#AdjunctChat Topic Apr 29 ~ Experiences with Writers’ Groups (with @melovell) [Reposted]

Mystery Writers by Nanagyei, on FlickrThis blog post is reposted from the #adjunctchat blog. Tomorrow morning at the dark and eerie hour of 6am AEST I’ll be hosting a twitter chat on academic writers’ groups using the hashtag #adjunctchat. Details below.

The topic for the #AdjunctChat on Tuesday, April 29 is:

Experiences with Writers’ Groups: Find or start a writers’ group for accountability and collegiality

The chat will be facilitated by Melissa Lovell@melovell.

Research into academic writing consistently points to the role that supportive colleagues and peers play in the development of productive writing habits. Robert Boice’s well-known bookProfessors as Writers argues that ‘sociality’ is one of the four pillars or steps in a productive writing routine, along with automaticity (developing momentum using spontaneous and generative writing techniques), self-control (being conscious of your self-talk) and externality (choosing external conditions that increase the probability of writing).

A quick look at what Boice has to say about sociality may help us think about the potential benefits of writers’ groups and other forms of social writing such as #shutupandwrite. Boice argues that writing is basically a social act, even though it is one that we typically do in private. Without a community of writers and readers, writers become lonely and it is more difficult for writers to develop a sense of audience. He provides some advice for making writing more sociable including soliciting comments on writing at all stages of a manuscript, preparing oneself for the sting of negative criticism by practising constructive self-talk, building social networks (especially among the gate-keepers of scholarly writing such as journal editors or leaders in a scholarly field), and developing a sense of audience. Writers groups may be able to help with some or all of these aspects of sociality.

This week’s #adjunctchat focuses on the subject of writers groups, including our experience of them, their challenges and how to get one started. Several questions will be used to kickstart

Q1 Have you ever been involved in an academic writing group? What was its goals and structure?

Q2 What have you gained from being a members of a writers’ group or, if you’ve never joined one, what would you hope to gain from this kind of group?

Q3 In your experience, have you found social writing situations beneficial or do you prefer to see writing as a solitary endeavour?

Q4 What are some of the challenges or drawbacks of writers’ groups?

Q5 What questions do you have for #adjunctchat participants about starting or running a writers’ group?

All are welcome to #AdjunctChat on Tuesday, April 29, from 4:00-5:00pm EDT.

Update 2/5/14: The transcript of this chat is now available here.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Image by  Nanagyei 


Is it time to give ‘Closing the Gap’ the flick?

Two recent articles on theconversation.com have questioned the focus and effectiveness of Australia’s “Closing the Gap” policy in Indigenous Affairs. Is it time to give the policy the flick? What would it take to play to our strengths in Indigenous Affairs governance?

This year’s ‘Closing the Gap’ figures provide little cause for joy. Australia’s media organisations dutifully reported the progress (or lack of progress) made by the Australian Government towards the ‘Closing the Gap’ targets (a good infographic from the ABC can be found here). In the Government’s favour, progress was made towards halving the child mortality gap and enrolling Indigenous children in preschool. Other targets however—such as closing the gap in employment figures, closing the life expectancy gap, and halving gaps in reading, writing and numeracy—are well behind schedule.

If this were indeed a report card, as it is so often called, then it wouldn’t be one you’d be pleased to take home to Mum or Dad. Reporting on these figures in a speech to parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted that Australia was ‘not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful [Closing the Gap] targets’. Our ‘failures towards Australia’s first people were,’ he acknowledged, a ‘stain on our soul’.

For Abbott, the solution to these failures is clearly to do more of the same. He committed the government to an additional target, namely, to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance in the next five years.

However, as two recent articles on this topic on theconversation.com show, it may be time to revise our commitment to the ‘Closing the Gap’ policy.

Eva Cox on what actually works in Indigenous Affairs Policy

Cox’s article provides a clear summary of recent research on policy success and failure in Indigenous Affairs governance.

There is now a lot of evidence about the importance of flexibility, community involvement, program continuity (including continuity of funding) and cultural appropriateness to the success of policy programs in Indigenous Affairs governance. Less effective, however, are “one size fits all” approaches, interventions developed and run without local Indigenous community control, and services on short-term and non-continuous forms of funding.

Cox asks why so many policies in this field continue to be poorly designed when good evidence exists about what makes for effective policy in this field.

There are definitely some policy design issues to take into account here, especially around the challenges of coordinating services across many agencies and levels of government. However, developing an answer to this question requires us to look beyond policy design and into the broader politics of this policy field as well.

Elizabeth Strakosch on the relationship between Government and Indigenous people

Strakosch’s article urges us to enter into a new conversation about the significance of a policy such as ‘Closing the Gap’ for the relationship between government and Indigenous peoples. There are two points from her article which I believe are worth emphasising. The first point is that ‘Closing the Gap’ mistakes targets for policy. Obviously any well-thought out policy approach will include a set of indicators for policy success. ‘Closing the Gap’ however, is pretty much only a set of indicators. It is not a fully developed approach to Indigenous Affairs.

As Strakosch put its:

Repeatedly stating our commitment to progress – and measuring our (lack of) progress – does not actually make that progress happen. Closing the Gap is a “report card”: a set of performance measurements rather than a substantive policy program. It can too easily become a placeholder for real policy change, allowing political leaders to demonstrate commitment at the opening of parliament without following through for the rest of the year.

