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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Books Reviews

A Different Inequality: The Politics of Debates about Remote Aboriginal Australia by Diana Austin-Broos, 224 pp, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2011, ISBN 9781742370491 (pbk), $29.99.

How often have you heard a well-meaning person asking ‘What is the answer to the “Aboriginal problem”?’ Aboriginal Australian academics once responded by attesting that whites were the problem, and that Aborigines must be given back their land. Today those same people are involved in intense debates about just what to do about the ongoing post-Mabo tragedy in remote Australia. So yes, this is a now-acknowledged, but a confusing, multi-facetted problem. Violence and early death are endemic. People are suffering. Too many deaths of loved ones – of very young people, of sharp-witted people full of life, humour and fun, and of talented, accomplished leaders in their prime.

Austin-Broos’s eloquent preface sums it up: ‘Remote Aboriginal Australia is one place where great beauty can be juxtaposed with seemingly endless grief’ (p. xix). The social indicators – the early mortality rates, the poor education standards, the violence and murders, the health crises, the alcohol and drug abuse statistics, the poor outlook and lack of employment opportunities – all combine to present a picture of unendurable horror. Sure, there are good news stories in certain communities and the numbers of high-achieving Aboriginal people are increasing. But we are talking remote communities, where it is hard not only for people and resources to get in, but for the people who live there to get out.

What happened to the 1970s and 1980s optimism behind Aboriginal land rights and ‘self-determination’, where Aboriginal people would be permitted to create their own futures, ones purportedly free of government and church authoritarianism? Austin-Broos walks us through both the discrediting of ‘assimilationist’ ideals and the unhelpfulness of anthropology’s postcolonial critiques. She sees former ideas displaced by ‘pathology’, which conceptualises the problem of remote communities as a kind of socio-cultural disease zone of ‘unhealthiness’ and aimless welfare dependency. Yet what followed recently was the heavy-handed and often ineffectual Northern Territory ‘intervention’, one of a series of ‘failed policies’, and ‘answers to the Aboriginal problem’ mooted during the last century.

On the positive side, people in remote communities still hold onto many facets of a culturally complex, richly storied and remarkably ancient tradition that links them to the history of the Australian landscape ‘before time’, and that outsider seekers are ever-keen to share. Optimists hope that tourism and other industries may develop to support hybrid economies that combine the traditional with the modern and enable Aboriginal people a place within a capitalist market economy. While it worked to a certain extent in the pre-Second World War days of the cattle industry, and more recently, the art industry has grown remarkably rapidly, is any economic feasibility simply an overly romantic, impossible aspiration?

As we watch the communities from which some of the most successful international artists appear to self-destruct with endemic despair, one has to be doubtful. But, as Austin-Broos points out, was it ever acceptable to impair human rights in order to aspire to better education and health outcomes? And, while many people living in remote ‘homelands’ communities are involved in an art movement that is internationally acclaimed and enjoyed, and that makes money, what happens to that money? Does it only create worse pressures by the wayward young on the elderly wisdom holders?

This highly intelligent, well-argued book reveals the deeper complexities of this debate, drawing upon strong expertise and wisdom towards a deeper understanding. By keeping her focus upon remote communities, Austin-Broos avoids homogenising and over-generalising across the complete range of Aboriginal urban and rural experiences.

Weighing into the debate by arguing the need to reconcile ‘culture difference’ and identity politics with ‘equality’, Diane Austin-Broos is refreshingly objective in her approach. She cuts through all the sensitivities and power politics of adversarial positionings to hone in on the issues and the theories that underpin them. With special aplomb, she interrogates the changing role of anthropology in informing economic policy.

