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The myth of a new paternalism

By John Hirst - posted Thursday, 28 June 2007

Critics of Prime Minister John Howard's tough new policy for indigenous communities have insisted on the need for Aboriginal ownership of the new regime. Of course, society works better when people accept and internalise the rules that govern them. But you can get a long way with incentives and disincentives.

Full-time university students are not meant to be on the dole, yet I regularly come across students who manage somehow to stay on it. I had one postgraduate student who spent four years working full-time on his thesis and drew the dole for the whole period.

Recently I asked a student if he was still on the dole. He said it was now too much hassle and he was in casual work. The obligation to keep a record of jobs applied for had never troubled him: he concocted most of these. The hassle consisted of the new requirement that he submit to some form of training to keep the dole. He couldn't bear the amateurish computer courses and instructions on how to present a CV. He fled into employment.


It cannot be said he had ownership of the new rules for the dole. If he had been consulted on the desirability of imposing training requirements for the dole, he would have recommended the existing rules better provide a fair treatment of the unemployed and meet the ends of social justice.

Australia is a long-established capitalist society. You would assume the work ethic is well entrenched in most of the population. But what would happen if the rules, or rather the lack of rules, in an Aboriginal community operated in our world? Say you were paid your wages no matter how late you turned up for work, or if you turned up only every other day (if you never turned up you might need a close relative in the salaries office).

Some would immediately take advantage of the new laxity. Many people out of habit or love of the work or a sense of responsibility would still turn up on time every day. But who does not believe that over time laxity would have an effect on their behaviour, too?

Consultation and ownership may be effective modes for securing change in social organisations, though the open exercise of power would often cause less resentment than the pretence the governed are in charge. But in many Aboriginal communities, social organisation has completely broken down. The people have shown they are incapable of governing themselves. There is no point in consulting them about the creation of authority; authority has to be created for them. Their lives will then better match our own. I took no part in the creation of the city of Boroondara. I pay rates, I get services, but I don't follow council affairs.

Among the many misfortunes of Aborigines is that they were freed from civil disabilities and controls just when the libertarian wave swept through wider society. They became eligible for the dole when the dole became a right not to be interfered with. The prohibition on their drinking of alcohol was dropped just as wider society moved to make alcohol more readily available. Schools were provided for Aboriginal communities just when truant officers were deemed no longer necessary. As the missionaries went out, pornography came in.

The wider significance of the Government's takeover of Aboriginal communities is that it is a spectacular official announcement of how poisonous the libertarian approach has been to marginal people. It has helped to create an underclass in society where life on welfare is the norm and the single mum's latest boyfriend bashes and sexually abuses her children. There is much to be done if the Government wants to stop sexual abuse of children. Every report shows children in such households are most at risk.


Among all the difficulties of implementing the new measures will be finding the right personnel to take charge of these troubled communities. Anyone trained in social work and expert in the language and modes of consultation and ownership must be excluded. They've had their turn.

Officers and men from the army who have served as peacekeepers would be good candidates, as would school principals or small business people. Anyone, in short, who has the habit of command and senses without formal consultation what can realistically be achieved.

White people in charge of Aborigines: it has been criticised as a return to paternalism. Is it an official recognition of Aboriginal failure at self-determination? No. The failure was in those who thought a group of a few hundred or thousand people should run, on a co-operative basis, a store, a school, garbage collection, the health centre and a cattle station.

Nowhere in wider society would such madness be contemplated. Even at our local government level, councils become dysfunctional and have to be suspended. An administrator is sent in. Let that be the parallel to what is happening now.

Aboriginal society is least suited to co-operative action, since the people's first loyalty is to kin. A girl working at the checkout in a community store is under pressure to let her aunt shop free. The manager lets his brother take goods out through the loading bay at the back. And in these communities there are frequently different tribal groupings whose hostility undermines joint action.

Paternalism's claim is to full control of someone else's life. This is not what is contemplated here. If outsiders restore social order and run services, traditional leaders can get on with traditional business. When the men are drunk and the kids are sniffing petrol, traditional knowledge and ritual will not be passed on. This move will help preserve traditional culture.

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First published in The Australian on June 26, 2007.

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About the Author

John Hirst is author of The Australians: Insiders and Outsiders on the National Character since 1770 (Black Inc Books). He is an Emeritus Scholar in the History Program, Humanites and Social Sciences at Latrobe University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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