This brings us to a second point. Focusing on statistical indicators reduces the complex relationship between government and Indigenous people to a “technical rather than political problem” and its hard to improve a relationship if its expressed primarily in technical, bureaucratic terms. Strakosch argues that the,

…continual focus on the “gap” itself sidelines public debate about why the gap exists and how it can be closed. It is an appealingly neutral approach to such an uncomfortable and contentious policy area… Yet the bipartisan approach to Closing the Gap is built on a highly political account of the nature of Indigenous disadvantage. In this account, the gap is caused by specific Indigenous behavioural deficiencies rather than complex interactions between issues or underlying structural factors.

In other words, while the ‘Closing the Gap’ report card may award the government a shaky ‘C’ for effort, the failures of the policy are really seen to belong to Indigenous people rather than to governments.

The focus of the policy on closing a statistical gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people implicitly defines Indigenous people as either inherently lacking or stubbornly resistant to government attempts to shape their behavior. There is little room, in ‘Closing the Gap’ for a political discussion about what future Indigenous people would envision for themselves, or how governments might help them to achieve this.

Ditching the ‘Deficit Discourse’

It may be time to ditch approaches that focus on what Indigenous people lack, and focus instead on helping people to remember and express their strengths and aspirations.

Scholarship on the common narratives—or discourses—that play out in the field of Indigenous Affairs policy and politics suggest that the prevalence of ‘deficit discourses’ may be counterproductive. For instance, a recent scholarly article by Cressida Fforde and coauthors argued that:

Terms such as ‘Closing the Gap’ employ language that continues to carry an implicit assumption of deficit that, we posit, may work against achieving the very aims for which is was developed. ‘Closing the Gap’ may well fall within the definition of what Freire…terms the ‘sloganising’ of the oppressed, and if so, it can be predicted that it may act to disengage people from the programs that are delivered under its banner. (p166)

Strength-based approaches, on the other hand, could offer proactive and inclusive alternatives to current policy approaches and would be much more likely to meet the criteria which Cox outlined for successful program design in Indigenous Affairs governance.

It’s time to put some serious thought into ditching undermining and alienating ways of talking about Indigenous achievement. My response to Strakosch’s call for a wider conversation on the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is to ask the following questions:

What would it look like if we employed strength-based approaches to Indigenous Affairs policy?

What policies already model this approach?

Can we do more to shift the political discussion in this country to one that is less implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) disparaging of Indigenous Australians? 

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  Cover image by  strangejourney 

Links to make you think! 10 Nov 2013

Book wings by Mirka23, on Flickr

It’s a cool and drizzly Sunday evening here in Canberra. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to write a new links post!

Today’s mix of links is a bit theory-heavy, but hopefully it has something you’ll find interesting.

I am also starting to organise my favourite links and resources using public bookmarking site Bundlr.

The links from the Links to make you Think! posts on this blog, and many other links that I have found useful or interesting, are now organised by category on my Bundlr site.

If you sign up, you can follow Bundlr users and particular bundles. Then you’ll get an update of what’s been added since the last time you logged in.

So, on to some links. I recommend you check out the following links from the past few weeks:

Russell Brand calls for revolution

The achingly awful actor Russell Brand created a stir a few weeks ago with this interview on BBC’s NewsNight program. Brand, in his typically provocative manner, argued that the current liberal democratic system is corrupt. He argued that people should boycott elections as elections provide false legitimacy for governments that, in fact, do very little for most of their citizens.

For those who missed it, I’ve embedded the interview below.



The many responses to Russell’s Rant are what makes this an interesting story. Rarely do questions of political legitimacy, the purpose of democratic participation and the possibilities and drawbacks of ‘revolution’ get covered in the mainstream media.

As the fallout settles, here’s some responses to the interview:

  • Paul Mason of 4news draws attention to the generational differences in the response to the Brand interview in Worlds collide as Russell Brand predicts a revolution. Are young people ready for a revolution?
  • This contribution by James Bloodworth of LeftFootForward lists 5 ways in which voting does make a difference. This seems like a reasonable point to me. Revolution without democracy is pure fascism, and seems unlikely to address inequalities in any substantive way.
  • This piece from The Daily Beast suggests that the British, unlike Americans, have a deep-seated awareness of class difference. The concept of class can provide a useful language for talking about inequality and injustice. This is an interesting analysis of the differences between American and British political culture: Russell Brand: Not Quite a Messiah.
  • In the Australian context, we have this piece by James Mangisi on why radical change is possible from within our political system, and this piece by Michaela McGuire about the dangers of telling young people not to vote.

Women and gender

I’ve stumbled upon a few great links on women and politics lately. They’re not all brand new, but they’re new to me so I thought I’d pop them in.

Some other great stuff



Well, that should keep you busy for a while. Have a great week everyone!


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The Resilience of Colonialism in Liberal Societies (3): Political Theory

National Apology Day, Giant Human ” SORR by butupa, on Flickr

Liberal theory has found it hard to escape it’s colonial roots, in spite of its vision of individual freedom and universal emancipation. 

While political theory plays a rather minor role in the lives of most people, it can nonetheless be used to illustrate some of the tensions and sticky points in our everyday way of thinking about politics. This is because political philosophers spend a lot of time thinking about the Big Political Questions that we need to consider as a society, such as “when do we know that we are treating people fairly?”, “how can people with different goals or worldviews get along?” and “what do we owe to the poorest or most disadvantaged people in our community?”.

