11
Sep
07

Robert Manne, history and modernity

ABC Hindsight provides audio access to a Robert Manne lecture ‘Whatever happened to reconciliation?’, located here

I admire Professor Manne because he left Quadrant magazine in order to pursue a more non-partisan (and more substantial) contribution to Aboriginal history and politics, including (2001) In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right.  The circumstances of his leaving Quadrant are well documented.   

The audio is reprinted in the Monthly, Pearson’s gamble, Stanner’s dream: the past and future of remote Australia (note that the audio extends for an additional 4 minutes and is slightly different in areas).

The lecture is insightful because it distinguishes a number of early policy makers: Hasluck, Stanner and Coombs, and offers a recent analysis of Noel Pearson and Helen Hughes.  Several strands of views and opinion intertwine, but they are loosely defined by two competing tensions: the space between Indigenous society & the dominant culture (for want of a better word), and the extent of government policy intervention. 

Manne’s contribution, and the contribution of others who dissect our history, is important because it underpins the policy and political outcomes during a particular period. 

Of course, abstract analysis that fails to recognise the difference between the intent of policy and the actual substance of policy can be misleading, and influences that widen this difference are always difficult to measure.  Many accounts of history are skewed by this, but the underpinning philosophies and motivations of key decision-makers is often easily defined.

It is this definition, though, that gives substance to the span of history.  Hasluck was a key policy maker in his time, but the basis that motivated his underpinning philosophy was substantially wrong.  Stanner’s innovation created a new paradigm to replace Hasluck’s, and in turn it branched into Coombs, whose legacy put forward a variety of views. 

The anthropological work of David McKnight (as an example of work monitoring general outcomes) highlighted significant social challenges in recent decades: substance misuse, criminal and anti-social activity, a disengaged legal system, neglect, the break down of social norms.  

Interestingly, Manne highlights the parrallels between Hasluck and Hughes, and the differences between Coombs, Hughes and Pearson. 

Near the conclusion, Manne identifies the similiarities between Hughes and John Howard, and notes:

The considerable overlap between this [Hughes] and the neo-liberal dimension of thought of Noel Pearson is clear.  Yet the differences between Pearson and Howard are no less important.  Pearson supports land rights and native title.  Howard is hoping for their erosion.  Pearson supports genuine, not phoney, Aboriginal self-determination.  Howard supports assimilation, in fact if not in name.  Pearson detests Windschuttle’s denialist history of the dispossession.  Howard is the country’s most influential supporter.  Pearson regards the rights of indigenous peoples as politically fundamental.  In a recent essay in the Griffith Review, he tells us that when he discussed first peoples’ rights with a senior and sympathetic member of the Coalition government, he was told, ‘I just don’t understand the Indigenous rights stuff’.  Pearson’s life has been dedicated to the struggle for the survival and health of the remote Aboriginal communities.  There is no reason to suppose that Howard would be concerned if they all eventually collapsed.

Drawing on the historical account, it is clear that the modern political contest of ideas is largely influenced by these early divisions described by Manne. 

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