Tag Archives: Noel Pearson

Responses to Noel Pearson

As I’m sure I’ve said before, one of the best things about Black Inc’s Quarterly Essay is that substantial responses to each issue are published in the next one. I’ll write about Guy Rundle’s essay on Clive Palmer in QE 56 some time soon. For now I just want to draw your attention to the Correspondence section.

There’s a plan for a referendum in 2017 on changing the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This referendum has been postponed a number of times, at least partly because the subject doesn’t seem to be hitting any kind of nerve with most Australians, and partly because there’s no agreement on what proposal should be put to us.

You might think you know enough now to know how you’ll vote. Well, maybe you’re wrong about that. You really should read Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay 55, A Rightful Place and then you should read the responses in No 56. (If you’re pressed for time you could skip John Hirst, who has said elsewhere that Aboriginal matters are out of his comfort zone and demonstrates the truth of that here by creating and then dismissing as unpersuasive a breathtakingly simplistic summary of Pearson’s argument. You might also skip Paul Kelly – definitely not the songwriter – who seems intent on offering advice to Tony Abbott rather than talking to you and me.)

Here are some snippets.

From Megan Davis, professor of law at University of NSW:

Even before the Quarterly Essay went on sale, Pearson’s potentially complementary proposal was dismissed as ‘grandstanding’ and ‘unhelpful’. Having served on the prime minister’s expert panel on constitutional recognition alongside Pearson, I found this an exasperating reminder that although black leaders regularly chant ‘leaders are readers’ to our young mob, Australia’s political leaders are in fact, on the whole, not readers.

From Rachel Perkins, filmmaker and activist:

Noel’s notion of tethering cultural survival to constitutional reform is intriguing. When I grasped the potential of his idea, I realised it may be our best hope – in the short term – of attracting national interest on this issue. It lit a spark for me and gave me hope, for we have only to look back on our history to understand the trajectory we are on. The question is: will our people be able to put their differences aside and unite, as they did in 1967, towards this possibility?

From Celeste Liddle, Arrente woman and trade union organiser:

As a trade unionist, I support a hearty process of negotiation between parties wishing to work together to achieve outcomes. There has never been a negotiated agreement between First Peoples and the government in this country and I feel that it is integral to achieve this before we look at amending the constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

From Henry Reynolds, historian:

Noel Pearson’s powerful advocacy notwithstanding, Australia has regressed on indigenous matters– a generation ago the question of a treaty was seriously discussed, as was the status of traditional law. And this leaves us far behind comparable societies such as New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the Scandinavian countries. Noel argues that we cannot expect any more because, unlike the Maoris, indigenous Australians are only a very small minority. But this carefully avoids comparison with the much higher status of the Native Americans in North America and the Sami in Scandinavia.

From Robert Manne:

During the 1990s, under Paul Keating and Patrick Dodson, there existed an atmosphere of intense hopefulness about the role reconciliation might play in the creation of a better nation. In May 2000, at its climax, hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across the bridges of Australia in support of a reconciliation ceremony at the centenary of federation, an idea which, unforgivably, the Howard government quickly killed. The mood of hope was still not altogether extinguished, as the passions stirred by Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology to the stolen generations demonstrated. However, in recent years that atmosphere has faded. Somehow, if the referendum is to succeed it will now have to be rediscovered. Pearson it probably right to believe that unless the movement for indigenous constitutional recognition is led by a rock-solid conservative it is unlikely to succeed. The problem is that a rock-solid conservative is the least likely kind of political leader capable of reigniting the social-justice passions of Australians.

From Fred Chaney:

It is helpful to read this essay alongside a viewing of Noel’s address at Garma this year, published on YouTube. There you get the force of presentation as well as intellect. Following reference to the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, he posed the question ‘we are still grappling with today’: ‘will European settlement of Australia enable a different people with a different heritage to have space in it?’ He poses it as a question still unresolved. He says that in the 1820s in Tasmania we answered the question by our actions. Then in stark terms he suggests, ‘If we don’t come to a just answer to that question today, that same answer will come about for benign reasons.’ If he is correct in this, and I think he is, it is a matter of great seriousness for all of us.

