The Politics of Difference and Equality: Remote Aboriginal Communities, Public Discourse, and Australian Anthropology



The growth of a network of remote communities in Australia's Northern Territory followed the success of an Aboriginal land rights movement in the 1970s. In the course of the past two decades, there have been increasing reports of distress in these communities interpreted differently by anthropologists and opinion writers in the national press, some of the latter of a neo-liberal bent. This article examines critically the position of anthropologists and the relations between a politics of difference and equality as they bear on the position of remote Aboriginal Australians.


In 1998 in Philadelphia, I participated in a panel entitled “Regimes of Truth” convened by Nina Glick Schiller and Antonio Lauria-Perricelli. It was the first time I had spoken on issues concerning remote Aboriginal Australia at a meeting of the AAA. My article this year references that moment and I would like to thank Antonio and Nina, along with Connie Sutton and Don Robotham for conversations in New York that have influenced my work in Australia. Today I return to the topic of that earlier article, but in a different way.1 I propose to discuss that section of Australian anthropology concerned with remote Aboriginal people. Specifically, I am interested in how these anthropologists have engaged with the state and why they seem to have lacked a voice in the public domain. My argument will be that this lack is connected with the nature of Australian or Australianist anthropology in recent decades2; a period in which anthropology has been influenced by land rights policies and their concomitant politics. The research that the state has invited anthropologists to do has shored up forms of ethnography that focus mainly on cultural continuity (the basis of land rights), underplay history, change, and issues of race and inequality. Inevitably, this form of anthropology also neglects the state's central role in Australia's rural and remote economy and, indeed, in the management of difference. Therefore, although anthropologists have helped to secure some indigenous rights, they have failed to critique how Aboriginal people have been positioned by the state and a capitalist economy and how anthropologists have themselves been positioned in this process. As a result, a politics of identity alone has been privileged over equality politics and a more careful account of the state, economy, race, and culture. The outcome has been problematic.

A Workshop on Remote Communities

In 2009, I attended a workshop sponsored by the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia that brought together academics mainly involved in consultancy, NGO service workers, and a few civil servants, both current and retired. I was there as an interested Fellow of the Academy, not as a presenter.3 The object was to discuss the issue of servicing Aboriginal Australians living in very small communities in central and north Australia. The workshop had implications for around 80,000 people who live in larger towns or these small communities—many located on land acquired through land rights. In a major part of this region, known as the Northern Territory (NT), funding has been cut to the small outstations to concentrate services in twenty “Territory Growth Towns” (TGTs). This and other changes, including management of welfare incomes, appointed administrators in many towns, and a requirement that primary education make more use of spoken English, has followed in the wake of a federal Intervention (see Austin-Broos 2009a:238–258). Dating from June 2007, the Intervention came in response to a detailed report on child sexual abuse in remote communities (Wild and Anderson 2007). Made public just before a national election, this report became the somewhat cynical trigger for action in relation to a swathe of statistics on avoidable death, unemployment and illiteracy in remote Aboriginal milieus. The funding focus on TGTs has become a bi-partisan one for Australia's two major political parties; a strategy for service delivery in health, housing, education, and law and order that also provides the economies of scale deemed rational by the state. The towns are now a central plank in attempts to “close the gap” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. In this endeavor, federal government co-operates with the government of the NT where these towns are located. The NT government policy program is entitled “Working Futures” and, as the name suggests, involves efforts to improve employment opportunities for remote Aboriginal people.

Promising as this sounds, the NT Intervention involved suspension of Australia's Racial Discrimination Act (1975). The act was suspended to implement welfare income management (or “quarantining”) so that part of the income is available only for the purchase of essentials, especially food and clothing. The measure was taken as a means of protecting expenditure by Aboriginal women on themselves and their children in the face of demands from men for money to be spent on alcohol. This course was adopted by the federal government only for Aboriginal welfare recipients in approximately 60 NT towns and therefore required suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. Only in 2010 did the federal government move to right the matter with new legislation. This has been carried out by extending a similar form of income management in the NT to all welfare recipients, be they Aboriginal or not! Significantly, Aboriginal leaders and their constituents are split with regard to this measure; some support it and others argue against it as a denial of human rights, just as some supported the intervention and others opposed it. Nonetheless, one might conclude that a focus on Aboriginal identity politics, which brought land rights and self-management, now has been replaced by a focus on economic marginalization or, rather, the social suffering brought by economic marginalization (see Kleinman 2000). Nonetheless, government strategies have been focused on controlling the consumption of those forced to be clients of the state. Rather than addressing seriously structural and more expensive issues of employment opportunity, education and transitions from school to work, the bipartisan policy has become one of seeking to police consumption.

