Representating a group and indigenous politics

By Legal Eagle

For some reason, I’ve been thinking of indigenous politics lately. Perhaps it was because of my post on Andrew Bolt and aboriginality. Perhaps it was also because of the recent debate about Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation. I’ve been thinking of the way in which politicians tend to latch on to a “preferred” indigenous spokesperson, usually someone who generally reflects their own prejudices, but how it is really important to allow different voices to enter into the debate.

First, I’ll explain the origins of the Queensland Wild Rivers legislation.

Queensland Wild Rivers legislation

In 2005, the Queensland government passed legislation known as the Wild Rivers Act 2005 (Qld). Pursuant to s 3(1) of the Wild Rivers Act, the purpose of the Act is said to be “to preserve the natural values of rivers that have all, or almost all, of their natural values intact.” Section 7 of the Act provides that the Queensland government may declare an area of the State to be a “wild river area”. Section 12 of the Act gives the Minister broad legislative powers to over a declared “wild river area”, including power to legislate in regard to:

(k) any carrying out of activities or taking of natural resources proposed to be prohibited or regulated in the proposed wild river area;

(l) the matters that must be considered in deciding whether to allow the carrying out of an activity or the taking of a natural resource in the proposed wild river area;

(m) the types of works for taking overland flow water in the proposed wild river area that are intended to be assessable or self-assessable development under the Planning Act;

(n) the types of works for interfering with overland flow water in any floodplain management area in the proposed wild river area that are intended to be assessable or self-assessable development under the Planning Act;

(o) the types of works for taking subartesian water in any subartesian management area in the proposed wild river area that are intended to be assessable or self-assessable development under the Planning Act;

(p) the proposed threshold limits and a reference to any codes, including codes for IDAS, for carrying out activities and taking natural resources in the proposed wild river area;

(q) a process for granting, reserving or otherwise dealing with unallocated water in the proposed wild river area;

There is also provision under the Act for making “Wild Rivers Codes” governing the use of particular wild river areas.

In April 2009, the Queensland government declared various rivers and river basins in Queensland to be “wild river areas”, including some rivers in Cape York.

Backlash against Wild Rivers Act

Naturally enough, the wild river areas correspond with the areas in which many indigenous people live. Some indigenous people, such as Noel Pearson, argued that the Wild Rivers Declarations had been made without sufficient consultation of indigenous owners of the land, and that the Declarations would have the result of retarding investment and economic growth in the area, leading to further disadvantage on the part of indigenous people. In February 2010, Tony Abbott proposed legislation which would amend the Queensland legislation. However, a Labor-dominated Senate inquiry concluded that the Queensland legislation should remain.

In June 2010, Senator Scullion, the Opposition’s indigenous affairs spokesperson, put forth a further private members’ bill (the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 (No.2)) which was in substantially the same terms as Tony Abbott’s earlier Bill. The intention of the Bill was to amend the Queensland Wild Rivers Act, because to the extent that State legislation is inconsistent with Federal legislation, Federal legislation will prevail pursuant to s 109 of the Constitution. Section 4 of the Bill states, inter alia:

(2) It is the intention of the Parliament that this Act be a special measure for the advancement and protection of Australia’s indigenous people.
(3) In particular, it is the intention of the Parliament that this Act protect the rights of traditional owners of native title land within wild river areas to own, use, develop and control that land.

Section 5 of the Bill provides that “the development or use of native title land in a wild river area cannot be regulated under the relevant Queensland legislation unless the Aboriginal traditional owners of the land agree.”

In June 2010, the Wild Rivers Bill passed through the Senate, but was yet to pass the Lower House. Then the Federal election intervened.

The Bill has is now being considered by the House of Representatives. The Gillard Government has promised to hold a committee inquiry into the state legislation. It has said that the mandate of the inquiry would be broader than the March Senate inquiry, and would look into indigenous disadvantage. Pearson is very unhappy with this outcome.

Disagreement on the part of indigenous leaders

If one is attempting to do something that will disproportionately affect a particular group of people, it’s always hard to know whether the group wants that particular action, or whether the action is in the best interests of the group. The tendency is to look to an individual of the group who says that he or she speaks for the interests of the group. But one must not make the mistake of thinking that everyone in the group believes as the spokesperson does. Within a particular group, there may be a large range of views.

