More than History's Victims

Recommendations from the 2012 Boyer Lecturer

More than History's Victims

The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom (2012 Boyer Lectures)

by Marcia Langton

ABC Books, $16.99 pb, 175 pp, 9780733331633

Tim Rowse

Tim Rowse

Tim Rowse is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney. His most...

The Aborigines of Australia are among the more land-rich of colonised peoples. More than one fifth of Australia is under Aboriginal ownership, and a perpetual fund – established by Labor and fattened by Coalition and Labor governments – will add to this estate. To examine this recent change in Australian real estate as a ‘quiet revolution’ was a good choice of theme by Marcia Langton.

The resources boom, coinciding with the inception of native title rights, has created employment and other income opportunities for Aborigines, she argues. By ‘resources boom’ she means more than mining. Biodiversity is one of the nation’s resources, and it is ‘booming’ in the sense that more land is subject to conservation strategies. Such programs are potentially the base of another ‘resources boom’ that she notes with hope: ‘carbon farming’, as immobilised carbon becomes a tradeable good.

Langton’s reckoning with this ‘resources boom’ leads her both to public- policy recommendations and to cultural critique. She celebrates a program for which the Howard era will be well remembered: establishing Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). Under IPAs and other measures such as jointly managed national parks, ‘Aboriginal people have dedicated more than 30 million hectares of their own land to environmental and biodiversity conservation. This represents more than 25% per cent of the National Reserve System ...’ She looks forward to the expansion of these areas by forty per cent over the next five years and to more agreements about land management between state and territory governments and Aboriginal owners.

Turning to Aboriginal participation in the mining industry, Langton tells stories of particular projects, emphasising the new pragmatism and deep pockets of the mining industry and the astuteness of Aboriginal leaders. She makes two policy recommendations about distributing wealth from mining. One is to reduce miners’ taxes, the other deals with inequalities of luck and effort among Aborigines.

In Langton’s view, some of the money that Aborigines get from mining agreements should be accounted for as substituting for public investment not received by those Aboriginal communities. If mining companies pay for communal goods that governments should have been providing, they should be allowed to write it off their taxable corporate income, Langton suggests.

Her other recommendation about distributing minerals wealth has to do with equity among Aboriginal communities. Not all Aborigines have land or native title rights, and not all such rights yield cash. If accidents of history, geography, and the global market enrich some communities and not others, should the fortunate Aborigines subsidise the others? To this important question the minister responsible for the Northern Territory in the 1950s, Paul Hasluck, had an answer: an Aboriginal Benefit Trust from which money could be disbursed on the basis of assessed Aboriginal need, across the Territory. The Fraser government’s Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (1976) continued the trust: the Commonwealth gives the Aboriginals Benefit Trust Account (ABTA) mining royalty equivalents, and the ABTA distributes that money not only to the communities that have made deals with miners about their own land, but also to Aborigines across the Territory, including to their political advocates, the Land Councils. This device has not only mitigated the significance of luck as a differentiator among Aborigines in the Territory, it has also encouraged Aboriginal landowners to negotiate with mining companies.

In the third of her Boyer Lectures, ‘Legacies, New Partnerships and Plans’, Langton advocates trusts that would receive and manage wealth generated by mining. She declines to go into the complexities of such corporate vehicles in the Boyers. Her co-edited Community Futures, Legal Architecture: Foundations for Indigenous Peoples in the Global Mining Boom (2012) has more to say. In her brief treatment here, her concern seems primarily to ensure that when the resource is exhausted, a stock of communal wealth serves subsequent generations. She does not say who should have access to such ‘natural resource accounts’. Would all Aborigines within a defined jurisdiction be entitled to draw on them, as in Hasluck’s model? Or would these accounts be the property of the local or regional groups, incorporated as parties to a mining contract, and their descendants?

