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Assimilation v self-determination

By Mike Dockery - posted Friday, 20 February 2009

Last week marked the first anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation and for past policies more generally which “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”. One year on, however, there have been no signs of new directions in the approach to addressing Indigenous disadvantage. And while the inhumanity and short-sightedness of the policy of forcibly removing children from their natural families has now received some formal recognition, the assumptions underlying the policy are still widely accepted in the current debate.

The history of the debate on Indigenous policy can be characterised by a tension between two ideological camps: assimilation versus self-determination.

The first camp views integration of Indigenous people into the mainstream economy and Western culture as inevitable and ultimately the way to achieve equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.


The self-determination approach argues that traditional Indigenous cultures have a value in their own right, and Indigenous people should choose for themselves the balance between preserving elements of their traditional culture and engagement in the mainstream economy.

Implicit in both arguments is the assumption that traditional cultures are a barrier to “closing the gap”; something Indigenous people must give up to improve their socio-economic status.

Two points upon which there is rare agreement is that our policies to date have been a dismal failure, and that the deplorable circumstances in which many Indigenous people live requires urgent attention. I believe we need a renewed focus on the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians and for empirical evidence to guide policy. Maximising wellbeing, after all, should be what policy is about.

I can appreciate why many believe that getting Indigenous Australians into jobs is the best way to address Indigenous disadvantage, however, one would not pursue employment outcomes and integration with the mainstream economy at any cost - the experience of the Stolen Generation has surely taught us that much. But does the loss of culture reduce Indigenous peoples’ wellbeing, and by how much? Does the pursuit of employment require sacrificing their culture? Does gaining mainstream employment increase their wellbeing? These are empirical issues that cannot be answered by ideological debate alone, but the answers are surely essential to formulating policy.

In a recently released discussion paper, from the Centre for Labour Market Research, I report the results of an empirical analysis of the links between Indigenous peoples’ attachment to their traditional culture and wellbeing using data from the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey.

The measures of cultural attachment are based on speaking an Indigenous language; recognition of homelands; identification with a clan or tribal group and participation in traditional activities such as ceremonies.


The indicators of wellbeing investigated relate to issues that have featured prominently in the recent discourse in the media on dysfunction in Indigenous communities: health, lawlessness and alcohol abuse.

The results show clearly that attachment to traditional culture is important for Indigenous wellbeing: those with stronger cultural attachment had better self-assessed health, were less likely to have been arrested in the previous five years and were less likely to have consumed “risky” levels of alcohol in the two weeks before the survey. These benefits of engagement with traditional culture are most apparent in capital cities, but also apply to Indigenous Australians living in regional and remote areas.

Importantly, the positive effects of cultural attachment extend to employment outcomes in most instances. In related work funded by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, I also find a positive link between cultural attachment and educational attainment. So even if one does believe that getting Indigenous people into jobs is the best solution, cultural maintenance should not be seen as a barrier but as a potential means to enhance employment outcomes.

A less surprising result is the clear evidence of the lasting and intergenerational legacy of the most extreme approach to integration. Those removed from their families and their direct descendents display significantly inferior outcomes against each measure of wellbeing. This includes poorer employment outcomes, meaning the policy ultimately had precisely the opposite effect to what was intended.

We need to urgently address the plight of Indigenous Australians. The evidence from my research suggests that traditional culture should be seen as part of the solution to Indigenous disadvantage, not as part of the problem. And when you think about some of the critical issues facing our own society - achieving environmental sustainability, balancing work and family life, and the pursuit of consumerism and material goods above spirituality and other things that actually make us happy - we may even be able to learn something ourselves.

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The full discussion paper can be found here.

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About the Author

Dr Mike Dockery is an Associate Professor in the School of Economics and Finance at Curtin University of Technology and a Research Associate with the Centre for Labour Market Research in Perth, WA.

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