"As usual, Noel Pearson and his dodgy brother mate Mal Brough have gotten things half right and half wrong when it comes to dealing with alcohol-fuelled dysfunction in Indigenous communities. Their latest hair-brained idea to forcibly link welfare payments to food, housing and education costs is at best admirable but very poorly thought out, and at worst, a convenient front for a right-wing ideological battle to disband Indigenous communal ownership to land under the guise of Indigenous people all being abusers, crooks and totally helpless.
Perhaps they have got a touch of the white knight syndrome, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous visitors alike to some Indigenous communities are so confronted by what they see in the midst of alcohol-fuelled nightmares that they panic, and set out on a moral self-righteous crusade to change the situation all by themselves?
There is no doubting the dire state of some Indigenous communities that are ticking time bombs of dysfunctional despair. I and many other Indigenous and non-Indigenous health workers have long spoken out and advocated for the safety and treatment issues concerned with family violence and sexual abuse. It is admirable that someone with Pearson’s media profile and cachet among politicians is bringing much needed attention to the issues, but it’s not like he is our first born saviour. Pearson and Brough’s half baked analysis of the situation, coupled with their apparent missionary zeal and knee jerk policy reactions, is how Indigenous policy often gets done in this country, and it’s just not good enough any more. Their attempt may do more damage than its worth for the following important reasons.
My empirical analysis of addictions and healing and in a remote north Queensland community shows that there were problematic levels of use of alcohol, marijuana and gambling, that intergenerational trauma was one of many significant explanations, and critically, that panicking about what to do is the reason why public interventions for the last twenty years have failed to adequately address the situation. The trauma experienced in the community I worked with relates to the current generation’s parents and grandparents being moved to a sedentary lifestyle, being forcibly removed from relatives, being forced to marry against customary kinship laws, and having the power to make basic decisions about one’s life taken away. They all were the reasons why people were using at problematic levels, and help explain the violence and self-destructive behaviour we see today. Some Aboriginal people have taken this pain inwards and sadly, have started to believe some white people’s message that all Aborigines will ever be is “drunken dirty blacks.”
But all is not lost or hopeless. Intergenerational trauma is an explanation, not an excuse.
Pearson makes the critical mistake of thinking the trauma explanation is a front for left-wing ideologues to endlessly make excuses for Aborigines under the guise of poor-bugger-me stories of colonialism’s effects. While some may use it that way, the reality is that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike need access to the full range of treatment interventions for their addictions. Most of the policing, prohibition and harm reduction public health interventions in Indigenous Australia have failed because while some of them might be important, they do so in the absence of complementary programs that heal the trauma, the source of the malaise.
In Canada, where First Nations communities have chosen alcohol bans and voucher systems in exchange for food and amenities, they have also ensured drug and alcohol users go to culturally appropriate addictions treatment centres to mend their ways and heal their shame. When they return, then they are offered after-care support until they are ready to handle a job and stick with it. Critically, they are also encouraged to take part in spiritual ceremonies and cultural renewal activities, where they can be strongly connected with their true identity again.
Consider this example. Soon after the new alcohol bans on Cape York Indigenous communities came into effect, I visited the community I worked with, and while Pearson’s mates in the State Government were loudly proclaiming the success of prohibition because there were fewer people visiting local clinics for alcohol-related injury, they did not measure or were painfully unable to assess the level of anger and frustration in the community’s drinkers. Take the grog away without also providing healing services for that person to deal with why they were drinking in the first place, and you might end up with a dry drunk. In these cases, even though the physical drinking is gone, the mental, emotional and spiritual sickness remains and simply gets played out in other more internally self destructive ways.
Thus, Pearson and Brough’s answer is naïve. Far from being radical, they are doing what every other public intervention has tried to do and failed: use control alone, and use it in a morally panicked way. With Australia’s alcohol problem increasingly being made public for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike, we may well need to be prohibit it’s availability in some communities, but to do so with no regard for the evidence, or without assisting people to heal the original source of their self-destructive behaviour, is only to intensify the extreme self-hate and dysfunctional behaviour they are trying to remedy.
The second reason why Pearson and Brough’s solutions are dangerous is because they are willing to allow the problems of alcohol and sexual abuse in all Australian homes to be confined to pointing the finger at Indigenous communities alone. As I have alluded, these issues are of national significance and are in epidemic proportions. There is no doubt we have a particular epidemic in Indigenous Australia made worse by the small size of some Indigenous communities and the public denial despite tireless health worker efforts and media hype. But denial, shame and secrecy are hallmarks of the way these issues have until recently been dealt with in the national mainstream arena too. It doesn’t make it OK in Aboriginal communities, it just makes me question why there is a white knight moral panic obsession with some to point the finger and demonise all Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal men?
Perhaps it’s because if the government can encourage the public to believe that all Aborigines are violent abusers and crooks, then it allows them to slip through the back door and take away our communal rights to land under the guise of us not being able to manage our own affairs, or because we haven’t assimilated into the mainstream economy yet? Perhaps Pearson thinks that by giving someone who may not be at a level of full social functioning (an alcoholic for example), an opportunity to start a small business or buy their own home (with what money in what real estate market I’m not sure), then they’ll suddenly become the fine upstanding socially responsible 1950s citizens that John Howard so desperately wants us all to be?
If some people can’t turn up to a work for the dole scheme, how will they run a small business? With what social and personal support and healing services other than family income management, does he expect people to suddenly take part in a mainstream economy? Don’t we need a new national view of the welfare debate, where people who are not at full social functioning are encouraged to deal with their personal issues and find something they love as work, rather than by treating them as social scum and beggars? Don’t we all need an education and training system that helps us find where possible a career that we absolutely love, thereby increasing the likelihood of productivity as a happy by-product rather than a forced social engineering exercise?
Maybe Pearson and Brough just really genuinely care, and are admirably trying to do something to fix the situation? The problem is, they apparently have got the bull by the horns, and have allowed their seeming white knight syndrome to throw out the evidence and with it a well thought out national response. Dangerously, their posturing and shouting is being used politically to de-stabilise Indigenous communal ownership (under the guise of economic development) and thereby spiritual connections to land, yet again.
Thirdly, Pearson’s arrogant ‘tacking to the political right’ without first engaging his own mob, is the reason why many other Aboriginal people disagree with his approach. It is not so much what he does, but how arrogantly and disrespectfully he does it that gets people’s backs up. Remember, Aboriginal people are used to be ignored and controlled and told what the answer is for them. Pearson risks being just one of a long line of others who want to change the world without talking with Aboriginal people or without grounding his interventions in the evidence. Does he want to be a hero to the mainstream middle class elite who love the “pull yourselves up by your own boot straps” message? Or does he want to do the harder but more rewarding work of engaging with and bringing his own people along with him? In any case, how dare some in the mainstream elite ignore what other Indigenous leaders say, just because they don’t subscribe to the Pearson saviour game. Pearson naively characterises many of those who disagree with his approach as the “rights agenda” only – apparently they ignore responsibilities too. He likes to pigeon-hole those who disagree with him as coming from a citified, academic-only, uppity worldview with no grounding. Again, this is poorly thought out and incorrect analysis.
To Pearson I say this, I am of a well-grounded and well-educated generation of Indigenous community workers who will not put up with Indigenous policy-on-the-run any more. We need evidence based, well thought out national Indigenous policy, target setting and performance measures for every sector of the Australian nation to take their responsibility in the challenges ahead. I expected more from Pearson than to seize a political moment for his own individual policy-on-the-run objectives. I expected it from Brough.