Saturday, June 09, 2018

Cynical about treaties

First the usual disclaimer:   like most white Australians, I don't have any detailed knowledge about aboriginal community management, particularly in the Northern Territory.   So anyone who does is welcome to call my comments ignorant and ill informed.

That said - I am completely cynical about the latest round of "but if only we can get the aboriginal communities involved in decision making process, then everything will start to get better" talk that has culminated in the Northern Territory starting a "treaty process":
On Friday the chief minister of the territory, Michael Gunner, arrived at Barunga festival to sign an agreement to undertake a treaty process that he called “an open slate. We will start with nothing on or off the table.”

Gunner’s message was also directed at his own side of the table. “Change of this order may be the hardest within government itself. We’re the biggest risk.

“So I’m saying to the departments, this is non-negotiable. The old way is finished.”
“At the pace communities are comfortable, the government is ceding decision-making power back to where it belongs – the communities.”

Gunner told the crowd he was proud to have signed the memorandum of understanding, calling it “the most significant Aboriginal affairs reform in the NT this generation”.

“It is right we lead this process because it is decent, because we are alive to Aboriginal culture like no other jurisdiction, but also because it is smart. Treaty – reconciliation, healing, empowerment – is fundamentally good for every Territorian.”
We seem to be in some sort of perpetual cycle of "government will cede more control to communities/elders/land councils and that will improve everything"  to "hey, wait: the way we've set this up just isn't working - maybe governments need to take more direct control here"  and back to "this time, when government cedes more control to the communities/elders/land councils it will improve everything."  The cycle period seems to be around 20 - 30 period.    We are currently in a period where the "ceding more control is the answer" is on the upswing again.

The immediate problem I see with this feel good talk from Gunner is that the communities aren't truly going to be able to control the source of their money - government revenue and budgeting - so telling them they're going to have real power to make all important decisions is pretty illusory.   I would bet my last dollar that it is still going to be a case of "well, of course it would be ideal if residents in this isolated community X didn't have to go to town Y to get service Z - but there's only so much money to go around.  Someone has to make the tough, financially constrained, decision."

And surely it's not as if Northern Territory departments over the last 40 years haven't tried consultative engagement with the representative community groups of the day.

I don't want to sound like a letter writer to The Australian on this issue, but there does seem to be an inordinate amount of fanciful thinking along the lines "if just we can get the way Aboriginal voices are reflected in decision making right, everything will be better."   And the problem is that all of the effort wasted on "getting the model right" must be wasteful of money and effort that could be put into more productive things.

Some things are pretty obvious:

*  isolated communities with no ties to economic activity (and which cannot sustain themselves with local farming and maintenance)  are never going to easily survive as healthy, good places to live or visit - regardless of the colour or race of the resident.  

*  aboriginal groups and representatives are never of unified voice and argue a lot amongst themselves.   No representative system is going to be perfect - find one that is modest in cost, not obviously capable of easy corruption, and stick with it - but don't ever imagine that it will keep everyone happy.

*  the alcohol, drug and social problems are typical of what you see in indigenous communities around the world  which suffer the culture shock of being suddenly hit by modernity.  Pride in maintaining at least elements of previous culture might help, but it's been tried everywhere and is certainly no cure all.  Obsessing too much about culture - going on about cultural appropriation and whinging if an aboriginal word is obscured on a magazine cover - is utterly unproductive and self -indulgent to the real problems.

*  pinning hopes on changes to representation in government decisions is just rearranging the deck chairs on a ship that, if not actually sinking, is always going to be barely seaworthy, springing leaks everywhere.

1 comment:

John said...

Excellent points at the end.