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Needs must when the devil drives

By John Tomlinson - posted Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Much has been written about the Northern Territory Intervention, in its various manifestations, since Mal Brough announced, on 21st June 2007, that he was sending in the army and was going to ensure that Aboriginal children would  be examined by doctors, with or without their parents consent, to see if they had been sexually abused. Brough’s outburst came in the wake of The little children are sacred report co-authored by Rex Wild and Pat Anderson.

In less than a month 500 pages of legislation was rushed through the Parliament. It was supported by the Labor and Coalition Parties. It contained no mention of children even though Minister Brough had claimed there were pedophile rings preying on Aboriginal children in remote communities. The legislation did though contain the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, income management of Aboriginal social security, compulsory town leases massive changes to the permit system and other neo-conservative policies.

The difficulty of understanding across cultures

We only see those things for which we have concepts. When some people see the Min Min lights they believe they are seeing spirits of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, others think they are witnessing unidentified flying objects and still others consider they are observing a rare meteorological phenomenon.  We have great difficulty describing sounds we hear for the first time. When Captain Oates left the tent indicating that he “might be some time” … was it a loose tent rope flapping in the blizzard or someone trying to get back in?


When Captain Cook returned to London he presented a stuffed platypus to the Royal Society where the eminent scientist considered it to be a taxidermist’s hoax. I have just returned from Lake Eucumbene where it is possible to observe Musk Ducks but very few visitors see them. I had been visiting Eucumbene for a decade before I saw one. They dive for long periods and hide near trees, rocks and any other available cover. They rarely fly, are uniformly black about the size of a black cormorant and sit low in the water like a cormorant. During the mating season the male thrusts jets of water into the air and squeals like a little piglet in an attempt to attract the attention of a potential mate and to ward off competing males. Still most visitors to the lake think they’ve only seen black cormorants.

Taking Minister Jenny Macklin to Central Australia and plonking her down in the sand in Yuendumu or Papunya for a day achieves nothing. Her ears are not attuned to understand what Aboriginal people are saying to her, her eyes are not equipped to see what Aboriginal people are seeing. This is not Macklin’s fault. One only has to read Altman and Hinkson’s (Altman, J. & Hinkson, M. (eds.) (2010) Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia. University of New South Wales, Sydney) collected essays of anthropologists to understand that what each of them sees is a product of their individual experience in a variety of Indigenous communities - there is little consensus.

What an anthropologist might understand from one community differs from that which another anthropologist observes in another community. The major weakness of the Intervention is that it does not allow each community to address their particular difficulties in their own way and work with government in a consultative manner as The little children are sacred report argued was absolutely necessary. The intervention is a one size fits all solution for the 73 Indigenous communities affected.

Boring as the internecine dispute amongst the assemblage of anthropologists played out in the pages of Altman and Hinkson’s Culture Crisis was to read, I found it pertinent not for what it said about Indigenous society but for what it said about the cultural pretentions of university educated mainstream Australian society. There were those who found Noel Pearson’s condemnation of “passive welfare” such an important intellectual breakthrough that they could support the income management provisions of the Intervention. They were happy to go along with taking half of Aboriginal people’s social security or Community Development Employment Program monies and placing it in a Basic card system (thus greatly restricting the goods which can be purchased).

These anthropologists demonstrate their ignorance of the attitude of European society to welfare. Pearson was not the first to discover the dreaded evils of “passive welfare”. In 1348 the Statute of Labourers warned against assisting “sturdy beggars”. There were many others who warned against providing too generous assistance to the poor leading up to the Poor Laws of 1601 and 1834.  

Left wing protagonists are not averse to getting stuck into those without work or other means of support. The sweaty brow is an old socialist icon. Karl Marx railed against the lumpen proletariat - that class of people who are reliant on social security. The class hatred of the lumpen proletariat has a deep and abiding history.


It is our cultural blinkers rather than the culture of Aboriginal people which causes the angst about “welfare dependency”. Mary Edmunds in her Whitlam Institute address points out that Aboriginal people relied on reciprocal assistance or co-dependency as a very useful way of managing during the 40 to 50,000 years before the invasion. The best friendships and marriages have interdependency at their core. We know that the more egalitarian a society is the happier and healthier are its citizens (Pickett, K. & Wilkinson, R. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Allen Lane (Penguin), London). Such societies develop social protection or social insurance systems rather that poverty alleviation measures. Attempts to assist only the poor invariably become burdensome because of the means testing and reciprocal obligations which are associated with assisting only the “truly needy”.

Those anthropologists who are preoccupied with perceived failings in aspects of Aboriginal culture and the dangers of “welfare dependency caused by passive welfare” are blind to the possibility that it is something else which is the problem.

Dennis Walker on numerous platforms declared “There is no Aboriginal problem there is only a white problem.” It may well be that it is the excessive acquisitiveness of non-Indigenous people which exacerbates Indigenous people’s health and socio-economic position - compare the returns which Lang Hancock received from Pilbara iron mining with the rewards the traditional owners received. It may be the failure of non-Indigenous society to come to a just accommodation with Indigenous Australians which is the problem. It may be the sheer bloody mindedness of politicians and their public servants which is at least part of the problem. But integral to how this all plays out is the way mainstream Australians regard the provision of social security, health and educational services. In particular the way in which politicians happily attach a range of obligations to any assistance provided.

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Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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