anything but well intentioned – as they sought to promote indigenous economic advancement rather than presume that ATSI Australians were inextricably mired in disadvantage. But problems have been exposed with the government’s approach. Educationalist (Chris Sara) argues that the need is to ‘do things with us, not to us’. He believes that Turnbull is serious in wanting policy to come from the grass-roots not from Canberra and wants the council to be a clearinghouse rather than a central committee. There is a need to draw more on National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. Ken Wyatt (Australia’s first indigenous minister) sees Abbott’s council as being too autocratic. There was excellent advice at that table – but Aboriginal community saw it as being from just one or two people. Addressing a Congress-led coalition (Redfern Alliance) Malcolm Turnbull endorsed ‘more community-driven local decision-making models’. Advisory Council members (Andrea Mason) noted the vast amount of corporate memory in the groups making up the alliance. The Prime Minister also praised Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly (a policy making body in northern NSW) and the Empowered Communities model of local governance. Ian Anderson (Melbourne Uni) was appointed to run indigenous affairs (becoming Australia’s most senior indigenous bureaucrat). An indigenous productivity commissioner (with $50m) budget will be established. Mr Turnbull was seen to see that blackfellas need to not just survive but to thrive. All six of the new panel are leaders – but leadership needs to be devolved with regular input from community leaders. The assumption that national (indigenous) leaders are the only authoritative leaders is wrong – as there are natural leaders doing things in all communities who are making a difference on the ground. Anthropologist / geographer Marcia Langton warned 10 years ago of the danger of seeing the First Peoples as virtual beings without power or efficacy – and having ‘Aboriginal leaders’ pull levers to draw settler Australians to them in a codependent relationship. That suited those who saw Aborigines as freaks. Turnbull is gathering around him those who will tell him who he should be listening to rather than those who will tell him what he wants to hear. The former PM relied on advice from just 1 or 2 people, but the Aboriginal community does not just have one leader who speaks on every issue. There are different nations in this country with different dialogues / languages / culture / laws. The elephant in the room is that Mr Turnbull’s panel remains, hand picked as was Mr Abbott’s. But it must not be like the last one ie moribund – lacking transparency / accountability back to the community. ALP senators (McCarthy and Dodson) are skeptical of the group as it was appointed from on high and has no clear brief. Top-down centralized processes leave indigenous nations as policy fringe-dwellers – and this makes ATSI people frustrated / angry. They need to be free from others having to constantly understand them. Another solution is being discussed in the context of efforts by the Referendum Council to devise a proposal for indigenous constitutional recognition. Noel Pearson’s proposal of a parliamentary body representing indigenous interests is being debated. An indigenous voice in parliament has been suggested to give First Nations peoples' a say in decision making related to their them and their rights. This would be a body that not be hand-picked by government. This would be a clear declaration of self-determination.

Perpetuating The Disadvantages that Australians with Indigenous Ancestry Have Endured?

Perpetuating The Disadvantages that Australians with Indigenous Ancestry Have Endured? - email sent 4/4/17

Stephen Fitzpatrick,
The Australian

Re : Northern Territory intervention just ‘another form of abuse’, The Australian, 3/4/17

Your article illustrates an apparent risk that many Australians could be locked into ongoing disadvantage by a lack of recognition that change is necessary for success and that traditional worldviews do not tend to contain the features needed to facilitate this. Discussions related to indigenous constitutional recognition that have not been accompanied by information to participants about the practical consequences of cultural differences have been anything but helpful.

