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The threat to Aboriginal culture: assimilation or worse

By Gavin Mooney - posted Thursday, 10 March 2005

If, in this bordering-on-hegemonic neo-liberal world, one seeks to rubbish some particular social policy, philosophy or social experiment, and in doing so at the same time one wants to hide what might be seen otherwise as blatant racism, it is best to call for an open debate and for the avoidance of political correctness.

On this premise if one seeks to establish how Aboriginal people’s problems can be resolved, then simply arguing for them to be treated “the same” as everyone else is apparently the answer. If they are treated the same, the argument runs, they will have the same outcomes in terms of health, education, and so on.

Treating people equitably or fairly becomes equated with treating them equally, which in turn is equated with treating them the same. But this is all predicated upon the need for Aboriginal people to accept the obligation - their obligation - to be prepared to be the same, and then they can share equally in the benefits of Australian society or, more accurately, of non-Aboriginal Australian society.


In a recent paper from the Centre for Independent Studies, Hughes and Warrin propose a new deal for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote communities. In fact it is an old deal: assimilation.

The finer details of the paper do not merit a run through here. In essence the argument is that, damn it, if only Aboriginal people would cease to be Aborigines, all would be well not only for them but for the rest of us. Welfare dependency would end, Aboriginal languages which keep Aboriginal people in isolation would end, separate health services would end (and they might have even greater access to private care than their non-Aboriginal counterparts), separate law and lore would end.

All the problems of remote Aboriginal communities are laid at the door of the “Coombs model” - what they call the “socialist utopia” model. Give Aborigines the same opportunities as everyone else in the neo-liberal market and all will be well. Hughes and Warin advocate the “liberal vision that saw ATSIC working in all occupations and living at the same standard as other Australians”. How is not explained: The market is the new religion and we do not need  to see behind the veil. We just need to have the faith.

“Apartheid” is imposed by Aboriginal people on white Australians and the racism in our society and institutions, which Aboriginal people face, is ignored and denied. The apartheid problems of Australia arise through Aboriginal people’s own “deliberate subjugation of English”. When Aboriginal people travel they don’t head for Bali, the joys of the Gold Coast or fly to private clinics in Melbourne or Sydney for their health care. Instead, Hughes and Warin state, they “tend to restrict themselves to Aboriginal communities when they seek health care, go shopping, visit relatives or attend conferences and training courses”. They use the fact that non-Aborigines need permits to visit some Aboriginal communities as the basis for their claim that apartheid exists in Australia and this is a concern to these authors. (This article is being written during a visit to South Africa. It is therefore doubly painful to see the twisted mentality that interprets apartheid in these terms.)

The communities’ cultural values - particularly with respect to land ownership - that are so much a part of Aboriginal culture, are swept aside by Hughes and Warin. “Communal ownership … impedes the productive use of land, employment creation and economic development … royalties on mining, fishing and other resources are paid communally, so that they inevitably lack transparency and encourage corruption.” Inevitably? Would not such communal concerns lead to greater transparency?

One of my Aboriginal friends, Barbara Henry, talks of her concerns about “assimilation by atrophy” for Aboriginal people. What she means, I believe, is that Aborigines are in danger of losing their identity and their culture because they grow weary. They are tired of fighting, trying to defend their culture. Simply, they may just give up and give in. They may cease to be Aborigines.


There is then a need for non-Aboriginal Australia to recognise the dangers facing this ancient culture. If we do not acknowledge the damage we are currently doing - or at least the government elected in our name is doing - to Aboriginal people, there is a very real threat that Aboriginal culture will die. For ever thereafter, Aborigines will be simply “other Australians”. They may not be white but they will cease to be Aborigines.

The threat of losing Aboriginality from the Australian landscape is heightened by the sort of arguments put forward by Hughes and Warin. There is no concern of loss if assimilation occurs, which is in fact what they advocate.

Before writing this I talked to Aboriginal friends who expressed concern that responding to Hughes and Warin might simply give their argument more oxygen. That is clearly a risk. But there are wider and deeper issues at stake here and not just in the paper by Hughes and Warin.

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About the Author

Gavin Mooney is a health economist and Honorary Professor at the Universities of Sydney and Cape Town. He is also the Co-convenor of the WA Social Justice Network . See

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