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Assimilation versus self-determination: No contest: Dodson (1996)

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Assimilation versus self-determination:
No contest

Speech by Michael
Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
at the H.C. (Nugget) Coombs Northern Australia Inaugural Lecture, Darwin,
5 September 1996

Ladies and Gentlemen,
it gives me very great pleasure to be here tonight to deliver this H.C.
(Nugget) Coombs Northern Australia Inaugural Lecture.

I would like to take
you to a particular personal memory of Nugget in the Foreword to his book,
Aboriginal Autonomy, I wrote the following:

On the morning
just prior to the commencement of the meeting, Nugget Coombs, who had
been invited to attend, arrived to wish us well and briefly renew acquaintances
with many old Aboriginal and Islander friends. There were warm greetings
and well wishing until shortly Nugget departed.... A young Aboriginal
man of perhaps 16 or 17 years inquired of me as to 'who was that old
man?' My response was, 'that old man must be respected; he is the whitefella's
most senior elder'.

The context of these
comments was the Eva Valley meeting to discuss the proposed legislative
response to the High Courts' Native Title Decision. We had that old man
to wish us well in our deliberations. The High Court recognised our rights
to our land under Indigenous law. It was an act of justice that in shaping
an entire environment of thought and understanding that this man substantially
contributed to. There he was, still fighting, still holding hope, still
with us.

Why is it that this
man, this whitefella, draws respect and love from all Indigenous Australians
who know his story. I think we honour him as a 'senior man', an 'elder',
and the reason we honour him in our terms is because he has always honoured
us in ours. He has always seen us and listened to our voices.

His greatness lies
in the fact that he did this at a time when it was fashionable to simply
tell us what to do, to tell us what the whitefella wanted and what the
whitefella expected of us.

There has been much
discussion of late about assimilation and self-determination and I intend
to add to the discussion tonight. But the really essential difference
between the two tracks and the difference that Coombs bought to Aboriginal
Affairs is revealed in the statement by Paul Hasluck:

We do not want
a submerged caste or any other social pariahs in our community but want
a homogenous society. 1

Assimilation was
then, just as it is now, about what whitefellas want. What they want first
for themselves, and second, what they want for us.

To me the real essence
of Nugget's contribution is that he cared about, thought about, what we
wanted, what we saw as our futures, what is our concept of what is our
place in our country. Nugget's achievements are testimony to this fact.
Nugget's work is proof of the rewards of developing policy within a broader
social context. His understanding of the importance of the principle of
self-determination to effective and appropriate policy making in Aboriginal
Affairs is, I believe, echoed in his work in the arts and at the Reserve

Nugget was responsible,
for example, for the establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board which
was set up in 1973. The AAB became a site of Indigenous control of public
funding for the arts. It was also an example of Nugget's keenness to see
Australians include 'Aboriginality' within their sense of national heritage.
A genuine act of inclusion. Nugget's integrated approach to policy development
is also illustrated by his appointment to the chair of the Australian
Conservation Foundation. In this position Nugget was informed by his interest
in environmental matters and their connection with Indigenous rights.

In the current climate
of fiscal restraint and the deficit black hole (I sometimes wonder why
it has to be black) Nugget Coombs approach to public policy has much to
offer. Today Nugget's ways could well be seen as radical.

Nugget has said that
the power of elders may not amount to more than '...a right to be consulted
and listened to with respect'
. I'm not saying we're all going to agree
with Nugget's ways but what I am saying is that now, more than ever, we
should listen to what he has to say and take lessons from his understanding.

Since colonisation
Aboriginal Affairs policy has been dominated by attempts to suppress our
difference. Policy for, and about, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples has consistently asserted the dominance of the mainstream discourse
over the voices of Indigenous peoples. This approach is predicated on
fear of our difference, on fear of what is unknown and strange. Such an
approach reveals an inability to embrace our difference and be enriched
by it.

This approach is
a function of a broader attitude towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples. Our Aboriginality has always seen us defined as 'other'.
Our distinct identity has for the last two hundred or so years been the
subject of non-Indigenous attempts to define, characterise and reshape

Every once in a while,
though, someone comes along who is secure and confident enough in his
or her own identity to recognise and support our difference. Nugget Coombs
is one such person. When Nugget entered Aboriginal Affairs in 1967, the
year the constitutional referendum recognised the need to remove discriminatory
references to Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, assimilation
was still official Indigenous Affairs policy.