My Interpretation of your article: The Northern Territory intervention failed the people it was supposed to protect and became another form of abuse according to Aboriginal academic (Pat Anderson) who was concerned that her Little Children are Sacred report was used to justify the 2007 intervention by police and troops. Ms Anderson co-chairs the referendum Council and was speaking a central Australian indigenous constitutional recognition meeting. Laws were enacted to manage income and restrict alcohol supposedly to protect vulnerable women and children – and it was believed that this unfairly labeled Aboriginal men as pedophiles and wife bashers. The numbers of children in out-of-home care rose. Ms Anderson said that the prime minister needs to stop the intervention. There is a link between that intervention and the constitution – because the Commonwealth’s extraordinary powers over the NT had made it possible. David Ross (Central Land Council) said that it was wrong to assume that the intervention was over. It was an invasion of people’s rights and privacy. Others suggested that linking an indigenous body to parliament (an option being considered in constitutional reform process) could have halted the intervention. The current gathering at Ross River is the first at which constitutional deliberations had taken account of first languages. There has been no indigenous participation in the lead up to the 1901 constitution. Many people in central Australia understand English as a second, third or fourth language according to Colleen Rosas (Aboriginal Interpreter Service). Interpreters had to break down the complexities of constitutional law down so that it could be understood. Language and law were at the heart of discussions with participants suggesting that traditional kin-based Aboriginal law was closer to a conventional constitution than was Western law – as the latter could be changed by governments. Ms Anderson said that aborigines already have a complex legal system which should be seen as equal to the Western system. Co-convener or Ross River meeting (Barbara Shaw) said that the ‘learn today, lead tomorrow’ approach of the many youth delegates boded well for the future.

There was undoubtedly value in the recent meeting to expose some Australians with indigenous ancestry in the Northern Territory to information about Western law and constitutions. However to overcome the chronic disadvantage that such people have frequently suffered requires much more – for reasons suggested in The Need to Review Indigenous Worldviews. Culture is the principal determinant of a communities’ ability to be successful by achieving social, economic and political progress. Progress requires change. Participants at the Ross River meeting noted the inflexibility of traditional kin-based Aboriginal law, and suggested that the fact that it could not be changed was an advantage. However the inflexibility of that law and the traditional relationships and responsibilities it prescribes are likely to be obstacles to the change that progress and prosperity in the modern world inevitably requires.

Those who participate in such meetings need to be made aware of the importance of a culture and worldview that facilitates change to overcoming the disadvantage that their communities have long endured.

John Craig

Responses from Les Malezer (reproduced with permission) and CPDS' Replies  

Email Response from Les Malezer to a copy of the above - 6/4/17

Your comment is positive in so far that it is indeed advantageous for various peoples to understand the worldview and laws of other peoples - such as western laws and constitutions - to promote awareness, tolerance and understanding. In this regard it should not be doubted that the Aboriginal peoples have much, much more awareness, tolerance and understanding of the Australian peoples than Australian peoples have of Aboriginal peoples. On this point it is a very one-sided situation.

However your positive comment is spoiled by the standpoint that Indigenous Peoples world views, and particularly the Aboriginal peoples world view, is inferior to the world views of 'western' societies. This also applies to your comment that culture is the 'principle determinant' to achieving social, economic and political development. Your standpoint is racially discriminatory and is not supported by the body of international law and governance. I will not go on to rationalise this statement.

I believe that perhaps the strongest indicator of superior societies is their longevity. In that regard we can see the rise and fall of many societies over the history of time. Perhaps the Greek and Roman empires are good examples where seemingly 'successful' societies fail to continue to develop and consequently collapse within themselves. In more modern times we have seen the European empires, which sought to colonise the world by the taking of lands, territories and resources and use slavery for economic advantage, collapse through continual wars including the two world wars. The more recent 'development' of societies is typified by cultures which now are severely threatened by nuclear arms, global warming, terrorism and mass population displacement, each of which can lead to collapse of societies.

So we can see that, when taking a more objective view of western development, the actual experience can perhaps be described in the longer term as hedonistic, gluttonous and rapacious; the very characteristics of failed societies of the past. Only time will tell, but we should not discount the reality of overpopulation, global pollution and diminishing resources. Of course the optimism of western society and development might offer us the future hope of colonising another world in the universe, but I do not see that as a marker of success.

On the other hand Aboriginal peoples have successfully survived for over 40,000 years in one of the harshest environments in the world. In the two centuries that western society has taken over the lands, territories and resources we have not seen any success in domesticating an Australian animal or farming and Australian plant. The introduced animals and plants are destroying the fragile environment through the loss of fertile soils and over exploitation of fresh waters, and this brings into question the superior world view of western society versus the world view of the Aboriginal peoples.

Development is now intended to be sustainable but capitalism is not.

CPDS' Reply - 6/4/17

Thanks for your feedback which I will reproduce on my web-site if you have no objection (ie with Perpetuating The Disadvantages that Australians with Indigenous Ancestry Have Endured? ).

