serious whitefella stuff

Review of Mark Moran Serious Whitefella Stuff: When solutions became the problem in Indigenous Affairs, Melbourne University Press, xii + 224 pages, paper, $27.99.
(the final version of this review is published in Emeritus, vol.7, no.2)
On the surface, this looks as if it should be an important book but it is disappointing on close inspection. A Foreword by Noel Pearson tells us ‘If you want to help, you should read Serious Whitefella Stuff’, while the back cover promises a book that examines, not the rarified process of policy, but rather what happens at the level of practice. A passing comment in the first chapter informs us that the ‘whitefella stuff’ of the book’s title refers to the busyness of ‘community leaders, employees and volunteers working for Indigenous and other local organisations who attend to their work and to each other.’ There are 8 chapters, all but two telling stories, as Moran describes them, about interactions between policy,outsiders (frontline workers) and local indigenous leaders, six of them by Moran, with one each by Alyson Wright and Paul Memmot. Most of the stories in this book are set in Queensland, sometimes with excursions into the neighbouring Northern Territory, where Alyson Wright’s story is set, leaving readers to wonder whether similar tales might unfold in other states. There are several useful (but, unfortunately, rather small) maps but no index or list of acronyms. Like other acronyms, for example, ‘DOGIT’, meaning ‘Deed of Grant in Trust’, is explained, clearly and carefully, the first time it appears but not later, where the lack of explanation is simply irritating.

Careful readers of this book will get a good sense of what frontline workers have to put up with as they struggle to negotiate the demands of their superiors and the needs of the communities in which they work and, more importantly, they will get a sense of the difficulties indigenous communities have to confront in their dealings with state and commonwealth governments. Two stories, by Moran himself, focus on housing. They suggest that, like Pearson, Moran favours the development of private ownership within indigenous communities. These chapters and passages elsewhere also suggest that Moran endorses Pearson’s notion of a Radical Centre. While this is difficult to outline in a few words, Pearson offers a neat summary in his comments on the Cape York Agenda, which is neither Left nor Right but ‘at the Radical Centre, with its mixture of individual choice,societal norms, capabilities and incentivised pathways’ (p. xi). Unkind readers, like this reviewer, might read this as an indigenous affairs version of the social-democratic Third Way, that is, as a recasting of earlier indigenous objectives in the language of neo-liberalism. Unfortunately, rather than defend or elaborate on this perspective, Moran seems content to let it lie where it can be read between the lines by those who care to look.

Practice is the concern of Moran’s most important arguments, to be found in the opening and closing chapters. One that is clearly dear to Moran’s heart is that, while many Australian universities offer qualifications to prepare students for international development practice, there should be something similar to prepare students for practice in indigenous affairs. This argument would be more persuasive if it were clear that the lessons of preparation for international development practice could not also be applied in indigenous affairs and if we knew more about the utility of such qualifications in practice.

However, Moran’s central concern is the disjunction between policy, as formulated by policy-makers in Canberra and various state capitals, and the practice of frontline workers. Unfortunately, while the title of the final chapter ‘Why Practice Triumphs over Policy in Indigenous Affairs’ indicates the importance he attaches to relations between policy and practice , it is not easy to identify just what he means by practice. Practice is not simply a matter of policy implementation since, as Moran portrays them, frontline workers usually have to work in a complex environment, cooperating with local community leaders while negotiating overlapping and sometimes conflicting policy objectives, often with cumbersome reporting criteria and inflexible timetables. The difficulty here is compounded by the odd reference to ‘what actually works or doesn’t work in practice’, a formulation which clearly suggests that what frontline workers’ actually do in their practice will not always work in practice.

I suspect that what Moran means by ‘practice triumphs over policy’ is something like the following. When policy seems to work, this reflects not so much the merits of the policy concerned, but rather the ability of frontline workers ‘to reinterpret and represent their local adaptations as expressions of policy, [thereby] allowing policy-makers to see their practice as policy successes’ (p.190). This point could have been the beginning of a useful critique of fadish support for evidence-based policy. Unfortunately, as with his views on the Radical Centre, Moran seems content to let this point lie to be picked up, or not, by his readers.

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