Divided Minds

We are, most probably, a nation of people who are divided in our own minds about the future of Indigenous Australia.

Murray Goot &Tim Rowse, Divided Nation Indigenous Affairs and the Imagined Public, MelbourneUniversity Press, 2007

The title for this much needed book is misleading. Instead of Divided Nation?, the book should be calledDivided Mind! for it most profound contribution is to show that instead of a nation divided between “One Nation Racists” and “Walk the Harbour Bridge in Support of Reconciliation” progressives”, we are, most probably, a nation of people who are divided in our own minds about the future of Indigenous Australia. The take-out from this is a more hopeful and constructive politics that suggests leadership, education and deliberative democracy are the main ways that the country can move towards a better future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike.

Goot and Rowse argue that the Hawke Labor government’s land rights agenda was derailed by a sort of opinionated view of opinion poll results in the mid 1980s. Labor stalwarts armed with opinion poll findings from states like WA maintained that the Federal Indigenous land rights agenda would result in the loss of several Federal seats.  But it was not just Labor politicians who were seduced by this interpretation of the polls. The man who many regard as the leader of Indigenous Australia, Patrick Dodson, was then and now probably too pessimistic in his assessment of a historical constant of mainstream opposition to the development of Indigenous Australia and ‘that the spirit of 1967 was going down the drain’. But who, given our forlorn history, can blame Dodson for his pessimism? It is rare now, and was even rarer then, to undertake a forensic examination of the framing and asking of the questions that tell us ‘what the nation thinks’.

 Goot and Rowse’s conclusion  is that in the 1980s there was no opinion poll evidence of a backlash against 1967 or the policies of Whitlam and Fraser but rather that ‘equality’, ‘Aboriginal tradition’ and ‘rights’ are concepts open to rhetorical manipulation: when ‘land rights’ was presented as the anti-thesis of ‘equality’, ‘land rights’ came off second best. When land rights was linked to terms that positively evoked Aboriginal difference – some notion of ‘Aboriginal tradition’ (spirituality, purity of descent, continuity of occupation of reserves) – it received far more support, sometimes majority support”. In sum, with a bit of backbone, much might have been achieved by the overly cautious Hawke government. Most of all Australians needed to be informed by strong leadership in relation to issues that few completely understood.

However it is the era after the Mabo High Court Decision on Native Title in June 1992 that is most revealing about our current milieu of Indigenous ideology. Between 1993 and 1994 the number of questions seven market research organizations posed on Mabo was comparable to the total number of poll questions relating to Aborigines since polling began 50 years earlier. Goot and Rowse argue that far from offering clarity, the panoply of questions simply reflected the interests and rhetorical framework of those who commissioned the questions and this included those who were actively opposed to Indigenous land rights. The dominant interpretation of this thicket of polls favored John Howard’s ‘practical reconciliation’ and saw the manufacture of the idea of a ‘middle Australia’ which was soft on Indigenous issues. But against this Goot and Rowse come to a different conclusion they argue “Australians are divided in their own minds when they find that more than one framing of a complex matter makes sense to them. ..The coexistence in the one person of different ways of looking at a complex issue is not evidence of his or her forgetfulness or irrationality but of his or her openness and sophistication”. So it is possible, they argue, for Australians to understand that ‘equality has two faces’ that a separate sphere of land rights, cultural sovereignty and  difference for Indigenous Australians is in keeping with fairness. It is also possible that the much vaunted super individual Indigenous man or woman who takes up the ‘right to take responsibility’ in a context where there is a wasteland of government neglect is an empty stereotype that has substance merely as a rhetorical figure in those broadsheets that cultivate an imagined middle Australia with little John Howard reading lights on every bedhead.

As I read the pages of this book I was imagining what the experience of dissecting opinion polls on Indigenous matters would be for the various Indigenous leaders who put their hopes in reconciliation, and who must have sat at various meetings hearing commissioned opinion poll results in the 1990s. I imagined an incandescent fury at what was essentially a confidence trick foisted upon them by blind and scheming politicians, companies with vested interests in stopping the progress of land rights and shallow journalists alike. I also imagined the uneasiness of others who used the many opinion polls conducted after Mabo as a blueprint for the development of a more pragmatic Aboriginal politics for the late 1990s and 2000s. Whether shock or anger, the great effect of this book will be to create a far more critical and skeptical Indigenous leadership that has the courage to question the received wisdom that middle Australia is essentially conservative and racist and against the interests of Indigenous Australia.

This is a book for not only those interested in Indigenous politics but for all of us. For we are all, at one time or another, taken for a ride by opinion poll driven journalists and politicians.

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