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Racism Against Aborigines in Australia

The problem of advocacy

Australia spends almost $3,500, 000,000 dollars each year on programs designed to reduce Aboriginal disadvantage yet by the federal government’s own measures, disadvantage is increasing. Despite the failure of past policies and ideological approaches, there remains so much certainty about current campaigns that it is almost taboo to question them. Logically speaking, with so much past failure, no one should be confident of succeeding where so many have failed. Furthermore, more discussion may be needed for a tradition of failure to have any chance of becoming a tradition of success.

The taboo on offering explanations for the failure can be attributed to a culture of advocacy driven by academic thought makers. Perhaps some academics have became advocates as it has allowed them to participate in an intellectual faction that has increased their h-index (university ranking attained by having a academic paper cited by a peer - usually by a peer that thinks the same.) Perhaps others have had so much faith in their theories that they could entertain the possibility that they should be questioned. Either way, their approach has been disempowering for targets of the campaigns, led to a combative intellectual culture that has been defined by abuse, it has cultivated a fertile environment for corruption, arguably created destructive myths, and finally, it has led to censorship that silences the voice of the targets.

Advocacy leading to victim disempowerment

Academic thought leaders sometimes communicate with politicians and funding bodies using a strategy known as Media Advocacy. As defined in the book Public Communication Campaigns (1), Media Advocacy uses the media to communicate messages that emphasize:

  1. Linking the problem to inequalities in society rather than flaws in the individual
  2. Changing public policy rather than personal behaviour
  3. Focussing on policy makers rather than those who have a problem
  4. Working with groups to increase participation and amplifying their voices
  5. Having a goal of reducing the power gap rather than filling the information gap

Naturally, the message is disempowering for the targets of the policy as it proposes that it is only via policy change that their lives will be improved.  If the policy is in fact positive, perhaps the disempowerment of the target could be justified as the policy change will improve their lives; however, when the policy is flawed, the campaign contributes to a sense of hopelessness in the victim that may dissuade them from taking ownership over their lives.  

Over the last 100 years, some of the policies aimed at addressing perceived social flaws in Aboriginal communities have included passing laws that allow Aboriginal wages to be quarantined, prosecuting non-Aborigines who associate with Aborigines, prosecuting non-Aboriginal men who have sex with Aboriginal women, prosecuting non-Aboriginal men who supply alcohol to Aborigines, prosecuting non-Aborigines who supply pornography to Aborigines, banning the removal of Aborigines from their country (for things such as going on a sporting tour) and making Aboriginal children wards of the state. By the measures of contemporary social statistics, these policies have not been successful.  

Racism Against Aborigines in Australia

It is important to acknowledge that Aborigines are not the only stakeholders in policies designed for them. Those who design or fund the programs will gain status for being part of a worthy cause and remunerated for their involvement. Even if the policy harms Aborigines, the later will still benefit in an environment where there is support for the intention to make a positive difference without accountability that demands that a positive difference actually be achieved.

Advocacy cultivating a culture of abuse

Advocacy can be enhanced by caricaturing an evil opponent that needs to be eradicated for the prosperous world to come about. Such caricaturing rallies people in support as it provides social esteem for those who support the cause, not only because they believe in the cause, but because they believe their group is morally superior to the caricatured group in opposition.

Unfortunately, when advocacy enters universities, it can make the intellectual industries highly abusive instead of being open to the free flow of information, the proposition of theories and the discussion of ideas. Robert Manne, voted Australia’s leading intellectual in 2005 by his peers, acknowledged the abusive nature of Australian intellectual culture when he said,

"I mean the main thing the history wars did was to force everyone into kind of simplifications and into a kind of battleground and most people who've written the history of the dispossession say over the last 20 or 30 years knew that a kind of combative atmosphere was an enemy of truth and an enemy of nuance." (2)

Ironically, Robert Manne was an active participant in the combative intellectual culture and did a great deal to fan the blames by caricaturing dissenting academics as "right-wingers" and "deniers". Nevertheless, the fact that he acknowledged the combative climate suggested that he hoped for an alternative way.

In 2008, Paul Kelly, editor of The Australian, likewise identified the abusive culture and how it was devoid of much of the virtue that it claimed to possess:

" I think that one of the problems with the public intellectual class in this country as I see it is that they have been too hostile or suspicious of the policies which have underpinned our successes over the course of the last 25 to 30 years and they have been quite unhelpful in helping us address our policy failures...I think that the task of intellectuals is to clarify, is to inform, is to enlighten, is to guide public debate in an effective and intelligent way and I think far too often what we get is a polemic. A polemic which is designed to create anger and indignation, a polemic which doesn't enlighten or clarify at all." (3)

Advocacy leading to fraud

Because they are not considered with critical eyes, advocacy campaigns anchored in moral empowerment are conducive to moral corruption and fraud. In the middle ages, this was seen with the Church ordering that the perceived heretics be executed. In Communist regimes, it was seen with critics being sent to work camps or executed. Although Australia doesn’t have dissenters being executed, there does seem to be a lack of critical thinking in response to advocacy. This has made it easy for advocates to corrupt the ideals they claim to support.

