• Senator Pauline Hanson during an amendment to part 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act at Parliament House in Canberra (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) (AAP)Source: AAP
The landscape in Indigenous Affairs across Australia has changed so much in the last two decades that 'not losing' is now the same thing as 'winning'. Luke Pearson writes about how this may be impacting on our ability to achieve positive outcomes for self-determination and Indigenous advancement in everything from eradicating racial discrimination through to Closing the Gap.
Luke Pearson

3 Apr 2017 - 2:26 PM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2017 - 2:26 PM

The proposed changes to 18C being defeated has been heralded as a 'victory for multiculturalism', and for common decency, but I’m not a huge fan of being so unambitious on the issue of eliminating racial discrimination (or ‘harmony’ as it is known in Australia) that not taking a step backward should be conflated with taking a step forward. 

The 6 years that this debate has been going on has already done a lot to put us backwards on issues of racial discrimination in this country. It has seen yet another campaigned built on the back of the timeless cry that ‘Aboriginal people are trying to steal your [insert noun here]’, this time the noun being ‘free speech’. Whether it’s sheep, tax dollars, jobs, people’s backyards, or even free speech – it is a ready-made campaign that always seems to resonate well with certain portions of the population.

It has seen high profiled politicians and media figures talking about how thin-skinned we are, how we ‘choose to be offended’, how unfair it is that they can’t say the n-word, and how we are disrespecting all those ANZACs who apparently died for our free speech right to racially vilify people.

We are so busy fighting not to take backwards steps that it is hard to remember what a forward step even looks like.

The debate against 18C has done so much to embolden racists and promote bigotry that the argument that changing 18C would embolden racists was beginning to seem somewhat redundant – even though it definitely would have even further emboldened racists to be even more racist.

Reducing incarceration rates, or child removal rates, or the appalling rates of suicide would almost be a step forward - if these too wouldn’t really just be undoing so many backward steps that have been taken in these areas over the past few decades.  

But that is the only version of going forward that seems possible these days when it comes to Indigenous empowerment, or to eliminating racial discrimination. Racism is taking so may forwards steps, and Indigenous affairs is being knocked backwards so many steps that something like 18C seems like all we have to celebrate. We didn’t lose something that is widely acknowledged as a woefully inadequate tool for addressing racial discrimination and racial vilification – the key part we are meant to focus on there is that we didn’t lose something else though, I guess.

And to be fair, it is important that we fight against these sort of backward steps. It is important that we do not see what little progress that has been made taken away from us. Whether it is the custody notification system that is perpetually under attack, native legislation that is perpetually being watered down, or peak bodies and frontline services that are being stripped down to their bare bones.

We are so busy fighting not to take backwards steps that it is hard to remember what a forward step even looks like.

Would getting the over half a billion of funding cuts to Indigenous peak bodies and frontline services be a victory? It certainly sounds like a victory, and at this stage I’m sure it would feel like one too, but those organisations were already fighting an uphill battle and were not ‘closing the gap’. The medical services, the legal centres, the advocacy groups – none of these groups were actually ‘reversing the gap’, under the old system they were just doing slightly better at slowing down the widening of the gap than they are now able to. Getting that funding back would simply put us back to a slower pace of gap growth, so no – that shouldn’t count as a victory either.

Living under a generation of constant attacks on Indigenous rights has blurred the lines for too many of us on what counts as ‘winning’.

Losses are so common that we are too scared to challenge the status quo because we know that any problems we highlight within our own organisations is more likely to be used as an excuse to dismantle them rather than to reform them.

I guess, for my generation at least, this started with ATSIC being abolished. There was no reason it couldn’t have been reformed rather than abolished, and there is no reason that a better version of ATSIC couldn’t be created and reinstated. Instead, it was referred to as the ‘failed experiment of Aboriginal self-determination’ as used as the reason why we shouldn’t have Aboriginal control over Aboriginal affairs despite the reality that it was never actually allowed to do that in the first place.  

The next major lesson we learnt was what happens if you actually try to do something meaningful about issues of child abuse and neglect – the Little Children Are Sacred report - which hoped to provide solutions to these seemingly intractable issues was hijacked and used to create the NT Intervention which bore no resemblance to the recommendations of the report that inspired it. We were used to seeing our reports ignored and dismissed, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that such a powerful report would be so grossly misrepresented to demonise communities and introduce punitive measures that are still in place, but which have done nothing to address the very real and serious issues that were the focus of the report.

This meant that not does actual victory now seem elusive and intangible, but the means to achieve them can now be used against as well.

So, where does leave us? How can we get back onto a path of progress, of self-determination?

Perhaps it is important for us to remember that the best we can hope to come from government is not taking a step backwards, as that there has literally never been a significant step forward made for Indigenous rights that was given freely to us from government. Every single one of them had to come from political and community based actions. From marches, protests, and community actions. Every step forward not only needs to be fought for, but it needs to be defended as well. Not an easy task in the face of relentless, coordinated, and well-funded attacks.

Perhaps we need to double down on the campaign for Treaty – and make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that nothing less than Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs will do.  

We cannot hope to take a step forward if we are solely focussed on not being pushed further back. This strategy guarantees an inevitable decline, and the eventual stripping back of every bit of progress that has been made in the past few generations.

We must life our gaze higher than simply slowing down this decline - we must look to reverse it.
Bid to change 18c race discrimination law killed off in Senate
Changes to race-hate speech laws have hit a Senate road block in what critics say is a win for multicultural Australia.
18C doesn’t stop anyone from talking about any aspect of Aboriginal culture or identity
COMMENT: There has been an amazing amount of misinformation about 18C from various journalists and commentators in the 5 years since Andrew Bolt was rightly found to have been in breach of 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
A history of Section 18C and the Racial Discrimination Act
From complaints about being called a ‘Pom’ to Holocaust denial, the Racial Discrimination Act has had a long and checkered history. While some cases have ruled against racist remarks, many complaints about racial discrimination have also been dismissed by the courts.