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Progressivism vs the new Indigenous politics being born in Cape York

By Vern Hughes - posted Thursday, 24 July 2003

Cape York Land Council chief Richie Ah Mat's support for John Howard's continuing Prime Ministership is a reminder, if one is really needed, that traditional alignments in Australian politics are fast disappearing and new ones are emerging.

For Cape York Indigenous leaders Ah Mat and Noel Pearson, Howard is a bulwark against "progressivism" - the rights-based, service-delivery approach to social policy favoured by the Left, public sector bureaucracies and urban opinion-formers. The "progressive" world view (symbolic Aboriginal reconciliation, obligation-free welfare, scepticism about the family unit, harm minimisation strategies on drugs, and the supply-side service delivery paradigm) is increasingly identified by Cape York Indigenous leaders as the key threat to the community-based social renewal project underway on the Cape. In Noel Pearson's recent thinking, progressivism is not just an impediment to Indigenous revival, it is a partner in the continuing destruction of Aboriginal society. Its outcome is communities ravaged by welfare dependence, substance-abuse, family violence and dysfunctionality on a scale that is now without precedent.

This is the sharpest and most powerful critique of the progressive world view yet to emerge in Australia. Conservative white critiques of political correctness from well-dressed academics and judges contain nothing of the same potency, and have barely landed a glove on the Left's custodianship of social policy. The Cape York critique, on the other hand, has the potential to destroy the Left's relevance and redefine radical politics as we have known it.


There are several underlying processes at work here. One is the erosion of the traditional notion that right and left correspond to preferences for wealth creation and wealth distribution - the Right are the wealth producers, the Left are its distributors. Traditional laborism rested on this simple cleavage, and four generations of trade union officials made a living from it. The modern Liberal Party derived its identity from it.

On Cape York, the Ah Mat/Pearson agenda is about wealth creation, enterprise and entrepreneurship. Through the construction of far-reaching business partnerships and both private sector and social enterprise initiatives, a new politics is being fashioned around an enterprise culture. In a way that Margaret Thatcher could barely achieve in the north of England, an enterprise culture is being fashioned among blacks and ex-leftists in the north of Queensland.

Pearson wants to replace social welfare with social enterprise, aggregating public resources and benefit payments in the region as investment capital in enterprise activity. This is anathema to the Left who cannot let go of the old welfare culture. As Pearson puts it, the progressives have been reduced to affirming "our right to welfare passivity". As a political credo this lacks some moral strength.

A second dynamic at work is the idea of reciprocity or mutuality. This is a 19th century notion associated with the early labour and self-help movements, and given a new lease of life in recent Third Way thinking. On Cape York it means a grass-roots commitment to engage each individual and family in contributing, as well as receiving, as the bedrock of social renewal. This notion is readily encultured with traditional Aboriginal understandings of communal obligation. The result is a powerful "Indigenising" of mutual obligation, against which the left is stranded holding out for an unreconstructed individualism (the right to an individual welfare cheque, the right to walk away from family obligations, the right to alcohol and drug use).

It is both ironic and tragic that the Left cannot grasp these notions of self-help and reciprocity that were part of its own formative heritage, and which now point to its redundance. The progressivist critique of the Howard government's mutual obligation arrangements in welfare as being imposed from above is never accompanied by Left-sponsored, voluntarily-initiated mutual obligation arrangements from below of the kind we now see on Cape York.

Gerhardt Pearson of Balkanu Development Corporation is introducing total abstinence on alcohol and drug use in Cape communities to stamp out the substance-abuse epidemic. Critically, it is voluntary, and it is introduced from below as communal self-help.


But if the Left has no answers to the agenda unfolding on Cape York, the Right is equally baffled. Its paternalism and faith in service delivery are ultimately irreconcilable with the devolution of power and responsibility to communities demanded by Ah Mat and Pearson. The Tory urge to dispense patronage runs abruptly against the notion of community self-determination and entrepreneurship.

The Right too has lost a language with which to talk about self-help and reciprocity. Pontificating about national security and patriotism is the best it can manage but this won't help on the crucial battlefields of domestic politics.

There are now many community empowerment and enterprise initiatives occurring in non-Indigenous communities around the country. Rural communities, public and private housing estates, networks of people with disabilities and their families, and self-help groups of various kinds are engaging in grass-roots innovation and social business development on a growing scale. They embody, to varying degrees, the dynamics evident on Cape York but they are largely hidden from the public gaze.

The Cape York innovations are leading their gentle walk into the public spotlight, breaking through policy complacency from Left and Right and persisting with the challenging work of engaging the disengaged.

There is a new politics being born in the land that is about community, devolution of power and responsibility, mutual obligation and reciprocity, and the rejection of outmoded ideological grandstandings. It seeks more responsive but not bigger government, an embrace of enterprise economics without corporate self-serving, with a strong critique of our established cultural and political elites.

And it is indigenous. Born in Cape York.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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