The Wild Rivers debate exemplifies this. There were a mass of submissions received by the Senate Committee looking into the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill. The following indigenous groups put their support behind the Federal Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill: the Cape York Institute (headed by Noel Pearson); the Kokoberrin Tribal Aboriginal Corporation; the Lama Lama Land Trust; Phyllis Yunkaporta, a Traditional Owner and Deputy Mayor of Aurukun; Northern Peninsula Area Traditional Owners; Kulla Land Trust; Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation and the Aurukun Shire Council. The following indigenous groups opposed the Bill and supported the Queensland Act: Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation; Nyacha Kumopinta Aboriginal Corporation and the Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Council (with some significant reservations about the present operation of the Act).

In addition, various other interested groups also had a say. Unsurprisingly, the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation supported the Queensland Act, whereas the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane did not support the Act, and was concerned about the impact of the Act on economic development of indigenous people.

There was a tension in the reports about who had the authority to “speak for” indigenous people. Noel Pearson has been vocal in his opposition to the Wild Rivers legislation. David Claudie, chairman of the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation said, “‘Noel Pearson doesn’t speak for us. He’s not our leader.Murrandoo Yanner of the Carpentaria Land Council has agreed with Claudie, and said that he fears unrestrained development.


I spoke of tribalism in politics in a previous post. Pearson has become associated with the previous Howard government, which leads people on the Left to distrust him (see the comments to this Crikey article). By the same token, when I was an undergraduate at university, certain indigenous leaders were darlings of the Left, and I doubt very much that these people would have been trusted by the Right. Personally, I don’t particularly care whether Pearson has tried to work with the Howard government — that doesn’t make him irredeemably tainted in my eyes. He has to work with whoever is in power to get the best deal for his people, and if he convinces the conservatives of the importance of indigenous rights and respect for indigenous people, that’s all to the good. I like him, because he will stand up to the Liberals if he believes that they are wrong. But one mustn’t think that Pearson is the sole representative of an indigenous perspective. He’s so articulate and prodigious that the other perspectives might be missed. On the other hand, nor should an indigenous person who associates with the conservative side of politics be seen as a traitor to his or her people. I wrote a post on Australia’s first Aboriginal MP, Ken Wyatt, who has been the subject of abuse, apparently by right wing whitefellas and also by blackfellas who see him as a traitor for associating with the Liberals. The latter doesn’t surprise me; I have seen it happen before. There should be room for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to have the same spectrum of political views as any other group in society, and to have a forum to express those views.

I’m reminded of the indigenous students I tutored during my undergraduate years. They each had deeply different political ideals, and very different backgrounds. I sometimes see people talking about “the indigenous perspective” or saying, “what indigenous people want is…” (The latter particularly annoys me when the person hasn’t ever met an indigenous person and wouldn’t have a clue).

Indigenous perspectives are as various as those of any other group of people, and what indigenous people want differs greatly depending upon upbringing, circumstance and many other things. We shouldn’t forget that indigenous people are just like the rest of us; they are not a monolithic group with the same aims and views. We should always be very careful to listen closely to the different voices when taking action which affects indigenous people, and to allow different people to have a forum. Sometimes the greatest wrongs can be done out of a desire to do good. Listening to different voices may show us where the pitfalls lie.


  1. Peter Patton
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink


    I sometimes see people talking about “the indigenous perspective” or saying, “what indigenous people want is…” (The latter particularly annoys me when the person hasn’t ever met an indigenous person and wouldn’t have a clue).

    Oh gawd, amen to that sister. And with no disrespect to you personally, do you also find a lot of this coming from the mouths of white academics, particularly law academics?

    I mentioned on the other thread academic arguments made by some Indigenous people. If they are not associated with the “Right/Howard” and you say “I’m sorry, but that article is far from persuasive. It relies on faulty premises…blah, blah, blah” there really is a lot of pressure not to so comment. There is an unexpressed assumption – but more often shouted from the lectern – that to so dissent is a marker of your neocolonialist racism. You are clearly a Hansonite, and probably worse!

    I refuse to be intimidated. Surely, it is a mark of respect that you take the time to consider the writer’s argument, and take seriously the effort they have made to write the article, their qualifications, experience, and integrity as a researcher/scholar.

    That does not mean what they have argued succeeds or is beyond reproach. Nor does it mean that you [or I] – the critic – has the better argument. We might be even sloppier in our thinking/research/writing. But so be it.

    I detect an even stronger stench of racism among the white academic cone of silence than among the Boltist peanut gallery.

  2. Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    ‘Boltist Peanut Gallery’.