In this, the third of three posts on the resilience of colonialism in liberal societies, I use Duncan Ivison’s book on Postcolonial Liberalism (2002) to summarise some of the problems faced by liberal political theorists when they attempt to decolonise liberal political thought. However, I also argue that Ivison’s work exemplifies the tricky role of ideas about citizen’s capabilities in liberal thought, as well as the difficulty of developing a postcolonial liberalism.

The inadequacy of mainstream liberal political theory

Liberal democracy tends to exclude the preferences of Indigenous people because social, political and legal norms are structured around the cultural ideals of western societies. Mainstream political theory, including the egalitarian approaches which emerged in the U.S. and other English-speaking democracies in the 1960s and 1970s, also contain this cultural blind-spot.  Drawing on a wide body of critical scholarship, Ivison suggests that there are four aspects of liberal thought which contribute to this blind-spot:

  1. Liberalism’s abstract rationalism – The first of these obstacles is that liberals typically believe that they are able to articulate norms that have general applicability (i.e. universal norms) even though they are theorising from a particular (and usually highly privileged) context as well-salaried, usually white scholars in some of the richest countries in the world (p47).
  2. Liberalism’s moral individualism – Liberals try to translate all claims for collective goods or group-based interests into a language of individual human rights. This distorts the nature of political claims and makes it difficult to talk about how different groups of people might have different ideas about what they need to make life worth living (pp47-48).
  3. Liberalism’s narrow idea of justice – Liberals tend to focus on distributive models of justice (i.e. questions of who is entitled to what). This is useful for thinking about individuals’ right to a sufficient standard of living, but it doesn’t really account for the way that our social structure might contribute to inequality. In other words, liberals tend to address the outcome rather than the causes of inequality (p48).
  4. Liberalism’s failure to recognise the need for “complex identification” – Liberals are looking for overarching principles to determine how society should be structured. However, institutional arrangements need to be contestable and renegotiable as society and our world changes. In the search for a single best way of organising ourselves, liberals may not consider the possible advantages of messier, hybrid political institutions that can balance power more fairly between different groups of people (p48).

If we took all these criticisms on board then we might conclude that liberal theory has very little to offer us in any attempt to work out how settler and Indigenous people could coexist in liberal democratic societies.

Ivison, however, offers a more nuanced conclusion than this. He suggests that a new brand of postcolonial liberalism could move liberal practice beyond some of these limitations. However, this would require both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to have the capabilities to challenge those norms and political institutions that don’t work for them.

A postcolonial liberalism would be an ongoing process and would need to be based on mutual engagement and cooperation rather than hostility or domination. Liberal institutions, Ivison argues, are most likely to be legitimate and just when they emerge out of democratic processes at the local level (p2). This would require liberals to give up on the search for a perfect set of political principles, institutions and norms.

Constructive ways of thinking about capability? Ivison’s threshold of capabilities for Indigenous People

In my previous post on the Northern Territory Intervention I looked at the way that judgements about the capability of Indigenous people have been used to justify intensive governmental intervention in Aboriginal communities. In that example, ideas about capability were pretty disempowering for Aboriginal people. However, it is possible that we could use the idea of capability in more positive, constructive ways in order to empower Aboriginal people. This is what Duncan Ivison tries to do when he outlines the “threshold of capabilities” which form a prerequisite for a postcolonial liberalism.

Ivison argues that a postcolonial order should aim to secure those capabilities required for people to effectively participate in decision-making about the norms and laws which they will be expected to uphold. Citizens should be able to contribute to (and challenge) our collective understanding of the central capabilities required for being a “normally cooperating member of society” (p133). Like other people, Aboriginal people need to have both basic capabilities (such as freedoms from premature mortality, violence, or inadequate nourishment) and more advanced capabilities such as those required for engaging in practical reasoning; forming and pursuing conceptions of the good life; and being able to reflect critically upon these conceptions. Aboriginal people also need to have employment-related skills if they are to have a true choice about their type and level of participation in modern market-based economies (p133).

This set of capabilities forms a “threshold,” or entry-point, which needs to be reached if postcolonial liberalism is to be a viable prospect. Citizens in a postcolonial society would still need to make decisions about the relative importance or priority of these capabilities. For instance, should we focus on getting people job-ready or are there other, more fundamental capabilities (e.g. relating to accessing health or good nutrition) which require more attention? The legitimacy of these decisions would depend on the successful participation of citizens in the decision-making process. Different norms and priorities would take precedence in different circumstances (p134).

Capability in liberal thought: A fraught concept

Given the tendency for liberal governments to intensively regulate individuals who are seen as lacking basic capabilities, I believe that there is always a risk that arguments about a threshold of capabilities will inadvertently feed into prominent political narratives about Aboriginal failure.

What are the implications of suggesting, as Ivison does, that people need to have already secured the threshold of capabilities in order to properly engage in the process of challenging the norms of liberal society (p134)? One possibility is that the schedule for a postcolonial approach to liberalism is pushed back in recognition of the need to further build people’s capabilities. If this is the case, than some interim measures would be required to help people to achieve this.

I believe that Ivison is aware of the difficulties people would face in trying to reach the threshold of capabilities as well as the fact that his vision of a postcolonial liberal society may be some way off. He suggests that we use Aboriginal rights as a way of securing a kind of de facto “capability set” for Aboriginal people until they can build further capabilities. Aboriginal rights secure Aboriginal peoples’ interest in ancestral land, culture and self-government, and help them to maintain their distinctive identities in the face of significant pressures for cultural assimilation (p135).