Really, I recommend you to read the whole thing.

Noel Pearson’s Rightful Place (and Andrew Charlton’s correspondence)

Noel Pearson, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth (Quarterly Essay 55)

qe55 ‘In this essay,’ Noel Pearson writes, ‘I seek to make a case for constitutional reform recognising indigenous [sic] Australians.’

In case some of my readers need it (as I did), let me start with a couple of paragraphs of background.

Beginning of background. A referendum will happen in the next couple of years on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution. In June last year, the responsible parliamentary committee published a Progress Report, which is well worth reading. There have been animated public meetings around the country. There’s a T-shirt, a well resourced people’s movement and a decorated Qantas plane. There have been bizarre arguments against change from the likes of Andrew Bolt and – less bizarrely and with much less media prominence – from some Indigenous people. Celeste Liddle’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘Indigenous Recognition’ is a good place to go for some of the latter.

In brief, it looks as if we will be voting on whether to repeal two references to race, and on some form of explicit recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The race references are in sections 25 and 51 (xxvi):

25. … if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that State shall not be counted.


51.The Parliament shall … have power to make laws … with respect to: – … (xxvi.) The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws

It’s hard to imagine a reasonable argument against repealing those clauses, given how direly anachronistic they are. The real debate comes with the committee’s other recommendations, which include adding sections recognising the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, empowering Parliament to make laws for the ‘peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’, prohibiting discrimination ‘on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin’, and recognising that the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage’.

End of background

The reason I needed the background, even if you didn’t, is that Noel Pearson isn’t concerned here with those details, but his essay needs at least some of it to be understood. His concern, as I understand it, is to lay out general principles that will appeal to a broad audience of thoughtful Australians, including crucially those who identify as conservative. He brings his lawyerly training and extraordinarily wide reading to the task.

The goal of appealing to conservatives has some unfortunate by-products. Readers of delicate constitution might skip a rhapsodic paean to Rupert Murdoch and Chris Mitchell’s Australian on pages 53–54 without missing much, and likewise page 57 where he sprays someone he calls ‘the left’ with intemperate sarcasm (elsewhere the sarcasm is more muted, but ‘the left’ remains mostly unspecified and beneath argument). It would be a shame if these moments were taken to represent the essay as a whole.

I won’t try to summarise his arguments, except to say that he makes a case for calling what has happened in Australia genocide; he points out that contrary to Captain Cook’s orders, this continent was not taken possession of ‘with the Consent of the Natives’ – there was no consent – which leaves the question of sovereignty politically if not legally unresolved; he explores the implications of parliamentary democracy for a group that is an ‘extreme minority’; he lays out a nuanced concept of multiple, layered identities; he makes some broad brush stroke structural proposals for how Indigenous voices can be heard in political decisions made about Indigenous people; he lays out ‘an agenda for the classical culture of ancient Australia’. The essay is passionate, questing and challenging, and transcends any political stoushes that may surround it.

Pearson begins with an invocation of Yolngu Petition submitted to Kevin Rudd in 2008, and goes on to quote Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s Monthly article from the end of that year, which he describes as ‘an existential prayer’. He then lists a number of Aboriginal people who have, like Yunupingu, agitated for inclusion in the Australian Commonwealth over many decades. It’s a profoundly respectful acknowledgement of those who have gone before him.

Curiously, from that point on the essay barely refers to other Indigenous Australian contributions to the current discussion. Exceptions are a one line quote from Michael Mansell – ‘the British had more impact on Aborigines than the Holocaust had on the Jews’ – and the description of a cultural preservation project being taken on by Rachel Perkins. He mentions his colleagues on the Expert Panel on Constitutional cognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples, but doesn’t name them.

