09
Apr
09

Pluralism as a policy paradigm

In social policy there are no absolutes.  Broad labels such as self-determination, mutual responsibility, etc. describe broad policies subject to an integrated and complex web of forces, powers and circumstances.  Certain labels might be ideal in theory but in practice fall short.  Some may describe in a broad sense a set of policies but in fact lack the substance for an accurate description.  An unfortunate aspect of the political market is that such circumstances lead to a postering for position rather than an articulation of policies and how they can be improved.  By its very nature politics is continually at risk of becoming an equation between different interpretations and positions rather than a collective articulation of ways forward.

An example of a convuluted term is ‘self-determination’.  The opposite is seen as ‘mainstreaming’.  Both describe the tension between the way Aboriginal identity is integrated into the broader and more dominant parts of society and the way it is protected as a distinct and seperate position.  One train of thought, put to me recently by an Aboriginal person strong in traditional culture, is that Aboriginal people exercise self-determination through retaining their identity: language, relationships, etc, and nothing else.  I am told that ‘this is self-determination’, meaning not some formal policy construct.  Contrast this with the policy label of ‘self-determination’ which was, in effect, the creation of thousands of corporate structures providing services exclusively accessed by Aboriginal people.  The two interpretations of ‘self-determination’ are quite stark. 

I put that the original ideal of self-determination occurs where pluralism is valued and where pluralism finds balance.  Pluralism is the value of more than one.  A minority is able to live with a distinct identity concurrent to the influence of a more dominant arrangement if those distinct identities find full expression, both in the way it is protected and the way it connects.  If people are able to retain self-determination in the limited interpretation of ‘language, culture, relationships’, as opposed to the ‘corporate structures’ paradigm then there must be the political, social and economic space to do so.  Where there is paucity in our policy analysis is how these intersect with the formal and informal aspect of society, and how formal policies and different markets (economic, political ,social) determine the intersection. 

The reason why pluralism is so important is because the value of identity is central. 

Because contemporary policy and its approach to indigenous affairs assumes two orders (Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal) it fails to accommodate the fragmentation and social capital that bonds indigenous groups.  It fails to account the importance of this and its changing nature, and how these relationships can be accommodated in formal policy.  Commentators often talk about the provision of individual welfare (non-work payments) as a crucial plank that undermined collective responsibility.  Pluralism is important because it allows flexibility in terms of space between identity and the formal constructs of policy.  If individual welfare undermined collective responsibility then pluralism is relevant where it might integrate control and authority over how welfare is distributed into the indigenous identity normative order.  For example, in the 1960s/70s formal policy on the basis of ‘equality’ allowed indigenous entitlement to all welfare policies that applied to everyone.  If welfare payments were at the discretion of indigenous governance arrangements then principles of reciprocity (the need to work and the need to work within a frame of collective responsibility) would have been enshrined.

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