In 1963 Hasluck,
then Minister for Territories described this policy as follows:

The policy of assimilation
means that all Aborigines and part-Aborigines will attain the same manner
of living as other Australians and live as members of a single Australian
community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same
responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same
beliefs, as other Australians. 2

Assimilation relied
on the well-established and widely-accepted view that we were inferior
to white Australians, that our way of life, our culture and our languages
were substandard. It assumed that we would willingly give up our Aboriginality
and adopt the dominant white culture.

Assimilation presupposed
that the Indigenous people of Australia were a dying race. Embedded within
the policy of assimilation was a clear expectation of the cultural extinction
of Indigenous peoples. 3

As Hasluck's description
shows assimilation linked our citizenship rights to our adequate attainment
of white ways of living. Aboriginal Australians would only be given status
as full citizens entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship
if we showed ourselves capable of fulfilling our responsibilities to non-Indigenous
society and if we embraced its customs and beliefs.

The irony of this
for Indigenous people was that although our rights to things like shelter
and adequate infrastructure relied on our capacity to show we could live
like whitefellas we have traditionally been provided with inadequate housing
and infrastructure. We have always been expected to live in places and
conditions far below the standard enjoyed by non-Indigenous people in
this country.

In order to be granted
citizenship rights, then, we were required to live like non-Indigenous
people but in circumstances which made this nigh on impossible and which
were entirely beyond our control. We also know that even if, in the face
of difficult conditions, we were able to 'prove our worth' this did not
ensure the automatic delivery of what we were entitled to.

Coincidentally in
today's Australian newspaper the Governor-General, Sir William
Deane, said that on a recent visit to Maningrida in the Northern Territory
he found that even though this was in some respects an outstanding community
Aborigines still slept six to a room because of the 'hopelessly inadequate'
housing. Poor housing led to the fact that one in twenty three Aborigines
at Maningrida had rheumatic heart disease. He said A the incidence
is possibly the highest ever recorded in the world... and six times higher
than Soweto.


In the wake of World
War Two and the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust talk about the universality
of human rights gained wide currency. Enthusiastically Australia embraced
declarations against racism and discrimination. The principles of non-discrimination
and equality did not, yet, stand in the way of assimilation.

In fact assimilation
was, in part, justified on the ground that it was non-discriminatory,
that it treated all individuals equally regardless of race. It rejected
the idea that race was a barrier to social advancement. The ink had barely
dried on the newly signed genocide convention and its explicit prohibition
against the forcible removal of children.

In 1988 Hasluck wrote
of assimilation:

We rejected the
idea that race ... made any difference between human beings. We tried
to think of the Aborigines as we thought of ourselves, not as another
race but as fellow Australians. 5

The key to assimilation
was its reliance on equality of treatment. In erasing differences between
individuals assimilation hoped to erase disadvantage in the Australian

The temper of the
time was against racial, cultural or language minorities in the general
community. We were all to live in a land of equal opportunity. 6

But despite this
rhetoric of equality and non-discrimination we were still denied rights
enjoyed by non-Indigenous Australians.

There is perhaps
no greater example of the senselessness and obscenity of assimilation
than the practice of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their
families in its name. We today have to deal with the consequences of this
terrible legacy. The pain, the grief and sense of loss of mother and child
is unimaginable to us. Anyone seriously suggesting assimilation be revisited
should spend a few hours in the hearings of the National Inquiry into
the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families.

Listening to the
stories of devastation and ruin might just convince them of the stupidity
which is assimilation.

Assimilation was
and is a massive abuse of human rights. The ridiculous thing is that human
rights had no application to Indigenous Australians unless they were fully
assimilated into the dominant culture. Despite the existence of international
human rights instruments, human rights did not inherently accrue to Aboriginal
people but were instead a reward if they had renounced their Aboriginality
and embraced the dominant status quo. It was equality based, not on respect
for racial difference, but on the denial of your race.