Instead, the essay engages primarily with European and settler viewpoints, at times drawing on their insights at others differing sharply. Pearson quotes H G Wells (whose War of the Worlds was inspired by the invasion of Tasmania), Trollope, Darwin and Dickens consigning Australian Aboriginal peoples to inevitable extinction. He quotes WEH Stanner’s famous passage about Australia’s ‘cult of forgetfulness’. He differs from Inga Clendinnen, Henry Reynolds, Bain Attwood on whether there has been genocide in Australia, basing his argument on English historian Tom Lawson’s The Last Man. German philosopher Johann Herder (1744–1803), Indian economist Amartya Sen, British contrarian conservative Roger Scruton (recently a guest of the  Institute of Public Affairs), and anthropologist Peter Ucko get guernseys. Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt are accorded something approaching respect, and a ‘felicitous phrase’ is quoted from George W Bush.

I don’t know how convincing the hard-line conservative echelons will find Pearson’s arguments. Very, I hope. I also hope that his slanting the argument towards that readership won’t deter readers not committed to the culture wars, or at least not to the ‘conservative’ side, from reading and engaging with this essay.
And then there’s the correspondence on the previous Quarterly Essay, Andrew Charlton’s The Dragon’s Tail, which was given extra bite by recent consumer activity in my house. Just before the September issue arrived, the Art Student and I had finally been persuaded to ditch our seven year old 27 inch LCD television set and buy a bigger, smarter, more environment-friendly LED TV. As it happened, we gave the old set and its four year old set top box away on Freecycle, so they will still be consuming energy, just not in our house. As I was throwing out the receipts for the old gear, I saw that its combined cost was nearly three times that of the new. Which brought to mind Andrew Charlton:

ten years ago, a shipload of iron ore exported to China was worth about the same as 2200 flat-screen televisions imported from China. Today the same shipment of ore is worth 22 000 flat-screen televisions!

A striking enough illustration of his point in June had become personal by September. None of the 30 odd pages of correspondence this quarter is personal in quite that way, though it seems that many of these people know each other from working together as advisers to Labor politicians, or as ALP parliamentarians themselves. The main take-home I got from the correspondence is that John Edwards’s Beyond the Boom, published at about the same time as Charlton’s essay, challenges of the received wisdom about the boom that preceded the global financial crisis of 2008, arguing that while – as is generally acknowledged – the Howard government frittered away the benefits on tax cuts, people in general were smarter than the government so that domestic savings increased with healthy results for the economy. There’s quite a bit of argie-bargie among economists, who find fault with each other’s charts and sampling methods so that in the end one is confirmed in one’s suspicion that economics is largely about obfuscation.

Among the correspondence there’s a curious moment in a piece from former banker Satyajit Das. The ‘reply’, which barely mentions Charlton’s essay and is in effect its own lecture on the state of the Australian economy, cites the comparison of iron ore and TV sets, but attributes it differently:

On 29 November 2010 … the governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens [said]: ‘[In 2005], a shipload of iron ore was worth about the same as about 2,200 flat-screen television sets. [In 2010] it is worth around 22,000 flat-screen TV sets.’ In a Freudian slip, the governor had identified the fundamental issue with Australia’s economic model. Australia may have substantially wasted the proceeds of its mineral boom, with the proceeds channelled into consumption.

Is Das tacitly accusing Charlton of plagiarism, or quietly reproaching him for not naming his sources? Has Charlton repeated Stevens’s ‘Freudian slip’? (The invocation of Freud makes no sense to me, and after a quick look at the Glenn Stevens speech, it makes it even less sense.) Perhaps Charlton’s failure to mention Das in his ‘Response to Correspondence’ was a bit of tit for tat.