    This is a term that deserves wider circulation, indeed it does.

  3. Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Indigenous perspectives are as various as those of any other group of people, and what indigenous people want differs greatly depending upon upbringing, circumstance and many other things. We shouldn’t forget that indigenous people are just like us; they are not a monolithic group with the same aims and views.

    As an Indigenous woman I find myself holding up my hands and saying thank you. Finally some one gets it.

    Not only do we have views that differ, but even our physical features differ enormously, just like regular people.

    When we are all expected to look a certain way, it only stands to reason that people would assume we all think and feel the same way. And this is the biggest issue we face, IMO, the breaking of these stereotypes that restrict us to this very limited demographic. (Something Andrew Bolt and many others have yet to comprehend) And then there are unfortunately many Indigenous people who perpetuate the stereotypes, who are their own worst enemies and bring down the whole lot of us with them. (I speak as the daughter of a violent alcoholic junkie. It’s very hard to defend your own people when your father is one of the few making it harder to do so)

    I also believe part of the issue with Indigenous Policy and “bridging the Gap” is that every body is trying so very hard NOT to be racist or at least to be perceived as not being racist. We don’t want another stolen generation on our hands so we tend to sit on them and do nothing.

    In regards to Wild Rivers,
    Do we know in what ways they would wish to develop and utilise the land? What would be the environmental impact of those developments? That for me is the crux of the issue.

    On one hand it’s pretty hypocritical to say “here, this is your land. But, you can’t develop it. You’re only only allowed to look at it.” But it’s just as hypocritical to allow one group of people to develop land that we would normally protect and exclude others from developing because of the environmental impact.

  4. Jacques Chester
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Within a particular group, there may be a large range of views.

    The Wild Rivers debate exemplifies this.

    For another stark political divide, see the row over Muckaty Station. Who are the traditional owners? It depends on who you ask.

    Indigenous politics is fraught with complexity and obfuscation because it grew out of the complexity of previous cultures, no two of which are completely alike. In 1788 there were an estimated 600 language groups divided into thousands of regional cultures. Here in the NT there are vast differences between the North and the Centre, between East and West. The cultures are different, the languages are different, but the complex collision of modernity and impossible antiquity is as brutal as anywhere.

    I’d refer you to Ken Parish for even more insight into the NT view.

  5. Peter Patton
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink


    If it is any consolation violent alcoholic junkie fathers – and mothers – are everywhere, and I have never heard their children bemoaning their junkie parents’ “Indigenous” behavior. Tragically, your old man’s shortcomings are as lily-white as chip butties. 😉

  6. Peter Patton
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink


    You have hit the nail on the head re land rights. Tragically, Mabo’s legacy has a very nasty sting in the tail. And that is, Indigenous land rights are not regarded as real land rights. They are more a privilege to be restricted and even taken away at whim. Until the terms “native title” and “Indigenous land rights” are abolished and replaced with ‘fee simple’ and even ‘allodial title’ this shit will just keep on coming.

    I strongly support Indigenous people using Wild Rivers to say “enough is enough”.

  7. Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    🙂 Peter, yes, that’s very it’s no consolation, no child, indigenous, white or otherwise should grow up like that. Half my family is white and they are certainly no better behaved.
    It’s not my fathers behaviour I deemed Indigenous though. But the perception by many that all indigenous men are violent drunks; by being one, he wasn’t exactly smashing the stereotype.

  8. mike winer
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I guess that is why Noel Pearson is calling for a consent mechanism such as an ILUA before any Wild Rivers are declared on Cape York. It Baffles me why the indigenous people and TWS supporting Wild Rivers don’t agree with this – maybe they realise a consent mechanism will ensure all traditional owners are engaged – which means only a couple of rivers might get up as Wild Rivers – Most the other TO’s recken they already have a better river management system in place under traditional methods.

  9. Peter Patton
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Too true, Pirra. But at least Indigenous men have been able to own up and apologise to their women folk and families, as they did in the NT a few years ago. Could you imagine non-Indigenous Australian men doing the same? Perhaps the ceremony could be led by Matthew Newton on a special episode of The Footy Show! 🙂

  10. Peter Patton
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink


    Amen to all that. Tell me, has there been growing reservations among legal academics about just how much of a ‘victory’ Mabo actually was? It seems to me like it has turned out to be quite a pyrrhic victory.

  11. Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Yes. Proper land rights instead of this “Look aren’t we ever so generous” Native Title rot.

