Good intentions never enough

Canberra Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

'W e are born into guilt'', a young German traveller said to me recently. She accepted the situation as part of being German, but there was much sadness in her voice as well. Most Australians, she added, seemed to know only one thing about her country it was the land of Adolf Hitler.

Given that most people's historical knowledge comes from television docu-dramas and Hollywood movies, I could well believe it. Just when we thought there could not possibly be another film about the Nazis, one appears. We are endlessly fascinated by the Third Reich, for reasons that are not wholly motivated by revulsion at the dark deeds perpetrated in its name. We would all like to believe that Australians could never inflict such suffering on others. But movies about the war, whatever their directors' reasons for making them, feed an appetite for violence that never fails to put bums on seats. Every nation has its dark deeds, and dealing with them is not easy. Japan has still not apologised properly for its actions in World War II. Chile and Argentina are still grappling with the grim legacy of the military juntas of the 1970s and 1980s. It seems likely that the fate of many of the victims will never be fully known.

Having lost their respective wars, the Germans (and the Japanese) faced war crimes trials, where at least some of the architects of murder were held accountable. The Germans went further, and made substantial reparation payments to the state of Israel. As both sides acknowledged, money could not buy forgiveness. But it did go some way towards compensating Jewish people for at least the financial aspects of their loss.

What of our own past, and in particular, our relations with Aboriginal people? Most agree that Kevin Rudd was right to say ''sorry'' on our behalf. White Australia does have a dark history. But good intentions are not a sufficient basis for good public policy. Addressing the question of compensation will need clear-headedness, as well as compassion.

When we are trying to help, we tend to think that our motivation is all that counts. We forget that the policy values to which our motivation gives expression take on a life of their own when they are implemented. Consequently, our desire to be helpful causes us to swing between extremes from almost a century of ''moral guardianship'' when Aborigines were subjected to a relentless paternalism, to the equally unsuccessful period of the 1980s and 1990s, when we agreed that Aboriginal people should run their own affairs. Now, faced with the ruinous situation of many remote communities, we have reverted to a version of the moral guardianship idea.

Guilt, and a somewhat laboured reverence for Aboriginal culture, prevents us from seeing Aboriginal people as simply people. Since coming to Canberra, I have met quite a few Aborigines, some when I was a public servant, more since I have been teaching. Without exception, they are very agreeable folk, who wear their politics lightly.

Problems arise when we are scared of them, when we do not say what needs to be said, for fear of being thought racist. Let me give you an example. I remember one Aboriginal-identifying student to whom I gave a pass grade for an essay. He was surprised by this all his other teachers, he explained, had given him distinctions.

''But this is not distinction work,'' I said, and explained to him why I had given him the mark he had received. He was still not satisfied. ''Your mark is your mark,'' I insisted, and he left the interview suggesting that he might take matters further. I waited for the sky to fall in. But it did not. As a reasonable person, he had thought about and accepted what I had said, and we had many useful conversations after that. We should not assume that Aborigines want us to construct them as ''aboriginal''. One who subsequently became a very senior public servant told me she was sick of Aboriginal policy she wanted to learn about the rest of it. I was happy to oblige. No one, white or black, does all that well when someone else tries to take responsibility for them. Genuine helping is different. To give real help, you need to listen. But who to listen to? The Mabo judgement of the High Court assuaged white guilt, and the subsequent Native Title legislation produced better outcomes for some groups. But legal processes are blunt instruments for resolving complex problems, and many deserving groups could not comply with the requirements of the law. For others, the processes of recognition produced terrible division. Aboriginal people are as prone to disputes about who gets what as anyone else.

Posses of bureaucrats go out to remote communities, and not-so- remote ones, determined to do good. They see for themselves the truly dreadful conditions in many of these places. I suspect many think, as I did, that with no meaningful work to do, most white Australians would live exactly the same way. The most clear-sighted leaders, like Noel Pearson , have realised the importance of creating real jobs. I wonder if the Rudd Government is listening to him as much as it should be. The women, who are on the receiving end of so much male violence, realised a long time ago the importance of sensible regulation. For years, no one listened properly to them. I hope they are listening now.

Good intentions are never enough. Indeed, in the absence of a hard- headed understanding of the situation, they are probably worse than nothing at all.

Dr Stewart is associate professor of public policy at the University of Canberra.