Go Left Failure, Go Right Destruction: The Price of the National Indigenous Leadership Group’s Unwillingness to Lead

John Howard is dividing and ruling the leadership of Indigenous Australia.

Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are correct to say that the left have failed Aboriginal Australia in our era. The point of their criticism is salient. No Indigenous person can afford to wait for Labor to come into office thinking that suddenly solutions will all fall into place.

There are a number of major points in the Left’s failure that we can identify.

The first failure was the failure of nerve of the Hawke Labor government in 1983. The Labor platform at the time was “to grant land rights and compensation to Aboriginal and Islander communities using the principles and recommendations of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission (Woodward Report)” as the basis for legislation, subject to continuing review”. As Tim Rowse and Murray Goot have recently shown in their book Divided Nation the climb down from this principled position was dramatic and premised upon a fallacious concept of what “middle Australia” thought. Whereas opinion polls were contradictory and seemed to point to an unresolved, uninterested state of mind, in quick time ideologists began to talk about a “middle Australian” backlash against land rights. Bob Hawke and Clyde Holding did battle with an imaginary foe created by Australian Nationwide Opinion Polls (ANOP) that left any firm land rights agenda all at sea. Ultimately it was a legal struggle fuelled by saltwater (Eddie Mabo) and silk (Ron Castan) , rather than a political struggle, that forced land rights back on to the agenda and allowed Paul J. Keating to show some spine and backbone.

A similar failure of nerve meant that one of the better Indigenous Affairs Ministers’ Gerry Hand was forced by his colleagues, in their unwillingness to face down the Liberal and National Party, to adopt a bastardized version of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission representative structure he had devised after traveling the country in the most thorough consultation of Indigenous Australians ever undertaken.

A third failure was Mark Latham’s stupid decision to give John Howard the impetus to demolish ATSIC which whatever its faults was a proving ground for young and up and coming Aboriginal leaders in regional and remote areas of the country.

There are many other weak points but perhaps the worst failure of all is that Labor and the Left seem to have vacated Aboriginal affairs as being too hard. It could be argued that from the 1940s Labor and the Left, including the Communist Party, had at times not listened carefully enough to Aboriginal leaders; but no-one could doubt their resolve, courage and leadership on the issue. Support for Aboriginal self determination was one of the defining issues for Labor and the left. How did it all change? I remember in the early 1990s as the head of the nominal Labor’s left think tank the Evatt Foundation meeting with the heads of other world left think tanks in a series of meetings at Oxford, Brussells and Washington to agree on the next decade’s policy challenges. The view was that the left was undefeatable on social issues such as education, health and social welfare and that having won a series of major battles against the privatization of government enterprises, we would take on the right in mainstream economic policy where we were perceived to be losing ground. The chief means of the assault would be environmentalism and an argument for more expansionary economic policy. It should be observed that our measure of success would be when the pendulum of ideas had shifted considerably and a significant number of conservatives began advocating our ideas. In many ways the assault on conservative economics has gone according to plan. But none of us would have foreseen the extent to which the conservatives have entered our battlements in the social policy arena. None of us would have foreseen that conservatives would champion issues like Indigenous child abuse and be taken seriously. Marcia Langton is correct to say that in the absence of anything else it was inevitable that the Right agenda would start to unfold as it has in the Northern Territory.

Certainly these failures and Labor’s appalling lack of long term policy and priorities for Indigenous affairs is one reason for these problems. But the imaginary middle Australia that is to the right of the real Indigenous national political agenda and which now results in a deep pessimism amongst Indigneous national leaders can equally be argued to have been internalized by many Indigenous leaders themselves. It seems that many Indigenosu leaders believe that the Indigenous political agenda is seen to be such a turn-off to the mainstream that it is not even worth bothering the major political parties. So while we can blame Labor and the Left for its failures of nerve and its laziness – a certain level of responsibility falls on the Aboriginal leadership and its deep pessimism about achieving the big things: sovereignty, constitutional recognition, compensation and self determination.