Heat 23, Overland 200 and Asia LR 17

The ‘dead white male’ critique of Western Civ […] did not lead, as many of us had hoped, to a new internationalism, but rather to a new form of nationalism that emphasised hyphenated Americans. Chinese-Americans and Chicanos were now part of  the intellectual universe, which was fine as far as it went, but Chinese and Mexicans were still excluded. Multiculturalism was, and is, not very multicultural at all.
(Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Post-National Writer’ in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale)

I’ve just read three literary journals whose roots lie respectively in a rejection of Australian xenophobia, in Communism with its commitment to internationalism and in a mission to publish Asian writing in English. Although we don’t do hyphens in quite the same way as the US, it seems reasonable to see how these journals stack up against Weinberger’s complaint.

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 23: Two to Go (September 2010)

This issue of Heat is atypical in not including any work in translation. Multicultural themes are addressed, but very little attention is paid to the world beyond our shores. There’s not even any travel writing, unless you count Vanessa Berry’s ‘Dark Tourism: Three Graveyard Tales’, in which the author visits two graves and strolls in a London cemetery (in a piece that might have been more accurately titled ‘Mildly Crepuscular Travels with my Mum’).

Turkish born, ethnically Greek Melburnian Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Salam Cafe and the Great Burqa Debate’ might seem to fit Weinberger’s description of Clayton’s multiculturalism pretty well – a non-Muslim man joins the argument about what Muslim women should or shouldn’t be allowed or made to wear. But he puts the lie to that pigeonholing by acting as a conduit for Muslim points of view, drawing on his childhood memories of Turkey and his time as a student in Istanbul, and discussing burqa-related artworks by Muslims Shadi Ghadirian (a woman) and Kader Attia (a man, whose ‘Kasbah’ was shown in this year’s Sydney Biennale).

Weinberger’s aspersions might also seem to apply to Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s story, ‘The Hat Dance’, the piece that comes closest to the kind of hyphenation he dislikes. But this account of a dust-up in an extended family living in Western Sydney is so gloriously exuberant only some kind of Diversity Bean-counter could fail to relish it.

Of course, Heat doesn’t claim to fill a hypothetical Diversity Quota in every issue, and there’s no reason it should. Its characteristic approach to fostering diversity is by presenting crosscultural encounters, an approach I’m fairly sure Weinberger would approve of. Kakmi’s piece is an example of that approach. So is Michael Atherton’s portrait of Harry (christened Charalambos) Vatiliotis, who lives in the Sydney suburb of Croydon and makes classical violins in the manner of Stradivere, each one a unique work of art. Cassi Plate quotes from letters of Costas Tachtis, Greek novelist who lived for some years in Australia, and his friend Carl Plate, an Australian artist: ‘The letters,’ she writes, ‘take us into a cosmopolitan world within the heart of what is often assumed to be parochial 1950s Sydney.’ Maybe cosmopolitanism is a better word than diversity for the thing that Heat does so well.

Cosmopolitanism can incorporate voices from elsewhere, and also bring a sharp eye to bear on the local, as Peter Doyle’s fascinating ‘Bashful City: Sydney’s Covert Criminality‘ does to photographs from the archives of Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum.  It can also include intensely place-specific writing like  Mark Tredinnick’s review of  Judith Beveridge’s most recent book of poetry, in which, incidentally, he compares her to a shark and a Philip Marlowe thug, and convincingly means both as compliments.

I do worry about Heat‘s copy editing and proof reading. There’s curiousity, practicing (though correct Australian usage practises elsewhere), an umbilical chord. Someone is heard cluttering in his garage. In Robert Adamson’s delicately poised ‘The Coriander Fields of Long Bay Penitentiary’, a with is repeated over a line break – I know it’s poetry, but that’s just a mistake. One article has this near the beginning: ‘It is one of the great dividers between the civilised among us: those of impeccable taste.’ I wasn’t interested enough in the article’s subject – taxidermy – to endure whatever came after that.

