Tony Abbott and the White Man’s Burden

6 Dec 2018

After his latest 6 month trip around remote communities, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Indigenous affairs has handed down his recommendations.

After his latest 6 month trip around remote communities, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Indigenous Affairs has handed down his verdict.

In total it comprises 6 recommendations.

One is for more money for teachers in remote communities, including another recommendation that the government  should waive the HECS debt of teachers who, after two years’ experience in other schools, teach in a very remote school and stay for four years.

Another is for more punishments for parents who’s kids don’t go to school – to be taken from welfare payments.

A third is for the AIEF (a non-Indigenous run ‘Indigenous charity’ sending Indigenous kids to boarding school) to get a shit tonne more money than the millions in federal funds they already get, despite a recent article bringing their results, their reporting, and their methods into question.

(The last two are about increasing support for two specific programs. I don’t know enough about either program to comment much there, but I’ll look at them another day and see what I find.)

What I’m more interested in for the purposes of this article, is the mindset that we keep seeing from Tony Abbott. Everything I’ve ever seen him do or say in regards to Indigenous people’s and cultures just reminds of the Kipling poem, ‘the White Man’s Burden’.

You may not have heard of it, but it was once so popular that apparently this was once actually a thing:

It’s not that weird though; In Australia there used to be a ‘White Australia’ brand of pineapples so…

More than just a poem, it’s endemic of an entire world view borne of ethnocentrism and brought to life through subjugation.

A world view where colonial expansion is seen as the inalienable right of white people, given their cultural superiority, and where the destruction of the Indigenous cultures they invade is inevitable and to their minds, warranted – because ‘progress’. In this world view there are no problems caused by colonialism or conquest, for it is a gift it bestows upon the rest of the world. All of the problems therefore lie within the deficiencies and deviancies of the colonised.

Those who survive the massacres, murders, and introduced diseases are to be assimilated. This is to be done by threat, force, or coercion wherever necessary. This is just a part of the White Man’s Burden – pretending to care for those who have survived the initial onslaught.

In this instance it is in the form of punishing parents whose children fail to go to school because school, and the indoctrinating forces underpinning the curriculum have long been a force of assimilation in this country.

Those who support punishments, such as the fines and the basic cards, are to be rewarded, in this instance in the form of fast tracked IAS funding for community projects.

it’s endemic of an entire world view borne of ethnocentrism and brought to life through subjugation

Ignored is the considerations of why Indigenous children do not attend school as often as their non-Indigenous counterparts, particularly in remote communities, because this truth gets in the way of the rhetoric that Abbott and his ilk can use to vilify Indigenous parents.

The truth is terribly inconvenient for those that seek to cement their status as white saviours. For Tony Abbott though, these thoughts simply do not merit any consideration or reflection. Punishment is a perfectly appropriate form of social control and behavioural change, even if it has little chance of success.

The right to fail without consequence (for themselves at least) is a right only bestowed upon the white saviours.

White saviours are worthy of hero status, in this instance it is the white teachers who travel to remote communities and the white millionaire charity owner who sends kids to boarding schools and let us not forget the most heroic of them all, the Envoy himself.

I agree that teachers should be better paid, and I have no problem with an incentive system for keeping teachers remote. This is more about what his recommendations speak to me in terms of his racist, white saviour mindset towards all things Indigenous.

This notion of the white saviour coming to the rescue of the lowly ‘savage’, because the way of the whitefulla is so superior that any level of mistreatment is seen as better than any form of Indigenous existence that operates outside of its direct control.

Tony Abbott personifies a worldview that seems better fitting in the life and times of Kipling, the late 1800s up into the early 1900s, but in reality this view was common place amongst white people until only a few decades ago, and still dominates the mindsets of the Liberal party. Tony is just a bit more overtly enthusiastic about it than most.

It wouldn’t have mattered if Tony had spent 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 decades or 6 seconds in remote communities talking to Indigenous people. His worldview is set in stone. A toxic mixture of missionary zeal combined with an undying belief in the superiority of Western culture, society and religion.

The recommendations he put forward were predetermined; the inevitable result of centuries of white thinking about ‘how to civilise the savages’.

In his mindset there is no scenario where an Indigenous solution to issues facing Indigenous peoples exist. Indigenous people are the problem to be solved, not the source of potential solutions.

The closest he is able to come is to want to reward those Indigenous people who acquiesce to his view, in the face of overwhelming despair and powerlessness, and a lack of any real alternative.

In his mindset there is no scenario where an Indigenous solution to issues facing Indigenous peoples exist.

Colonising Indigenous people in not the white man’s burden, Colonialism is the world’s burden.

Tony Abbott and what he represents is, at the moment, Indigenous people’s burden.

A refusal to accept other worldviews as valid, a belief in the righteousness of the powerful, a complete inability to see that the damage caused by colonialism is not outweighed by whatever perceived benefits it could theoretically bring – especially not when we recognise that colonialism is built around a level of endless expansion, increasing gaps between the haves and have nots, and a refusal to ensure that sustainable resources are sensibly managed.

These are problems that Tony Abbott represents, and he does not even recognise them as a problem. As such, he is incapable of seeing the solutions that other people bring.

You cannot convince someone of the value of water if they refuse to acknowledge that their house is burning down around them.

This Is Fine GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

But it is not fine, and although Indigenous peoples are most disadvantaged by what Tony Abbott represents today, tomorrow it will be everyone else too.

White Australia has long believed that the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians could never be perpetrated against them, but we are already seeing this happen with cashless welfare cards being rolled out to non-Indigenous people, work for the dole, and other punitive measures that were first trialled on Indigenous people. The denial of rights that Indigenous people never even got the chance to enjoy is now plaguing the rest of the country as well.

I have always been loathe to point this out because it frustrates me that I would need to say ‘but it will happen to you one day too!’ to get people to stick up for the rights of Indigenous people, but I say this here not as a plea, but merely a statement of fact.

It is the not the ‘white man’s burden’, it’s that the white man that Tony Abbott represents have become a burden.

To paraphrase Lao Tzu, if we do not change direction we may end up exactly where we are heading.

It is encouraging to note that while Tony Abbott is calling for more punitive punishments, undermining Indigenous knowledges and languages in the curriculum, and wanting to couple Acknowledgement of Country with Prayer, there are others who are recognising the value of Indigenous knowledges, working to embed them not just into the curriculum but into science, industry, ethics, philosophy, and the very fabric of the country and the world at large.

But while it may at times feel like tony Abbott and his ilk are a minority, and I hope they are, they definitely are not a minor player in terms of the power they wield over the policies that dictate the future directions of the country.

As long as the centuries old thinking that encapsulates the white man’s burden prevails, it will continue to burden the rest of us.

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