In recent months
Aboriginal people have heard much to remind us of the bad old days of
the assimilationist era. And we've heard it despite a distance of some
thirty years and the widely acknowledged abject failure of assimilation.
Mr Graeme Campbell, now independent member for Kalgoorlie, has said:

most Australians
are Anglo-Celtic and those that aren't, want to be. This country is
not diverse, it's not a nation of tribes. 7

The concept of
multiculturalism is based on all cultures being of equal value which
is bullshit. 8

Mr Campbell's eloquence
makes explicit the belief which underpins all forms of assimilation but
which others are too shy or cautious to state. It is the arrogant and
crude belief in the superiority of white Australian culture and the belief
that Anglo-Celtic culture is the standard to which all Australians should,
and must want to aspire.

The idea of equality
which relies on homogenization and sameness of treatment has also resurfaced
with a vengeance. The recent trend has been to describe an Australia where
peoples differences are erased in the quest to unify all Australians under
the banner of  'One Australia'.

In his first press
conference after the 1996 election, John Howard said:

I stressed ...
- and I've stressed for a long time - my desire to focus on things that
unite Australians and not things that divide them. ... I want... the
reconciliation process to continue but it [has] to be upon the basis
that we are all Australians together, united under a common body of
law, to which we [are] all subject but from which all of us [are] entitled
to an equal dispensation of justice. My view is that we are one nation.

In this statement
Mr. Howard merely demonstrates his confusion over issues of nation, citizenship
and race.

Senator John Herron,
Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, (already the well recognised difference
of Torres Strait Islanders has been erased from his portfolio), has said
that the Coalition would aim to make:

Indigenous people
comfortable to be as part of the mainstream of Australian society...10

When it was suggested
to the Minister in conversation with John Laws that:

the Australian
people don't like to see others treated differently. If we want equality,
then it's got to be equality for everyone, hasn't it?

He replied:

yeah, oh you're
absolutely right...the great Aussie characteristic is that we like to
give everybody a fair go. 11

So the great Australian
ethos of the 'fair go' is again being used to mask fear of our difference
and the difference of other minority groups in this country. It is used
to justify the suppression of our unique status as Australia's First Peoples.


Nugget Coombs came
to Aboriginal Affairs somewhat a novice in the field. He was given a job
in Aboriginal Affairs because of his role in government, in particular
his involvement in wartime reconstruction. I find it very apt that Nugget's
work reconstructing the nation after a war was seen as standing him in
good stead to take on the difficult area of Aboriginal Affairs - we are
very well aware that the state of our Indigenous nations after more than
two centuries of colonisation has much in common with the state of a country
recently engaged in war.

In 1967 the Prime
Minister, Harold Holt, sought Nugget's advice on the establishment of
an appropriate organisation to guide his government on Aboriginal Affairs.
12  This led to the establishment of the Council and the Office
of Aboriginal Affairs. The Council was made up of three men - Nugget as
Chairman, Professor W.E.H Stanner, an anthropologist and Barrie Dexter,
previously Australian Ambassador to Laos.

The Council lasted
until 1976 and advised successive Prime Ministers - Holt, Gorton, McMahon,
Whitlam and Fraser.

Nugget himself has
suggested with characteristic honesty that the early history of this Council
may be perceived as a record of its failure. 13  But the Council
did clearly reject assimilation as an appropriate basis for Aboriginal
Affairs policy. Nugget wrote:

... the Council
for Aboriginal Affairs became convinced from its contact with Aborigines
that they did not wish to be assimilated, indeed that one of the few
things Aborigines held in common was a determination to maintain a distinctive
racial and social existence within the Australian community; salvaging
what was left of ancient traditions and building on their foundation
a culture which would preserve for them a separate identity as Aboriginal
Australians. 14

In the late 60s and
early 1970s the council was unsuccessful in its attempts to persuade governments
in Nugget's words Ato accept the right of Aborigines to choose the
nature and extent of their involvement in Australian society.

I believe, however,
that the early achievements of the Council were crucial in giving Aboriginal
and Islander organisations power and authority over decision making in
areas which were relevant to them. The capital fund for Aboriginal enterprises
was established under the first legislation recommended by the Council.
This fund sponsored and assisted potentially self-supporting economic
ventures by Aboriginal people. This decision opened the way for support
for Aboriginal organisations of various kinds. 16