While I believe Aboriginal rights are an important tool for building a more just society, it doesn’t make sense to me to use them as a kind of interim measure until Indigenous people have the capabilities to properly challenge liberal norms. Of course, Ivison doesn’t mean for his conception of capabilities to be used in a rigid, judgemental way. His goal is to get citizens to engage with one another in a more just, reasonable and respectful manner. I agree that a social structure which makes it more difficult for some citizens to fully develop their capabilities, or to use these capabilities to achieve their goals, is clearly a major obstacle to this sort of democratic process.

Nonetheless, Ivison’s solution to the near-sightedness of liberal theory does illustrate the fraught nature of the way that we think about capabilities in liberal societies. In practice, the concept of capabilities is just as likely to be used to identify Aboriginal people’s shortfalls as to mobilise for the recognition of Aboriginal rights. The way that we describe the capabilities of citizens matters. We need to be judicious in using language which emphasises Aboriginal people’s deficits because it has real implications for the extent and type of government intervention which is seen as necessary.

This is the last of three posts in a series on The Resilience of Colonialism in Liberal Societies. The first post focuses on political institutions and the second post on the justifications given for the Northern Territory Intervention.


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Katie Curchin on The ‘Real Economy’ and the ‘Hybrid Economy’ in Indigenous economic development

_DSC2798 by Rusty Stewart, on FlickrA friend of mine, Katie Curchin, presented a paper titled “The ‘real economy’ and the ‘hybrid economy’: Rival visions of Indigenous economic development and cultural survival” at ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) last week.

Here is the abstract of the presentation:

In the contemporary debate on how to address the poverty and disadvantage of Indigenous Australians living in remote regions, Noel Pearson and Jon Altman are two of the central intellectual figures. Pearson, an Aboriginal leader from Cape York Peninsula, advocates for greater integration of Indigenous people into what he calls ‘the real economy’. Meanwhile Altman, an anthropologist with a background in economics, has been suspicious of efforts to encourage Indigenous Australians to integrate into the mainstream labour force. He has produced an alternative model of development – the ‘hybrid economy’ model – which he suggests is more in keeping with the aspirations of many Aboriginal people. This paper compares Pearson and Altman’s rival visions of Indigenous economic development. It argues that among the most important contrasts in their thinking are differences in how Pearson and Altman conceptualise cultural difference, cultural change and cultural survival. Though both men are advocates for Indigenous self-determination they possess different ways of thinking about Indigenous choice and aspiration. Together these difference leads them to focus on different threats to Indigenous autonomy and cultural survival, resulting in different positions on such policy issues as welfare reform, education, home ownership and urban migration.

Unfortunately I missed the seminar because I was at the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) annual conference in Perth. Luckily for us there is a podcast of the event available here.


Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Licenseby Rusty Stewart

The Resilience of Settler Colonialism in Liberal Societies (2): The NT Intervention

What assumptions did the architects of Australia’s Northern Territory Intervention make about the capabilities of Aboriginal people?

Policy-makers often assume that Aboriginal people lack the capabilities to drive their own economic and social development. This way of thinking about Aboriginal people assumes—rather patronizingly—that Aboriginal people lack the skills, knowledge, experience and motivation to make decisions about their own lives. When this happens, ‘problems’ in Aboriginal Affairs policy are framed as issues for politicians and bureaucrats to solve. Indigenous people and organisations who question policies are then either ignored or seen as part of the problem.

This is the second in my series of posts on the resilience of colonial politics in liberal societies. In my first post I argued that present-day colonial politics depends, in part, on structural conditions which restrict Indigenous people’s opportunities to hold governments to account. But there is also, as I pointed out, an ideological dimension to all of this. I argued that liberals often find themselves caught between a desire to protect the liberty of individuals, and a concern that some people lack the capabilities to use those liberties in a constructive, life-enhancing way.

Below I use a brief case study of Australia’s Northern Territory Intervention to outline the way that this tension in liberal thought plays out. Defining Indigenous people according to a supposed deficiency in basic capabilities can reinforce colonial forms of politics in settler societies.

We are all affected by judgements about our capabilities…but some of us more than others

No one who lives in a modern, liberal democratic society is free to go completely their own way in their pursuit of the “good life”. Our social and political institutions are complex, and we go through life subject to frequent judgements about our preparedness for our multiple social roles as employee, parent, partner, citizen, and so on. There are a whole range of social institutions designed to help us build these capabilities, and only some of these are government agencies.

Sometimes whole groups of people are seen as lacking the capabilities required for full participation in society. Children, for instance, have special protections and obligations based on their lesser experience and their inability to fend for themselves.

However, these special obligations don’t only apply to children. In the first half of the twentieth century, for instance, the legal status of Indigenous people was similar to that of children. An Indigenous person needed to apply for permission for almost every decision that they made. They usually could not start a new job, spend their own money, get married or move to a new town without the explicit permission of government-appointed Protectors.

Laws made today are still based on sweeping judgements about the capabilities of Indigenous people. The intrusiveness of government policy is typically related to perceptions about people’s capability to manage their own lives. In the case of the Northern Territory Intervention a whole suite of measures was considered necessary to transform the capabilities of residents in remote Aboriginal communities.

Some of these measure focused on the behaviour of individuals. Among these were regulation of people’s finances through the Income Management Regime (at least for those in receipt of any form of social security payment), restrictions on place of residence (income management followed people who moved and BasicsCards, used to access regulated income, weren’t accepted everywhere), and restrictions on alcohol and pornography.

