Indigenous Social Exclusion and Inclusion: What Are People to Be Included in, and Who Decides?

Article excerpt

Since the election of the Rudd Government the notion of 'social inclusion' has been given extra prominence, with the creation of the Australian Social Inclusion Board, a Social Inclusion Unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a ministerial portfolio for social inclusion assigned to the Deputy Prime Minister.

The pursuit of social inclusion is now seen as part of a whole-of government agenda. As a policy framework social inclusion seeks to maximise participation in social, economic and community life, but the government's social inclusion agenda for Indigenous Australians highlights key concerns about its normative implications.

The concept of social inclusion is relatively new. However, it has more long-standing origins in debates about the adequacy of standard measures of poverty for capturing the multifaceted disadvantages experienced by the less well-off. (1)

In the 1970s and 80s many commentators moved away from rather dry debates about poverty (measured in terms of income, consumption or expenditure) towards analyses of multiple disadvantages. These concerns were captured in the notion of social exclusion that focuses on the processes that create and entrench disadvantage over time, including ongoing disparities in economic and socio-political resources.

Problems of conventional poverty measurement have been particularly pronounced for Indigenous Australians, whose circumstances are sometimes so different to those of other Australians that standard metrics for measuring poverty may be of little use.

For example, Indigenous households often involve extended kinship networks that have no direct analogy with the nuclear family used in most poverty studies. (2)

Ideas about what constitutes poverty are also notoriously variable across different cultural groups. In promising to broaden the debate about disadvantage away from mainstream measures, the concept of social exclusion opened the door to a more culturally nuanced approach.

In practice, though, analyses of social exclusion have rarely lived up to this promise. In particular, operationalising the concept has often entailed normative judgments about what constitutes poverty and what constitutes a 'good society.' Some definitions of social exclusion make this reliance on a mainstream norm explicit. For example, one prominent researcher in the field has stated that:

Social exclusion is a multidimensional process of progressive social rupture, detaching groups and individuals from social relations and institutions and preventing them from full participation in the normal, normatively prescribed activities of the society in which they live (emphasis added). (3)

The normative nature of much social exclusion discourse is evident in Australian government policy. In an Indigenous context, the Commonwealth Government's framework for understanding social exclusion is arguably embodied in the biennial series of reports called Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage (OID).

The OID framework does move beyond single measures of income poverty, also including indicators of health, employment, formal education, contact with the criminal justice system, family violence and substantiated child abuse. It also includes a small number of 'cultural' indicators (such as the degree to which Indigenous cultural studies are included in school curricula; and the proportion of people with access to their traditional lands) that go some way to accommodating Indigenous cultural concerns. (4)

For example, a connection to country is sometimes cited as a factor in improving Indigenous health and wellbeing (5) and is commonly identified by Indigenous Australians as important. Hence, indicators of access to land may be useful in gauging whether government programs and policies have positive outcomes for Indigenous people.

However, one can question whether 'access to land' fully captures complex Indigenous notions of connection to country. …