Jeff* Sparrow (editor), Overland 200 (Spring 2010)

The first issues of Overland, published in 1954,carried the slogan ‘Temper democratic; Bias, Australian’, hardly a promise of cultural diversity or cosmopolitanism. But as a project of the mainly Communist Realist Writers’ Group, the journal had a commitment to internationalism. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of that in this anniversary issue, unless you count a deference to Europe and the US. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that: for instance, Alison Croggon’s ‘How Australian Is It?‘ talks with her characteristic clarity and generosity about the way much of our theatre has opened out to the world, freed from constricting preoccupations with national identity but distinctively Australian all the same. On the other hand, when Clive Hamilton characterises the Australian as an agent of ‘the Republicans’ war on climate science’, he implies – perhaps intentionally – that in this matter Australia is humiliatingly no more than an arena in which US battles are being fought. There’s a fair whack of ‘theory’**, enough to create a gnawing sense of Australia as a site for the application of theory developed elsewhere – no sign of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory here. (The most theory-rich piece, Alwyn Crawford’s ‘Permanent Daylight‘, which deals with the intimate connection between capitalism and anorexia, is nevertheless compelling reading because of a ballast of passionate personal testimony.) Christos Tsiolkas is the Literary Big Gun of this issue, with a short story about the market in European art, but I found it unreadable (that is to say, I couldn’t tell what the story was trying to do, whether it was a spoof or something else very dull). There’s no non-European voice, and little interest in non-European culture: one piece, by a non-Muslim, quoting no Muslim voices, uses the Western burqa debate as a springboard for theoretical reflections on the visibility or otherwise of women in the West; Jacinda Woodhead gives us an attractive profile of Melbourne rapper-comedians Fear of a Brown Planet (there’s a wonderful YouTube clip of one of them here); Kabul is mentioned in one article, but it’s in a quote from an organisation aimed at creating a market for US cosmetics there.

So Weinberger’s kind of internationalism isn’t overwhelmingly evident in Overland. The three outstanding pieces, in fact, aren’t even particularly multicultural. Chris Graham does a demolition job on Noel Pearson in ‘Telling whites what they want to hear‘. Graphic novelist Bruce Mutard re-tells a story from Overland 1: the story is ‘Nine O’clock Finish’ by John Morrison, a marvellous socialist realist writer, and the resulting 8-page comic is to weep. Janette Turner Hospital’s short story ‘Weird People’ is a tour de force centred on the captain of a tourist boat that takes mainly US tourists out to look at humpback whales off the coast of New South Wales – I suppose it could be read as a protest against our cultural client-state identity.

In Overland, though less so than in Heat, proofreading is a worry: ‘haute bourgeois’, the Communications Minster, and at least one article written in an academic style that apparently defeated all attempts to wrangle it into English.

* In a classic example of Mruphy’s law, when I first put this up, I misspelled Mr Sparrow’s first name – immediately after whingeing about someone else’s poor copy editing. I’ve fixed it now
**  Writers referred to include Ariel Levy (North American liberal feminist), Nina Power (British philosopher and feminist), Mark Fisher (British cultural theorist), Guy Debord (French theorist), Sheila Rowbotham (British feminist historian), Edward Said (the exception that tests the rule and finds that it holds up), Naomi Baron (US linguistics professor).


Stephen McCarty(editor), Asia Literary Review 17 ([Northern] Autumn 2010)

It’s a telling confirmation of Weinberger’s generalisation that the ALR’s web page header reads ‘Asia Literary Review – Asian American writing’, apparently promising US-ers that they can read it without danger of encountering anything genuinely foreign. Happily, it’s a false promise.

From the beginning, there’s no doubt that we’ve left the leisurely contemplation of anti-grand abstractions far behind. US-expat journalist Robbie Corey Boulet kicks off with a report on the first case tried – in 2009! –  by the tribunal set up to deal with ‘those most responsible’ for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Itself a fine combination of court-reporting, historical background and interviews with people still looking for answers about their murdered relatives, it is followed a few items later by a suite of poems by Peauladd Huy whose parents were murdered by that regime and who now lives in the USA. And it finds a grim echo at the end of the journal, in an excerpt from Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which draws on archival sources to explore the terror and violence of the Great Leap Forward (‘at least 45 million people worked, starved or beaten to death’). There are other pairings, including a story and a photo essay about floods in the Philippines. A good bit of the ALR probably amounts to armchair dark tourism – much stronger medicine than the piece wearing that label in Heat.  The one actual piece of travel writing – about Mount Merapi, a Javan volcano –  has enough disastrous loss of life for the darkest tourist sensibilities.

