The scope of the Royal Commission called in the wake of the Don Dale scandal has thankfully been widened to include the crucial issue of child protection. The failure by child protection services – in both the Territory and nationwide – to properly protect Aboriginal children is one of the root causes of the life-long disadvantage suffered by indigenous Australians, and our on-going national failure to ‘close the gap’ in social outcomes.
But according to some indigenous leaders the issue isn’t so much looking hard at the real causes of indigenous suffering, but rather the identity of those who are doing the looking, hence the calls for two indigenous commissioners to be appointed to conduct the Don Dale inquiry.
These calls are a clear case of the increasing role identity politics is playing in public life. The conceit is that individuals with indigenous heritage – due to their ‘lived experience’ – have by default greater insight into the problems facing other Indigenous people than non-indigenous people. This is questionable when the types of Indigenous elites who are likely to be appointed to the Commission have more in common with their non-indigenous peers in urban Australia in terms of education and opportunities than with the minority of indigenous Australians who live in appalling circumstances in remote communities.
Identity politics also lies behind the continued push for a political solution to the Indigenous issues through the causes of reconciliation, recognition, and treaty. The great irony here is that the suffering of the most disadvantaged indigenous Australians has stemmed from the failed policies of Aboriginal self-determination introduced in the 1970s, which were based on the same anti-colonial political agenda, and the unfounded belief that only ‘Aboriginal-controlled’ solutions would fix indigenous problems.
But in fact – as the work of people as varied as Noel Pearson, Gary Johns, Peter Sutton, Helen Hughes, John Hirst, Kerryn Pholi, Anthony Dillon, and myself has demonstrated – this race-based approach has worsened the situation in indigenous communities.
The debate should be focused on the details of the flawed policies that have failed generations of indigenous people. But instead, too much of the focus is on the identity politics claims of indigenous leaders, whose political prescriptions for what ails indigenous Australia would amount to doubling-down of the separatist approach that has caused decades of sufferings.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies