Black Politics: behind the news

Sarah Maddison, Black Politics: inside the complexity of Aboriginal political culture (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Sarah Maddison is a non-Indigenous Australian academic. Over five years, she interviewed 30 Aboriginal leaders, activists and public intellectuals, ‘discussing their life histories, their political views, their worries and their aspirations’. Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Michael Mansell declined to be interviewed, but the actual cast of characters is very impressive, ranging over all mainland states and including household names as well as people who work at the community level, far from the limelight.

Starting from these interviews and drawing on very wide reading (the bibliography runs to 30 pages), while ‘privileging’ the voices of the interviewed and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait people (emphatically including the three who declined to be interviewed), Maddison constructs a kind of map, mainly for whitefella readers, of the complexity of Aboriginal politics. A reading-while-walking conversation helped me to think a little more about the idea of the book as a map. A park friend commented knowingly, ‘I would have thought that was more for dipping into than reading straight through.’ She’s partly right: the book could serve as a reference. But it is a map, not a street directory, so it also makes good sense to get the whole picture by reading it straight through.

Maddison gives a lightning-quick survey of the history of government policy (violent dispossession, ‘protection’, ‘assimilation’, ‘self-determination’, ‘intervention’) and Aboriginal responses from the beginnings of the colonies, but the book is about living politics, and so deals mainly with the Howard years and their dark shadow, in which we still live. While there is some attention to personalities – Noel Pearson, for example, emerges as a man most people love to hate, or at least contend with – our attention is drawn to ten ‘key areas of tension’. Here they are, with a little taster from each chapter to give you a clue on how the tension plays out:

Autonomy and dependency

In every country where Indigenous people have been subjected to a colonial regime, precolonial autonomy has been eroded. In its place a range of damaging dependencies have manifested themselves. These postcolonial dependencies add complexity to Aboriginal political culture as individuals, families and communities struggle to regain their autonomy as self-determining peoples and as political actors. These struggles take place in political contexts that tend to necessitate at least some degree of dependence on non-Indigenous structures of government.

Sovereignty and citizenship

Are Aboriginal people citizens of Australia or members of sovereign Indigenous nations? The nation-state of Australia may have sovereign legitimacy in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of many of its Indigenous inhabitants it remains an illegitimate interloper on their territory, still trying after 220 years to usurp a sovereignty that they have never ceded.

Tradition and development

Without an economic base, Aboriginal people cannot be autonomous. Not surprisingly, however, there are complexities that get in the way of economic development for Aboriginal people. One is […] the tension between need for economic development and the importance of traditional connections to land.

Individualism and collectivism

Aboriginal value systems are often at odds with liberal democratic philosophy, creating tension between those committed to ideas of individual political equality and those who maintain that the foundational unit of society is the Aboriginal group or community.

Indigeneity and hybridity

The idea of “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” identity is a distinctly postcolonial construct invented to both name and contain the “natives” of terra australis. In light of this, there is immense complexity concerning questions of Aboriginal identity today. […] Both non-Aboriginal politicians and, at times, other Aboriginal people will question an Aboriginal leader’s racial credentials on the suspicion that they may not be “Indigenous enough”.

Unity and regionalism

Attempting to organise political representation at the national level thus risks obscuring the diversity of Aboriginal nations and community groups, leaving many feeling invisible or unrepresented. This emphasis on localism can make national unity seem fragile or even impossible. In the absence of a credible model of national political representation, however, there can be tension between Aboriginal groups and communities who may find themselves competing for recognition and entitlements.

Community and kin

[The] majority of Aboriginal communities are a fiction, or at least a creation, comprising a number of kinship groups that, prior to colonisation, would have occupied different territories and that in many cases still retain different languages and systems of law.

Elders and the next generation:

Aboriginal political culture is still based on a gerontocracy in which elders command the most potent authority and influence. elders are holders of special and sacred cultural knowledge, and it is their responsibility to hand this knowledge down to the younger generations. The breakdown of traditional authority structures, however, means that this transfer of knowledge can no longer be assumed In place of this hierarchy of cultural seniority, younger leaders now emerge from the ranks of political activists fro community organisations, and from the developing class of young, university-educated professionals.

Men, women and customary law:

Colonisation has interrupted the inevitable evolution of Aboriginal custom and belief, instead pushing Aboriginal people to defend their threatened culture. At the same time there has been an extensive but poorly informed public debate about the recognition of customary law that has done much to muddy the water and demonise Aboriginal men.

Mourning and reconciliation:

The traumas of colonisation, including massacre, rape, starvation and introduced diseases through to policies that justified the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, are not resolved.

The author doesn’t keep her own mind out of the telling. She has struggled to do more than simply present the variety of Aboriginal viewpoints, which might have been useful to dip into but very hard to read. In general she has done a hugely impressive job of shaping her vast material into a narrative / argument. Occasionally there’s a sentence that strikes a chill. For example, when one reads, ‘What is almost universally rejected by Aboriginal leaders and activists, however, is the use of customary law to defend violent and abusive behaviour, particularly that directed at women and children,’ one does wonder what unspoken murk hides behind that ‘almost’. And, as the endnotes acknowledge, some complexities are simply not discussed – Torres Strait Islanders are generally not present, for instance. But a book that tackled this subject and didn’t have loose threads or unaddressed areas would be a miracle, and very very big.

I heard Sarah Maddison on Radio National saying that she wrote this book largely because of her love for Australia. Though this statement may have been in part a preemptive defence against imagined attacks from the weirdly patriotic right, on the evidence of the book itself it was also the plain truth. The book is the labour of an engaged, committed mind, and I for one am grateful for it.

One response to “Black Politics: behind the news

  1. Pingback: Sarah Maddison’s Beyond White Guilt | Me fail? I fly!

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