Other aspects of the policy focused on reorganising the way that decisions were made in communities. The permit system, which allowed Aboriginal land owners to have a say in decisions about land use in Aboriginal towns and to deny general visitors access to Aboriginal towns, was wound back. The federal government also gained new powers for the delivery of services and the spending decisions of non-government agencies in Aboriginal communities.

This level of policy intrusiveness was, as I have just mentioned, not unprecedented. However, it was certainly more intrusive than the norm for Aboriginal Affairs policy in recent decades. In the context of the NTI, there were two ways of thinking about the problem in remote NT communities. These can be described as two narratives about ‘failure’ in Aboriginal communities. Both of these narratives contributed to the perception that people in those communities were incapable of driving their own social and economic development.

The failure of Aboriginal culture

Negative depictions of Indigenous cultures have been a pervasive feature of Australian cultural life (as they are in all settler societies). We are probably most familiar with historical depictions of Aboriginal people as savage, violent, uncivilised and usually drunk. These days, ideas about the dysfunctional character of Aboriginal culture have mostly replaced earlier arguments about Aboriginal people as a doomed race (that is, as a people who are biologically unsuited to civilised life).

The Intervention was, at least nominally, a response to the Little Children Are Sacred report which outlined the risks of abuse and neglect for Aboriginal children in the NT. Politicians understood Aboriginal culture as contributing to the neglect and abuse of Aboriginal children, and routinely described Aboriginal communities in terms of their dysfunctional character. The second reading speech for the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) bills argued that the purpose of the NTI was to “break the back of the violence and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory”(Parliament of Australia Hansard 7 August 2007,” p22). With rhetoric similar to that which is usually used to justify intervention in failed states, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough likened the situation in Aboriginal communities to that of a “failed society” where “normal community standards and parenting behaviour [had] broken down” (Hansard 7 August 2007, pp2&10). Policy-makers therefore linked Aboriginal culture with what they described as extreme levels of social break-down and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities.

Dysfunctional communities pose a considerable problem for policy-makers. Given that cultural identity was seen as part of the problem, policy-makers expected little assistance from Aboriginal people in addressing these problems. The idea that Aboriginal communities had failed was used to justify the interventionist character of the NTI, as well as the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the policy process. Prime Minister Howard, for example, argued that “the level of extreme social breakdown in some communities demands a highly prescriptive approach”(see “Address to the Sydney Institute.”).

The failure of Aboriginal rights and the ‘welfare state’

Critics of the NT Intervention have argued that the Intervention signifies a major transformation in the paradigm—the basic ideas and objectives—of Australian Aboriginal Affairs policy. The earlier paradigm acknowledged the importance of Indigenous self-determination and the recognition of Indigenous people’s rights to incorporate their ancestral laws, culture, land, and resources in their present-day way of life. The new paradigm, in contrast, is based on a narrow conception of development which has less scope for incorporating Indigenous people’s notion of what makes a “good life”.

Those who supported the Intervention obviously disagree with this description, but they too think that a major transformation is taking place (one of their own making!). Current policy sees the former policy approach as damaging Aboriginal individual’s opportunities to get ahead in life. Barry Haase, a liberal party backbencher, shows this kind of concern during the 2007 parliamentary debate. “I accept and respect the fact that Indigenous law is a very demanding process,” he acknowledged, “but it is overdone…If one destroys the future of one’s race in the name of promotion of the culture, isn’t that an enigma? …You might be denying an opportunity for your children, for your future generations’ (Hansard 7 August 2007,” p83).

Picking up on the neoliberal condemnation of big government and the welfare state, recent discussions of Indigenous Affairs policy show a clear concern for the risks of welfare dependency. Parliamentary supporters of the NT Intervention saw Aboriginal land rights, one of the major planks of the self-determination approach to policy, as an obstacle to Aboriginal development. Liberal MP David Tollner, for example argued that land rights were misguided because they were about the “preservation of culture” rather than “good land management, land administration or planning for the future exploitation and productivity of the land”. He linked Aboriginal people’s collective control of land use through the permit system to Aboriginal people’s “welfare dependency status” (Hansard 7 August 2007,” pp96-97). Liberals find dependency problematic because it means that people never develop the skills and capabilities required to be independent, and to live their own lives free from government support.

Thinking about Aboriginal people’s capabilities

The most astonishing feature of recent Aboriginal Affairs policy is that governments have come to think of Aboriginal people, and the recognition of their rights, as an obstacle to Aboriginal wellbeing. The two narratives about the failure of Aboriginal culture and the welfare state suggest that inhabitants of remote NT communities lack the basic capabilities required for everyday budgeting or looking after children properly, and have had no chance to develop the skills and attitudes required for successful job-hunting and employment.

I argued earlier that there is an ongoing tension between liberal intervention—for the sake of building capabilities—and the liberal commitment to liberty. When descriptions of Aboriginal people as a group focuses solely on their deficiencies, then the imperative for governments to intervene in people’s lives becomes the stronger of these two motivations. The incorporation of colonial ideas into liberal government makes it very difficult for governments to see Aboriginal people as capable citizens.

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The resilience of colonialism in liberal societies: Political institutions

Dual Flags by mikecogh, on FlickrDid the campaign for civil rights in the 1960s, and the national referendum of 1967, deliver the full rights of liberal democratic citizenship to Australia’s Indigenous peoples?

In this three-part series I suggest that Indigenous people have typically not had full access to these rights. The reasons for this include Australia’s institutional make-up–which I will discuss in this first post–as well as an ongoing tension in liberal politics about the capabilities of citizens. I argue that this tension exists in both recent Indigenous Affairs policy and in liberal political philosophy.

