A new crossroads in the relationship of Indigenous Australians and Australia as a nation is currently being negotiated in a couple of arenas.
One arena is the Northern Territory emergency laws brought on by the Howard government on the back of the ‘Children are Sacred report”. Although the government didn’t follow the recommendations of that report, they cancelled the Racial Discrimination Act, and instituted a paternalistic ‘big mission’ type of process for all indigenous people living in remote Aboriginal communities, even those working in professional jobs with commensurate salaries. There has much been already said about the costs of this intervention, its processes, and its outcomes. The Racial Discrimination Act is expected to be reinstalled by the Rudd Government later this year, and that will mean the intervention will have to change course significantly or become the target of legal suit.
The other arena is newer and involves a looming political fight between the Director of an organisation called the Cape York Institute and the Queensland Government and the Australian Wilderness Society. The director, Noel Pearson, is the son of a mission community on Cape York called ‘Hopevale’. The outcome of being raised on this mission I that he has achieved an educational status and prominence in Australia, that few Aboriginal people could realistically aspire. To my admiration, he has applied that status and education to developing the Cape York Institute for the socio-economic development of the Cape York Communities. Yet he has recently decided to take a leave of absence from the Institute, to mount a legal battle against the Qld government’s recent placing several ‘wild rivers’ under protection, and nominating the Cape for World Heritage listing. The argument against such protection are several: that protection of the wild rivers contravenes indigenous rights, that protection of the Cape York wilderness will preclude economic development important for the improvement of the lives of Aboriginal communities, and that, even with protection, the State government will look after certain business interests above Aboriginal or environmental interests.
Everyone in this argument, apart from some given to a propaganda approach, (Tony Koch, The Weekend Australian May 23-24 2009, p8), understands that either side has very important issues to solve, and credible evidence for their argument. Yet this crossroads raises a more important issue. There is a trend among Indigenous leaders to explain their position from the point of view that they or their organisation is the only one who should be allowed to make the policy on an issue relating to Indigenous people. Yet, almost to a one, whenever I hear this argument, it is soon revealed that there are significant flaws in the capacity or the will of such organisations to consult with the Indigenous communties they purport to represent. It doesn’t take much investigation (Tony Koch might like to do some legwork here) to show that many non-government and government organisations have consultative processes with Aboriginal communities. Noone is saying these are perfect, but as a collective they give a more realistic view of Cape York Aboriginal community desires, than any one organisation along, certainly more than any one Aboriginal leader.
As important, the recommendation from some Aboriginal leaders that other Citizens of Australia should relegate their responsibility for ensuring that this nation’s development not only achieves equity as soon as possible, but that the process for achieving development, doesn’t kill the nation’s or local communities well-being into the future.
There is a lot of support for the pluralist political process and the legal challenge. This is becoming an increasing poor method for ensuring the progress of a nation. The challenge for leaders of all ilk is whether they can perservere at the table of policy development to ensure that Australia’s development if for all its people and for perpetuity.