Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is Aboriginal culture worth saving?

Christopher Pearson gives a good survey below of the two main Australian approaches to Aboriginal welfare: The assimilationist and the multicultural. Both approaches have had a thorough workout and both are generally regarded as having failed in the past. So the debate seems to me a sterile one. A new and less judgmental approach is needed.

One fallacy that seems common is to regard Aborigines as living in poverty. That is not at all true. Aborigines get quite a lot of money from various welfare payments, particularly if they have children. But the state in which they live remains troubling to the donor community.

Like many conservatives, I see welfare payments as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I think that Aborigines should simply be left alone to live as they please. But the money should stop so that they can find their own solutions to their own problems. Soup kitchens or the like should be set up to ensure that they do not starve but that is all. With the money cut off, the incentive to work towards their own betterment in their own way would be greater

As well as the poverty fallacy, another huge fallacy is that Aboriginal problems are cultural. The largest part of the Aboriginal difference is in fact inborn. They have brilliant mental skills in some respects (they observe without effort minutiae that escape white men and have amazing visual memory -- skills much needed in their original state as hunter gatherers) but very poor mental skills (generalized problem-solving ability or IQ) for dealing with the demands of white culture. So whatever Aborigines arrive at of their own volition will always be different from the ideals of white society. And we should accept that. It's futile to do otherwise.

REGULAR readers of this newspaper will be familiar with the work of Gary Johns. He was Paul Keating's special minister of state during the native title negotiations, a convener of the Bennelong Society and a columnist with considerable insight into indigenous issues.

I received an advance copy of his new book, Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman's Dream (ConnorCourt), from which The Australian will be running excerpts next week. The book covers a lot of ground and I can't do it justice in a single column.

Instead I want to concentrate on Johns's approach to Aboriginal culture, compared with that of Noel Pearson. It seems to me the cutting edge of the debate on indigenous policy, now that the defenders of Coombsian policy have all but abandoned the field.

In common with most members of the Bennelong Society, Johns is unsentimental about what he sees, at best, as a serviceable culture for the Stone Age.

"There is a gap between modern and pre-modern societies, once called civilised and uncivilised. Denying its existence and the considerable efforts required on the part of individuals to bridge it has been very harmful." He asks: "What are Aborigines fighting for, what is there to preserve? Each step to preserve culture is a step away from the innovation that commenced 200 years ago.

"What survives of Aboriginal Australia is nothing like 200 years ago, so what culture is it, and whose is it? The 'it' is a dream, a fantasy that something special remains, or has evolved, worthy of reclaiming. But what has actually evolved is ruin and despair. The 'it' belongs only to those who could not adapt to change."

Johns says of Pearson that his goal "seems to be to integrate Aborigines into the modern economy, but to use and preserve culture where possible. His principle means to achieve the goal is to stabilise communities and families by re-missionising his people.

"In this regard, the [Queensland Family Responsibilities Commission] is like a mobile mission, dispensing justice and passing judgment on behaviour and imposing penalties on incomes. By contrast, the Bennelong Society view is pessimistic about the efficacy of 'culture', which it regards as often antipathetic to the open society, or illegal, or simply an excuse for bad behaviour."

In a Quarterly Essay entitled Radical Hope, Pearson has outlined a very ambitious program to educate a rising generation able to deal comfortably with modernity and as fully apprised of its own languages and culture as possible.

He predicts it will involve an extended school day, with kids taught the mainstream curriculum and the demanding "high" forms of their tribal languages rather than "kindergarten" versions.

Perhaps the most engaging element in Pearson's project is his frequent invocation of the example of the Jews, with their genius for maintaining language and culture. He says: "Their ancient commitment to education and high learning is of course fundamental to their success."

As well, he thinks: "They offer some lessons about how a culturally distinct people might hold their own and succeed in a world that is often without pity. First, there are lessons in the way they deal with the past.

"They have never forgotten history and they never allow anybody else to forget history; they fight staunchly in defence of the truths of history, but they never make their history a burden for the future. They have worked out how to deal with the past without cultivating and nurturing victimhood among themselves . . . Secondly, there are lessons in the way they deal with racism.

"They staunchly defend themselves against racism, but avoid making racism their problem. Properly understood, racism should be the problem of the racialists, not the burden of those against whom it is directed."

Pearson has a more than merely rhetorical point when he cites the Jewish triumph of cultural transmission in the face of persecution and against the odds. However, part of the genius of the monotheistic Jews has been to remain adaptive to modernity, to reach often very sophisticated accommodations with their communities and to hang on to both their religion and its ethos.

Judaism has proved to be very versatile in some respects and remarkably unbending in others, but can the same be said for any Aboriginal culture?

I'm reluctantly inclined to the conclusion that the answer is negative. However, that doesn't mean the prescription in Radical Hope doesn't deserve serious funding and moral support. Plainly, Pearson has to work with the cultural materials to hand and it makes sense for him to accentuate the positive. If a significant proportion of Aboriginal youth on Cape York were to become accomplished speakers of local languages and well-schooled in the stories, songs and ceremonies of their ancestors, they'd be much better off than their counterparts anywhere else.

