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The cunning of consultation

Presentation to the What’s Next? Seminar

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

Canberra ,7 March 2012

By Dr John Falzon  

Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council

We are discussing consultation on Aboriginal land, land that was unjustly taken from people who were, and continue to be, unjustly subjected to the wound of colonisation, a violation that no amount of consultation can ever justify or explain.

I have called this presentation “the cunning of consultation”. I wish to thank Professor Jon Altman from ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research for this term. He used it in November last year in a public lecture on social justice that the St Vincent de Paul Society sponsors each year at the National Library.

He used this term in the context of a critique of the current iteration of the Northern Territory Intervention, contrasting the waves of Stronger Futures consultation with the complete absence of consultation that characterised the initial Howard government Intervention in 2007. I quote for you here Professor Altman’s analysis as the immediate context for his use of the term I have stolen:

This time around, in 2011, the Gillard government is seeking to consult to show that it is Aboriginal people who truly desire the draconian measures—what might be termed borrowing from Elizabeth Povinelli’s notion of the ‘cunning of recognition’,[1] ‘the cunning of consultation—so that these new measures can be presented to the world as beneficial special measures under the Racial Discrimination Act consented to by the Aboriginal people impacted. In my view not only is this strategy devious and unconscionable, but it will fail.

A recent example of how people feel about being consulted and then routinely ignored is this statement from a resident of an Alice Springs Town Camp:

…it’s good for you to sit there and listen to us, but I want to know really truly are you hearing what we’re saying? It’s okay for you to have this consultation, but at the end of the day, is there going to be any changes? Because I’ve been over-consulted, I’ve been poked, I’ve been probed, I’ve met [inaudible] I’ve had ministers in my house for coffee, I’ve been making scones, you know, I’ve tried to do all those things [inaudible], and the message is not really getting through. So I see this as another way for the government to come in and tell us how to live our lives and how to do what we’re going to do whether we like it or not.

This is hardly surprising, given some of the small print in the Stronger Futures draft legislation. As we noted in our written submission to the Senate Inquiry on this bill:

 There is a bizarre recurring motif in this legislation concerning consultation.  On the one hand, the legislation requires that consultation occurs before a decision regarding (x) can be made. On the other hand, if consultation does not occur, it does not invalidate the decision [e.g Subclause 34(8) and (9); 35 (4) and 35 (5); 41(2) and 41(3)]. The government cannot honestly expect people to engage productively in consultations in the context of this kind of double speak.

Building productive, solutions oriented relationships between communities and government has been a stated aim of the Government. Minister Macklin articulated something quite telling in her 2009/10 budget Ministerial Statement on Resetting the Relationship:

“The Australian Government’s bold reform agenda in Indigenous affairs is underpinned by our determination to forge a new relationship with Indigenous Australians based on trust and respect.

 “In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country, there are courageous voices for change. There are people prepared to take on the responsibility of leadership.”

The question is begged here: what needs to change? I can only infer from the way in which the voices on the ground have been all but disregarded that the leadership Minister Macklin is referring to is code for the people in purportedly dysfunctional communities who are willing to embrace the government’s bold reform agenda. In other words, it is the people in those communities who have to change.

Indeed when social policy is made from above it is almost inevitable that it will alight on the brilliant notion that the problems lie with the individuals and, by extension, the communities, who bear the brunt of structural and historical inequality.

Let’s go back a bit though to look for a clearer expression of this paradigm.

In his address at the Westin Hotel in 2006 to mark the Tenth Anniversary of his Prime Ministership, the then Prime Minister John Howard set out the five challenges facing the nation. The fifth challenge, as he saw it, was framed as being the greatest:

“…that is to maintain our great national unity, our social cohesion and above all our egalitarian spirit. I am proud of what this Government has done to modernise our social welfare system and to support the weak and vulnerable in our society. And we run the risk of not talking about this enough because our great economic strength has given us the capacity to do this. We need to find innovative ways to break the vicious cycles of poor parenting, low levels of education, unemployment and health problems that can afflict some individuals and communities. And we need to reinforce the virtuous cycles of caring families, strong learning environments, good jobs and healthy lifestyles that allow others to succeed in a competitive world. We need to find ways of restoring order to zones of chaos in some homes and communities, zones of chaos that can wreck young Australian lives.

The “zones of chaos” metaphor is both powerful and provocative. It bespeaks the strategic assumption of a national or global order that is endangered by the exceptions to this order.

