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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Belonging Together: Dealing with the Politics of Disenchantment in Australian Indigenous Policy by Patrick Sullivan, ix + 147pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2011, ISBN 9780855757809, $39.95.

Belonging Together is an important book which attempts to provide an analysis, and identify a path forward, in Australian Indigenous affairs somewhere between the polarised opposites of a new assimilationism and rights-based self-determination. The question, as Sullivan puts it during the introduction, is:

How can we move towards a public policy philosophy in which Aboriginal and settler interests converge, without either perpetuating second class separate development in the name of self-determination or effacing Aboriginal differences? (pp. 1–2)

The background to this analysis is, of course, the widespread assertion of the failure of the self-determination policy, which dominated Indigenous affairs from the 1970s to the 1990s. Sullivan questions, but ultimately accepts, this diagnosis of policy failure.

In a sophisticated analysis of the notion of policy following Mosse, Sullivan notes that ‘old policy is, by definition, wrong’, while ‘new policy is future oriented’ and therefore ‘does not have to demonstrate efficacy’ (p. 87). He also notes that:

Changes in policy alter the terms of the discourse so that what was previously successful is now, by externally imposed definition, a failure, while the facts on the ground remain the same (p. 87).

Given this social constructionist approach to policy, Sullivan, like many, could rail against the changing discourse, but rather he accepts it as part of the ‘self-referring’ nature of government bureaucracy (p. 88). Sullivan clearly does accept that Indigenous development, at least in remote Australia, has not been optimal since the 1970s. But neither does he wish to enthusiastically support the neo-assimilationism that has in recent years become the polarised alternative policy prescription to self-determination. Instead Sullivan wants to develop what he calls a ‘consolidated approach’ to Indigenous affairs:

in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are seen as inextricably part of wider national administrative regimes and concerns, but which neither seeks to erase or enshrine cultural difference (p. 2).

The other descriptor which Sullivan uses for his preferred approach is ‘intercultural’, drawing on debates within the anthropology discipline. However, Sullivan is largely writing for a generalist readership and only devotes one chapter of seven to directly addressing his anthropological colleagues. The empirical heart of the book is an analysis of the major and continuing changes that have occurred in Australian Indigenous affairs administration since 2004, particularly at the Commonwealth level of government. With the abolition by the Howard Commonwealth Government of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2004, Sullivan sees Indigenous affairs administration entering a period of flux and uncertainty the likes of which has not been seen since the early 1970s. The product of that earlier period of flux and uncertainty was the Indigenous sector; a constellation of community-based Indigenous organisations supported and funded by government to deliver services to Indigenous people and also to develop Indigenous community authority, identity and leadership. Sullivan sees government, under the influence of the New Public Administration (NPM) movement, pulling back from this support for the Indigenous sector, particularly in its non-service-delivery roles. However, he argues persuasively and passionately that the sector needs to be seen as having ongoing value for the development of civil society among Indigenous Australians. He thus talks of the ‘unacknowledged’ role or contribution of the sector in modernising Indigenous experience, leadership and development, both in the recent past and into the future.

If Sullivan has a target for criticism in this book, it is the organisation and culture of modern government. One chapter focuses on accountability, another on bureaucracy and both are highly critical. Accountability within government is seen as currently too unidirectional, placing too much focus and emphasis on funding relationships. A case is made for ‘continual reciprocal accountability’ built on dialogue between government and community members through mechanisms such as citizen juries and surveys (p. 81). The culture of government bureaucracy is seen as inward looking and as having long vertical chains of command which isolate it from the lived reality of Indigenous people, its clients in Indigenous affairs; even when some of the bureaucracy’s members are themselves Indigenous. Sullivan’s prescription is to shorten these chains of bureaucratic command by regionalising much Indigenous affairs administration, giving it more discretion to work with the local and regional Indigenous sector and developing Indigenous involvement in local government. Though I have sympathy with this idea, Sullivan’s contribution is I think just the beginning of a useful debate, rather than in any sense a well established argument. For example, Sullivan dismisses State and Territory governments, which have been increasingly drawn back into Indigenous affairs as a result of recent ‘whole-of-government mainstreaming’, yet he lauds the potential of local government. Why one type of regionalisation and shortening of chains of command is seen so negatively and the other so positively needs to be better argued and drawn out.

Sullivan does not entirely convince me in the prescriptive elements of his argument, nor even in some of his analytic elements. However, he does provide us with a conceptually sophisticated and an empirically informed account of recent developments in Australian Indigenous affairs which can at least get some better debates started about the way to move forward. Compared to much else that has been written on Indigenous affairs in recent years this is a ‘must read’ analysis, which does actually get beyond unhelpful, moralising polarities. Sullivan has both a deep knowledge and has thought long and hard about Indigenous affairs. Belonging Together is the valuable result.

Will Sanders

The Australian National University

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