From reading the Lectures, it would seem that Langton regards communities that negotiate mining contracts to be not merely lucky (to have both native title and commercially valuable natural resources), but astute and deserving. She writes and speaks admiringly of Aboriginal entrepreneurship: communities that make the effort to organise themselves into an assertive title holder and into a cohesive party to contracts merit the goods that flow from a deal, and descent (from ‘country’ and from entrepreneurial ancestors) will determine which Aborigines, in the future, are rewarded.

Insofar as her explanation of Aborigines’ material success shifts the emphasis from being lucky to being enterprising, it warrants a shift away from social democratic towards neo-liberal notions of fairness. Langton seems defiantly to court such a characterisation in the way that she encases the public-policy recommendations of The Quiet Revolution within an essay in cultural criticism that seems calculated to goad the left. The contemporary Aboriginal world, she argues, is ‘poorly represented in the media, in schools and university courses’, and the ‘paradigm’ that supposes Aborigines to be victims is – paradoxically – both ‘fashionable’ and ‘outmoded’. Langton challenges us to re-imagine Aborigines as ‘successful’ and – in increasing proportion, she believes – ‘middle class’. Her challenge is embedded in one nascent and three well-established themes in Australian historiography.

Since the late 1970s (inspired by Henry Reynolds’s path-breaking work), historians have ransacked sources for evidence of Aboriginal agency. Langton rides this wave, naming exemplary individuals and groups that have maximised, doggedly and creatively, the opportunities that history has made available. Their success in the face of adversity shows them to be much more than history’s victims. Second, our critical historiography has made us aware how prolifically settler colonial societies reproduce ‘racism’. The stupid ‘racist’ is prominent in The Quiet Revolution, particularly when Langton denounces ‘extreme conservationist and “wilderness” rhetoric’. Third, archaeological and documentary research has substantiated Aborigines as practised managers of their relationship to plant and animal species. The success of Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) has demonstrated how receptive the Australian public has become to the idea that because a blundering settler society is still discovering how to manage the land, it must not tutor and regulate Aboriginal landowners but respect their land-use traditions and current intentions.

The fourth and nascent theme on which Langton draws is the growing interest (stronger among anthropologists than among historians, I think) in rewriting colonial history as economic history. To conceive Aborigines as practising a distinct ‘culture’, she argues, is to overlook the fact that ‘like other humans, [they] have an economic life, are caught up in the transforming encounter with modernity, and have economic rights’. Mining companies, overcoming their visceral dislike of land rights, can understand Aborigines in these terms, she points out, and they address Aborigines more sympathetically than the protective and flat-footed governments that devised the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme. Agreements with mining companies, she suggests, continue a long adaptive tradition of Aborigines finding a place in the economic order that displaced their hunting and gathering.

As a public intellectual, Langton is aware of the multiplicity of her publics. Although she twice describes the Australian public as ‘gullible’, she also credits public opinion with pressuring the mining industry to accept that Aborigines own land. Although she heaped praise on anthropology as a humanist, scholarly archive when she addressed the academic public in her 2010 Berndt Lecture, she summons the Radio National audience to populist ridicule of ‘anthropologists, New Age mystics and wilderness campaigners’ who ‘colonise’ Aborigines. In the Berndt Lecture, she conceded that CDEP should be a matter of local community choice; by 2012, in her Melbourne Writers’ Festival speech and Boyer Lectures, she was presenting the CDEP as racist exceptionalism.

Aborigines are one of Langton’s publics. She congratulates the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal electorate for tossing out the Labor government. But it is Aborigines who judge native title according to Northern Territory land rights standards who will be most sceptical of The Quiet Revolution. The native title régime is an inferior political settlement, in three ways: native title’s institutions of owner representation are less financially secure; native title is not uniformly potent as a property right; and the Native Title Act did not set up a mechanism for redistributing the rewards of commercial agreements from the more fortunate to the less fortunate Aboriginal communities.  