Neo-liberalism is the doctrinaire imposition of domestic policy settings in the interests of an even greater re-distribution of wealth towards the already wealthy. It is characterised by policies that retrench the role of domestic governments in the provision of essential services and social protections for people who have been left out.

Globalisation has been held tight by the patterns of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism can be described as the dominant global economic policy framework. It is not, however, coterminous with globalisation. Contrary to a significant number of globalisation theorists, globalisation has not resulted in a diminution of the role of nation-states.

States have been crucial in determining and imposing policy settings on their own populations as well as the populations of other, weaker states through military, economic, political or cultural instrumentalities. States also play a crucial role in the securing of markets on behalf of the multinational corporations headquartered within their polities.

Similarly, states legislate and regulate the cross-border movement of both capital and labour. Transnational flows of capital have accompanied transnational access to labour supplies (but not necessarily the free movement of labour).

Globalisation has not, therefore, resulted in a withering away of the state. The state is as central to the neo-liberal project as it was to the populist welfare project. The difference is not in the degree of intervention but in the interests being served by the programme of interventions.

This leads us back to the Prime Minister’s expression of concern over the “zones of chaos”. It is noteworthy that, rather than using the language of exclusion or marginalisation here, the “zones” discourse constructs individuals, homes and then communities as being either unwell or unlawful. Implicit in this practice is the affirmation of the place of these individuals, homes and communities within the normative economic, social, legal, moral and political framework that “all of us” call Australia.

By employing this discursive practice the individuals, homes and communities are blamed for their own alleged pathology and/or criminality. In either case their condition is understood as a moral, as opposed to structural and historical, problem and, most importantly, the problem is theirs to solve by their own resolve.

The morphing, as pointed in the aforementioned lecture by Professor Altman, of the nanny state of the Fordist-Keynesian era into the coercive Daddy state of neoliberalism is described well by sociologist Loic Wacquant in his book Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. This framework emphasises duties and obligations over rights, sanctions over support, and new methods for monitoring and dealing firmly and coercively with the poor and the marginalised.

Not surprisingly this is taking place at the exact time when the logic of social exclusion is being embedded in the structure of what Spanish social theorist Manuel Castells (1998:6) called “informational capitalism”:

“…. The most critical distinction in this organizational logic is to be or not to be – in the network. Be in the network, and you can share and, over time, increase your chances. Be out of the network, or become switched off, and your chances vanish since everything that counts is organized around a world wide web of interacting networks.”

So, to sum up:

The arena in which the so-called “chaos” is characterized by:

  • A network society (both technologically and socially),
  • in which inclusion is an indicator of social security and
  • exclusion is a ticket to the informal economy (crime), reliance on structures of public or private welfare, or poverty.

It is in this context that the current Australian retrenchment of social security arrangements must be analysed. As Wilensky (1975:1) described it:

“The essence of the welfare state is government-protected minimum standards of income, nutrition, health, housing and education, assured to every citizen as a political right, not charity.”

The global trend, presently manifested in Australia, is to construct a notion of exclusion that blames the excluded and privatizes the responsibility for what is essentially a structural effect. At the same time an invitation and challenge are issued to the undifferentiated citizenry to participate in both economic growth and the accumulation of social capital:

“… the rhetoric of inclusion and participation is used to legitimate the transfer of responsibility from the community to the individual.” (Macintyre 1999:114)

The concomitant discourse is that of inclusion in the stakeholder society:

“… the stakeholder philosophy attempts to overcome the insecurities and uncertainties that have come in the train of economic globalisation. By stressing the ‘stake’ that all should have in the changed and changing political and economic institutions of a community it is argued that planning and policy should be made on the positive basis of inclusion and ownership rather than the negative ones of conflict and exclusion…. Just as individual shareholders must make some contribution in order to have some (at least theoretical) voice in the running of a company, so individual citizens must make some contribution if they are to be part of the agencies of social, economic and political planning. In other words, at the heart of a stakeholder society is the concept of mutual individual obligation.” (Macintyre 1999:114)

The neo-liberal logic that blames people for their own degradation seeks to incorporate them inasmuch as they are constructed as a potential or actual threat to law and order at the same time as being quarantined from the logic of the market by means of the welfare state.

