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April 2, 2010

" cannot creep the chasm; you must leap it..."

In 1897 Alfred Deakin urged decisiveness in the slow grind toward federation. Indigenous affairs have also become a slow grind. As in Deakin's day, people pass off "tinkering around the edges" as reform. Proposals creep along, yet are promoted as if representing a leap forward. Aboriginal spokesperson Noel Pearson has read the political climate and offered several elements of a plan.

Pearson's primary critique of government policy is that it promotes a "passive welfare" mentality. Institutions of indigenous societies have suffered sustained assault. Successive policies have dismembered the family, debased indigenous leaders, suffocated accountable Aboriginal decision-making, and inhibited indigenous systems of justice. In short, the bedrock of all civilizations -- culture -- was devalued and, in most instances, government policies were promoted as the replacement.

Today, indigenous lives are dominated by bureaucrats and departments. To achieve sustainable change in indigenous Australia, this imbalance must be corrected. Whereas mainstream voters choose between the political parties of small or big government, indigenous peoples are offered the fool's choice -- different shades of the same dominant intervention of government into everyday lives.

In my view, the centerpiece of Pearson's argument has a fundamental flaw -- it doesn't matter a stitch if we change the focus from "passive welfare" to "partnerships." Pearson's plan requires the government to change its policies. It requires the government to redirect its resources. It requires the government to change how it acts at the grassroots level. But having government at the center of indigenous lives is, if we remember my original criticism, precisely the cause of our continuing disadvantage. This disadvantage will not be resolved merely by having government assume a different pose. A genuinely radical proposal would dare to imagine an indigenous Australia with minimal government presence.

Indigenous Australia deserves a development model that features balance -- not continued dominance by the Commonwealth and States/Territories. Waiting for the government to deliver is to condemn ourselves to a repeat of the last three decades. Only Aboriginal peoples can create sustainable community change. In most instances, this change is more likely when it occurs independent of government. The wharfies of Darwin in 1951 and the stockmen of the Pilbara in 1946 didn't wait for the government to observe the principle of equal pay for equal work. These Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men, with the support of their wives and families, forced change.

Too often people give away their power. To retain power is to also retain the responsibility for making change happen. As indigenous peoples, we must expect each other to make change happen. We must expect our elected leaders to make change happen. Most important of all, and this must happen first, we must change ourselves. We should stop expecting government to change. We should not expect business to change. We should not wait for communities to change -- if we really want change then we must change ourselves first, and we must assume the responsibility to drive this change.

We can draw inspiration from the peoples of Cummeragunga who paid no regard to the mission manager by walking away in 1939. We can follow the example of the workers of Yarrabah and their strike in 1979. We can draw strength from the Gurindji at Wave Hill and the campaigners for the 1967 Referendum. These people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, bore the responsibility for shifting their own circumstances.

Once individuals have decided to change, what's next? At this point the ideas begin to sound familiar, but I make some distinctions. First, specifics and details matter. If ideas are not well-considered they are likely to fail. Second, the task is not an easy one, but we have examples of successful efforts in our history to inspire us. Third, change begins at home. We must begin by making changes in the communities where we live and we must celebrate where this is already happening. We should celebrate the strength of ordinary people living ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances.

In the business of capacity-building, only the self-motivated should be involved. If you are happy with your current circumstances, then we don't need to work with you. On the other hand, if you are unhappy with your current lot in life and want to change, then you are the first person we want to speak with. Self-selection is the most effective way to identify agents of change. The will to change is the most critical feature of success -- people that want better for themselves or their families or their communities do amazing things to achieve better outcomes. I have been inspired by a young Aboriginal woman who, although homeless and without her family, dreamed of finishing high school. This remarkable woman is now at university.

In contrast to the Pearson proposal, I am suggesting that progress be predicated on the efforts of indigenous peoples, not the will of the government of the day. Another re-working of public sector policy is fruitless. A leap in our thinking must take place whereby we begin planning for indigenous lives free of government.

Reform can start on three fronts. First, remove structural impediments, i.e. total dependence on public sector funding. Remaining dependent on government programs chains us to the treadmill of grant applications. In many cases, making this break will mean doing less with less money. It will also mean seeking out alternative sources of support -- individual benefactors, philanthropists, even self-funding through local fundraising. Is it hard? You bet. Has it been done before? Sure has. A couple of campaigners who worked the 1967 Referendum recalled a speaking tour that took them to three capital cities, in three states, during four days, in one car, and on one meal. Their efforts were sustained by conviction, not sponsored by "travel allowances."

Second, revive the indigenous private and community-controlled sectors. For example, create true NGOs under indigenous control; create greater private sector activity through small business or micro-credit. The greater the growth of these sectors, the greater the prospects for indigenous peoples. Third, encourage initiatives that revitalize indigenous public institutions and networks. For example, promote indigenous languages and culture; create peer-based learning; and promote institutions that bridge indigenous and non-indigenous Australia, such as indigenous professional associations.

The central assumption in this approach is that only indigenous peoples can secure these outcomes. Obviously, assistance from non-indigenous peoples is welcome, but ultimately the task rests on the shoulders of indigenous peoples. Elements of this approach reach into areas where government has assumed, and will fiercely defend, a role. In this instance government must be responsible for its own reform. I think most Australians would be happy if government got around to simply delivering the essentials to its citizens -- both black and white. Enough of the fancy policy documents how about an adequate health system, better schools, safe roads and clean water?

Accountability in indigenous affairs should be the same as in any other area of government -- no less, no more. Targets should reflect our desire for change. For example, we should expect that a minimum of, say, 90 percent of the public sector purse allocated to indigenous affairs actually be released to community-level organizations instead of being sopped up by other government agencies. The Commonwealth government could assume the powers accorded to it under the 1967 Referendum versus presiding over the continued wasting of precious taxpayer funds through Commonwealth/State duplication.

The debate should move away from government. We should dedicate time and energy to ideas that rebuild and support indigenous-controlled initiatives. We should recognize the work of indigenous leaders at the community level. Many indigenous peoples are already dedicated to creating lives flee from government. These people are looking across the chasm. More small steps along the path of letting government assume the center of indigenous lives have taken us as far as we can go.

Now is the time to leap the chasm.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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