Andy Blunden. June 2007

Noel Pearson and John Howard’s proposals for Indigenous Welfare.

Founder of the Cape York Land Council and long time Indigenous leader, Noel Pearson, caused outrage within the social justice community, with a proposal to make welfare payments to indigenous adults in his area contingent. Pearson proposed that these payments should be made conditional upon fulfillment of minimal tasks such as sending the kids to school, caring for the public housing they occupy, providing minimal health care, food and protection to their children, and so on. Compliance would be overseen by a triumvirate including two tribal elders and a magistrate. John Howard has adeptly seized this opportunity to seize Aboriginal land and send in federal police to removed abused Aboriginal children from their parents. Stolen generation version 2007. With this move Howard has transformed the proposal of his friend Noel Pearson aimed at restoring a measure of self-determination for his people into the absolute subjugation of the Indigenous people of Australia.

Outrage against Pearson’s proposals hinged on two dubious assumptions:

1. That the welfare recipients concerned are private citizens, and should be treated as such, i.e., in isolation from their membership of a specific community.

2. That the welfare recipients concerned are members of the Australian settler nation and should be treated like any other member of the settler community.

The key issue is self-determination. No private individual is sovereign in their own right, all the more so if they are poor and unemployed, and therefore exercise no power either in the wider society or at home. There is a real basis for Pearson to agree with the right-wing think-tanks that reliance on welfare payments in these circumstances – of being a member of a subjugated and increasingly atomised nation, practically excluded from participation in the settler society – is tantamount to dependence which can go so far as dehumanisation.

This problem of dependence cannot be resolved however by pretending that the individual Australian Aborigines are citizens of the Australian settler state and see their own will embodied in the Federal Government, and therefore can regard the imposition of obligations by that state, let alone the enforcement of obligations by Federal police officers, as an expression of their own will and personality.

Pearson’s proposal doubtless needed ‘work’. But the key idea was the implementation of discipline by the elders of the welfare recipient’s own community, presuming that the welfare recipient does indeed identify themselves as a part of that community. (The reactionary potential of ‘multiculturalism’, which locks members of ethnic communities into a time-warp behind conservative figures wrongly deemed to represent people of similar ethnicity needs to be avoided.) Indigenous Australians who are in a position to participate in modernity on an equal footing don't need their elders. But the communities in question, suffering extremes of poverty and degradation, are getting the worst of both worlds.

By sending in the Federal police to remove children, yet again, Howard turns the clock back a century. His aim has nothing to do with the welfare of Indigenous children, and much to do with galvanising his supporters with ‘strong leadership’, recovering tribal land for corporate exploitation, and introducing the use of police-military force to manage community affairs, following up his “Anti-Terror” legislation with perhaps the first real step Howard has taken towards police-military government.

If an Indigenous parent living on welfare is to reform themselves and live up to their role as a parent, firstly they must be able to recognise that it is their own delinquency which is the cause of the loss of a welfare payment or loss of control of their children. Secondly, the relevant tribal group (where such exists, in rural aboriginal communities) must achieve a measure of self-determination, as a community, by power being put in their hands to decide and implement justice. Both these conditions are destroyed by the heavy-handed intervention of federal police, bureaucracy and courts.

21 June 2007

PS. Four week later, Howard announced a program of withholding welfare payments to miscreant parents covering the settler population as well.