This series is based on remarks that I intend to make at the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) conference in Perth this week. 

Institutional obstacles to Indigenous political influence

On a formal level, the changes made to Australia’s constitution after the 1967 referendum simply included Aboriginal people in the Australian census, and allowed the federal parliament to make special laws for Aboriginal people. The supporters of the referendum clearly expected governments to use this power benevolently. However, there have been few legal or institutional mechanisms in Australia to ensure this benevolence. Furthermore, the lack of an Australian bill of human rights has meant that Indigenous people have had few substantive legal grounds on which to challenge the decisions of federal governments and their weighty bureaucracies.

The democratic process has also had little to offer Indigenous Australians. As a highly diverse population–in terms of geography, culture, socio-economic status, education, and so on–there has been no guarantee (and why would there be?) that Indigenous people will see their interests as lying in any one particular political party. Unlike the Indigenous vote in other places, such as New Zealand, their small total numbers as a proportion of the wider population has made it difficult for Indigenous Australians to influence electoral outcomes. These numbers have also made it difficult to develop a viable political party dedicated to Indigenous interests in land, education, access to resources and so on.

These structural obstacles are poorly understood by many of Australia’s current crop of politicians.  For example, consider the comments made in January 2012 by Prime Minister Tony Abbott (who was then opposition leader) about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (a permanent protest site established by Aboriginal people in 1972). Abbott said that he could “understand why the tent embassy was established” but that, “a lot has changed for the better since then and…it probably is time to move on from that [the tent embassy protest]“. These kinds of comments suggest that discrimination is a non-issue in our current political context. From this perspective the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.

Why the battle for Indigenous people’s rights continues

While it is certainly true that Indigenous people have made a lot of hard-won gains in recent decades, it would be entirely inaccurate to suggest that discrimination is a feature of a distant pre-liberal colonial past. In spite of access to the same basic civic and political rights as other Australians, Indigenous people have increasingly found themselves the explicit target of programs which focus on transforming their attitudes, behaviour, and life goals.

Among these programs are the Northern Territory Intervention, which I have discussed in this article (though this earlier version avoids the pay-wall), and the Income Management Regime (which I presented on in July).  Recent legislation has also sought to undermine Indigenous people’s attempts to organise politically, move freely, and contribute to decisions about policy and governance arrangements which have a direct impact on their lives.

Recent governments have acknowledged the “gap” in health, social and economic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens. However, they have tended to frame this as a technical problem, and not as a symptom of the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between Indigenous people and the liberal democratic state.

A conundrum for liberal politics

The norms of liberal democratic justice are meant to be broadly acceptable to a wide range of individuals. Those norms should operate in such a manner that they secure a space for citizens to pursue their own conception of what makes a ‘good life’ without undue interference from government or other citizens.

In this context, contemporary liberal politics often fails Indigenous citizens. Their conception of the good life is often quite different to the narrow range of developmental norms which Governments seek to implement in Indigenous communities. This is especially the case for people living in remote communities.

While there are a few reasons why this occurs, the chief reason is that Indigenous people’s capacity to make decisions about what constitutes the ‘good life’—given their particular social, cultural and economic circumstances—is questioned by liberals at every turn. This is a form of colonial reasoning which has become embedded in Australian politics because of an ongoing tension in liberal reasoning.

This is the tension between, on the one hand, the desire to limit government intervention and, on the other, a concern that particular classes of citizens lack the capabilities required to make decisions about their own lives. Where people lack those capabilities, liberals often argue in support of government intervention in order to help people build those capabilities. These interventions can range from the relatively benign, such as educational campaigns, to much more coercive practices such as those seen in the Northern Territory Intervention. Policy-makers often consider more coercive measures whenever they expect that citizens will resist programs of reform.

Coming soon…

In the next two posts in this series I show the strength of the liberal concern about Indigenous people’s (apparent) lack of capabilities.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  mikecogh 

Links to make you think! 20 Sept 2013

Book wings by Mirka23, on Flickr

Thank you to everyone who read my posts this week. It was very encouraging to read your feedback and good wishes.

This is the first of what I hope will be many links posts. My intention is to point you in the direction of thoughtful analyses on the theme of ideas in politics.

Australian politics links

Given the eventful week Australia has had in federal politics, there was a lot published about the new Abbott government. There were a whole swathe of articles seeking to analyse the ideology, intentions and ideas on the incoming government.

Several of the articles below deal with gender issues in politics. This may be a coincidence. Women’s issues certainly hit the mainstream of contemporary political analysis this week after Prime Minister Abbott announced a cabinet with just one woman minister. But it’s also possible that I was ‘primed’ to click on these links after reading Cordelia Fine’s excellent book Delusions of Gender last weekend.

Regardless, I can recommend you have a look at:

  • Jane Caro’s excellent take-down of the notion that the men in cabinet were all selected on the basis of merit: Promotion on — ahem — merit? It’s hard to see how …
  • Jeff Sparrow on understanding the symbolic value of women’s issues in the government’s updated version of the culture wars: How Tony Abbott defeated liberal feminism.
  • This speech by Australian barrister Julian Burnside is getting a lot of circulation in the last few days. It’s a bit waffly. But Burnside makes a thought-provoking argument about the parallels between the alienation of people within Australian society and our politicians’ willingness to show cruelty to refugees / official ‘aliens’. I was also struck by his discussion of responding rationally to the hate mail he receives on a regular basis. The heartening responses he received bode well for the possibilities of a civil society: Tim Costello Lecture 2013. Alienation – Alien Nation.
  • Philosopher Paul Redding eloquently defends his research (and that of other philosophers) after it was ridiculed by a Member of Parliament: Philosophy is not a ‘ridiculous’ pursuit. It is worth funding.