Unfortunately culture IS the primary determinant a societies’ ability to achieve social, economic and political development – a point which is explored further in Culture Matters (2001+). There is certainly no international body of international law and governance which supports this - because there are been a blank refusal to even consider the effect culture has on societies’ potential for progress. That refusal to consider the issue has perpetuated the disadvantages facing indigenous peoples is argued further in UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage? (2007). Intentional ignorance in this area is a problem.

Your unwillingness to even try to rationalize your statement about this is also unhelpful in identifying which side of this debate is most realistic.

A failure to adapt is what causes species to become extinct. The same applies to societies. As you noted many societies that experienced success at one time have had trouble when they encountered challenges they could not handle – see note on human history. Neanderthal Man’s challenge from Homo Sapiens was an even earlier example. However the advantages that ‘fallen’ societies have had (eg classical Greece and Rome) can be copied by their successors. The disadvantages that ‘fallen’ societies suffered can be overcome by learning from those who challenged them (eg consider the outcome of the numerous invasions of Britain).

The advantages that Western societies gained in recent centuries came from drawing upon their own history, learning from others and gaining an extraordinary ability to learn and adapt. Britain did this first and was copied by others in Europe in various ways. Following World War 2 emphasis has been given to enabling other societies to succeed (eg by providing information and economic opportunities). Some societies (especially in East Asia) became successful to the point that that are challenging Western societies by reliance on their histories and emulating Western practices. As change has become increasingly rapid, societies with little willingness or ability to learn have suffered on the margins. Islamic societies are by far the most significant example (eg see Which Muslim Leaders are Our Best Allies?).

As you noted the modern world still has many challenges (eg overpopulation, resource constraints, climate change, terrorism and mass population movements, fragile environments, hedonism, gluttony). The question is what is the best way to meet such challenges. My suspicion is that an ability to learn to cope with a changing environment will prove more successful than a desire to live in ways that suited an unchanging environment or one that is quite different to that that existed in the past. New options to meet the challenges that exist are constantly being identified – and some (hopefully the best) are progressively implemented. And options exist to become even more effective in learning and adapting to meet such challenges. My suspicion also is that Western methods of meeting those challenges will prove more successful than those that have emerged in East Asia (eg see China as the Failing Hegemon: The Need for Global Cultural Understanding).

If unmet, current challenges could lead to a collapse in human populations (eg consider nuclear war or plagues from diseases that resist all antibiotics). The humanitarian Western-style system of international law and government that indigenous societies rely upon to allow themselves to live in ways that suited a past environment would cease to exist. Indigenous societies would confront an environment radically different to the one to which their traditional cultures were suited and have little capacity to learn to adapt. This does not have to happen. Many Australians with indigenous ancestry have proven able to adapt and succeed in an environment of rapid change. But to enable the majority to do so requires belated consideration of the practical consequences of culture.

Email Response from Les Malezer - 7/4/17

Thank you for your response to my comments. I am far from convinced by your citations, noting that you are only citing your own thoughts and not relying upon a more objective and wide body of opinion. While I appreciate philosophical consideration of the world and environment in which we live it is important also to be able to distinguish between objective views based upon a wide and balanced collection of views and the various opinions of just one person.

When you claim that there is 'a blank refusal to even consider the effect of culture has on societies' potential for progress' you are wrongly dismissing the relevant endless body of work generated over centuries. In my response I was pointing out that your opinion was not in any way backed by the global works on the topic, not that there was no attention to the topic.

Your jump to Neanderthal vs Homo Sapiens is folly as there is still a complete lack of understanding of the integration of these ancestors and certainly no basis for advancing your hypothesis.

My last comment in this communication is about the blind belief that western development will overcome the massive problems that are being created by unchecked human ravaging of the planet. It seems to be that western development is ignorant of and uncaring about the future effects of current practices and does not calculate these future results in the economic modelling it proclaims. Take global warming for instance.

CPDS Reply - 7/4/17

Thanks for your ‘last comment’ on the subject.

