Academic journal article Borderlands

Illiberal and Unmodern: Conservative Columnists on Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia and Canada

Academic journal article Borderlands

Illiberal and Unmodern: Conservative Columnists on Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia and Canada

Article excerpt

The 2009 Cannes Camera d'Or-winning Indigenous production Samson and Delilah (Thornton, 2009) could not have been released to cinemas at a worse time in terms of what the current Australian government policy message on Indigenous affairs was trying to achieve. Relentless, dark narratives of dysfunctional fourth world lives such as are lived by its two central characters are never welcome at the best of times by a government that traditionally reserves its sole right to declaim, at its convenience, the dire plight of our Aborigines, and question the motives of others who do so at inopportune moments. Particularly international organisations like the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Yet it is the film's final scene that is exceptionally poorly timed from the point of view of the ministerial public relations people whose task it has been to carefully repackage discredited mid-twentieth century ideas about forcibly assimilating Indigenous people as the cutting edge of twenty-first century wisdom about the failure of cultural self-determination. As the two young companions, battered refugees from the nightmarish violence and despair of the remote Northern Territory black settlement and white town, watch the day dawn on contrastingly tranquil tribal land, the very first possibility of a happiness to come is sensed in their faint smiles. It is not that we uncritically accept the idea that happiness, or for that matter plain survival, is to be secured in the solitude of the bush. Rather, Delilah's decision to relocate herself and the semi-conscious Samson to the remote family outstation flew directly in the face of the, by now, public din from politicians, media commentators and conservative think-tanks that individual, if not collective, Aboriginal futures were to be had only by adopting conventional lifestyles in towns and cities. If Delilah's decision was not purposefully defiant, it was nonetheless a self-determined one, reiterating that not only are freedom and independence pre-conditions of the pursuit of happiness but, for Indigenous pursuits of it, so is Country. Whatever else they might be, these are thoroughly modern ideas and values.

Some Concepts

In this paper I am interested in identifying some of the key rhetorical tactics underpinning conservative discourse on the right of self-determination of Indigenous peoples currently circulating in the media and public sphere more widely. By now the reader will have seen that the term 'conservative' here is in no sense indexed against particular political parties. Following earlier work (Lucy and Mickler, 2006; 2009), it necessarily transcends the misleading political-discursive binary of 'Left' and 'Right' self-servingly maintained by the official antagonists of the 'culture wars.' In this paper there are self-described and publicly-identified 'conservatives,' such as newspaper columnist Christopher Pearson. However it is equally observed that self-described lefts, social democrats and progressives, such as Labor Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin, are conservative when they advance the agenda of conservatism. These public figures can be understood as conservative when they ignore, oppose or deny, whether generally or in particular policy moments, the interests of the incomplete project of democracy, or as Derrida (1994) put it, the unfinishable project of democracy to come. [1] In the present study, this means thwarting or denying the extension of the perfectly mundane democratic right to self-determination to Indigenous peoples. The subject and case material of this study is the published work of conservative opinion writers in the major newspaper press in both Australia and Canada. Newspaper opinion columnists (who nowadays are necessarily also online opinion columnists) are indispensable subjects for analysis because they perform a core public intellectual function within political advocacy, which is to 'supply discursive resources to political groups and classes for use in social, economic and cultural policy formation' (Lucy and Mickler, 2006: 5). …

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