One of the great strengths of this book is its willingness to give parity to knowledge coming from a range of disciplines, and to critique the failures of these several disciplines, and the university centres and think-tanks that she argues have adopted overly narrow, often ideologically-based approaches. Pointing to the failure of anthropological and political thinkers to consider historical influences, she gives equal attention to less-heard players. For example, to the creative-thinking economist Bob Gregory, who argues the possibility of Aboriginal equality only if they change ‘postcodes’. In other words, he argues against remote-living as unviable. Austin-Broos also reveals how both academics and more popular opinion-makers have shifted their positions and approaches and have changed alliances.

Austin-Broos is courageous in her quest to find a balance between acknowledging the ‘difference’ of Aboriginal values and aspirations against the causes of continuing, if not worsening, social and economic inequality. In attempting to be fair to the many different players, Austin-Broos fearlessly disagrees with even the most formidable key thinkers. And undoubtedly, many of these writers will be miffed by her slam-dunk conclusions about their reports, articles and books. Yet Austin-Broos also comes back to their ideas, allowing seemingly dismantled positions to subtly bounce back with potentially renewed value.

While Austin-Broos understands the importance of land politics and deeper associations for Aboriginal communities, she brings fresh clarity to the associated poor educational, employment and health disadvantage of remote living. She is sceptical of those who romanticised the ‘homelands’ of spiritual-meaning solutions and who would not let go of the prospect of cultural survival as key to Aboriginal happiness. She is also sceptical of those who pathologise Aboriginal society as essentially harbouring domestic violence and child abuse.

There is too much covered in this book to touch on everything here. The downside of its analysis is that as one reads on, the issues only become more complicated. While complexity should never be shunned, the last couple of chapters do start to become rather micro if not circular in their critiques of various think-pieces, which slightly detracts from the clarity of the book’s overall argument. Nonetheless, it is terrific to see Allen & Unwin’s list starting to include scholarly, intricately argued books of such significance.

In conclusion, Austin-Broos expresses concern about advocates of philanthropic means as a key route to providing remote education. She argues that the state should be providing excellent primary education as a basic right for all Australian citizens. On the one hand, it is disturbing to see Aboriginal people agreeing to developments by resource companies that will destroy significant cultural sites on the basis of seeking a decent education for their kids, when this is provided free of charge elsewhere in Australia. On the other hand, perhaps they are making the most of available opportunities.

Above all, in this book, I would have liked some more values-oriented interrogation of what ‘equality’ might mean in these Aboriginal societies. Is the issue only about ‘equality’ compared with or delivered by a wealthy developed urban world, or is it also about internal factors that limit or work against opportunity within Indigenous societies? Although culturally-based income distribution patterns are mentioned, the way this impacts upon ‘equality’ and social opportunity could be further scrutinised.

Perhaps it would also have been helpful for Austin-Broos to draw upon examples from Canadian and United States history and recent politics. Education successes and professionalisation happened in North America far earlier than in Australia, and often due to private philanthropists setting up now-maligned educational institutions based upon boarding.

While reading it, I had the urge to underline just about every page and I always felt assured that its balanced syntheses of key policy arguments and its sensible critiques were highly reliable. Everyone interested in Aboriginal policy, a key national challenge, should read this book. I have already recommended it to a politician or two. You should too, although it is not a book of answers. While it is rich with intelligently-argued insights, it is too nuanced to have the political clout of a Noel Pearson-style opinion piece. While this book points the way towards some directions, it does not navigate the routes of detailed policy implementation.

As a historian, I note while Austin-Broos wished anthropologists had been more historical in approach, she herself has moved away from analysing ‘historically-based’ inequality. I think she is right. Whereas history is a foundational element, ‘the problem’ must be scrutinised in the context of what is possible and likely in the present-day, in its capitalist-driven urbanised world. As Austin-Broos so ably shows, history is not the only reason for this essentially different kind of inequality. Demonstrating both empathy and a degree of calm acceptance, Austin-Broos is genuinely concerned and worried about these communities. And, as she shows with the story of ‘Matthew’, remote community life goes on, in its complex, different, painful, everyday, up-and-down ways.

Ann McGrath

The Australian National University

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