    I am all for Wild Rivers Legislation being over turned and the Land holders then looking at ways to develop the land for their benefit.

    Give them the same equal land rights and make them submit environmental impact statements just like every body else, before any development goes ahead.

    That way you ensure that any rare flora. fauna or ecosystems are protected, whilst allowing the Indigenous peoples true ownership to develop land within the same guidelines as every one else.

    That’s what I call one step to bridging the gap. 😉

  12. Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Very true Peter. It would be nice to see ALL men (and women) own their atrocious behaviour, apologise for it and then actively do something to change it.

    To my father’s credit, he did change. He sought help. He cleaned up his act. He went so far as to gain counselling qualifications to help other men like him break their cycles of abuse. It’s just a shame he died so soon afterwards. (He was 43)

  13. Peter Patton
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink


    I am sorry to hear that. A friend of mine became a drug and alcohol counsellor after spending 6 months in rehab. For a while he worked in a residential drug rehab for Indigenous men. I met some of the residents, and listening to their experiences and journeys was pretty confronting. I do think Indigenous men have several additional, higher hurdles to clear to remain sane and sober than non-Indigenous men. Still, this is probably a bit too ethereal to those caught directly in the line of fire.

  14. Posted October 5, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks Peter, where he is now I am sure he has finally found some peace.

    There were a lot of things that lead to my fathers addictions and violent behaviour. They don’t excuse it, but they make it understandable. I should add that I didn’t grow up in the same home as my father. So I was somewhat removed from his violence. Which I think makes it easier for me to see him more objectively than if I had grown up in his home.
    my father never once hit his daughters. My sisters and I-including the ones who did grow up in his home, were never subjected to his violence, we never witnessed it directly either. And that certainly clouds the way we perceive our father as opposed to our brothers- who were subjected to his violence and did witness it they certainly saw him differently.

    I do wonder how Matthew Newton came to be the way he is. Which just goes to show that domestic violence does not discriminate on grounds of colour or class.

    LE, my apologies for hijacking your blog and going completely off topic. *insert appropriately abashed smiley face here*

  15. Posted October 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] You have nothing to apologise about. All your comments were both worthy and very much on-topic to LE’s wider point.

    Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Its just a grab for aboriginal land with sly creatures like Pearson positioning themselves to act as commissioned agents trusted by precisley those they would sell out, exploiting the idea that they are “us” rather than “them”.
    It is most unsavoury to witness aboriginal rights and problems exploited in this way, for developer access to what little these people have left inthe wake of uncompensated white dispossession.
    Pirra asks,” what sort of development?”, But I can assure you won’t know the true nature of whatever they have up their sleeves until it is too late to stop it abit like with the Gunns environmental disaster in Tasmania.
    Which reminds us, it is always sad to watch luddites in action, as with John Gay and his smashing of the carbon sinks that old growth forests actually were, for the human environment for few shabby bucks. but hes ok, that’s all that counts…

  17. mel
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    “And then there are unfortunately many Indigenous people who perpetuate the stereotypes, who are their own worst enemies and bring down the whole lot of us with them. (I speak as the daughter of a violent alcoholic junkie. It’s very hard to defend your own people when your father is one of the few making it harder to do so)”

    I wish you all the best, Pirra.

    Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    To quote Urquhart, to Mattie, in ‘House of Cards”,
    ” you might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment…”.

  19. Posted October 5, 2010 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Look, if people want to make a decent living, who can blame them? This is something the modern environment movement has been catastrophically bad at recognizing, which leaves people like Pirra swaying in the breeze. I’ve written about the issue in some detail here:

  20. Posted October 6, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    LE and SL I agree with everything you just said.

    If I may add. I am an urbanised Koori.

    I don’t look as Aboriginal as my father, aunts and uncles and even some of my cousins. (We are a very large family). But I look different enough for society to continually ask me to define my heritage. It’s always the same reaction. “You can’t be Indigenous! You aren’t dark enough. You look too Mediterranean. No way. You’re so articulate and smart. But you’re so pretty, etc etc”

    To society at large, because I don’t fit the stereotype I am not allowed to own my heritage. The theory of dilution that non-indigenous people like to throw at those of us with fairer more gracile features than the stereotype won’t allow us that simple dignity. We aren’t white, but we aren’t black either. (I have even been called a White Nigger.)