Comments (4)

  • Leave a comment Tim Rowse

    The Age article to which Rachel O’Reilly directs our attention predicted that in the published book of the Boyer Lectures Professor Langton would disclose where she gets research funds from. The Age was right: the book directs our attention to the page on her website where this disclosure can be read. That Professor Langton’s sources of research funds include the mining industry had already been widely aired by the time of her book’s appearance. Why repeat, in my review, the information that Professor Langton’s research is partly financed by mining companies?

    A premise of my review is that Professor Langton is a strong intelligent person writing in good faith. Evaluating what she says about the relationships between mining companies and Aboriginal communities is more important than speculating about why she says it. I did not evaluate her contentious proposal that mining companies be given tax breaks for funding community infrastructure. Here’s what I think. I am ambivalent about ‘corporate social responsibility’. On the one hand, I want Aboriginal communities (and Universities) to be less reliant on government funding: diversifying their funding sources creates room for manoeuvre. On the other hand, to privatise the responsibility for funding public goods (such as Aboriginal community infrastructure and Higher Education) is a step away from the social democratic formula of government that I believe is best. Equity is a responsibility of states and only a discretionary choice of philanthropy. I want to see Professor Langton’s proposal debated, not dismissed because of its provenance. Debate about the corporate funding of Universities must also continue, to canvass its risks and opportunities.

    Tim Rowse

    Thursday, 29 August 2013 11:38 posted by Tim Rowse
  • Leave a comment

    To be clear, I consider the review otherwise excellent, and Langton, who I have been reading since a teenager, an extremely important voice and formidable public intellectual labourer. My frustration is specifically (and only) that there is not some grappling acknowledgment of the known relationship between the lectures' arguments, for example, for reducing mining company taxes (which I agree is an extremely productive provocation of a serious dialogue about the pernicious and historically ordinary non-funding of base public infrastructure and services for indigenous communities), and the problem that such research is built, and in Australia at this moment still needs to be built, on strong research support from the companies themselves in order to access the argument. What I take issue with is merely this - how an intellectual 'social licence to operate' can extend into a review by omission. As far as I understand, that acknowledgement of company support is written into the published book of the lecture. More broadly I think we need to start having this conversation in the arts about the complex relationship between non-renewables, political economic histories/suppositions, social licences and cultural futures. Too often these issues are distanciated as indigenous and regional community issues; 'harder there' than in the cosmopolitan metropoles, where merely more abstracted. I was far too quick on the comment button and perfunctory in dealing with an otherwise rich and critically attentive review of a valuable polemic, so wanted to clarify my mostly phatic desire for updated contextual reading. I'm aware that Paul Cleary for example has unpacked some of Langton's specific community cases in his book, Minefield, which also engages in a dialogue with some of her solutions posed. I would highly recommend that for anyone interested in a larger surveying of the impact of mining upon legal, political and regulatory due process across multiple specific mining locales, the writing of which is attentive to real conditions and longterm impacts on the ground - not just working conditions. Thanks.

    Friday, 23 August 2013 01:26 posted by Rachel O
  • Leave a comment

    How could this review be published in August 2013 and not mention the now widely known political economic complicities of the lectures' writing? I think it would be responsible to revisit the review's/ABR's engagement with this series, in light of this insidious power of mining in constructing supposedly indigenous futures in general, and within Langton's case-making. At the very least the review text needs an editorial update/rewriting in light of. http://www.theage.com.au/national/langton-failed-to-disclose-mining-company-funding-20130301-2fbtx.html

    Wednesday, 21 August 2013 17:13 posted by Rachel O
  • Leave a comment

    Reading this article, I get the impression that Marcia Langton enjoins Aborigines to be entrepreneurs and make their millions by selling each other at competitive prices down the river. It's a wonderful thing to avoid victimhood and exercise one's inalienable right to join the enemy!

    Sunday, 21 July 2013 10:27 posted by Robert Verdon

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