Best of the rest

The following articles are also definitely worth a look:

  • Kate Galloway makes timely use of Nancy Fraser’s work to analyse the way that the concept of ‘dependency’ is being used by the Coalition government in the UK. What are the gendered implications of describing people as ‘leaners’?: A sense of entitlement? The (gender) subtext of ‘lifters not leaners’.
  • Peter Ludlow asks whether the younger generation have “lost their moral compass”. Luckily for us, he concludes they have not. He suggests that young people’s support for leakers, whistle-blowers and hacktivists actually indicates their awareness that disobedience to “the system” is sometimes ethically justified. I enjoyed this philosophical argument for sticking it to the man!: The Banality of Systemic Evil.
  • The world’s most famous children’s author J.K. Rowling challenges the stigma still attached to single parenting in I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life.
  • Eugene at Critical Theory makes us all feel less-than-erudite with a list of the 87 Texts Every Critical Theorist Needs to Read. Though really, why not make it an even 100? Anyone got any suggestions to help him out?
  • Finally, I’m a bit late to the game as this was posted back in July, but I found this interview with Todd May (by Richard Marshall) enormously stimulating. There is all sorts of interesting material here about the relationship between anarchist philosophy and post-structuralist thought. The summaries of the key ideas and contributions of post-structuralist theorists is particularly helpful for its ‘big picture’ character. I am also inspired to go and look up some of Todd May’s work when I have a few spare hours: The poststructural anarchist.

Well, that’s all I have for you. It should keep you fairly busy until I have time to post again.

I may be a little absent in the next couple of weeks. The teaching term starts up again next Monday, and I am heading to the APSA (Australian Political Studies Association) conference in Perth at the end of next week.

Have a good weekend!

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Mirka23 

Civic Virtue: Getting the Government We Deserve

Are you the sort of person who spends the day glued to the #auspol hashtag on Twitter? If so, then you will already know that Tony Abbott and the other members of Australia’s new coalition government were officially sworn in at Government House this morning.

I follow a lot of progressive-y types on social media. And there has been a lot of gnashing of teeth, and existential sighing going on in the last week or so. Elections tend to have that effect on people.

But in amongst the usual angst of people who didn’t get the government they wanted, I have seen several people using variations of that modern proverb (variously attributed) about people having got the government that they deserve.


Why would Australians “deserve” an Abbott government?

This phrase intrigues me, and I want to know what people mean when they say Australians deserve their new government. Is it, for instance, just a slightly more polite way of saying “you guys are idiots, and you voted for an idiot”? Or is it an expression of a view that citizens need to take an active interest in political life in order to produce good political outcomes? If you say that people deserve a government that, in your opinion, is likely to be bad for your country, then you are  effectively saying that they have lapsed in some vital responsibility or obligation that they owe to themselves and their fellow citizens.

Realistically, it is probably a combination of both of these ideas. This does prompt us, however, to think more clearly about our views on what “duties” citizens might have to be actively involved in politics. Is it fair to view the majority of Australians as too apathetic or unaware to know who (or what) they were really voting for (or about)?

Luckily for us, we already pay a group of people to think about this issue (wasn’t that clever of us?). Political philosophers have been very concerned, in recent decades, with the political role that citizens play within modern liberal democracies. What level and type of civic virtues, they wonder, are required for a healthy democracy? And to what extent is this a responsibility that every citizen shares equally?

Political philosophy and models of civic virtue

Traditional aggregative models of democracy assume that the preferences of citizens are fixed prior to the political process and represent individuals’ economic interests. This is a model that both conservatives and progressives have for the most part rejected in recent decades.

But if this is too ‘thin’ a model for thinking about our responsibilities as citizens, then what would a more fulsome conception of civic virtue look like? Would it require all citizens to show an interest in political life, to talk about politics to their family and friends, or to watch the excruciatingly mind-numbing Leadership Debates that were held before the last election? According to Will Kymlicka (2002: 294-302), political philosophers have provided two typical responses to these questions (I paraphrase his classification of these approaches below and add my interpretation).

The first of these is civic republicanism which seeks to convince us that democratic citizenship is intrinsically rewarding and more fulfilling than retreating to our McMansions to watch the latest episode of Big Brother (how can that show still be on?) or Better Homes and Gardens.

If our contemporary politics is impoverished by the lack of citizen involvement, then the solution is to convince people that active citizenship is necessary and rewarding. This view suggests that our participation in civic life is essential for both the production of a functioning, democratic society, and for our personal development and satisfaction.

Now, clearly many people don’t find political engagement either engaging or important. How would a civic republican respond to this difficult problem? One way that they might respond is to point out that the scale of contemporary political processes makes political participation less enjoyable than it could be. The 1990s saw a  ‘deliberative turn’ in democratic theorising, and a passionate interest among many political scientists for developing smaller scale, deliberative political processes. They suggested that these processes would enable ordinary citizens to participate in discussions about important political issues. This process of public reasoning would not necessarily lead to consensus, but it would increase the quality of political discourse. This would, in turn, improve decision-making processes.

