The impossible dream created the wicked problem

Two essential elements of a wicked problem — that the problem is not understood until after a solution has been formulated, and that the stakeholders have radically different world views (see Hunter 2007: 37, quoting Conklin) — apply to Aboriginal policy. Aboriginal policy in the last 30 years has been formulated on the impossible dream that Aborigines could accommodate the new world to suit themselves and that any shortfall in terms of economics or poor behaviour would be picked up or forgiven by the state. The formulation, which may be labelled ‘self-determination’, has very substantial intellectual support. The alternative position in Aboriginal policy is integration, which is indeed a radically different world view. It suggests that Aborigines are entitled to reach their own accommodation with the modern world but not in a way that requires constant subventions and not in a way that condones bad behaviour. There is an element of pre-judgment in finding the solution to the Aboriginal problem but, as the present formulation has been found wanting, it is open to the policy-makers to try. The essential lessons of self-determination are that, in the face of a depleted and non-adaptive culture, group pride is not a good motivator, and attachment to land can be a curse. The alternative is to treat Aborigines as other citizens are treated, and allow them to integrate into the modern economy under the same suite of incentives and disincentives and civil obligations as others. All that remains is for the policy-makers to shift ground.

Hunter’s (2007: 37) observation that the ‘modernisation project’ is inconsistent with the maintenance of ‘culture’ is a good starting point. Many have observed the ways in which Aboriginal culture is inconsistent with success in a modern economy, but few have been game enough to suggest a path to overcome it. Too frequently ‘culture’ has been used to veil or excuse bad behaviour. For example, it has been recognised for a long time that Aboriginal economies in remote areas operate by ‘demand sharing’ or ‘humbugging’ (that is, where kin demand the immediate use of whatever a person owns), rather than by individual accumulation of physical or financial capital (Martin 1995: 19). Yet there is no suggestion Aborigines should be advised that this is why they are poor, or that this aspect of the culture must change. The inconsistencies between personal obligations in more traditional Aboriginal culture and contractual (and work) obligations in a commercial society are at times profound (Folds 2001: 51); yet there is no suggestion that the culture must change (although Folds, at least explicitly, acknowledges that choosing ‘culture’ is to choose poverty). Aboriginal associations have to cope with the need for impersonal relations which are at odds with customary obligations yet there is little acceptance (Rowse 2002: 231) that the culture must change.

The uncomfortable fact is that, having recognised for decades the impediment that Aboriginal culture poses to success, policy-makers nevertheless chose cultural observance over success. Such choices ensure that the ‘cargo cult’ (Lawrence 1964) is alive and well. The consequence is that if people are maladapted to modern society they are, in fact, trapped in a culture of bad behaviour, a ‘sick society’ (Edgerton 1992) that continues to reproduce its awful daily mores. The truth that confronts those who want to preserve culture is that they have not addressed the 1959 position of Paul Hasluck, the then Minister for Territories:

While it is of course, desirable that Aborigines should retain the best aspects of their own culture, it is important for them to realise that tribal obligations have to be considerably modified to meet the basic requirements of the new way of life. So long as the old tribal obligations are felt in that original form, they will retard the advancement of Aborigines towards assimilation. (Paul Hasluck, 1959)

Strike out the no-longer-acceptable term ‘assimilation’ and substitute ‘economic integration’ in the Minister’s statement and the sentiment is the same as that of Hunter above (2007: 37): the ‘modernisation project’ is inconsistent with the maintenance of ‘culture’.

That there are parts, if not a great deal, of Aboriginal culture that retards Aboriginal advancement is well accepted. Unfortunately, ‘progressive’ Aboriginal politics is built around the enduring assumption that cultural preservation is fundamental to ‘identity’. Identity politics works, however, on the assumption that group bravado works better as a motivator than the individual desire to do better (Sowell 2005: 256). For example, despite suffering discrimination, immigrant groups who succeed in the adopted society do not wait for their political leaders to broker a ‘solution’ on their behalf. Instead, they set out to succeed in the things that are most likely to determine their future, such as the labour market. In addition, although it is possible for a racially distinct middle class to emerge, as among American blacks, the common course is for successful immigrants to succeed through intermarriage as well as economic engagement. While the intermarriage rate for an Aboriginal woman in Sydney is 84 per cent, it is four per cent for an Aboriginal man in the NT outside of Darwin (Birrell 2007). For those in remote areas, the prospects for one form of integration are poor.

The emphasis on sustaining Aboriginal land, culture and language ignores the effect on the inability to produce goods and services that the rest of the society wants. The result has been unhappy and poor people. The ‘culture cult’ (Sandall 2001) has been a curse in the way that the ‘resource curse’ and the ‘aid curse’ (Bhagwati 2005) have. Each has disabled the hopeful beneficiaries of those windfalls and for much the same reasons. Aboriginal aid passed its absorptive capacity a long time ago; the wastage and the damage has been phenomenal.