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A master plan for Indigenous freedom

Andrew Forrest, the founder of the Walk Free Foundation, has written a master plan for Indigenous freedom. But who is the master and what is freedom?

A rally against forced closures of Aboriginal communities in 2015. Richard Ashen/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest is publicly heralded as an "industry and philanthropic leader". He is founder of the Walk Free Foundation, an organisation dedicated to leading a global movement for the abolition of so-called ‘modern slavery’, a condition it defines as the inability to walk away from a situation of extreme economic exploitation and violence or its threat. Forrest is also author of the 2014 report ‘The Forrest Review: Creating Parity’. This work was commissioned by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and purports to offer a solution to the problem of ‘the disparity between first Australians and other Australians’.

The Forrest review provides a national master plan for tackling what it identifies as problems stemming from a cultural ethos of worklessness and a lack of achievement in mainstream education. It does not, however, seek to repair undermined communities by strengthening corporate social responsibility, decolonising the school curriculum, or upholding human rights. The report furthermore frames Indigenous peoples and cultures through a problematic lens that allows for solutions steeped in corporate arrogance and homogeneity. Responses made following the release of the report are very revealing about the kind of freedom that is valued by Australians generally, and by Forrest and his admirers.

Bad reviews for the Forrest review

Disparity comes at enormous and ongoing costs to Indigenous Australians. They suffer from disproportionately ill-health and ongoing challenges in regard to cultural recognition as citizens of Australia. Despite decades of research, policy changes, and so-called best practice standards, Australia’s First Nations people continue to endure oppressive conditions in the workplace, as service recipients, and when attempting to exercise sovereign rights.

The Forrest review was criticised by the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia for its lack of commitment to individual and community-based capacity building, and lack of evidence-based claims. Emeritus Professor Jon Altman at the Australian National University, who has in-depth expertise in Indigenous affairs, described the report as “the most unsatisfactory review of an area of Indigenous policy I have seen”. He furthermore stated in his critique that:

The Forrest Review, philosophically, blends 1961 assimilation policy ideas with 21st century neoliberalism focusing on the individual and the family as if policy can be removed from the community and society and operating on the basis of economic rationalism alone.

The review is situated amidst a national economic convergence strategy that continues to negatively impact the lives and places of Indigenous traditional owners and other First Nation Australians in a disturbing and retrospective manner, particularly where mainstream norms such as individualism are upheld as key indicators of success. It employs an official language that upholds and validates the core values of institutions currently disempowering Indigenous people. The adoption by government and industry of popular phrases such as ‘close the gap’ and the need to create ‘career pathways’ works to emphasise individual responsibility and choice. At the same time, it excuses or excludes institutional or societal-based responsibility by failing to consider the structural contexts in which choice and responsibility are exercised. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s relationship with the First Nations people of Australia suggests that economic reform is his priority. He also appears to regard Indigenous people living in remote homeland communities as an economically unsustainable situation that is nothing more than a burden on Australian taxpayers.

Convergence as emancipation?

Both the Forrest review and the position of the Australian federal government suggest a strong alignment with the convergence model of addressing the legacy of slavery in the United States of America. This model, which seeks to close the gap in health, education, and business, was first utilised in the nineteenth century in response to the situation of black Americans in the post-emancipation era. Convergence includes the sanctioning of ‘human capital’ as a means of profiteering and empowerment by societies’ wealthy and powerful, who sought to adopt an individualistic ‘catching up’ mechanism during the abolition of slavery to assimilate people as quickly as possible into the capitalist framework of a modern society. Simplistic constructions of race and gender ensured that white patriarchal domination remained intact despite the abolition of slavery. Convergence in the Australian context extends to the commoditisation of Indigenous cultural resources and peoples via a legal and government-regulated framework for land use negotiations that is primarily based on Western values. This includes the construction of academic concepts of Indigeneity, monetary compensation as the key to negotiating the destruction or loss of access to traditional sites, and a patriarchal engagement strategy that excludes Indigenous women and women’s knowledge from the impact assessment process.

The convergence model can be extremely destructive. In Australia, it disregards the dynamics of social hierarchies and the intimate connections between people and their traditional lands and waters that have existed for thousands of years in Indigenous Australian society. It further disregards the erasure of Indigenous structures and relationships that has resulted from governmental and industrial attempts to seize and maintain control of mineral and energy resources. Not only are Indigenous Australian lands and water becoming increasingly challenged and consumed by imported ideas of power, wealth and knowledge, so too are the values and expectations of the descendants of these places.

The colonial present

Where Forrest’s vision of freedom appears to be the freedom to enter the neoliberal labour market as a worker, others envisage a freedom that is linked to decolonisation. This would require reviews of the Australian constitution and the national school curriculum. The Australian constitution after more than 200 years of colonial impact fails to recognise First Nations peoples and cultures, industry successfully resists the pressure for First Nations to exercise sovereignty over their ancestral lands and waters, and governments increasingly strip traditional owners of access to and use of ancient cultural resources. At the same time, the Australian educational curriculum continues to falsely portray colonisation as a peaceful and bountiful process for all. The national psyche suggests that Australia, as a nation, remains a white society and an annexation of eighteenth-century British colonisers. This situation is reflected in the recent decision of Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, to reintroduce knighthoods—the mark of colonial royalty—while continuing to problematise Indigenous poverty as a ‘lifestyle choice’. Australia’s colonial shackles remain firmly in place despite growing internal as well as external pressure to come of age and be fully respectful of Indigenous peoples.

Governments and industries across Australia continue to reinforce an assimilatory approach to economic participation that is neither appropriate to First Nations in Australia nor in line with decolonising movements in other colonised countries. For Indigenous Australian peoples little has improved in the past 200 years and much of their cultural identities has been irreversibly damaged or destroyed. Mining magnates, national figureheads, and outspoken academics all openly debate the colonial legacies evident in the institutional entrenchment of racist and colonialist ideas, practices, and policies. What remains poorly understood by successive governments and big business are the ways in which economic, social, intellectual and political reforms can and should take place to address the huge discrepancies between quality of life, human rights, economic development, and the need for decolonisation.

The success of commercial activities billed as progress or development is often predicated on how effectively modern societies utilise and exploit resources. This is vastly different to how many Indigenous peoples, particularly traditional owners, continue to interact with their environment through a combination of both traditional and contemporary ideologies. The idea of ‘closing the gap’ is an insulting gesture that ignores the genuine efforts made to address disparity in the context of colonial legacies. Andrew Forrest’s vision of emancipation through convergence is a view of freedom that sits comfortably with his own mining interests and big business more generally. It is disturbing that, with his much publicised Walk Free Foundation, his influence in Australian politics may extend even further.

About the author

Jillian K. Marsh is of Adnyamathanha descent and member of the Yura community of the northern Flinders Ranges region of South Australia. She received her Ph.D. in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide in 2013, where she examined the government regulatory process known as ‘impact assessment’ and Indigenous community governance in the context of the Beverley Uranium Mine. As an early career researcher she regards herself as an ambassador for future Indigenous researchers, as well as a mentor and ethical collaborator within Indigenous research. Her research interests include community engagement between Indigenous peoples and the mining industry; advancement of Indigenous Education and Indigenous led research; and advancement of rural women's issues.


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