The Politics of Suffering

The Politics of Suffering

I have been catching up on my reading about Indigenous issues (starting again might be a better way to put it). I thought I should share some of it in the hope that those who know more might add their wisdom, since the church and Christians have a share in the history but may be unsure how best to contribute in the present confusing debate. Certainly I am unsure. I have lived as an adult through many of the defining moments in changes in relations between Indigenous people and the majority population. Although I voted in the 1967 referendum, many of the terrible events that have happened since then have passed me by (been ignored by me/were unknown to me).

In 2000 Peter Sutton gave a lecture in Perth that signalled a watershed in new and more realistic discussions about indigenous policy (although he credits Noel Pearson with getting the discussion going in the late 90s). It was such a momentous speech that it developed into a book*, now in its second edition.

Sutton is a linguist and anthropologist who has spent a lot of time in indigenous communities, particularly Aurukun, since the 1970s.

His book has aroused a lot of controversy, partly, he says, because of his “unqualified position that a number of the serious problems Indigenous people face in Australia today arise from a complex joining together of recent, that is post-conquest, historical factors of external impact, with a substantial number of ancient, pre-existent social and cultural factors that have continued, transformed or intact, into the lives of people living today. The main way these factors are continued is through child-rearing.” (p7)

The book represents a turning away from the simplistic idea that Indigenous disadvantage arose merely from external impacts, particularly the colonial invasion, and that it can be helped by the victims being given various kinds of support. What has brought about a change of mind is the overwhelming evidence that, in the period of massive welfare support, the key indicators of quality of life have consistently continued to decline.

Sutton gives a very helpful review of the recent history of policy debates and government action. He discusses community violence, culture, rage, the way old practices have been transformed by modern pressures, and grapples with issues of integration and separation. He puts forward many radical and controversial suggestions about a realistic way forward. He has a wonderful chapter called “Unusual Couples” in which he relates some of the impact of relationships between Indigenous and European partners, including Biraban and Lancelot Threlkeld. He has a balanced and sympathetic view of much mission work, and his comments complement and are consistent with John Harris’ One Blood.

He concludes with a chapter called “Feeling Reconciled”. Reconciliation is a relational category. It may require a retreat from legal racism, he says. Removing “race itself as a legal category of distinction in Australian Law and bureaucracy.” (p212) It will require new thinking about national oneness on the part of both Aborigines and Whitefellas. In passing he notes the very high percentage of Indigenous people marrying non-Indigenous.

It is an amazing and forthright book. Beginners like me would benefit greatly by reading it. In another blog I will comment on some other recent books in the field.

*Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Melbourne University Press. 2011. ISBN 9780522858716

Dale Appleby

About Dale Appleby

Dale Appleby is a graduate of Moore College, served in parishes in Perth, Northern Territory and Jakarta. Presently the minister at Willetton, in the suburbs of Perth. Married to Joy with four kids and seven grand-kids (at last count).
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