The Council also
urged government to establish incorporated councils representing the interests
of Aboriginal people in particular areas. Ultimately the Commonwealth
introduced the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act in 1976.
These initiatives, amongst others, were attempts to fundamentally restructure
the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
and governments. Writing about incorporation, for example, Nugget has
noted that it:

allowed for a new
relationship between Aborigines and those in white society who possessed
knowledge and expertise; a relationship in which Aborigines were increasingly
in control, where they took initiative as employers with the right to
hire and fire.... the Aboriginal men and women given authority in these
organisations found them a source of administrative experience and a
valuable base from which to conduct more widely-directed political campaigns.17

It seems to me that
the seats of power in this country are again trying to fundamentally alter
the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people - to return
us to the pre-Coombsian era. In the last few months in Indigenous Affairs
the language of self-determination has been replaced with the language
of self-management. This linguistic slippage is reflected in the Government's
approach to Indigenous Affairs. The Government's attack on ATSIC, for
example, reflects an approach to Aboriginal Affairs not seen for more
than twenty years.

Before the election
in March 1996 ATSIC was already Australia's most heavily accountable public
body. It has its own internal office of audit and evaluation. Reporting
requirements for organisations funded by ATSIC are stringent. But in April
this year the Government, with minimal consultation, imposed even more
onerous accountability requirements on the Commission in the thick of
claims of nepotism, that the organisation was wasting money and that it
was failing to deliver services to Indigenous people. Prejudice, popular
stereotypes and hearsay have become the basis for policy.

ATSIC has also been
hit hard by the Federal Budget, the Government has dictated which areas
of Indigenous Affairs will continue to be funded - health, housing, education
and employment - and directed ATSIC as to where cuts will be made. Such
an approach, which fails to let elected Indigenous representatives determine
funding priorities and which fundamentally alters aspects of the Commission
with minimal consultation with its constituents, is strongly reminiscent
of an earlier paternalistic time where Indigenous people were regarded
as incapable of handling our own affairs and, in particular, incapable
of managing money. The emphasis which the Government has placed on accountability
within ATSIC reaffirms these perceptions.

Proposed amendments
to the Native Title Act 1993 reveal a refusal to recognise and
accept the rights which result from our unique relationship with country
and now recognised by the common law.  Proposals to amend the Native
Title Act
1993 reveal an unwillingness to recognise our difference
and protect the rights which necessarily flow from our laws and our unique
status in this country.


Recently in his book,
Hasluck versus Coombs, Geoffrey Partington favours a return to
the policy of assimilation stating that:

to achieve full
membership of Australian society and to have any chance of equality
of condition, Aborigines will have to abandon some ancient ideas and
customs. 18

Partington has asserted
that policy-makers should again look to assimilationist policy as a mechanism
to deal with 'the Aboriginal problem':

in times of crisis,
no one should refuse to look again at past policies which enjoyed some
successes; even modest ones. 19

But the policy of
assimilation created a dichotomy in which separation and assimilation
were the only choices. Hasluck wrote:

the superiority
of western civilization both on its own merit and in its established
position as the way of life of the vast majority...left only two possible
outcomes: separate development or assimilation.20

The recent policy
shift we have witnessed in Australia in Indigenous Affairs signals a return
to the view that recognising and respecting Indigenous rights leaves us
with only one of Hasluck's choices - separate development which necessarily
divides the nation. It reduces complexity and difference to black and
white choices.

An Australia for
'all of us' does not countenance special treatment for Indigenous people
either because of our disadvantage or because of our unique position within
the Australian community or because we have rights deserving of respect
and protection. The implication has been that recognition of the rights
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will irreparably damage
Australian sovereignty. 21

Such ideological
straightjacketing is useless to debate in Indigenous Affairs. It adds
nothing to the development and implementation of appropriate and effective
policy. A clean dichotomy between assimilation and separatism has never
existed. In the heyday of assimilationist policies Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples resolutely asserted their Aboriginality.

We opposed the forced
removal of our kids. We rejected assimilationist policies because they
were unable to accommodate our sense of Indigenous identity and we rejected
them because they were blind to our beliefs, our values, our cultures.

As Stanner wrote
of assimilation in 1958:

according to this
model, we thus have only to "teach" and "show" Aborigines
where they made their mistakes and they will quickly become Europeans
in outlook, organisations and custom ... this is fantasy. It perishes
in a single fact of life. They have to "unlearn" being Aborigines,
in mind, body and estate. 23

The current rhetoric
that recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples threatens our national
integrity has also strongly implied two things. First, that post assimilation
Indigenous peoples have had self-determination and second, that self-determination
has been a failure.