My thoughts on these issues are built on extensive study of available sources across a large range of disciplines. Thousands of relevant sources are outlined on my web-site in various places (eg consider examples of those that were documented on one part of my web-site prior to 2008). In the 1980s, because I had done years of work for Queensland Coordinator General on the different approach to economic strategy in Japan relative to Western societies, I had a unique opportunity to study the path to development of East Asian societies and reach conclusions (based on a filing cabinet full of relevant papers) which various Asia experts have seen to be significant. This then provided a foundation for considering cultural constraints on political and economic progress in other contexts. It also led to an invitation to present an address about the different paths to development of Western and East Asian societies and their relevance to Indonesia to a working group established by the Sultan of Jogjakarta (the cultural leader of the world's largest Muslim-majority society) to advise on development strategy.

It is unfortunate that you are unable to express a view about that issue. Your vague reference to an ‘endless body of work generated over centuries’ on the effect of culture on societies’ does not prove your assertions.

People have been ravaging their environments for a long time. Whether Neanderthal Man was driven to extinction by pre-historic Homo Sapiens is subject to debate (see note below), but many other species apparently were (eg consider the Holocene Extinction and the fate of Australia’s megafauna). Agriculture was developed about 12,000 years ago partly because hunter gathers put too much pressure on natural food sources – and agriculture in turn allowed massive increases in human pressure on the environment. Ancient agrarian civilizations failed because they reached environmental limits.

The Neanderthal Extinction Debate (note added later): Homo sapiens had a long interaction with Neanderthal man and conflict between them was not the cause of Neanderthal's extinction [1]. There are views that Neanderthals became extinct while homo sapiens did not because: (a) homo sapiens' superior intelligence made them more successful in adapting to changing circumstances [1]; (b) Neanderthals were as sophisticated as modern humans, preferred as mates and thus absorbed into larger homo sapiens' populations [1]; (c) early modern humans had division of labour and trade to improve their ability to cope with deficiencies while Neanderthals did not [1]; (d) Neanderthal's bodies were far less energy efficient and thus were less able to survive periods of scarcity [1].

It is a bit silly to suggest that Western societies have been environmentally uncaring. Where did current environmental movements and programs mainly originate? Most practical progress in dealing with environmental challenges has been achieved in Western contexts. I was involved with those promoting systematic consideration of environmental issues in Queensland’s Government in the early 1970s. Humanity faces very real environmental challenges (eg related to limits to fresh water supplies and declining biodiversity) . But the question remains, what is the best way to deal with this challenge? Reverting to hunter gatherer lifestyles might work for a total of (say) 25m people – but it won’t work for a world population of some 7bn. There are only something like 250,000 people worldwide who currently live such lifestyles.

In relation to climate change there seems to be increasing recognition that the related science is not as settled as has been constantly claimed (see Former President of Greenpeace Scientifically Rips Climate Change to Shreds ). That argument about the inadequacy of only considering possible anthropogenic causes of climate change parallels my similar suggestions in 2008. And I have been informally told that this issue now seems to be raising a lot of concern in scientific organisations such as CSIRO.

While you may like to believe that past paradigms are invariably correct, history does not suggest that this is true. The notion of falsificationism has become a recognised part of the philosophy of science (ie that theories can never be proven to be true – but at best recognised as not yet been shown to be false). And major paradigm shifts (which always seem to be strongly resisted) are anything but unknown in the history of science.


Why Doesn't the Referendum Council Consult the Electorate?

Why Doesn't the Referendum Council Consult the Electorate? - email sent 24/5/17

Gabrie Appleby and Sean Brennan

Re: The Long Road to Recognition, Inside Story, 19/5/17

Some of the core proposals the Council seems to believe it could get away with (ie constitutional recognition and the creation of a special parliamentary group) would give special rights and roles to Australians with a particular racial heritage (see Recognizing What?, 2015). Arrangements that do not involve ongoing racism would seem be more likely to gain public support (see 'Recognising Aboriginal peoples in the Constitution': More Symbolism?, 2010). The 1967 referendum was enthusiastic about including Australians with indigenous ancestry as ‘Australians’. I can’t see how a new referendum which casts them not as ‘Australians’ but as a special group that receives benefits at the expense of others would not fail.

The Referendum Council needs to consult with the electorate which will either accept or reject their proposal – not just those who want special privileges.

