The Northern Territory Intervention in Aboriginal Affairs: Wicked Problem or Wicked Policy?

Gary Johns[1]

Table of Contents

The origins of wicked Aboriginal policy
The impossible dream created the wicked problem
Two interventions in the Northern Territory
Misplaced fear of old problems — fringe dwellers
Misplaced fear of old problems — economic change
Who better understands Aboriginal culture?

This paper takes up the debate kindled by Boyd Hunter in ‘Conspicuous Compassion and Wicked Problems’ (2007). The present paper’s contention is that just as unemployment is a ‘matter of choice’ — in the words of Treasury Secretary Ted Evans in 1993 — so too is Aboriginal despair. In the case of Aborigines, there is a price to pay for an alleviation of that despair; a change in behaviour. But changing behaviour — in other words, becoming less ‘cultural’ and less ‘authentic’ as an Aboriginal — has until recently been ruled out of the policy lexicon. For this reason many Aboriginal people, especially those locked out of the economy and sitting in dysfunctional communities, have paid a price because policy-makers have restricted their choices to a sub-set of those available to other Australians.

The ability of Aborigines to change their behaviour and the cost of change are matters for debate. But as long as appalling behaviour continues, not changing is not an option. At the very least, the recent intervention by the Australian Government into the Northern Territory — the Emergency Response — has opened a space for a more realistic debate about choices in Aboriginal policy.

The origins of wicked Aboriginal policy

The history of recent Aboriginal policy provides a clue to its ineffectiveness in the face of apparently wicked problems. In doing so it is possible to find that it was the policy-makers’ vision that was wicked, not the problem itself.

In 1976 Nugget Coombs, chair of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, said: ‘I wish that some Aboriginal leaders could evolve something equivalent to the Nyerere’s [first President of Tanzania] Ujamaa Socialism as a guide and rallying point for their political action’ (1976: 15). For the record, Nyerere had tremendous faith in rural African people and their traditional values and customs, and believed that life should be structured around the ‘ujamaa’, or extended family, found in traditional Africa. He believed that all Africans needed to undo ‘imperialism’ to return to their traditional mode of life. To that end, Nyerere introduced a policy of collectivisation in Tanzanian agriculture. Unfortunately for Tanzanians, the ‘ujamaa system’ failed to boost agricultural output. By the time Coombs was waxing lyrical about Nyerere’s dream, the collectivisation had ended and Tanzania had gone from the largest exporter of agricultural products in Africa to the largest importer of agricultural products in Africa. Commenting on his economic policies in his farewell speech at his retirement in 1985, Nyerere declared: ‘I failed. Let’s admit it’ (Maier 1998).

Too much faith has been placed in traditional values and ways of life and the attachment to land as both a means of economic and spiritual sustenance. There are few working cattle properties on Aboriginal land anywhere in the north, despite these being in Aboriginal hands since the 1970s: all are leased to white men. Many Aborigines who have claimed Native Title are distraught at the base politicking associated with the claims process, which inflames old family and clan hatreds. Successful claimants do not always visit the land; and if they do, it is often because of the inducement to secure a government job in a cloistered role — for example, as a ‘park ranger’ or ‘environment interpreter’.

In his 1976 address, Coombs (1976: 10) quoted from the 1969 view of anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner (in ‘After the Dreaming’): ‘When we took what we called land we took what to them [Aborigines] meant hearth, home, the source and focus of life and the everlastingness of spirit.’ Clearly, Aborigines have a deep attachment to their land, but it may have been wiser if Coombs had also quoted from the 1958 Stanner (1979: 49):

I have seen a man, revisiting his homeland after an absence, fall on the ground, dig his fingers into the soil, and say: ‘oh my country’. But he had been away voluntarily; and he was soon to go away again voluntarily. Country is a high interest with a high value; rich sentiments cluster around it; but there are other interests; all are relative, and any can be displaced.

Land has indeed been displaced as a source of direct sustenance. Sustenance is now indirect — royalties and pensions. Traditional law has been replaced because it does not have an answer for modern problems (such as alcohol abuse) and it cannot provide the remedies for old problems, such as ‘improper’ marriage, because the discipline required is illegal. The old enforcement kept old men in charge and young men and women in fear of their lives (Tonkinson 1990: 127). There are now far more powerful, fair and malleable sources of law available from the white man.

The recent struggle to save the Aborigine has really been a struggle to save the white man’s conception of the Aborigine. It mirrors the earlier misconception in the assimilation period that full-bloods were beyond civilising and half-castes should be separated and intensively schooled. It would be a useful research exercise to see which path — assimilation or self-determination — saved the most lives. The number of people now identifying as Aborigine off-country far exceeds those living on-country, and Aborigines who are by and large, integrated into the economy and society are better off on all measures of wellbeing. They have higher incomes, are more likely employed, more highly educated, less prone to diseases, less likely to be gaoled, less likely to be murdered, less likely to contract sexually transmitted infections (Productivity Commission 2007a: Ch. 3; Department of Communities 2006; AIH&W 2005; Measey et al. 2006; FaCSIA 2007: 56.) and on and on. There are many instances where Aborigines in regional areas and in town camps are not much better off than those in remote areas, and some measures of need (for example, housing) may be the result of inadequate provision; but, as argued below, the investments have been made again and again but have failed to change behaviour for the better.

Indeed, the research agenda in Aboriginal policy has been stunted by wicked policy options. For too long, data on Aboriginal indicators has not been available on a spatial basis; that is, by remoteness classification. For example, children’s school attendance has compared Aboriginal with non-Aboriginal and, until recently, it has been difficult to compare the performance of Aborigines in different circumstances. When it has been available, the answers are stark: ‘[A]verage levels of literacy and numeracy achievement for Indigenous students living in remote areas were substantially below those of other Indigenous students … In contrast, geographic location had minimal effects … for non-Indigenous students’ (ACER 2005: 3). As the data becomes more readily available, it has become clear that there are three classes of Aborigine: those in discrete communities, mainly in remote areas; those in transition to integration, mainly in country towns; and all others. A new research agenda may be advisable. It should study matters such as integration pathways, Aboriginal migration, and choice-modelling to indicate the cost of individual choices for a given value set, and cost-benefit analysis of all policy options.