It is a measure of how bad things are that it is thought that the only way to get things done is to via thoughtless conservative mavericks like Mal Brough. Thus Langton’s argument that it is inevitable, because of the failure of Labor and the Left, and the internalization of a conservative middle Australia by the Aboriginal leaders themselves, that to address pressing issues such as child abuse one is forced to accept the clear ulterior motives of John Howard and Mal Brough – even when it means taking things back to the political dark ages before the Woodward Commission and any conception of Indigenous sovereignty and land rights! The measure of the deep pessimism amongst Aboriginal leaders is support for Howard and Brough even when middle Australia itself shows that it is not fooled at all - with 57 per cent recognizing that the incursion into the Northern Territory is a political stunt.

One wonders when it will be necessary for the Indigenous leaders, who have this deeply pessimistic view about middle Australia, and who have forged this real politik around it, to jump from the political train fast moving into dangerous territory. Will they jump before the conservatives argue that Indigenous communities in homelands and remote areas are not economically, politically or socially viable? Will they jump before the Indigenous right of veto over mining rights in the Northern Territory is nullified? Will they jump before the racist assumption that child abuse is worst in the Northern Territory because people look so different from the suburbs is revealed as a complete furphy? So far it seems, despite nostalgia for the right wing Labor milieu of Paul J. Keating, Noel Pearson is staying on the conservative train.

No-one can critique Pearson’s rationality for doing so for the fact is that the conservatives are offering real action, money and clout, and the Labor Party is simply dawdling behind still befuddled by the fabled conservatism of middle Australia that derailed them in the 1980s.

John Howard has given Noel Pearson’s Cape York $12 million to pursue welfare reform and social development. In my book Polity, Capability, Culture I offer not only Pearson, but every other regional Indigenous leader $20 million to invest in local community capability, sustainable organizations, elders groups and economic development. Pearson quite rightly places emphasis on welfare reform and social development for his region, other leaders and regions will have different priorities. Whatever the regional agenda the most important priority is to build local, independent, Indigenous capacity particularly in regional and remote settings.

And guess what this is exactly what every opinion poll that has ever been conducted on Aboriginal affairs says that middle Australia wants: We must invest in Indigenous Australian capacity to bring communities up to a level of equality and fairness and we must do so by investing in Indigenous capacity.

The other thing middle Australia wants is absolute accountability for investments that are made in Indigenous Australia. The one off $2-3 billion investment in Indigenous capacity that I propose, would like Peter Costello’s higher education capital investment future fund, have to be invested in regional trusts that would fund Indigenous organizations and development into perpetuity. The principle sum would be invested and the organizations would live off the interest as an ongoing source of income. Private investments from mining companies, property development etc could supplement this Indigenous Future Fund. What a contrast instead of spending $3 billion each year on bureaucrats in Canberra, this money would go straight to the source of the problems, again a long standing desire of ‘middle Australia’. I propose that all of the one off sum could be funded over an electoral cycle by simply cutting back theCanberra based Indigenous bureaucracy.

If the Labor Party has any guts it will articulate a similar plan.

Of course Langton and Pearson would consider such a development akin to flying pigs.

The problem, however, while we wait for the Labor Party to recover its heart and its soul, is that the conservative agenda is not only destructive, it is destroying the unity of the national Indigenous leadership. Noel Pearson lamented last Saturday in his regular column for The Australian that Paul John Keating had once correctly identified bickering division as a major weakness of Indigenous leadership. The difference between PJK and John Winston Howard is that the for Howard such division is a political plus and modus operandi, at least for PJK it was a matter of deep regret.

The fundamental underlying reality is that unless the National Indigenous Leadership starts to articulate its own independent national agenda and starts to make the Liberal and Labor Party sit up and take notice – even the savviest Indigenous leaders will be doomed, at some point, to jump from a fast train into the darkest of nights. The left may have failed Indigenous Australia but the right will certainly destroy its essence and its political unity.