White man’s democracy is a black man’s dysfunction
NATIONAL: A big part of the reason why Aboriginal people are so disadvantaged is because Aboriginal politics is so factionalised. At least, it is if you ask the average white Australian commentator.
I was reminded of this ‘white truth about black political life’ during a recent event at the National Press Club in Canberra, where Dr Dawn Casey was speaking on the future of Aboriginal economic development.
Dr Casey is the former head of the National Museum of Australia, and is now the chair of both Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC). As always, Dr Casey was eloquent, disarming and inspiring. Ever the optimist, she wanted to talk about positive ways forward for Aboriginal people. Of course, she was speaking at the National Press Club, with a room full of journalists. They prefer to talk about conflict and sh*t-fights. After all, that’s what sells newspaper.
After outlining some future opportunities in Aboriginal economic development, and some outstanding recent successes, particularly through the stewardship of IBA, Dr Casey took questions.
Some admittedly, were very good, with thoughtful posers about mining and job creation. Half of them, however, were not. Dr Casey was asked about the split between the ILC Board and the CEO. Another journalist wanted to know more about the politics of the Howard era, and the history wars. And then there was this: “In Aboriginal affairs, do you think there’s a bit of something in the environment that makes advocates feel as though they have to join teams in this discussion? You’ve got the anti-welfare mob, you’ve got… it just seems to me to be very factionalised. Do you think that’s because the environment is very conflict heavy at the moment or it’s just the way these discussions are evolving?”
Wow. Black politics is factionalised. And just run by me what white politics is again?
There’s two things that are particularly galling about this line of questioning. The first is that it borne from a style of thinking of which many mainstream journalists are guilty, and have expressed to me personally: Aboriginal communities are dysfunctional because Aboriginal politics is toxic, and riven with bitterness, feuding and lateral violence. Granted, the question may have been a gentler version of the thinking, but it’s dripping with ignorance nonetheless.
The second is that it came from someone who works in Parliament House, if not the most factionalised workplace on the planet, then certainly in the Commonwealth.
And did I mention toxic? In the recent history of our parliament we’ve seen the public execution of Craig Thomson and the filthy smear of Peter Slipper. We’ve seen politicians bicker and play wedges while some of the world’s most desperate people drown at sea. And we’ve seen politicians cry while they do it. Who could forget Joe Hockey’s Oscar-worthy performance (with some small ‘l’ liberal paraphrasing): ‘I will never, NEVER, send an unaccompanied 13-year-old child to Malaysia… I will, however, tow the little bastard’s boat back to Indonesia.’
We’ve recently seen the passage of the racist Stronger Futures legislation, which condemns Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and beyond to another 10 years of ‘intervention’. This despite the fact these policies have led directly to a doubling of the suicide and self-harm rates in black communities. And we’ve seen the same politicians who voted for Stronger Futures – like Senator Penny Wong – demand for themselves equal rights on issues like same sex marriage, while other politicians (think Bob Katter) use the issue to ridicule people on the basis of their sexuality, for their personal political gain.
So to watch a journalist stand at the Press Club and ask an Aboriginal woman why Aboriginal politics is so factionalised makes me want to… well, behave like a member of the NSW Labor Party.
From the state Labor conference over the weekend comes reports of, wait for it, rampant factionalism.
In the space of just a few days, we saw Tony Burke, from the NSW Right, call John Faulkner from the Left “sanctimonious”; we saw Faulkner attack Paul Howes from the right, and tell him to “put a sock in it”; And we saw Howes attack Doug Cameron from the Left for being a dictator. Then we saw Linda Burney from the Left label at least half of them “juvenile”.
Ah, NSW Labor, where they catch and kill their own. It’s enough to make you want to relax the gun laws in NSW a little, just to see what might happen. And let’s not forget, that’s just the spats from the weekend, and only in one state.
Our political leaders have a long and proud record of tearing each other a new one. There’s Latham’s ‘conga line of suckholes’ or his ‘Skanky ho’ barb at Janet Albrechtsen. There’s Belinda Neal’s ‘demon baby’ crack at Sophie Mirabella. There’s Wilson Tuckey. The list of white politicians and their ‘lateral violence’ goes on and on.
It’s just that when they do it, we call it ‘democracy’. When Aboriginal people do it, we call it ‘dysfunction’.
I’m not suggesting Aboriginal politics doesn’t have its share of rough and tumble. It does. Dawn Casey acknowledged as much in her address, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself occasionally (often deserved), and the dishing end as well. But that’s what happens when you have diversity of opinion. And in particular it’s what happens when you ask the nation’s poorest people to compete for meagre resources.
White parliament, of course, is flush with cash and resources. So what’s their excuse?
And what’s the media’s? For that, and for this… out of the same weekend state Labor conference came a motion calling on the Gillard government to revise its ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation.
“Conference calls on the Federal Government to halt the imposition of compulsory income management in Bankstown or in any community. Conference calls for a revision of the ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation and repeal of current provisions in the Social Security Act that facilitate income management,” the motion read in part.
It was engineered by Sally McManus of the Australia Services Union, and seconded by Russ Collison of the Australian Workers Union. And it passed.
I may stand to be corrected, but I believe it was the only successful motion to emerge from the state conference which puts NSW Labor at odds with federal Labor.
That’s conflict right there, in big, bloody neon letters, and yet not a word of it in the mainstream media. I defy any journalist in the country to give me a rational explanation as to why, without using the words ‘disinterest’, ‘laziness’ and ‘institutionalised racism’.
As for words, here’s a few more from Dr Casey’s excellent speech at the Press Club: “I agree there needs to be a fundamental shift about how many Australians think about Indigenous people. Almost two and a quarter centuries after Australia was colonized by the British, we are no closer being able to have a respectful and informed debate on (Aboriginal) issues.
“Most Australians gain much of their knowledge and understanding of Indigenous people through the media. Every day there are articles on Indigenous people…. I would like to see many more positive stories, but I guess that’s why I’m here today.”
The story on the split in ILC leadership got a great run. Her address, however, went largely unreported.