Larissa Behrendt on Indigenous Disadvantage

Attention Conservation Notice: Larissa Behrendt, a professor of Law at University of Technology, Sydney gave a short, sharp and superb talk (see disclaimer at bottom of this tl;dr post) in Melbourne about some of the harmful rhetoric around Indigenous Affairs.

She only had twenty minutes, so she kept herself to the following three examples of harmful rhetoric. In each case she was at pains to explain that all this was not something the evil Coalition (of Liberals and National Party) had foisted upon the country over the strenuous opposition of the Australian Labor Party

“Self-determination has failed.”
Rhetoric accepted by the Left as well as the Right. John Howard (Australian Prime Minister 1996 -2007) came in with all this rhetoric about “practical reconciliation.”
Behrendt counterposed the listlessness and sense of helplessness and hopelessness in one town (Wilcanya) and another (Menindee). [Gadzooks, but in the second it was the women who were keeping the show on the road, suggesting and implementing things that helped school attendance, kept crime under control etc.]

“Rights framework is a failure/luxury of elites/not connected to the real world.”
She gave a few hackles-raising examples from the crude “Northern Territory Intervention.”
People who’d been in charge of their own incomes for ever, who had no kids, suddenly found half their income ‘quarantined’. And because the Racial Discrimination Act had been suspended, their right of appeal these decisions to, say, the Human Rights Commission, had been suspended too. The ultimate in unaccountable Government. [Since 1967 Aborigines have been counted as citizens. Lucky them. They. Have. Rights. Unless the government of the day decides otherwise.]

“Aborigines need to “take responsibility” and have “mutual obligations.”

Again, started under Howard, but continues down unto this day. One of Kevin Rudd’s brainwaves, a bit of a rod for Labor’s own back, is the “report card” on “Closing the Gap” which is read out on first day of Parliament. Since the Gap hasn’t been Closed, it’s focus on the money spent. This year Julia Gillard came out with “Until Aborigines put down the bottle and send their kids to school there’ll be no improvement.”

Larissa said she felt the Prime Minister’s focus on Aborigines as a “problem” was unhelpful to dialogue in two ways. (this next is a summary – “If we’re to have indigenous people centrally involved in policy formulation and implementation, there has to be TRUST. Statements like that are destructive of trust. When we look at what does work around school attendance there is lots of evidence”
She gave examples like
- breakfast and lunch programmes
- elders in residence in schools
- aboriginal teaching aids
- curriculum that engages children (is culturally appropriate. (She was at pains to say this is NOT about rejecting reading and writing, learning English).
She said many of these ideas had come from the community itself.
She returned to her point that not all communities should be tarred with the same brush. She pointed out that some communities have given up on waiting for the government and are getting on with solutions themselves. She said that while governments dismiss the capacity and creativity of communities to devise their own solutions, they won’t get anywhere.
She said that there was no evidence linking welfare payments to school attendance works, and some evidence that it doesn’t, merely further stressing dysfunctional families.

She pointed out that anemia rates in the under fives are climbing, and that malnutrition in the Northern Territory is climbing (though apparently they’ve now stopped releasing the figures!)

She closed her speech by saying that “we need the hardest discussions where the rhetoric is loudest”.

My take on what she was saying – that going in with a “big stick” is counter-productive. That you needed to listen to the locals, find out from them what they wanted, what worked. Yep, but that would be treating them as human beings, and States aren’t good at treating people (except for rich white men) as human beings. The history of White settlement has been – with a few honorable exceptions – treating the original inhabitants as objects of our bullets, our pity, our condescension and latterly of pity. We do not want to see the Other as subjects, for to do so – to admit them as fully human – would mean we had to acknowledge the injury we have done them. And if we started treating Indigenous communities with respect, it would cost votes in the ‘burbs, where they ain’t treated with much respect either.

There was only time for two questions. The first from me: I said thanks for the enlightening speech, that it seemed there were no votes in treating Aborigines like proper human beings and what did she think the role was for the Greens/Socialists etc.
She pointed out that there had been a groundswell of people who did want to do the right thing (e.g. the reconciliation march across Sydney Harbour Bridge), and pointed out again that these policies were uncontested by Labor in opposition, which kinda sorta indicated to indigenous leaders that once elected it wouldn’t be so bad… and then was. The ALP, she felt, had lost its soul. She praised the Greens for raising the questions about where the Housing money went ($165 million of a few houses!!).

The second “question” was rambling and at the same time thoroughly understandable. The speaker (old white male) started by doing that fake humility “I’m not of a public speaker.” What they usually mean when they say that is they’re not much of a LISTENER. And so it came to pass in this case. Painting himself as an aggrieved tax-payer (the only way that the rich and powerful can claim a slice of the “victim cake”) he finally (as in, had to be told to ask a question) came out with something about not seeing people take responsibility. Basically, he’s a classic example of why there are no votes in treating Aborigines like human beings – the burbs are full of embittered Right Wing Authoritarians who no not only don’t know their history (and don’t want to), but are incapable – on current evidence – of actually hearing what the person 5 metres from them is saying.
Larissa was clearly – and justifiably – irritated, but kept her composure and re-iterated her points, throwing in some new stuff too. She pointed to the fact that there were indeed Aboriginal communities trying to take responsibility, in the face of typical government incompetence, incomprehension and condescension. Mr Oppressed then tried to hog more time by asking her how it came to be that she was educated. Sense of entitlement much?

So, in summary – great speaker, great event, most of the seventy plus people there will have come away – the ones with the hearts and ears open anyway – with a lot more knowledge than they went in.

Disclaimer: I think Larissa Behrendt is bloody great. I’ve read her stuff in “Arena” and her essay “Charting democracy and Aboriginal rights in Australia’s psychological terra nullius” in “New voices for social democracy, labor essays 1999-2000” is must-read stuff.

The Wheeler Centre is running these “lunchbox soapbox” events with “very smart people sounding off on issues.” It’s a brilliant idea, and – on the extensive evidence I’ve seen (one talk) – well executed.

Links to some of her essays

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