While this is appealing, there are some limitations to this approach. If we see the non-political life as the unfulfilled life, then it is a matter of social justice that all citizens have access to opportunities for fuller participation in public life. However, logistically this would be difficult to deliver. Furthermore, it is not even clear that most, or even a simple majority of citizens, would experience this participation as intrinsically rewarding.

This brings us to the second possibility, the instrumental approach to civic virtue. This perspective accepts that people have different views about whether political participation is intrinsically rewarding. It acknowledges that when we think of what constitutes the ‘good life’ we won’t all be thinking of the joys of sitting through political party sub-branch meetings, and we won’t all be heartily anticipating the prospect of watching Clive Palmer pull faces on ABC’s Q&A.

Having said this, we’d be in a bit of a pickle if no one took an active interest in the shenanigans of politicians, or considered the integrity and legitimacy of political institutions and current spending priorities. The instrumental approach suggests that there is a threshold of civic involvement which it would be problematic to fall below. Below that threshold, it becomes more likely that our political institutions will fall into disarray, special interests will capture government processes, and injustices will become commonplace.

In this context, civic virtue is a balancing act. People don’t have to be politically active all the time, and they don’t have to find pleasure in it. However, they owe it to other citizens to step in when they see power being abused, or when valuable social institutions are threatened. Perhaps this is even a disproportionate responsibility. Those with increased resources, or greater ability to be politically active, might be expected to be more active than others.

What do you think? 

Neither the civic republican or the instrumental approach to civic virtue is perfect.

The republican model requires a high level of commitment from all citizens and suggests that those who aren’t interested in politics are deficient. This is gratifying for politically active types who are looking for a small burst of moral superiority in a time when there is little good news (for progressives at least). But it’s probably not a realistic standard  for the reasons I mentioned earlier.

The instrumental model seems more realistic, but it means that many people will wait until there is a political crisis before acting. In the meantime the political process is dominated by those with an innate interest in political processes, or those who are seeking to ‘capture’ political processes for their own gain. This approach to defining our civic obligations still feels a bit too ‘thin’ and shaky to me.

Our society has increasingly endorsed specialisation in those fields that we rely on for our collective welfare. This works, more or less, for the production of food and the education of children. But is this division of labour appropriate for political activism and participation as well? If so, many Australians would have little obligation to show an interest in political happenings. We would also have to stop saying that Australians get the governments they deserve.


Come on in, the water’s…fine? Or, another political scientist jumps into the blogging pool.

Diver - Picadilly Circus by AKinsey Foto, on Flickr

Those of you who grew up in Australia will know that swimming classes are a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum here. This is where I discovered that it is possible to divide people into two categories:

          • First, those who plunge in quickly, and experience the cold rush of water as a visceral and exhilarating shock to the system;
          • And, secondly, those who hover at the side of the pool, dipping in a toe, and then an ankle and then a knee, until an impatient teacher tells them to “hurry up and get in”.

I am probably more of a cautious “dipper” than an enthusiastic “plunger”. I’m a watchful, analytical type of person who likes to explore all options before committing to a new project. And unlike those early swimming lessons, there is still no extrinsic force which compels academics to blog, or to share what they know with the world in any way other than traditional publishing formats.

Reasons NOT to blog

Indeed, there are many good reasons not to blog, and being the thorough type of person that I am, I have familiarised myself with many of these. For instance, I’m an early career academic moving between short-term research and teaching contracts, so many people advise a certain level of caution. When I posted about starting a website on one of my favourite academic forums a couple of years ago, I was strongly advised by others that there is much to lose and not much to gain from academic blogging. Academic bloggers clearly face a number of perils.

Furthermore, I’m a woman and there’s been much coverage in the blogosphere lately of the sexist insults and generally non-constructive comments that many women face when they seek to contribute to public life.

Reasons TO blog

I thought about all this. I thought about it a lot.

It turns out, however, that my intrinsic motivations to write for an audience outweigh all these (very sensible I’m sure) reasons not to blog. Writing is much more fulfilling, I have discovered, when ideas are written down and discussed in their earlier incarnations. A website will encourage me to write more and share ideas earlier. It will help me think about the elements of my research that might be of interest to a political science and educated non-specialist audience. It will give me more than 140 characters to weigh into current debates on social media. More good reasons to blog are presented here and here.

If now is not the right time to blog, then I’m not sure when it will be the right time. There is no magical point at which risk disappears and my contribution to human knowledge will be lauded by my peers, admired by my acquaintances, and taken as gospel truth by my students (on that last point, I would consider myself a total failure as a teacher if this level of uncritical thinking started to occur).

So, this “dipper” is about to take the plunge.  You can find out more about me and the general purpose of this blog on my About the Author page. As I mention on that page, the purpose of this blog, broadly conceived, is to highlight the role of ideas and ideology in politics.

Focus of this website

More specifically you can expect the following on this website:

  • Posts about my research on Aboriginal Affairs policy, liberal (and neoliberal) government, and the way that governments construct knowledge about citizens. This work will be presented in both its formative and more refined stages.
  • General posts about ideas, ideology and political philosophy, including the work of other scholars that I’m reading.
  • Links to, and sometimes commentary on, what I consider the most interesting or informative analyses of ideas in politics from other writers (not necessarily academics).
  • Musings on teaching, academia, and the practice and method of political science and political philosophy.

If this sounds interesting, then please follow my blog. I promise not to spend all my time complaining about the water being “too cold”. In fact, I’m sure it will be fine once I jump around for a bit.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License Image by  AKinsey Foto