They'd also be in the position to make individual, informed decisions about the extent that they wanted to buy in to their culture and traditional religion; surely something Johns wouldn't begrudge them, provided they also had a solid grounding in the current curriculum as well.

In the 1960s, leading American sociologists tended to the pessimistic view that Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy couldn't hope to survive for long their adherents' encounters with modernity.

Nonetheless the evidence suggests that these days substantial numbers of the young are unscathed by the ravages of rampant secularism and seem to draw great strength from an attachment to traditional religion and observing its customs.

Ought white intellectuals, who as a class have for so long been besotted with their own fantasy versions of traditional Aboriginal religions and customs, deny young Aborigines access to local versions of the numinous experience?


Government threatens to revoke rioting refugees' visas

Unlikely that they'll have the balls to follow through with the threat, though

THE Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, has warned that 200 asylum seekers involved in violent protests on Christmas Island may have their visas revoked or blocked on character grounds, even if it had already been found they were genuine refugees.

The tough line came as another 70 Australian Federal Police officers were dispatched to the remote island, bringing total police numbers to 188, after two administration buildings and seven tents were burnt down in angry clashes.

The main detention centre is now under the control of police, who were yesterday unable to conduct a headcount and were unsure how many detainees remained at large on Christmas Island. Hundreds of detainees not involved in the violence were expected to be housed in the island's recreation hall, and the Phosphate Hill family detention centre.

Mr Bowen said the situation was "challenging" and condemned the "violent and unacceptable behaviour by an organised group" on Thursday night.

Accelerants, bricks, pavers, concrete, poles and a wheelie bin full of rocks were used by about 200 detainees, wearing cloth over their faces to avoid tear-gas, who advanced on police, the AFP deputy commissioner of national security, Steve Lancaster, said. Another 300 detainees and staff had sought refuge in the gym, but the gym was then attacked by the protesters with rocks, Mr Lancaster said. Police used tear-gas and a "higher volume" of beanbag bullets to restore order, he said.

Mr Bowen said: "Character considerations will be taken into account for those on Christmas Island who have organised and perpetrated this sort of activity." He said the majority of the centre's 1850 detainees were not involved.

After a week of escalating clashes, Mr Bowen said an independent review into security breaches, staffing adequacy and the appropriateness of centre's management company, Serco, and the department's response, will be headed by a former secretary of the Defence Department, Allan Hawke, and a public servant, Helen Williams. The police use of beanbag bullets and tear-gas, will be subject to a separate AFP investigation and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

The opposition's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said the protesters should have their visa applications suspended. "Those acting up should go to the back of the line," he said.

The Immigration Department is seeking to contact the family of a 20-year-old Afghan man found dead at the Scherger detention centre in Queensland. Protests had also broken out during the week at the Darwin and Curtin detention centres.

The chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, said a circuit-breaker was needed, and the unrest "had unfortunately been predicted" amid long processing delays for visas. He was concerned at Mr Bowen's threat that visas may be rejected on character grounds. "We don't know what crimes have been committed and who they have been committed by … many hundreds weren't involved," he said.

A letter was given to all detainees on Thursday that promised security checks would be sped up, and all ASIO checks would be completed by the end of April. The letter said reviewers would be sent to Christmas Island next week to assess rejected claims - only if calm was restored.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it did not condone the use of violence by asylum seekers, but "remains deeply concerned by the underlying impact of mandatory detention on the psycho-social health and welfare of the many people being held for prolonged periods in isolated parts of Australia".

A refugee advocate, Pamela Curr, said the protests had been sparked by a decision by Serco to lock down roller doors between different parts of the centre last Friday to prevent movement because of a lack of staff.


Budget cuts to strike at the heart of cash-strapped Qld. government hospitals

Queensland seems to be sinking to the NSW level. When are they going to fire some of their army of "administrators"

QUEENSLAND hospitals have foreshadowed cuts to operating lists, beds, staff and pathology tests as part of desperate moves to rein in massive budget blowouts.

The state's two biggest hospitals, which are collectively tens of millions of dollars over-budget, are preparing to slash patient services after being told by Queensland Health to find savings. Queensland Health is understood to be heading towards a $300 million budget deficit for this financial year unless savings are made.

The situation has angered doctors at the Princess Alexandra and Royal Brisbane and Women's hospitals who say further reductions in services threaten patient safety. Other public hospitals throughout the state are also over-budget and facing cost cuts, with more than three months of the financial year still to run.

In a leaked email, Metro South district CEO David Theile, who oversees Princess Alexandra, QEII, Redlands, Logan and Beaudesert hospitals, told staff "we have to heavily cut expenditure now".

"Metro South (not alone, of course) has a large structural debt which will be compounded by the obligated carry-over into next financial year," he wrote. "This is a watershed time to make paradigm changes, most of which need to be beyond our District but we have to face our own established position and take exemplary action."