There aren’t many laughs, but there’s plenty of wit and imagination: ‘Youth-in-Asia‘,  a story set in Korea by Canadian Ron Schafrick, delivers on its punning title; Priya Basil’s ‘Losing Their Religion‘ is a quietly entertaining memoir of religious conversion and un-conversion that spans three continents; GB Prabhat’s ‘The Silencer‘ gives us a clever inversion of  celebrity stalking.

There is no Australian presence, apart from two full-page ads, for the Melbourne Writers Festival (featuring a Hokusai wave) and Heat (‘Australia’s only international literary journal’) respectively.  Insert your own ironic comment.

One sentence leaps out to meet my eye.  Jonathan Watts, an English journalist, moved from Korea to Beijing in 2003. His interviewer James Kidd tells us:

The signs of conspicuous pollution made an immediate impression: a keen runner, Watts found himself wheezing after a short jog; a father, he was alarmed when his two daughters were not allowed outside during breaks at their Beijing school. It was China that taught him to fear for the future of the planet.

I’m not sure I can afford to keep up my subscriptions to all three of these journals. I was thinking of letting my subscription to Asia Literary Review lapse – but it’s teaching me to think in terms of the whole planet

Mungo on Kevin

Mungo MacCallum, Australian Story: Kevin Rudd and the lucky country (Quarterly Essay issue 36, 2009)

Mungo MacCallum is now, according to the blurb of this Quarterly Essay, one of Australia’s most influential political journalists. He was probably already influential all those years ago when he was telling Nation Review readers how well Prime Minister Gough Whitlam filled a pair of swimming trunks, but now he is an elder. Mercifully, he is also still a bit of a smart Aleck.

There are no hints here about Kevin Rudd’s physical endowments – the essay’s main interest is in the nature of his appeal to voters. The essay quotes poetry, mainly bush verse, including a savage parody of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’:

He was poisoning the water when he chanced upon a slaughter
So he joined in patriotically to massacre and rape
And he sees the vision splendid of the native problem ended
and a land made safe for cattle from Tasmania to the Cape.

The essay takes the odd potshot at contrarian right-wing columnists. It produces some fabulous quotes, including for example a definition of a modern progressive as ‘a fella that stumbles forward every time somebody shoves him’. (Sadly there are no footnotes, so we often don’t know what wits are being quoted – I’m guessing Mungo himself did the Paterson parody.)

That is to say, there’s a lot to enjoy in this essay. It also has substance – of an airy sort. It deals with policy, that’s true, and Kevin Rudd’s largely successful response of the GFC, but mainly it argues that he taps into some deeply held myths about what it means to be Australian – egalitarianism, fairness, the larrikin–dutiful citizen dichotomy, that reluctant progressiveness, ‘fervent, if understated, nationalism’. ‘For all his nerdiness and prolixity,’ he concludes,

there is something very Australian about him, and the voters recognise it. In a totally unexpected way, Rudd has given them back their Lucky  Country – and this time not in a spirit of irony, but one of self-belief.

Hmmm … But I enjoyed the ride.

This issue also includes the 2009 Quarterly Essay Lecture, ‘Is Neo-Liberalism finished?’ a search for the meaning of what he calls the Great Recession by the chair of the editorial board, Robert Manne. The lecture isn’t as much fun as the title essay, covers some of the same ground, occasionally manages to be incomprehensible when explaining (yet again) how the Great Recession came about. Where MacCallum takes cheerfully bitter potshots, Manne eviscerates in earnest.

