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Don't turn away from the history of Indigenous disadvantage

By Bob Babunda - posted Tuesday, 4 January 2005

We are experiencing a watershed in Indigenous affairs. A quantum shift in policy brought about by the sustained refusal of influential conservative commentators and politicians to acknowledge the historical context of Indigenous disadvantage.

The policy shift is exemplified by the abolition of ATSIC, but this is far from the whole story. Underlying the abolition of ATSIC is an idea much more radical, maybe even “revolutionary".

The overarching principle guiding this transformation in Indigenous affairs is “mainstreaming”. Under Howard’s leadership, the Government is now intent on providing services to address Indigenous disadvantage in the same way that it addresses disadvantage in the rest of the population - no “special” treatment, and certainly no self-determination.


The belief underpinning this principle of mainstreaming is that while Indigenous Australians are severely disadvantaged and in need of quantitatively different levels of assistance, they should be treated qualitatively no differently than any other disadvantaged group - we are all Australian, the argument goes, and any special treatment of one group is divisive.

While many are enticed by this argument’s appeal to what is a very literal definition of equality, the policy remains ill considered because it falls victim to a sort of historical amnesia which has been sweeping through the popular debate.

Aborigines and their experience of disadvantage is fundamentally different to any other group in the country, and for a number of reasons they do deserve qualitatively different treatment. Most notably, Indigenous people are where they are today because of the conquest of this land by our European predecessors. The affluence that we enjoy everyday has come at the cost of this country’s original people’s abject misery.

200 years of colonial exploitation and neglect has produced the Indigenous quagmire we have today, and the idea that we can solve the “Aboriginal problem” without addressing its historical causes is more than a little flawed.

The concept of mainstreaming popularly manifests itself in the backlash against “special treatment” and “symbolic gestures”, which is underpinned by an idea of equality that says we are all Australian and therefore should all be treated the same. This attack on “special treatment” has left White Australia without an avenue for expressing genuine sympathy for the misery we have visited upon Aborigines since settlement.

One can no longer say “sorry” without eliciting judgements from political leaders and pundits that we are unhelpfully focusing on symbolic issues (for example a treaty and an apology) to the neglect of the real issues (such as Aboriginal health and welfare). Similarly, one cannot talk about a debt owed to Aboriginal Australians without being shouted down with protestations that we can’t be held accountable for what our ancestors did a hundred years ago.


But those who label so-called “symbolic gestures” as trivial diversions from the “real” task at hand are, in effect, proposing we ignore the historical circumstances that have produced the Aboriginal disaster seen today.

Those who, as if exposing some hidden truth, endlessly quote statistics about Aboriginal disadvantage and campaign for “practical” solutions, are thinking and writing under the assumption that the “Aboriginal problem” is a phenomenon consigned to the present day. On the contrary, Indigenous disadvantage is an ongoing historical condition, a condition that began with white settlement and continues to evolve.

The late philosopher Jacques Derrida described how the events of today cannot be isolated from those of yesterday - today contains traces of yesterday’s events and only exists as its extension. In this sense yesterday exists not before and separate from, but within today. The implication of this line of thinking is that the condition of society today cannot be separated from its past, and cannot be understood without accounting for it.

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About the Author

Bob Babunda is a policy adviser in the Commonwealth public service.

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