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Rethinking Social Justice

From 'peoples' to 'populations'

Rethinking Social Justice by Timothy Rowse
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In the early 1970s, Australian governments began to treat Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as 'peoples' with capacities for self-government. Forty years later, confidence in Indigenous self-determination has been eroded by accounts of Indigenous pathology, of misplaced policy optimism and persistent socio-economic 'gaps'. In this collection of new and revised essays, Tim Rowse accounts for this shift by arguing that Australian thinking about 'Indigenous' is a continuing, unresolvable tussle between the idea of 'peoples' and 'population'. Rowse's essays offer snapshots of moments in the last forty years in which we can see these tensions: between honouring the heritage and quantifying the disadvantage, between acknowledging colonisation's destruction and projecting Indigenous recovery from it. Rowse asks not only 'Can a settler colonial state instruct the colonised in the arts of self-government?', but also, 'How could it justify doing anything less?' Timothy Rowse is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Western Sydney. He has taught at Macquarie University, the Australian National University and Harvard University. Since the early 1980s, his research has focused on the relationships between Indigenous and other Australians.
Aboriginal Studies Press; August 2012
ISBN 9781922059185
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Title: Rethinking Social Justice
Author: Timothy Rowse
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This book is a series of historical observations, not a work of policy advocacy. My intention is to investigate recent ways of thinking of Indigenous Australians as different and as deserving of more just treatment. In my first chapter, I set up a framework for thinking about Australian public reasoning about social justice for Indigenous Australians. I suggest that one way to understand Australian policy towards, and debate about, Indigenous Australians since the late 1950s is to see it as mingling two ways of recognising them: as ‘peoples’ and as ‘populations’. We think of Indigenous Australians as ‘peoples’ (the Aborigines and the Torres Strait Islanders) who have rights (to land and self-government); in seeing them as ‘peoples’, we attribute to them self-governing capacities — whether recently acquired or arising from their heritage (their customary law). At the same time, we see them as ‘populations’, defined sub-sets of the ‘Australian population’, quantified in terms of socio-economic characteristics and comparable to the ‘Australian population’. Each of these recognitions carries with it a notion of social justice. Between ‘peoples’ there can be negotiated political relationships; between populations there can be measured statistical (dis)parity, in respect to this or that socio-economic variable. The dissonance between these recognitions and these two conceptions of social justice animates and at times confuses the rhetorical landscape of contemporary Indigenous affairs policy. In Chapter 1, I point to some of the problems that arise in both recognitions. Although I do not advocate one over the other, this book is an invitation to reflection on the ways that these two concepts of Indigenous collectivity shape understandings of the past and the future, and thus help us to consider what is owed to Indigenous Australians in the name of social justice. The recognition of Indigenous Australians as ‘peoples’ had to overcome a firm conviction that Aboriginal ‘society’ had disappeared or would very soon be gone. Paul Hasluck — with characteristic lucidity — argued in the 1950s that a policy of ‘assimilation’ was the right response to this decline; with the public’s help, governments would manage Indigenous Australians’ transition humanely. In Chapters 2 and 3, I highlight the critiques that two anthropologists mounted against ‘assimilation’. AP Elkin and TGH Strehlow argued that ‘assimilation’ as practised by the governments of Australia had become a program for the destruction of Aboriginal culture. Chapter 2 contrasts two conceptions of ‘assimilation’ that competed for the endorsement of liberal intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s: Hasluck’s ‘ juridical’ individualism that sought to raise the individual from the mire of a decadent Aboriginal milieu versus Elkin’s Durkheimian respect for Aboriginal ‘group life’. Warning Hasluck not to overlook the historical and cultural necessity of the ‘group’, Elkin addressed the ambivalence of Hasluck’s social policy: was Aborigines’ sense of solidarity with one another entirely a handicap, or was it in some ways a strength? Arguments by anthropologists such as Elkin helped to awaken policy intellectuals to the value of Aborigines’ unextinguished capacities for collective action.1 When invited to advise the Australian government on policy, HC Coombs endorsed that affirmation of Indigenous capacity. As I show in Chapter 3, Coombs was unable to enlist the support of anthropologist TGH Strehlow, even though Strehlow had been criticising the cultural coerciveness of ‘assimilation’. While Strehlow’s reasons for distancing himself from Coombs’ faith in Aboriginal capacity had much to do with his sense of his own responsibility as a trustee of Indigenous knowledge, his alienation from Coombs also points to a genuine dilemma for the advocates of ‘people-hood’: in what terms should a distinctive Indigenous modernity be imagined? Is the mobilisation of Indigenous political capacity