That Aboriginal issues became a government priority this election year was unexpected, as such issues are widely believed to be a recipe for electoral defeat. However, a humanitarian crisis in the remote Aboriginal areas of the Northern Territory has provoked unilateral intervention by the government – a move bitterly opposed by most Ab original leaders, who have said that it amounts to re voking their people’s right to self-determination.
Neglect and abuse of Aboriginal children in remote areas has now grown to such levels that the government felt compelled to take control of large parts of the self-governing Northern Territory, where a large number of remote communities are located. This is not a recent development, as Australia has failed for decades to correct my people’s exclusion and disadvantage, inherited from this country’s overtly racist past.
Since the 1960s, Australians from the left and right have altered their views about racism for the better, and now understand that overt racism, at least, is unacceptable.
Nevertheless, while leading conservatives and liberals today are avowed opponents of racism, the polarity between those who consider racism a serious problem and those who do not is generally seen as a left-right split. This is simplistic. Non-indigenous Australians hold an arc of views from denial and moral vanity to acknowledgement and responsibility; Aboriginal views range from separatism and victimhood to pride and principled defence.
A large constituency denies that the treatment of indigenous people was as bad as historians have made out. They deny that racism is a serious problem and are defensive about their own identity and heritage. The political right has deliberately galvanised this defensiveness by misrepresenting the progressive position as being about guilt, rather than what the then prime minister Paul Keating referred to as “open hearts” in his landmark speech in Sydney’s Redfern Aboriginal community in 1992.
The second major constituency is morally vain about race and history. Its members largely come from the liberal left and are certain about what is morally right and wrong and are ready to ascribe blame. Their primary concern is neither the plight nor the needs of those who suffer oppression, but their view of themselves and their belief in their superiority over their opponents. This constituency contributes most to, and actively supports, the outlook that casts indi genous people as victims. They have no understanding of how destructive and demeaning this characterisation is. The telling catchphrase with which they rebuke their opponents, whenever there is a suggestion about the personal responsibility of indigenous people, is: “Don’t blame the victims.”
But there is a far better position for non- indigenous people to take: that of acknowledgement, of the past and of its legacy in the present. Such a position recognises that racism is not a contrivance, that indigenous people endure hurt and confront barriers as a result of racism, and that this needs to be answered and countered.
The largest constituency on the indigenous side also subscribes to victimhood. People object to my interpretation of the dimensions of victimhood because what many of our people regard as radical, separatist and resistance politics, I say is victim politics. What may have once been truly radical – for example, establishing a “Tent Embassy” outside the Canberra parliament in 1972 – can degenerate into a sad symbol of defeatism, as is plain with the squalid portable buildings at the Tent Embassy site today. We pay a high price for casting ourselves as victims. The “long-grassers” and under-the-bridge dwellers are the most visible, end-stage subscribers to this self-harming tactic. It damages our people wherever they are – from the young student who believes that academic achievement at school is “acting white” to those who tolerate domestic violence (though it is an abuse) because it is “understandable” given the history of the people concerned.
It is a terrible thing to encourage people to see themselves as victims. It concedes defeat, and it can literally kill. Victims do not take responsibility for what they eat and drink, for their health and mental well-being; their families become dysfunctional and their children are damaged.
We need a proud and principled defence against racism. Many Aboriginal people possess this dignity and strength. We must make it the dominant outlook of our people and abolish the absurd notion that “my rights depend on you fulfilling your responsibilities to me”.
Opinion may be divided about the government emergency intervention, but no one denies that there is a crisis in remote Aboriginal regions which the nation has so far failed to deal with. That we have allowed the situation to deteriorate to this extent is evidence of the nation’s inability to develop workable policies.
Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute. A fuller version of this piece can be read in Griffith Review 16: Unintended Consequences