Deep Structures in Australian Indigenous affairs: Federalism, Competing Principles, High Moralism and a Remote Focus.

Dr. Will Sanders

Structure suggests things that are hard to change. This can be a matter of perspective and timeframe. In four decades observing Australian Indigenous affairs I have often thought of organisational arrangements within government as structures. They are, from the perspective of an employee within them or a citizen trying to influence them. But over time government organisation of Indigenous affairs changes, significantly, often at the behest of politicians. For them, organisation is a chance for agency.

This paper asks: are there deeper structures in Australian Indigenous affairs? It identifies four.

First is federalism. The States occupied Indigenous affairs before the Commonwealth and are still key players, even though Commonwealth policy influence has grown enormously. Another aspect of federal structure is State/Territory asymmetry. This is why there was a Northern Territory Intervention in 2007, not a Kimberley or Cape York one.

Second is the competing principles of equality, choice and guardianship. While the idea of equality dominates, it is open to at least three interpretations: individual legal equality, population group socio-economic equality and equality of opportunity. Positive and negative appreciations of Indigenous difference and diversity lead to the two other competing principles of autonomy, choice or freedom and guardianship or behavioural direction. These can be applied at the levels of communal groups, households or individuals, leaving considerable room for policy debate and movement. But the basic terms of argument seem set and hence structural.

The third and fourth deep structures identified are high moralism and a remote focus; wanting to do much better than in the past and a tendency to overlook the most colonised Indigenous people in densely settled Australia in favour of those who seem more different, whether that be seen as more disadvantaged or more culturally distinct.

Combined these four deep structures explain some persistent, sub-optimal patterns in Australian Indigenous affairs, like disowning the past, starting anew and focusing on remote areas. I argue that the only way to change these sub-optimal policy patterns is to be analytically aware of them. To know deep structure opens the possibility of its transcendence, through deeply informed agency.