John Craig

The Reconciliation Council's Inadequate 'Reform' Proposal

The Reconciliation Council's Inadequate 'Reform' Proposal - email sent 28/5/17

Stephen Fitzpatrick,
The Australian

Re: PM Challenged to Deliver Indigenous Voice, Treaty’, Weekend Australian, 27/5/17

The Reconciliation Council has presented Australia’s political leaders with a ‘reform’ proposal that is unlikely to: (a) deliver the practical benefits most Australians with indigenous ancestry need; or (b) be accepted by the electorate. It would: (a) block practical improvements behind a wall of ‘indigenous politics’; and (b) embed ‘racism’ in the constitution (rather than eliminating it).

My Interpretation of your article: Indigenous leaders have issued a united challenge to Malcolm Turnbull to: (a) back a constitutionally recognised Aboriginal ‘voice’ to parliament to influence legislation; and (b) a separate process leading to treaties. Minimalist symbolic changes to the Constitution were rejected. Indigenous leaders called for a referendum to provide constitutional reforms to empower their people and take a rightful place in their country. It was presented as ‘politically viable’ by its backers – as it would provide indigenous voice in nation’s affairs without forcing a constitutional debate about a treaty. Statement called for establishment of a new body (Makarrata Commission) to supervise agreement making or treaties between governments and first nations. ‘Truth telling about our history’ would not require constitutional acknowledgement. Makarrata refers to coming together after hostilities. A separate body to provide a ‘voice’ to parliament would be elected (to scrutinize legislation and make recommendations) would be established by Constitution. Noel Pearson suggested this was a viable alternative to constitutional provision against racial discrimination – a proposal which has been abandoned. It is neither an extreme left nor an extreme right view – but seeks to find a ‘sweet spot’. Damien Freemen (co-founder with Liberal MP Julian Lesser of conservative Uphold and Recognise group) said the proposal was compatible with ongoing legal sovereignty of the crown. Greg Craven (ACU) said the proposal would more closely integrate indigenous community with the rest of the nation, and that who opposed indigenous recognition for fear of racial division had a weak argument. Shireen Morris (a lawyer who worked with Mr Pearson) said: (a) the proposal reflected the ‘sensible centre’; (b) the idea of a first people’s voice in constitution was developed with constitutional conservatives to address their concerns; and (c) it would be constitutionally safe and would not lead to legal uncertainty. There would be no uncertain words in the constitution and the Makaratta Commission would be established separately by legislation. Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten will have to decide soon whether to embrace the proposed reforms. The document states: ‘We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’. A committee will devise a referendum question by August. Although the Referendum Council’s work is completed the establishment new committees will present challenges to politicians inclined to take over the process. Indigenous Australia sees this as the start not the end of the process. The Referendum Council Chairman (Mark Leiber) said he hoped the declarations showed the way forward for ATSI people. After years of ATSI people’s concern about being ‘recognised’, it sought ‘reform’. Mr Pearson said that there was political and legal logic in giving indigenous people a voice in their own affairs – as this would shine a light on any discrimination. If parliament is to make laws about ATSI people and executive government makes policies, there needs to be a vibrant to and forth. Mr Pearson, who has long pushed ATSI people to take responsibility for their own affairs, noted the structural disempowerment that they had faced. Recognise was not the wrong idea – but reform had to be substantive. A constitutional lawyer, George Williams, said the main issue was whether the two key elements of the proposal (ie a representative body within the constitution and the Makarrata Commission to seek treaties) could be disaggregated.

Your article noted that Mr Noel Pearson (who has pushed ATSI people to take responsibility for their own affairs) argues that they have faced structural disempowerment. However the Reconciliation Councils’ proposals would merely create machinery to perpetually debate ‘indigenous politics’, and would prevent practical progress in overcoming their main source of disempowerment – ie aspects of their traditional cultures (see The Need to Review Indigenous Worldviews). The latter drew attention to the need for effective ways to achieve social and economic change to achieve success in the modern world. Real improvements in the position of Australians with indigenous ancestry won’t be achieved by debates about ‘rights’ but rather by identifying and overcoming the limitations in traditional worldviews. However this was not considered by the Reconciliation Council - presumably because the ‘rights-oriented’ UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was one of its guiding principles.

