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Out-rednecking the rednecks

By Stephen Hagan - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2005

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

I recall Henry Kissinger making that eloquent, if not risqué, quote during his controversial reign as the US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser during the Nixon administration. But on reflection I suppose anyone who holds such a lofty position, the second most powerful person on the planet, can just about say whatever they want.

Some Indigenous representatives, who have had a lot to say in recent months, have also enjoyed the sweet smell of power at lofty heights, via government endorsement and media acclamation of them as authoritative public voices. Australian Labor Party senior vice-president, Warren Mundine, and Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership director, Noel Pearson, seem to be revelling in the spotlight of the alluring media camera. However, instead of congratulating these highly ambitious and capable men on their personal views and for leading the way in holding up the beacon of freedom of speech, I remain sceptical of their agenda.


I’ll preface my comments by saying that I strongly support their call for accountability and transparency within the Indigenous community and the need to address major social ills such as alcohol and drug dependency (see On Line Opinion, "ATSIC must be replaced by a new body without flexible integrity"). Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to depart from their mutual admiration-society ship after they ventured into unchartered waters with challenging and inappropriate comments: Mundine viewing native title as a commodity; and Pearson calling Indigenous single mums who fail to send their children to school "dead beats".

As commentators on state and federal government Indigenous policy, neither man speaks with the endorsement of their people. Mundine sits on the non-elected National Indigenous Council that advises the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister and Pearson sits at the top of the pecking order as the well-remunerated consultant to the federal government on welfare, which in effect means everything.

I’m yet to sight these high profile men in my part of the country seeking input from grass roots people and I doubt whether they intend to travel and consult outside their comfort zone: Mundine in New South Wales and Pearson in Cape York Peninsula.

Speaking to ABC Radio reporter Peta Donald on December 6, 2004, Mundine said:

What land rights is doing in regards to communal ownership, where the profit and the benefits of that ownership is not being spread throughout the community. In fact, it's retarding our economic development. Where you cannot use land for economic benefit, that you've got it locked away, then what it's doing is we've been asset rich, but we're being cash poor.

Someone forgot to tell Mundine that Indigenous land (native title) is not a commodity that can be bought and sold. How can anyone sell the rights to land, passed down through the generations for 60,000 years, that isn’t his or hers to sell? If Mundine, and evidently his entire National Indigenous Council who endorsed the concept, wishes to relinquish the rights to their ancestors’ land then they need to explain their astonishing viewpoint to their traditional landowners.


Pearson also raised the ire of Indigenous people by suggesting a redirection of Centrelink Family Allowance payments from single mums who fail to send their children to school and who drink and gamble away their money.

Speaking to Lisa Millar on ABC Radio, July 22, 2005, Pearson argued, "We need a much more effective way of reallocating responsibility for that income away from deadbeats to people who are actually taking the responsibility".

I personally know many single mums who send their children to school only to be told later by school officials that their child has skipped class or chosen not to participate for the whole school day. Some of these mothers may also like the occasional drink and flutter on the pokies or bingo - it’s not an Indigenous-specific indulgence. But at the end of the day these young truants still go home to their single mothers for a warm meal and a familiar bed. Sinking the boot into the most marginalised members of our society, Indigenous single mums, is something I thought I wouldn’t hear from an Indigenous leader.

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Article edited by Daniel Macpherson.
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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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