In 1998 Castells wrote:

“This world is composed of people, and territories, that have lost value for the dominant interests…. Some of them because they offer little contribution as either producers or consumers. Others because they are uneducated or functionally illiterate. Others because they become sick or mentally unfit. Others because they could not afford the rent, became homeless and were devoured by life in the streets. Others who, unable to cope with life, became drug addicts or drunks. Others because, in order to survive, they sold their bodies and their souls, and went on to be prostitutes of every possible desire. Others because they entered the criminal economy, were caught, and became inhabitants of the growing planet of the criminal justice system…. And places, entire places become stigmatized, confined by police, bypassed by networks of communication and investment.” (Castells 1998:10)

It is the sense of disempowerment and invisibility that is crippling on nearly all levels. Epidemiologist, Michael Marmot, in his 2007 Harveian Oration, noted that:

“failing to meet the fundamental needs of autonomy, empowerment, and human freedom is a potent cause of ill health.”

So how can policy-making connect with that struggle for empowerment?

Certainly not by means of a consultation process that:

A)     Begins with a policy as a fait accompli

B)     Leaves out fundamentals by means of definitional exclusion

C)     Leaves people generally unheard.

Social policy is indeed a science but good social policy is science born out of struggle.

For me, the way I looked at the world changed forever when I first read Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and great theorist of the confluence between the colonisation of land and the crushing of the spirit.

Colonial Algeria, a site of incredible violence, seems like a world away from industrialized Australia at the dawn of the 21st century. It may seem to be a world away.

But it is not.

It is not a world away when we are living with laws that have been forced upon sections of our population on the basis of race or class and “for their own good”.

It is not a world away when the First Peoples of Australia continue to live with the toxic fruits of historical colonisation and the perpetuation of the structures of internal colonisation.

It is not a world away when, in the language of the beatitudes which, as Oscar Romero pointed out before his own violent death, have turned everything upside down, the people who hunger and thirst for justice here and now are really joined at the hip with those who hungered and thirsted for justice there and then. When here and now we can make our own that poignant prayer on Fanon’s lips:

“Oh my body, make of me a human who always questions!”

This is the first point I wish to make about good policy.

Good policy is a product of this questioning. It is formulated from below, not from above. It is not inherently disempowering. It is not made for a people ‘for their own good”.

Good policy is organically connected to empowerment and a redistribution of resources as an essential element of genuine empowerment.

When the former and current Federal Governments both sign on to a regime of compulsory income management as part of the NT Intervention or to suspension of welfare payments for parents whose children are not attending school, we are looking down the barrel of inherently disempowering policies. Similarly when parents are constructed, according to the dominant discourse, as being “bad” and therefore in need of income suspension or management, all in the name of helping the children, the truth flies back in our faces: you don’t help children by humiliating their parents.

Neither do you build communities up by putting people down.

Going back to Fanon’s prayer, good policy needs not only to arise from critical questions; it should itself provide a relentless critique of existing reality.

When, for example, we embarked in Australia on a road of universal free health care we were collectively posing a question to the existing reality. The policy itself cried out: “Who has been missing out? Why is health care not best left to the mechanisms of the marketplace? Why were people going to prison for failure to pay their medical debts?

The second point I would suggest regarding how to get policy right is that the solution to a problem must follow from the very conditions of the problem.

Policy is usually presented as a fait accompli cooked up in the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by those whose lives and learnings are alien and alienating to the people whose lives will be affected.

There is often an incredible presumption that people are incapable of analysing their own situation. This presumption carries with it a handy rejection of the notion of actually providing resources to people to allow them to articulate their analyses and proposed solutions. And yet under the guiding stars of struggle and hope the greatest social reforms have been wrought by grass-roots movements, even in Australia.

As the German poet, Bertolt Brecht, put it so well:

 “The compassion of the oppressed for the
oppressed is indispensable. It is the world’s one hope.” 

Without the organised analysis and agitation of the people we would never have seen gains in the fields of industrial rights, women’s rights, the establishment and public funding of refuges for women and young people, tenants’ rights, environmental justice, workers compensation, citizenship rights for Aboriginal people and so on.

In the years of the Great Depression when the families of the unemployed were being thrown out of their homes by the landlords a movement of resistance sprang up against these evictions. People gathered around the home of the soon-to-be evicted family and fought back against the police force sent to carry out the law.

From home after home the families were evicted by the law and the women and men and the children and their goods were forced to make the street their home while their supporters had the intellectual honesty to never stop being shocked by this brutality.

People were radicalized by reality, by their concrete analysis of the concrete conditions.

Good policy was born from such struggles.

As the great poet Pablo Neruda put it:

The word was born

In the blood…

The third and final point is that good policy sees a diversity of issues as being whole cloth, of being interconnected.

With the exception of a couple of fanatical poverty-deniers who are taken seriously by nobody there is a broad consensus in Australian social science that we do have a serious problem with poverty and disadvantage, that this problem affects the lives of at least 11% of the population, that the causes of poverty are primarily structural rather than behavioural, and that we can, as a society, address these causes.