Problems with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: The Constitutional Reform Guiding Principles adopted by the Reconciliation Council were outlined in Indigenous leaders call for treaty in Aboriginal reform, The Australian, 26/5/17. One of those principles was that reform should ‘advance self-determination and the standards established under the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of indigenous Peoples’. Unfortunately there were severe problems with that ‘rights oriented’ Declaration in terms of improving the position of indigenous peoples in practice (see UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage? 2007). The Declaration: (a) sought multiple incompatible goals; (b) inhibited indigenous peoples’ economic advancement; (c) perpetuated other cultural problems; (d) encouraged an unhealthy focus on (perhaps) ancient grievances; and (e) potentially increased natural resource constraints.

Background to the Above Suggestions: In the 1980s I worked for Queensland Coordinator Generals on different approaches to economic strategy. This led to a unique opportunity to study the path to development of East Asian societies and reach conclusions that various Asia experts saw to be significant. This showed that: (a) such societies were unable to reliably use the rational / analytical methods of problem solving that had been the basis of rapid economic / political progress in Western societies because they lacked a liberal social foundation; and (b) the alternative methods (involving authoritarian ethnic social hierarchies) that were used were based on ancient Chinese cultural traditions. This then provided a foundation for considering cultural constraints on political and economic progress in (eg tribal) contexts where neither liberal Western nor traditional Chinese social foundations existed. It also led to a 2002 invitation to present an address about the different paths to development of Western and East Asian societies and their relevance to Indonesia to a working group that the Sultan of Jogjakarta (the cultural leader of the world’s largest Muslim-majority state) set up to advise on development strategy.

Comments on earlier speculations about the Reconciliation Council’s likely recommendations (see Creating Chaos in Indigenous Affairs) highlighted the immense difficulties of achieving practical progress through anything like the institutional arrangements that Council has now suggested.

[Further Note: There was media coverage of a forum on aboriginal housing in the Northern Territory later in May 2017. Complaints were widely expressed about the NT Government's failure to meet its obligation to provide housing. A NT Government representative suggested that there were difficulties in doing so due to legal obstacles to getting the required land. No one seemed interested in what would be needed for aboriginal people to be able to provide housing for themselves rather than perpetually remaining disadvantaged and dependent].

Your article suggested that a lawyer, Shirleen Morris, argued that that the proposal would provide legal certainty. This is not correct. The legal outcome would depend on what (if any) ‘treaty’ was arranged – and the Reconciliation Council has proposed that a Makaratta Commission would have total control of the process for negotiating this. It would be foolish to have no idea what sort of treaty such a Commission might seek (and what effect it might have on crown sovereignty) before proceeding.

Your article also reported a suggestion (by Damien Freeman of Uphold and Recognise) that the arrangement was compatible with the ongoing legal sovereignty of the crown – even though the first of the guiding principles adopted by the Reconciliation Council was not to diminish ATSI sovereignty. The Recognition Council is now being wound up but it has established an ongoing committee to define a referendum question. This makes it difficult for Australia’s political leaders (who represent the majority of Australians) to play any role in doing so. Squeezing Australia’s constitutional governments out of the processes of defining a Constitutional question and of defining a possible ‘treaty’ is incompatible with maintaining crown sovereignty.

The Recognition Council held discussions with conservative constitutional experts to reach what is seen as a ‘middle ground’ compromise. This was inadequate. The electorate is unlikely to support the envisaged changes (see Why Doesn't the Referendum Council Consult the Electorate? ). For example, the 1967 referendum succeeded because it was viewed as including Australians with indigenous ancestry as ‘Australians’. For years there has been public support to seek ways to eliminate racism from the constitution yet the Council’s reform proposal is based on including it. AFL crowds have expressed vocal opposition to overt racism (see Racism Is Unlikely to Help David Jones or Indigenous Reconciliation, 2015). And it was recently suggested that:

“Ever since, and as we approach the 1967 referendum’s 50th anniversary, it has been popularly remembered as the moment when Aboriginal people won equal rights ….” - even though it was not as simple as that (McGregor R., ‘Right wrongs, write Yes’: what was the 1967 referendum all about?, The Conversation, 26/5/17)

The attempt to define a way of constitutionally recognising Australians with indigenous ancestry through the so-called ‘Reconciliation Council’ has been anything but a success. There is a pressing need for fundamental reform – but this needs to start with a study of, and efforts to find ways to overcome, the problems that Australians with indigenous ancestry experience because of their traditional worldviews / cultures.

John Craig