Category Archives: Politics

Visiting Gunditjmara country

Visiting Gunditjmara Country

I recently returned from one of the most mind-opening trips on which I have ever been: a visit to Gunditjmara country in western Victoria (pink territory, bottom left on map).img_0024

Along with nine other members of the University’s executive, I got to spend two days meeting with both elders and young people, being shown around their traditional lands and hearing their stories. The visit was undertaken as one small, but significant, component of the University’s intensifying commitment to the national need to advance the cause of reconciliation.

Reconciling the hopes and narratives of the first inhabitants of a land with those of the people who came later is a major challenge almost everywhere the issue exists. In Australia we still struggle mightily with it. This university has recently taken major steps to intensify its efforts to accelerate the process of reconciliation. And the inspirational Stacey Campton who heads RMIT’s Ngarara Willim Centre is a powerful catalyst for action and optimism.

Our visit was deeply moving. All of us were emotionally affected by accounts of the tragedies and suffering that followed the arrival of European settlers. Perhaps the most graphic episode of this was the massacre of Aboriginal people in 1834 following a clash over rights to a whale harpooned by settlers and brought ashore to a beach just outside Portland.

Also striking were accounts of the harsh realities of life for Aboriginal people forced to live on missions, such as the Lake Condah Mission (opened in 1867). And yet harsher still were the realities of life for those excluded from the missions and other sanctioned settlements. Having sorrowfully outlined the hardships and enduring consequences of mission life, Gunditjmara elder Auntie Maude went on to say “But if it wasn’t for the mission, we might not have survived at all.”

Our discussions were not all about past tragedies and their enduring consequences. We also learned about fullsizerender the remarkable remnant stone dwellings and sophisticated seasonal stone fish traps in Gunditjmara country – a surprise given the conventional wisdom about the nomadic existence of Aboriginal people in Australia (see story and recontruction).

I was especially interested to learn how the local Aboriginal community centre, Winda Mara, is structured as a company and operates to provide local health and welfare services and help launch Aboriginal into labour market. This challenged some of my preconceptions. Meeting the young men and women working at and with Winda Mara, and hearing their stories and outlooks on life was a source of hope and optimism for a better future.

Running through everything in our visit to Gunditjmara country were the intertwined issues of race, identity and the possibilities of reconciliation. For me, perhaps the most powerful comment of our visit was the stark declaration of visiting elder, Uncle Mick (himself a survivor of being stolen or kidnapped from his parents at an early age): “There is only one race on this planet, and that is the red-blooded human race.”
I left Gunditjmara country with whole different outlook. Certainly I have a much sharper appreciation of the suffering Aboriginal people have endured, but I also have a clearer sense of hope and possibility.

Let me give the last word to my wonderful colleague, Stacey Campton. In a short clip, she spoke with me in a moving way on the shore of beautiful Lake Bridgewater, and we ended on a theme to which I will return: how we hold together the imperative of embracing Uncle Mick’s injunction about there being only one human race, with our desire for also belonging to particular cultures and communities.


Judging governments

Evaluating the record of achievement of a government is deceptively difficult. Too often such assessments make insufficient allowance for inherited starting conditions, the impact of circumstantial events or do little more than reflect one’s underlying political views.

A more subtle challenge is overstating the significance of government action — for good or ill.

As the pungent 18th century English commentator, Dr Johnson, memorably put it:img_0019

Of all that human hearts endure, how small that part, That laws or kings can cause or cure

This past week, many people have been reflecting on the record of Barak Obama’s two-term administration. Among the thoughtful pieces I’ve read, the one that impressed me most was Martin Wolf’s assessment of Obama’s economic legacy.

Wolf is a globally influential journalist with the London-based Financial Times. He starts out by emphasising that Obama came to office in 2009 in the depths of the Global Financial Crisis with the US economy in free fall. This was not of his making and, equally, the remedial work was not all his doing (the Bush administration had already begun the task).

Nevertheless, the Obama administration took decisive action with a strong fiscal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), backed the stabilising influence of the Federal Reserve and rapidly stabilised and re-booted both the financial and auto industries.

On the negative side of the ledger, he failed to make any significant inroad into the dramatic worsening of economic inequality in American society, he did nothing to arrest the long term decline in male participation in the workforce, labour productivity fell steeply while he was in office and he did not pursue the companies and individuals whose extravagance or malfeasance ignited the crisis with any great vigour.

As in most other domains, the power of government over a modern economy is easily exaggerated. But in times of crisis – when confidence is the most precious commodity – governments are more consequential than usual. Wolf’s summary judgement that Obama’s administration succeeded in rescuing the US economy and laying a solid foundation for those who came after him, is one I find persuasive.

Leaping and mounting: China’s changing political economy

A recent article by leading US-based China scholar, Dali Yang, tells a powerful story about the evolution of China’s political economy. The outlines of China’s truly spectacular economic progress are familiar: it has been leaping forward to become the world’s second largest economy in the world, to have the largest foreign reserves and the second largest defence budget.

The political consequences of this economic change are less understood. Among an array of great insights, four points stood out of Yang’s essay for me.

First, one in seven of China’s richest people are delegates to the National People’s Congress or members of the Consultative Committee of the Communist Party. Who would have predicted that the Party would so spectacularly become the “handmaiden for wealth accumulation by capital and families of the party elite”?

Second, there has been a massive expansion in the number of young Chinese accessing higher education. Not counting those who studied abroad, in 2014 more than 7 million students graduated from local tertiary institutions – more than ten times the figure for 1990 and at least two and half times a comparable figure for the United States.

Third, with the rise of local stations and the explosion of digital media, viewership of prime time news on CCTV has dropped dramatically, especially among the young.

Fourth, notwithstanding increased popular support for the country’s political leadership under Xi Jinping, more educated people trust the government less (even in the countryside).

As Yang puts it in closing, authoritarian developmentalism is not a stable equilibrium. He doesn’t mean that the CCP regime is currently unstable, but it does mean we need to be clear-eyed about the mounting challenges of sustaining CCP rule in the face of a slowing growth trajectory and rising expectations among a citizenry that has access to more information and is asking more questions than ever before.

China’s particular circumstances are unique, but the social and political challenges unleashed by sustained economic development are anything but. You can read Yang’s full argument here; it’s well worth it.