    Then, you have those living more remotely, who do fit the societal stereotype. They are allowed to own their heritage but they aren’t permitted to be a part of white society either. They are charged with preserving our traditional way of life whether they want to or not.

    Bridging the gap is a laughable statement if one is still trying to say they MUST live a traditional lifestyle. This does not close the gap. It creates one.

    One can preserve one’s culture and heritage without running naked in the scrub and living off grubs and still be a part of the wider modern Australian community. It’s not 1788 anymore so why are we expected to still live that way if we want to own our heritage?

    Other cultures are extended this ‘privilege’. (Think Mediterranean peoples, Asian people – yes I know there is still prejudice but at least they are permitted to own their heritage and to amalgamate that culture with the white Australian culture.)

    My point is, that if non-indigenous Australia is serious about bridging the gap it will stop forcing us all into these little stereotypical boxes and start treating us like everybody else, and starting with Land Rights seems the obvious place to begin for now.

    My apologies for the ramble and the talking in circles, my caffeine deprived brain just cannot make my words any more logical than that ATM.

  21. Posted October 6, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Once again, nothing to apologise for. (Though such tentativeness is a known symptom of various sorts of abusive upbringing.)

    As to your main point, I agree. (See this comment, linguistic infelicities and all.)

    Posted October 6, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    No , I dont agree.
    Most peoplehave to structure their activites around things like OHS, enviro rules, etc- These rules are not to oppress individuals but to protect that part of the environment that is common and essential to all, from the air we breathe to access to water and other essentials.
    As long as the same protections for environment that apply to the rest of the community also apply to development on aboriginal lands, I’d say great.
    But if this Pearson nonsense is just another attempt to side step enviro considerations and considerations of the common welfare (eg transgression of laws like Wild Rivers; thru prioritising of aboriginal interests at others expense, I’d say, “no way”.
    Just as I’m not allowed to crap in my backyard because of the health consequences for neighbours, I would so “no” to environmentally disastrous projects of the Gunns/Cubbie creek type, because in these cases we talk of the common interest and others rights and freedoms, as well as our own selfish interests and self-indulgences.
    if this means Pearson misses out on commissions for hiving off his peoples last remaining assetts, thats fair enough, the same as if the law stops environmental vandals of the Gunns/ Cubbie Creek type and agents for these like Pearson sh-tting on common assetts in pursuit of narrow self interest.
    btw, no one accepts more than the writer that aboriginals have been subjected to the worst excesses of colonialism.
    But the way for this to be redressed is thru admission of the reality of the past, avoided for so long by people like John Howard, followed up by large scale spending on aboriginal issues through taxation of entities including of the mining/ pastoral/ development company sort, rather than abandonment of projects for aboriginals to, say, pay for tax cuts for the rich, as happens under neoliberalism.

  23. Posted October 7, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I think that self determination is a really worthy aim for indigenous people. But if you really want people to have self-determination, you’ve got to give them choices. There’s a sense that the way in which the government treats indigenous people reminds me of the way I treat my kids – I give them two options only so I can control them. (“Do you want the red coat or the blue coat” – no option for not wearing a coat or for wearing one’s pyjamas instead). But when kids grow up, you have too leave them to make their own choices, even though you might not like those choices, because that’s treating them respectfully, as adults who have rights to make their own decisions. The same goes for indigenous people.

    That’s it in a nutshell.

    There is a real condescension shown towards Indigenous people. I found the public education system very frustrating in this regard.

  24. Posted October 7, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    PW @25 The notion of being in favour of one set of rules for everyone, except when you are not, is fundamentally incoherent. We have tried and tried the “government spending will fix it” option and it is not only a failure, it is an appalling failure. Mainly, to be blunt, because that spending has been structured to support bureaucracies and pander to the preconceptions of gentry progressives.

    Indeed, it shows much the same patterns as the failure of foreign aid, for much the same reasons.

    And the personal attacks on Noel Pearson are uncalled for: though, I have to say, pretty standard gentry progressive treatment for members of mascot communities who fail to toe the progressivist line.

  25. Peter Patton
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I wonder how helpful this whole “self-determination” discourse is. It was intended post-WW II to allow colonised territories to secede from former colonial powers. It was not supposed to mean a particular race/ethnicity/religious group.

    Given the reality that Australian Aborigines are as spread across the country as much as the rest, and with most overwhelmingly integrated with the nation as a whole, what could “self-determination” possibly mean in an Australian context, unless it is a term we apply to individuals not races/ethnicties/religions.

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