possible? And do the unprecedented projects of ‘selfdetermination’ turn Indigenous heritage into something that is alien to Indigenous people?2 When legislators sought reform, they reasoned publicly about social justice. In South Australia’s 1966 legislation to vest land in Aboriginal bodies, the Dunstan government was the first in Australia to establish contemporary forms of legislated title and to postulate Aborigines (at least those in that State) as a ‘people’. Why and how did this government do this? In Chapter 4, I elucidate the notion of ‘people-hood’ evinced in South Australia’s parliamentary debates about the 1966 Aboriginal Land Trust Bill. Unlike later legislators of land rights in the Northern Territory, the South Australians did not draw on knowledge of Aborigines’ classical culture when evoking Aboriginal entitlement and capacity; rather, ‘people-hood’ was an implication of the government’s desires to complete a truncated jurisdiction and to appease alienated (and potentially alienated) clients of government ‘advancement’ programs. The ‘Stolen Generations’ has emerged as a ‘people-hood’ identity — particularly for those excluded from ‘land rights’. In the public validation of that identity, it has been important to demonstrate that many were ‘stolen’. Chapter 5 reviews attempts to quantify the Stolen Generations. I argue that this is not possible, because the meaning of key terms remains in dispute, government records are defective, and the definition and size of the base ‘Aboriginal population’ are, arguably, unknown. An alternative to recognising the Stolen Generations as a proportion of a population is to honour them as an ‘ethical category’ — one way to think about Aborigines as a wronged ‘people’. When the Whitlam and Fraser governments took Indigenous Australians’ capacity for collective action seriously, the Commonwealth legislated in 1976 to enable the formation of Indigenous organisations; the Howard government rewrote this statute thirty years later, intending to make it less punitive and more tutelary in its mode of regulation. The Indigenous organisation has now emerged as a focus for anthropologists’ research. Chapter 6 reviews this body of work, arguing that ‘cultural authenticity’ has become less credible as a criterion for judging the effectiveness of the Indigenous organisation. The chapter hails the emergent Indigenous middle class, sketches its ethic and points to changes in the structure of Australian government that compel this class’s further acculturation to norms of good governance.3 The very idea of Indigenous corporate capacity has continued to attract scepticism in some quarters. There are commentators who label it ‘separatism’ or ‘exceptionalism’; in their writing, organised Indigenous self-assertion — along with the other entailments of ‘people-hood’ such as collective land title — are held up to populist ridicule and policymaker suspicion. When these insinuations circulate in the idiom of social science, the results can be potent. Chapter 7 examines Helen Hughes’ Lands of shame; the publication of this book in 2007 helped to legitimise the Howard government’s Northern Territory Emergency Intervention. I argue that in presenting Aboriginal leaders as ‘big men’, while urging Aborigines to seize opportunities for advancement, Hughes appears to be undecided in her evaluation of Indigenous people who have flourished in the era of self-determination. Her ambivalence about Indigenous success is matched by her vagueness about the population geography of remote and very remote Australia and her unwillingness to acknowledge the experimental character of her policy proposals. Her stentorian iconoclasm was the scaffolding of shoddy reasoning.4 In Chapters 8, 9 and 10, I consider a crucial period in Indigenous affairs policy — 1967–76 — through the arguments and actions of three policy intellectuals who, for different reasons, have felt compelled to interpret it. First, I draw out the historical arguments that Noel Pearson has presented: about his home community Hope Vale, about colonisation and about the formation of Australia’s wider political culture. Part of the novelty of Pearson’s work is his historical self-consciousness and his challenge to a historiography of 1967–76 that has given too much weight to the story of formal entitlement and too little to the story of Aborigines’ economic adjustment. I argue that the effects of Pearson’s account of the travails of ‘people-hood’ are to re-pose the ‘people-hood’ question in terms that are more ‘economic’ than ‘cultural’, and to question whether ‘difference’ should be assumed to be primarily a matter of ‘culture’. Peter Sutton’s The politics of suffering presents the late 1960s/early 1970s as the moment when ‘the liberal consensus’ won political and cultural authority. Having named and dated this ideological formation, Sutton then takes it to task for its blindness to Indigenous suffering and its refusal to examine the deeper Aboriginal determinants of that condition. Taking Sutton seriously as a revisionist historian, I suggest amendments to his formulation of the ‘liberal consensus’, going on to argue that while his thesis of cultural pathology is plausible, its policy implications are unclear. In his disaffection for the categories ‘Indigenous’/‘non-Indigenous’, Sutton harks back to a period before governments recognised ‘peoplehood’, and affirmed and institutionalised Indigenous culture; in those times (the gestation of Sutton as ethnographic witness), difference could be accommodated, informally, through personal relationships of caring and respect. However, this critique-by-memoir does not give rise to an alternative conceptual