It was Frantz Fanon who reminded us nearly 50 years ago:

“What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it.”

We have been shaken to pieces by this question.

If wealth is correctly understood here as access to appropriate housing, health, education, transport, employment, social security and wholeness I would simply add that, in order to achieve this, there must be a massive redistribution of hope along with the redistribution of wealth.

I would like to take you back a little to the 2004 Senate Inquiry into poverty and financial hardship.  This process provided Australia with evidence that another kind of world is not only possible but absolutely essential. It provided a space in which people experiencing exclusion could tell their stories, eg:           

Like millions of other low-income Australians, I am one of the hidden poor, just keeping afloat. We are flat out treading water out here. We are making very little headway towards our aspirations, and we are one crisis or catastrophe away from the poor box. We are living on the edge.

‘We live in the shadows of the dismal statistics. We are not mad, bad, sad or totally dysfunctionally overwhelmed by our life circumstances. Many of us are highly skilled and well educated. We are all doing what we can to contribute to society with the resources we have. Our poverty is poverty of resources, services, opportunities… it is getting too hard to make ends meet, let alone work towards our dreams.’

Going back even further, the 1975 Commission of Inquiry into Poverty noted that:

‘If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it.’

As the Australian Catholic Bishops’ 1996 Social Justice Statement affirmed so strongly:

In the main, people are poor not because they are lazy or lacking in ability or because they are unlucky. They are poor because of the way society, including its economic system, is organised.

At the risk of stating the obvious I wish to reiterate the truth that the greatest power for progressive social change lies precisely with the excluded. The people who can best define and interpret the reality of exclusion and socio-economic insecurity are also potentially the only ones who can, in the end, determine the means towards, and the ends of, social inclusion.        

French philosopher Jacques Ranciere has a usefully challenging alternative view of how we might conceptualise a new way of learning from the people who are usually objectified and treated paternalistically. He writes, following his study of Jacotot, of an emancipatory approach:

“Emancipation is the way out of a situation of minority. A situation of minority is a situation in which you have to be guided because following the path with your own sense of direction would lead you astray. It is the logic of the pedagogical process in which the schoolmaster starts from the situation of ignorance which is that of the student and progressively replaces ignorance with knowledge, his knowledge, and progressively takes the student away from a situation of inequality to lead him or her “towards” a situation of equality. It is also the logic of the Enlightenment in which the cultivated elites have to guide the ignorant and superstitious lower classes in the path of progress. This is, Jacotot, said, the way of infinite reproduction of inequality in the name of the promise of equality.”

Ranciere is arguing for a path forward in which all learn from all rather than a perpetual reinforcement of infantilising “minority” and inequality. I would suggest that his critique is poignantly expressed in the collective word to the wise formulated by Lilla Watson and a group of Aboriginal activists in Brisbane in the 70s, with which I will conclude:

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


Altman, Jon (2011) From Keynesian Nanny State to the coercive Daddy State in Indigenous policy

Brecht, Bertolt (1976) Poems 1913-1956, Ed. J. Willett and R. Manheim, London: Methuen

Castells, M. (1998) “Information Technology, Globalization and Social Development”, Paper prepared for the UNRISD Conference on Technologies and Social Development, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 22-24 June, 1998, 1.htm

Commission of Inquiry into Poverty (1975) First Main Report: Poverty in Australia Canberra: AGPS

Fanon, Frantz (1983) The Wretched of the Earth, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Harris, Michele (ed) (2012) NT Consultations Report 2011, Melbourne: Concerned Australians

Howard, J. (2006) Address to the 10th Anniversary Dinner, Westin Hotel, Sydney, 2 March, 2006.;fileType=application/pdf

Macintyre, C. (1999) “From Entitlement to Obligation in the Australian Welfare State”, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 34 (2), 103-118

Ranciere, Jacques (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Stanford University Press

Senate Community Affairs References Committee (2004) A hand up not a hand out: Renewing the fight against poverty: Report on poverty and financial hardship, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia 2004

St Vincent de Paul Society National Council (2012) Submission to Senate Community Affairs Committee re: Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and two related bills

Wacquant, Loic (2009) Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity Durham: Duke University Press

Wilensky, H. (1975) The Welfare State and Equality, Berkeley: University of California Press

World Health Organisation (1998) Social Determinants of Health: The Solid Facts, Copenhagen: Centre for Urban Health


[1]               Elizabeth Povinelli (2002) The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism, Duke University Press, Durham.

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