And then there’s correspondence about Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope. A number of the correspondents join in Pearson’s left-liberal bashing, and there’s a certain amount of jockeying for position from politicians and activists. Voices from the old Howard Government era talk of Pearson’s pre-eminence as an Aboriginal public voice on the national scene, without mentioning that the deliberate dismantling of ATSIC had destroyed any more organised and representative voice. Christine Nicholls, former principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendemu, is the only educationalist to write a substantial response, and she does a brilliant job of respectfully taking Pearson to task for his straw-man arguments against ideologically driven educationists. The only Aboriginal voice is that of Chris Sarra, who gently chides Pearson for dismissing elements of his own educational work without having ever visited it. Over all, the correspondence confirms that Pearson’s conversation is mainly with conservative white leaders, but it also shows him as eager to do more than simply pontificate as a lone voice.

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.

Audacity and education

Noel Pearson, Radical Hope: Education and equality in Australia (Quarterly Essay Nº 35, Black Inc 2009)

qeradicalhopeOur household is the kind where people yell at the television. When Noel Pearson came on screen recently to talk about the subject of this essay, there was yelling. The aroma he acquired from cosying up to John w Howard in a previous era hasn’t yet dissipated, so them that yelled weren’t about to give him the benefit of the doubt when he seemed to be denying the effect of, say, foetal alcohol syndrome of school results. And Pearson’s regular attribution of a multitude of Aboriginal ills to what he calls the middle-class Left isn’t designed to win friends.

It’s harder, though not impossible, to yell at the printed page, and a sustained piece of writing stands a chance of being more carefully reasoned than a TV sound bite, so I approached this Quarterly Essay with cautious optimism. And indeed, there’s a lot of very good stuff in it. There’s quite a bit of deliberate provocation as well, such as:

Over the years I have often told people that there is a rough rule of thumb when it comes to examining the nostrums and prescriptions of the middle-class Left (black and white): whatever they say our people should do, we should look at approximately the opposite, because that will usually be the right thing to do.

I’ve always found it hard to read straw-man arguments, and surely that’s what this is. Coming to the essay pretty much ignorant of current educational debates, I am in no position to evaluate the detailed heart of its argument about what is to be done about Aboriginal inequality in education. I hope that beneath the occasional pugnacity, it plays a useful role. I know nothing, for instance, about Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction approach to education of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, in which Pearson places great theoretical and practical store. Pearson portrays him as a lone, successful evidence-based educationalist crying in the wilderness of vested (middle-class Left) interests that constitutes the educational establishment. He may be right. How would I know? Yet Pearson’s account of the DI approach sounds awfully like the explicit and systematic approach to literacy of the National Literacy Strategy., which as far as I know is being assiduously promulgated, even prescribed, by that same educational establishment. It makes me wonder if the lone voice strategy might not be counter-productive, as well as a little disingenuous. As Pearson writes, on page 77:

Many debates about reality and its characterisation are relatively healthy and rational and we can readily agree that they should submit to scientific resolution. It is when interests are strong that irrationality and ideology come to hold an awesome sway, and science, even when it offers illumination, is gamely denied.

Pearson’s interests are strong, and it would be weird if they weren’t. His concern to transform the hideous circumstances facing Aboriginal people on Cape York and throughout Australia is palpable. This essay’s faults come at least in part from that passionate concern. It’s confrontational, demanding and sarcastic, as well as erudite, personal and engaged. While its main thrust is practical, it often broadens out in surprising ways. I love this, from the final paragraphs:

The Enlightenment was not and is not at its core a European illumination: it is a human illumination. Its origins in Europe should not blind us to its human meaning and implications. The Enlightenment forced the Europeans to change their  societies and cultures in fundamental ways. It forced societies and cultures beyond Europe  to make the same change. The Enlightenment never mandated deracination or ethnic or religious assimilation or cleansing – all societies that have made this change  have left space enough for religion and social and cultural diversity. […] Radical hope for the future of Aboriginal Australia … will require the bringing together of the Enlightenment and Aboriginal culture. This reconciliation is not of necessity assimilation: just ask the Jews.