scheme: Sutton remains analytically committed, by default, to a notion of Indigenous people-hood — albeit viewing it in a firmly anti-romantic light. The years 1967–76 were the zenith of HC Coombs’ influence, and for some recent policy revisionists he has become iconic of dangerously misplaced faith in Indigenous Australians’ ability to advance on their own terms to a condition of ‘autonomy’ within Australia. In Chapter 10, I restate the case in favour of Coombs as a policy intellectual — not by reaffirming the 1970s optimism about Indigenous capacities but by taking seriously the phrase (used pejoratively by Coombs’ critics) the ‘Coombs experiment’. To do so, I draw attention to Coombs’ least-known essay — a 1969 piece in which he presented the colonial encounter, and his own times in particular, in the deep time perspective of human evolution. A corollary of his Darwinian hypothesis of historically differentiated human nature is that policy-making is best understood as continuing experimental adaptation. The pejorative resonance of the phrase the ‘Coombs experiment’ vanishes to the extent that the reader accepts this argument. I illustrate with examples Coombs’ intelligent uncertainty about the project of Indigenous self-determination, and I conclude by commenting on the ways that contemporary statistics — the ‘evidence’ in policy experiments — embody debatable assumptions about Indigenous sameness and difference. One of the ideological moves of the Howard government — discussed in Chapter 1 — was to distinguish ‘practical’ from ‘symbolic’ reconciliation. To give priority to ‘practical’ was to elevate the representation of Indigenous Australians as ‘populations’ and to set aside as ‘symbolic’ the claims that Indigenous Australians make in the name of ‘peoplehood’. In my final chapter, I examine the terms in which Reconciliation Australia has presented ‘reconciliation’ in its biennial public opinion study, the Australian Reconciliation Barometer. In its attempt to measure ‘reconciliation’, Reconciliation Australia’s questions imply that ‘reconciliation’ requires the abatement of prejudice and of Indigenous socio-economic ‘disadvantage’. The data generated by the Barometer show that the assignment of responsibility for Indigenous disadvantage remains contentious — in particular, government actions to remedy disadvantage are viewed both as disastrous (in the past) and essential (now). The Barometer’s questions subtly elide the possibility that reconciliation could be about a new political relationship between peoples, and it does not envisage that Indigenous actions towards non-Indigenous Australians could be of any consequence. The unfortunate result is that Reconciliation Australia seems, at least in its Barometer, to be captive to a conception of Indigenous Australians as both disadvantaged and lacking in agency. The Barometer, if it is continued, will help to reproduce the ascendancy of ‘population’ over ‘people’ in public reasoning about social justice.5 In working on the chapters in this book, two conclusions have crystallised for me. One is that while public reasoning about social justice for Indigenous Australians should continue to be conducted in both the ‘population’ and the ‘people’ idioms, we need to become better at reflecting on the implications and the limitations of each. Currently, the ‘population’ way of thinking is too much in the ascendancy. This is illustrated by the way that Reconciliation Australia has unthinkingly (I assume) left out of its Barometer any question that invites us to imagine the collective and individual political agency of Indigenous Australians. The current weakness of ‘people-hood’ is also evident in the ways in which the Northern Territory Intervention has been conceived and justified in a political climate in which ‘closing the gaps’ seems to exhaust our notions of social justice. My second conclusion is that for ‘people-hood’ to be persuasive, it needs to be detached from our habitual assumptions about ‘cultural difference’. James Weiner, an anthropologist who has worked in both theatres of contemporary Australian colonialism — northern Australia and Papua New Guinea — has argued that the habit of asserting the Indigenous/ non-Indigenous difference in cultural terms is a legacy of a certain politics of representation with which anthropology has been complicit. One of the achievements of that politics — I would present Elkin, Strehlow and Coombs as exemplars — was that we as Australians questioned the social and historical analysis on which ‘assimilation’ rested. However, in the resulting political landscape, as Weiner argues, the preoccupation with cultural difference is more and more misleading of the total social facts of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships, which he evokes as ‘the tremendous burgeoning of the institutional relationships, buttressing, laws, procedures, and so on, between any indigenous community and the governments, companies, non-government organisations (NGOs), claimant Aboriginal corporations and other organisations … that give any single, rarefied “cultural group” a “place”’.6 Weiner’s paper is one item in a wider intellectual movement within anthropology (a discipline to which this book is indebted) that not only historicises the elements of ‘culture’ but historicises the very research programs and public rhetoric that make ‘cultural difference’ our object. In this book, there is one political activist — Don Dunstan — who prefigures what we might call this ‘post-cultural’ evocation of Indigenous people-hood; there is another — Noel Pearson — who is currently reinforcing it and controversially drawing policy lessons from it.