A Different Inequality

Diane Austin-Broos is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Sydney University. Her book, A Different Inequality* continues the discussion about remote Aboriginal life. The book is about cultural difference and inequality in the context of a debate that has often been ideological and inadequate.

She has two dialogue partners. One is her own group of anthropologists and the associated group she calls “humanistic social sciences’ , history and indigenous studies for example. This group she thinks has left a space in the debate due “to a failure in critical thought among anthropologists”. (p8) The other is the group of opinion writers “whose pronouncements were not always well informed.” (p8), and who have filled the space left empty by the first group.

The inequality that is described in the book “is that which began to unfold once Aboriginal Australians were encapsulated in a European-derived state and became increasingly positioned by a capitalist economy.” (p10) But the nature of that inequality and how it should be described is what is at issue.

The book has helpful chapters (‘background briefings’) on culture and ethnology, the postcolonial critique, the opposition to separate development (“remote communities had become sites of pathology and suffering” p23), and on the issues to do with land rights.

Austin-Broos argues for a new way of describing the tension between cultural difference and inequality. Has the traditional way of describing remote Aboriginal communities become a kind of abstraction, an ideal concept that does not accurately describe the reality? She sees that the remote communities debate was polarised quite early (p138). The pathology of suffering in remote communities brought some out on the side of government welfare and intervention (the ‘rights-pathology axis’). Others such as Noel Pearson maintained that the main actor in development is the individual not the government.

Austin-Broos seeks a way through these complex debates about cultural difference , marginalisation, poverty, and issues within the culture including violence and the circulation of goods through the kinship network (rather than accumulating them).

She sees political debate focussed on two issues: the maintenance of self-sufficient communities and hybrid economies; and human rights and their restoration in the light of the NT intervention. Austin-Broos thinks these politics are limited. She argues against separatism. She says, “…I propose to add a further dimension to a politics that does support land rights, human rights and appropriate development. I refer to widespread, forceful and persistent support for mainstream primary education on remote communities.” (p159)

Austin-Broos has a nuanced approach, consistent with Sutton and Pearson, with a strong emphasis on primary education as well as giving a voice to the people in remote communities. Clearly written for the choir (in the hope that they will sing together), it is accessible to those on the outside and provides a very helpful education for those trying to make sense of the debates.

*Diane Austin-Broos, A Different Inequality: The politics of debate about remote Aboriginal Australia. Allen & Unwin. 2011. ISBN 9781742370491

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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