The failure, over
the last three decades, of increased expenditure on Aboriginal Affairs
to achieve meaningful outcomes is most often cited as evidence of the
failure of self-determination. Partington wrote in mid-June, for example:

conditions of life
for Aborigines after separatist policies have been pursued for a quarter
of a century seem unsatisfactory to everyone concerned about them. 24

The good work of
Nugget Coombs which set the tone for much of the Indigenous Affairs policy
which followed did not give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples self-determination. We have received some limited capacity to
determine our own futures through some structures often at a local level.
But we do not and have not freely exercised and enjoyed a right
to self-determination.

To imply the failure
of self-determination in this country when it has not yet existed for
Indigenous Australians is disingenuous. It denies the reality of our day
to day existence.

Geoffrey Partington
has recently claimed that it is:

Illegitimate to
demand that minority groups should have the right to determine their
own legal and political status entirely independently of the wishes
and interests of other citizens. 25

Partington and many
others continually blur the line between self-determination and separatism
implying that recognition of the right to self-determination will inevitably
lead to secessionist movements by Indigenous Australians. That it will
result in challenges to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the
Australian nation.

It is naive to assume
that self-determination equates with separatism. A people may choose separatism
or be forced into it because of the conditions under which they exist
within a nation state.

But self-determination
within the parameters of a modern nation state is possible. In international
circles such a position was countenanced and supported by the previous
government in discussions and negotiations on self-determination for Indigenous

The achievement of
self-determination for Indigenous peoples within a nation state requires
first, that those in power have the capacity to recognise our right to
determine our own futures and next, that they are not afraid to do so.

In this the Goverment
and all Australians could learn from Nugget. He has lived without fear
in encountering difference, in encountering our peoples: listening to
us, arguing with us, contending with us in the difficult task of finding
a path forward together. Nugget is a small man with an immense heart and
intellect. He has earnt and holds our love

Thank you


1. Hasluck,
"From Protection to welfare" in Native Welfare in Australia,
p. 35.

2. ‘Statement
of Policy’ presented in statement by leave by the Hon. Paul Hasluck
MP, Minister for Territories in the House of Representatives, 14 August

3. Hasluck,
P., Shades of Darkness: Aboriginal Affairs, 1925-1965, Melbourne
University Press, 1988, p. 9.

4. The
5 September 1996.

5. Hasluck,
op. cit., p. 22.

6. bid,
p. 11.

7. Graham,
D., "Campbell says he is a message to parties", Age, 4
March 1996, p. 7.

8. Franklin,
M. & Stark, D., "No place for thought police: Crooke", Courier
, 4 March 1996, p. 1.

9. Transcript
of the Prime Minister-Elect the Hon. John Howard MP: Press Conference,

Sydney, 4 March 1996, p. 17.

10. Brough,
J., "Aboriginal priorities set", Sydney Morning Herald.

11. Rehame:
Australia Monitoring Services, Sydney 2UE: John Laws Interview with
Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, on his Aboriginal Affairs
, 18 April 1996, p. 20.

12. Coombs,
H.C., Aboriginal Autonomy, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.

14. Ibid,
p. 172; see also Coombs, H.C., Kulinma, Australia National University
Press, 1978, pp. 1-25.

15. Coombs,
Kulinma, op. cit., p. 217.

16. Coombs,
Aboriginal Autonomy, op. cit., p. 172.

17. Coombs,
Kulinma, op. cit., p. 9.

18. Coombs,
Aboriginal Autonomy, op. cit., pp. 173, 174.

19. Henderson,
G., "Time to lift the game, Minister", Sydney Morning Herald,
2 July 1996, p. 15.

20. Partington,
G., "Policy options need review", Courier Mail, 19 June

21. Hasluck,
op. cit., p. 8.

22. Howitt,
R., Reconciliation or alienation: Does dividing sovereignty divide
the nation?
, School of Earth Sciences, Macquarie University, unpublished,
1996, p. 1.

23. Brett,
J., "The Liberal’s legacy of assimilation", The Age,
5 July 1996, p. 13.

24. Stanner
W.E.H. , "Continuity and change among Aborigines" in White
Man Got No Dreaming
, Australian National University Press, 1979, p.

25. Partington,
op. cit.

updated 1 December 2001