Sometimes the moral corruption has resulted in individuals lining their own pockets rather than using money to help a target. For example, in 2006 it was reported that the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs spent $327,784 to administer funding of just $34,318. Likewise, in 2005, the NSW parliament heard allegations that the Hillsong Church received $415,000 in funding to run programs for the Riverstone Aboriginal Community, based around Blacktown in Sydney's west. The budget proposed that most of the $415,000 would pay the salary for the project officer and administration. Community activities, such as dance nights and social integration lessons, would account for only a few thousand dollars.

Although monetary corruption has been a significant problem in the implementation of policy, intellectual corruption has been problematic for the shaping of policy and public attitudes to it. For example, in 2002 Keith Windschuttle released The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, where he used empirical research to show that historians like Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan had fabricated statistics, used false citations, and misrepresented evidence for reasons best described as deliberate bias. The academic establishment came to the defence of Reynolds and Ryan, not by showing the Windschuttle was incorrect in his allegations, but by caricaturing him as a right-winger. In short, it didn't matter to them that Reynolds and Ryan had engaged in academic fraud that corrupted public attitudes because they weren't right wingers.

An inability to diagnose the cause of the problem so that it can be remedied

Advocates have to be wary of criticising the powerful because they ultimately wants the powerful to implement their policy. In the case of building support for policy targeted at Aborigines, the reluctance to criticise the powerful has led to vague references to the past that really don’t explain the present situation nor specifically name culpable people from the past or the present. For example, advocates justify the need for policy targeting Aborigines by defining the Aboriginal stereotype with negative social statistics. (Figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2010 showed that Aborigines 13 times as likely as non-Indigenous people of the same age to be in prison, Indigenous juveniles aged 10-17 years were 28 times as likely as non-Indigenous juveniles to have been detained, that the proportion of Indigenous 19 year olds who had completed Year 12 (or equivalent) was half that of non-Indigenous 19 year olds and Aboriginal infant mortality was more than twice the non-Indigenous infant mortality rate. (4))

Although it is very common to hear negative statistics being used to justify the need for policy targeted at Aborigines, it is rare to hear arguments about which historical factors resulted in the present outcome. At best, there are vague references to neglect, dispossession, frontier wars or bad policy by unnamed governments. In 1993, then Prime Minister Paul Keating channelled some of the vague explanations in his widely celebrated Redfern Speech when he said:

“It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.”

Arguably, many of Keating’s cited historical wrongs did not provide an adequate explanation for the present day statistics of disadvantage. That was not to say that history can not be used to explain the present; only that the wrong history was being used. For example, the line “we brought the alcohol” seemed to channel some academic beliefs that indigenous people struggle with alcohol because they have low levels of dehydrogenase in their liver to break down alcohol. In the past, such beliefs were to justify bans on the supply of alcohol to Aborigines. Informally, they are still used to justify bans in some regions of Australia today.

The problem with the biological explanation is that a large man has a significantly greater tolerance to alcohol than a small man or woman, yet may suffer significantly more from alcohol abuse due to irresponsible drinking. In other words, the problem is not biological capability; it is social attitudes associated with alcohol consumption. In the 18th century, there is evidence that suggests all sections of Australian society suffered from social problems associated with drink. Ironically, it might have been advocates prohibiting the supply of alcohol to Aborigines that resulted in alcoholism not being addressed amongst Aborigines the way it was in other sections of society. Specifically, it forced Aboriginal drinking underground. Instead of drinking in a pub where the custom of “the round” of beer could slow drinking out of financial or social considerations, Aborigines would get their hands on cheap booze and head to a park to drink it. Here young children could access booze that they couldn’t get in the pub, and individuals could drink until they passed out. Worst of all, drinking in the park lacked the protection of the security seen in the pub so if one drunk became violent, it was easy for the violence to spread. Being forced to buy illegally also might have encouraged Aborigines to buy the booze that gave them the maximum bang for their buck and which was easiest to carry. This tended to be spirits. Unfortunately, spirits tend to wreck much more havoc than beer (which moderates drinking by bloating the drinker.) In short, instead of saying "we brought the alcohol" which implies that alcohol and Aborigines don't mix, perhaps Keating should have said, "We were discriminatory in our alcohol bans."

Aboriginal Drinking Culture: Differences

When the sale of alcohol to Aborigines eventually became legal, separatism was a continuing legacy of the past ban. The above photos show white and black Australians drinking on opposite sides of a Darwin street and drinking different types of alcohol. Aborigines bought alcohol out of a window at the back of the bar called the “dog box”, a process of buying that originated when selling booze to Aborigines was illegal.


Cultivation of socially destructive myths

A great deal of psychological research suggests that attitudes to fathers shape a child’s self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, gender roles, sexual relationships, mental and emotional health, and achievements in school and career. This psychogical research has significant implications for the promotion of historical narratives that shape the assumptions that many mixed-race Aborigines make of their white fathers or grandfathers. The Stolen Genertions camapign is one such narrative that has shaped assumptions of white fathers and grandfathers, but may have shaped assumptions in a negative way. The campaign was started in 1981 by Peter Reid, a white historian from the University of Sydney, who coined the phrase ‘stolen generations’ in reference to these mixed race children that were raised in missions. The campaign was picked up by other academics and sections of the media to create a narrative that white fathers had abandoned their children and they were in turn "stolen" by Australians governments who put them in missions.  

Lowitja O’Donoghue, the former head of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC) and co-patron of the Stolen Generations Alliance, heard the campaign and assumed that she too had been “stolen.”  In a media interview, she stated that she was led to believe that her father had had a white family and wanted to hide the fact that he had five half caste children on the side. She also assumed that white police had stolen her from her mother as part of an assimilation policy. She also assumed that her mother would have been distressed by her theft but her father would not have cared. Finally, she stated that her father's culture meant nothing at all to her. (5)

After telling her story to Australia and campaigning for an apology, the Herald Sun newspaper researched her background and discovered that O'Donohue's parents lived together until the South Australian government amended the Aborigines Act to prosecute white men who were consorting with Aboriginal women. Tom O'Donohue (Lowitja's father) was convicted of carnal knowledge and fined £5 with 10 shillings costs. He was then forced to sell his lease, abandon his defacto wife of 20 years and move to Adelaide. Before he left, he placed Lowitja and her sisters in a mission and paid for their upkeep. In short, a loving family was broken apart because South Australian law makers were confronted by inter-racial relationships.

Both the fictional story that O’Donoghue grew up believing, as well as the truth that were eventually revealed, positioned her as a victim of a racist policy of the South Australian government; however, the true story was one that would have encouraged her to have a far more empathetic and respectful attitude to her absent father and a more nuanced attitude to her European ancestry than the mythical story she assumed.

While records existed to verify the truth of O’Donoghue’s story, for many mixed race individuals, a lack of records and/or inaccessibility to them, means they can only make assumptions about whether their white parent was forced to abandon his or her children due to anti-fraternisation laws or was just out for some black flesh without compassion for the children that came of it. Most psychologists would say that the former assumption would likely to lead to more balanced approaches to social relationships than the later. Unfortunately, the former narratives are not encouraged by advocacy campaigns because they would portray white men (and sometimes women) as victims deserving of some sympathy when most campaigns typically prefer to caricature them as the perpetrators.

Silencing of the targets' voices

A final problem associated with advocacy is the victims’ voices are silenced as their ‘brand’ is managed by the advocates. Specifically, targets of social policies need to be defined as victims so that they evoke sympathetic views but without any of the vices that could make them less likeable. In the case of Aboriginal advocacy, this had led to Aboriginal perspectives being virtually absent discussion of Australian narratives.

Admittedly, Aboriginal issues are extremely prominent in the narratives (as they are in this article), but what masquerades as an Aboriginal perspective is really an image that has been defined by others. For example, telling the story of the Myall Creek massacre of Aborigines is not an Aboriginal perspective; it is a story about Convict and settler society. Aborigines are the voiceless victims.

In regards to historical Aboriginal perspectives, some of the best examples are found in ethnographies written by anthropologists or in the archaeological record. These sources reveal groups of people living in a very different way to those in modern urban society. As is to be expected, the different way of living resulted in very different values, customs and spiritual attitudes to life. Among other things, the ethnographies deal with issues of how various tribes dealt with the threat of inbreeding by exchanging women between tribes, practised euthanasia on those no longer able to be nomadic, feuded with other tribes to build cultural identity and reconciled with other tribes to put feuds in the past. Ironically, these ethnographies have value because they show how ways of life are established under the operation of dissimilar circumstances. Unfortunately, this difference is potentially confronting to the morality of a 21st urbanite that advocates want to support their cause. The "noble savage" caricature is thus promoted in its place. The noble savage caricature originated in the 17th century and positioned Indigenous people as an "other" that had yet to be corrupted by the sins of modern life.

Admittedly, an ethnography is not an indigenous perspective; rather, it is only an interpretation of one that is usually put into a written or documentary format. From a cross-cultural communication perspective; however, ethnographies can be very useful for translating information about the culture into formats that can be understood by audiences from a different culture.

For many academics, taking the position of an advocate has some foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. One foreseeable consequences is being part of an intellectual faction that may lead to citations by other academics and a higher h-index. A second foreseeable consequence is more money in their bank accounts as funding bodies are persuaded that their words will lead to a betterment of society. The unforeseen consequences are how they words and policies will affect those they claim to be trying to help. Such is the record of failure in some policy areas of Australian advocacy, perhaps the more enlightened approach would be to concede that even the most certain of beliefs has room for uncertainty.

1)  Ronald E. Rice  (Editor), Charles K. Atkin (Editor) (2001) Public Communication Campaigns  Sage Publications

2)PM Calls for End of History Wars 27th of August 2009

3)Paul Kelly, Robert Manne discuss standards of Aust intellectuals 05/10/2007





Moral considerations

The problem of advocacy

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