An eloquent defence of Aboriginal self-determination


Aboriginal Autonomy: Issues and Strategies
By H.C. Coombs
Cambridge University Press, 1994. 251 pp., $25 (pb)
Reviewed by Chris Martin

Perhaps the most influential and eloquent white advocate of Aboriginal self-determination, H.C. "Nugget" Coombs has added another title to an already impressive list of works on the subject. Aboriginal Autonomy: Issues and Strategies comprises a selection of essays from 1978 to the present, with new material on the Mabo ruling and its implications.

In the preface, Coombs describes this selection as a "personal document". While the overriding tone of the book is soberly objective and academically correct, the personal side does come through. Alongside the detailed and meticulous argumentation are direct and passionate appeals to the conscience of white Australia and sharp expressions of personal outrage at the injustices visited on black Australia.

Coombs has been a public figure for over half a century as an economist and administrator and has acted as personal adviser to seven prime ministers. Among his career highlights were appointments as director of rationing during World War II and director of postwar reconstruction, where his Keynesian liberal politics were reflected in his efforts to develop plans for full employment and social amelioration.

Other appointments included governorship of the Commonwealth and Reserve Banks, chair of the Council for the Arts and, in 1968, the first chair of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Later he helped establish and became chancellor of the Australian National University. A member of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee in 1979, Coombs became an outspoken proponent of Aboriginal land rights as the key to achieving justice.

The book maps out the development of Coombs' analysis and thinking on Aboriginality, Aboriginal civil, human and land rights and strategies for achieving Aboriginal autonomy. Taken as a whole, the book offers a treatise and blueprint for a just reconciliation. He is careful, however, to stress that the words are his own and not an attempt to speak for Aboriginal people.

The early chapters outline theories of Aboriginal identity, looking at his work with fellow authors and activists on projects to review Aboriginal heritage — social and cultural — towards identifying an "Aboriginal world view". Through an overview of common attitudes, shared experiences and heritage, ancestral ways and laws, Coombs explores the living Aboriginal culture as it has survived and adapted under white colonial domination.

His conclusion to this section expresses his view of the issue's importance: "Nowhere in white Australian policies is consideration given to the possible need of Aborigines to reconcile the demands of their own Aboriginal way with those of living in the mainstream. Until we and Aborigines turn our minds effectively to ways of meeting that need, the issues underlying deaths in custody will persist. It is in these deaths that we see most clearly the impact on Aboriginal people of the loss of personal and cultural autonomy and of the conflicting socialisations they face as a result of white colonisation."

Parts two, three and four take a more detailed look at aspects of this analysis of Aboriginal culture, examining the Aboriginal relationship with the land; economic, social and spiritual factors of Aboriginal life; issues around work, health and education and the implications and prospects for developing autonomy through land rights.

A separate section is devoted to Aborigines and the law, taking up Aboriginal proposals for self-management and control of law and order. This opens a discussion of wider political issues as Coombs looks at Aborigines and the white state and the nature of black political organisation.

Commenting on the lack of support among Aborigines for representative bodies such as the National Aboriginal Conference, Coombs remarks: "With some justice they see them as composed of 'tame cats' and designed to quiet Aboriginal discontent, rather than to express it effectively or to force action to remove its causes".

Coombs is highly critical of the black bureaucracy, which he argues is not accountable to the Aboriginal communities. He proposes extending Aboriginal self-government through the official and unofficial land councils linked in a federation to "strengthen their capacity to influence and negotiate with governments".

He pursues this argument through a close examination of initiatives in Aboriginal political organisation, using the Pitjantjatjara and Tangentyere councils as particular examples of effective, community-controlled representational forms.

Coombs contrasts these genuine efforts with the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which he argues is neither Aboriginal nor representative but rather an arm of the white bureaucracy. ATSIC, he writes, "was established as an instrument of government consultation; that is, of listening (or appearing to listen) to carefully selected Aborigines to create the appearance of consent, or at least conscious acquiescence, while continuing to make unilateral decisions".

The final section, entitled "The Recognition of Native Title", looks at the Mabo decision and questions the validity of native title as a basis for any real form of autonomy. Coombs points out the limitations inherent in the High Court ruling and native title legislation: their failure to address the social, political and human rights of Aborigines and, by allowing for extinguishment, their failure to redress the injustice of dispossession.

By placing the interests of pastoralists and mining companies ahead of traditional owners, Coombs argues, the government "marginalises Aboriginal people, whose rights and future are at stake, as merely one of the special interests which the government must consider. Their rights should in fact be the prime focus in the key issue in dispute between indigenous people and Australian society generally ..."

Adding that the "Mabo judgment was concerned more to extinguish native title than to protect or extend the lands held under it and provided the mechanism for that progressive extinguishment", Coombs concludes by looking to the groundwork laid at the first nationally delegated meeting of Aborigines, held at Eva Valley in 1993 as a response to Mabo.

He sees the statement prepared and presented by delegates to that meeting as the basis for a political manifesto and the structure proposed for ongoing meetings and consultations as a framework for national organisation. Together with the negotiation strategies and decision-making forms developed in the process, they could make Eva Valley the birthplace of a national Aboriginal political movement and a platform from which to launch a decisive campaign for real autonomy, Coombs believes.

Only time will tell if Coombs' optimistic assessment of the Eva Valley meeting is well founded, but as he concludes, it could be a chance to incorporate something truly significant into our vision of Australia, an image "of unity expressing and protecting diversity and autonomy".

Aboriginal Autonomy: Issues and Strategies is an important book, and one which will be of use to both the activist and the academic.

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