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GARY Johns, who was a minister in the Keating government, takes an unequivocal position in the debate about what to do about the severe and endemic problems besetting so much of Aboriginal Australia, an issue so intimately linked to arguments about the past.

Johns takes aim at nearly everybody involved in the "Aboriginal industry", from the civil rights and Whitlam eras up to (but not including) the 2007 Mal Brough-inspired federal intervention in remote Aboriginal communities. In his sights are white liberal idealists, including human-rights lawyers, judges, left-wing academics and protesters, as well as "educated black men and women", who have, he thinks, propagated a cultural "morality play".

Today's "penchant" for Aboriginal culture, he writes:

. . . is used to shield corruption and abuse of power in Aboriginal communities. It is also used to slow the necessary steps to adjustment of Aboriginal people to the modern culture and economy. All those who have played the culture game, who have striven to create a life from Aboriginal misery, are to be condemned in the most severe terms.



Johns views the apology as an "insult". He regards the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody as "misconceived", and the acceptance of "secret women's business" in the Hindmarsh Island dispute as "perhaps the most embarrassing and intellectually and morally bereft that I encountered in parliamentary life". Land rights, he thinks, created a "pretend economy" inducing "Aborigines to wait for the whiteman's gifts".

But Johns is most passionate, even virulent, on the issue of Aboriginal culture. He accuses pre-contact Aborigines of endemic infanticide, a rigid patriarchy enforced with great violence, especially against women, and of losing the few technological innovations -- such as the bow and arrow -- with which they arrived on the Australian continent. He pours scorn even on the "good" bits, such as traditional fire use ("the delights of incendiarism"), land care ("denuding scrubland, polluting the environment"), and even Aboriginal art ("the genesis of western desert art gives cause to think again").

The main targets of Johns's good intentions are the "small minority of a small minority" -- the more or less traditionally oriented Aborigines living in remote areas, whose lives, he thinks, have been condemned by misplaced idealism and government largesse to "a living hell". He suggests we should stop pretending their culture is worth preserving:

What if the 'solution' is the problem? What if the culture is no more than people behaving badly, a result of blighted environments, poor incentives, awful history, and an historic culture best relegated to museums and occasional ceremonies?

On policy for the future, Johns is a realist. It is misguided to think Aborigines can -- even to a limited extent -- manage or govern themselves. "Consultation" is a sham, as "it is well known that communities are consulted endlessly. These meetings, if anything, seem to be in lieu of anything ever being decided". Instead, he advocates integration; in practice, a moral and economic war on violence and irresponsible welfarism. He uses military language to describe his plan: Centrelink officers would be the "frontline troops"; the "casualties" would be "those who cannot adjust", especially the "tens of thousands of Aboriginal men living in remote communities, in fringe town camps, and, to a lesser extent, in urban ghettoes".

Johns's strength is in public policy. Many of his detailed proposals on issues such as education and housing may not, in the end, differ fundamentally from those favoured by less hardline advocates, including Noel Pearson. There is much valuable information on these issues, particularly in the last half of Aboriginal Self-Determination.

However, I have some real problems with this book. In part, it is Johns's belligerent tone. His attitude of "severe condemnation" of most of those working in Aboriginal affairs in the pre-Brough era seems excessive and unfair. His outright rejection of traditional Aboriginal culture -- was there nothing good in it? -- runs in a direct line from 19th-century views of the "aimless, root-eating, alligator-egg-sucking existence" of traditional Aborigines doomed to die out. These ideas are well remembered. I doubt they will be received well by Aboriginal people. Aborigines can not, surely, be dragged into Johns's program entirely against their will, especially when so many are dismissed as likely "casualties" of change.

I also have difficulties with Johns's attitude towards post-contact history. He occasionally acknowledges "an awful history". However, he devotes remarkably little attention to matters such as invasion, massacre, loss of land, rape and sex slavery, as well as child-removal policies based at least partly on racial grounds. Presumably this is deliberate, an antidote to the "retreat to collective guilt" he regards as a misguided substitute for the "real work of building a bridge into the modern economy". But it comes across as uncompassionate.

One example is his attitude to the "small minority" of remote-area Aborigines, many of them in the Northern Territory. Johns barely mentions the fact many of these people were displaced by cattle stations in the 19th century. As a result they had several generations' experience of white man's poor behaviour towards them, including physical and sexual abuse to equal anything seen today at Aurukun or Alice Springs. Assimilationists also sought to deny them equal wages, a history not easily forgotten, even 45 years later, out in the bush.

A more fundamental weakness, I think, is Johns's failure to appreciate the importance of ideals: such things as independence, identity, recognition of past injustice, and human rights. These are not just liberal cliches. They are basic human needs, as well as crucial agents of social change.

Aborigines are simply not going to accept their culture is indefensible, a "foolish and damaging dream". This is as true today as in the 1960s, when Aboriginal people rejected assimilation and fought for civil rights.

Johns's book is a challenge. No doubt it is written with that in mind.

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