Another email, obtained by The Courier-Mail, describes the dire situation at the PAH. Writing to specialist colleagues, the hospital's surgical director, Steve Lynch, said he had been instructed to "reduce activity" in his division by 10 per cent during the last quarter of the year.

"To do this without compromise to the safety and quality of inpatients and the continued treatment of emergency cases, a number of unpalatable initiatives will be implemented," the email said. "These will include a rotating roster of closure of some of your operating lists and beds in your wards with matched nursing staff reduction." "These strategies will impact negatively on elective surgery waiting times," the email said.

Professor Lynch blamed the Princess Alexandra budget position on insufficient funds to run services and the increasing demands from a growing and ageing population. "We have been given no allowance for growth despite a compounding increase in activity of about 5 per cent per annum," he said. "Now we have been told that we will carry any deficit into the next financial year: a financial death spiral."

PAH senior staff association president Ross Cartmill said doctors were incensed. "What annoys most of us is that we have worked Saturdays and Sundays to get waiting lists under control," he said. "Now, suddenly, waiting lists don't count any more."

Operating theatre closures and cuts to intensive care unit beds were discussed at a recent RBWH planning meeting along with cuts to intensive care unit beds.

"Queensland Health has asked us to reduce our expenditure and the only way that can be done is to ration services," said RBWH medical staff association chairwoman, Dana Wainwright. "Our managers ethically don't want to ration services any more than is currently being rationed. If services are any more reduced, safety and quality may be threatened," she said.

Queensland Health deputy director-general of finance, Neil Castles, said the department would work with district CEOs to ensure patient care was not affected.

Health Minister Geoff Wilson said his director-general, Mick Reid, had advised CEOs he expected to be consulted before any budget cuts were made. "The Director-General will require District CEOs to provide clear evidence all options have been rigorously examined before proceeding with any proposed strategy," he said. "Responsible financial and budget management is a core responsibility of a CEO of any organisation, whether in the private or public sector."

Opposition health spokesman Mark McArdle called on Mr Wilson to "open the financial books" of all Queensland public hospitals for scrutiny. "The whole of Queensland Health is in dire straits," he said. "I'm very concerned that patients will get a lower quality of service, worse outcomes and in the worst-case scenario, death."

AMA Queensland president-elect Gino Pecoraro said any cuts to health services would impact on patient care and put even more pressure on hospitals and staff.


Over-reaction in the drug "war"

Steps to ban 'drug' plants alarm hobby gardeners. Harass the guilty, not the innocent

A CONTROVERSIAL proposal to ban many familiar backyard plants and trees, including angel's trumpet and a large number of wattles, has outraged gardeners and nursery owners.

The federal government says the plants should be prohibited because they could be used to make illegal drugs.

Among the species on the blacklist are many common cactuses containing tiny amounts of mescaline, leading some hobbyists to fear they could be charged under drug laws.

"In our cactus clubs probably 50 per cent of our members are 50 or 60 years of age," said April Hamilton, the secretary of the Cactus and Succulent Society of NSW. "We grow these plants because we love them, not because there is some mystical meaning in them. Some of our members are worried that they are going to end up going to jail over this."

The dramatically widened list of controlled plants, contained in a discussion paper issued by the Attorney-General's department, would put widespread species such as the leopard tree and the gossamer wattle in the same category as cannabis and magic mushrooms.

"This is a stupid, broad-brush, knee-jerk piece of legislation made by people who have absolutely no idea of botany and who have done no research into the incredible spectrum of plants that would be affected by it," said Robyn Francis, a permaculture expert and author.

Many of the critics argue the schedule is framed too widely, particularly where it seeks to ban any plant containing Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a psychedelic drug used in rituals by some South American tribes.

DMT occurs in small quantities in a vast number of plants, particularly wattles, but it is far from clear which individual species are affected.

"There is not a lot of scientific evidence out there on what plants contain nasties such as DMT," said Anthony Kachenko, the national environmental and technical policy manager at Nursery and Garden Industry Australia. "If they are wanting us to pinpoint what plants to remove from sale or from gardens or cultivation, we wouldn't know where to start."

"This is a blanket ban that captures a whole swag of plants commonly grown in nurseries across Australia and also sold in retail outlets. They have gone about it the wrong way without any thought for the ramifications."

A spokeswoman for the Justice Minister, Brendan O'Connor, said claims that plants could be banned or growers prosecuted were "ridiculous". "However, the Commonwealth's drug laws target people who are involved in the illicit drug trade and that will continue to be the case," she said.


Note: I have two other blogs covering Australian news. They are more specialized so are not updated daily but there are updates on both most weeks. See QANTAS/Jetstar for news on Qantas failings and Australian police news for news on police misbehaviour

1 comment:

Paul said...

Hospitals are not "Over-budget", they are "Underfunded". The administrators of Cairns Base (the ones who didn't make the decision to shut the place down because Brisbane did) have all lined up to kiss the ring of Prince wotsit. Those who actually did the work of moving the patients and closing the doors? No Princely ring for you!!