At the workshop, the mostly white service staff from the small communities, and their academic colleagues, therefore had real cause for concern about both equal rights and funding for remote outstations and larger towns. There is an attempt to draw remote Aboriginal people into designated centers, limit government cost, and control remote Aboriginal populations albeit while placing a somewhat greater focus on education and employment. In government pronouncements at least, there is a greater focus on equipping Aboriginal youth to compete effectively in rural and remote labor markets such as they are. Therefore I was struck by an aspect of the discourse sustained at the workshop—its emphasis on localism and separatism to the exclusion of any other types of approach to a daunting historical circumstance. These days, many local administrators use the term “homelands” rather than “outstations” to describe remote communities. The former term is taken to imply a cultural autonomy whereas “outstations” is seen to connote a status dependent on the “mainstream.” As a term once used in the South African apartheid regime, homelands gives me a queasy sense of essentialism and of restriction in a wider world that land rights need not entail. This feeling was intensified in a conversation I had with a youthful service worker. He remarked that the central issue was whether or not homelands would have the “separate development” that they desire, or be forced into the “mainstream” of Australian society. In a discussion on education, another white service worker made the remark that, unless Aboriginal youth had jobs to return to in communities, it was better to discourage them from secondary (let alone tertiary) education. They would either be lost to the community or else return with thwarted ambitions and disruptive behavior. This came in the midst of criticism by one academic of a prominent Aboriginal leader who recently advocated rigorous literacy and numeracy programs along with “orbiting,” or circular migration, for secondary education (Pearson 2009). The final remark that left me wondering about the position endorsed by many anthropologists came as part of an impassioned defense of a resource center in a remote community. Its CEO noted the remarkable array of services for which the center was responsible—the hub so to speak of its local economy. He also noted that the average age at death in this community is 48, for both men and women. He referred to this statistic as reason to strengthen local procedures rather than to re-assess them. In a fashion common in this milieu, he seemed to see high incidence of sickness and death as simply a failure in the delivery of health services.

An apprehension that lifestyle illness and substance abuse in fact might be an integral part of the social suffering caused by pervasive poverty—itself a product of the state's neglect in the face of economic marginalization—was nowhere to be seen (Austin-Broos 2010; Farmer 2003; Trovato 2001). Kymlicka's (1995) views on group rights did seem familiar though, and with them the idea that cultural autonomy and a bounded local community are the answer to the social suffering that is now an integral part of remote Aboriginal life (see Peterson and Sanders 1998). Most importantly, this model promotes economic self-sufficiency with very little emphasis on the human capital required to make links—economic or political—with a larger world. Localism is seen as the answer to conditions produced by structural disadvantage that was not caused by but has been coincident with land rights.

The Limits of a Politics of Difference

The workshop reflected a serious conundrum. Aboriginal homelands have been the corollary of land rights aimed at defending an ancient culture. Propelled by identity politics and backed by government resource transfers, land rights and the homelands movement put people back on country. However, these same Aboriginal groups have been incorporated into the cash and commodity world mainly as underemployed or unemployed participants. A scheme supported by federal government transfers to offer remote Aboriginal people low-waged part-time work has not averted the negative impact on authority structures, education, health, and self-esteem that underlying unemployment brings.4 This is reflected in community distress that would not be so marked if these phenomena had little meaning in an “other” culture. Rather, the circumstance is one in which old and new forms of value conflict to produce a daunting situation for Aboriginal people themselves—a condition that has now unraveled even markedly traditional communities. (There is significant regional variation in remote Australia.) In sum, anthropology, by and large, has chosen to go with a politics of difference or identity but missed the intersection of state governance of a racialized minority with the re-configuration of a rural economy. In the context of collapsing unskilled and semi-skilled employment, the state has offered limited block grants and modest servicing. These measures amount to welfare-ism designed to address a culture that some suggest has little interest in or does not need levels of employment and education comparable to that of other Australians. Anthropologists have based their support for this latter contention on a cultural “otherness” that cannot explain pervasive lifestyle disease, substance abuse, consequent personal violence, and their causes. If remote Aboriginal people are simply “other,” why is there social suffering so marked?

In this context, Australia's neo-liberals have had a field day. Ignominiously, anthropologists have been lumped in with missionaries. Both have been described as “museum keepers” for remote Aboriginal Australia (Howson 2000). Anthropologists have also been accused of apartheid for their commitment to separatism and local solutions (Hughes 2007). These writers, based in private think tanks and in the Murdoch press,5 have produced a portrait of pathology that details male violence against women and children, extremes of male alcohol dependence, very high rates of illiteracy and unemployment; the panoply of postcolony disorder albeit within a settler state. These factors are attributed not to structural conditions, including a state-engineered confrontation of cultures, but rather to the psychologized condition of “welfare dependency.” In turn, this dependent condition is seen to demand that individuals should “pull themselves together” and seek work or further training irrespective of the opportunities available (see also Fraser 1997a). The power of this portrait comes in its omissions; its neglect of cultural difference as well as structural disadvantage. The portrait does not describe Aboriginal ties to kin and country or the allure of majority and first language status that keeps Aboriginal people remote. It does not remark on the different sensibility reflected in the region's fine Aboriginal art now exported around the world. Nor does it note the highly racialised lives of urban Aboriginal Australians, although their employment rates are also higher. In sum, the neo-liberal view, while pointing to a range of socio-economic issues that are real and experienced, singularly fails to address past or present structural conditions or the issue of cultural difference.6

Still these omissions should not deflect from a fact that neo-liberals underline: that young remote Aboriginal people, often illiterate and without resources, are ill-equipped to migrate for work even if they want to. It should be a matter of concern that, in the last decade, comment in the public domain on this issue came mostly from neo-liberal critics who have their counterparts elsewhere—especially in Canada (see Flanagan 2000; Widdowson and Howard 2008). Consequently, I noted with interest the following statement from an Australian consultant anthropologist. He wrote,

I am convinced that our … collective … failure to consider the darker sides (sic) of contemporary Aboriginal life has played its part in creating … sensationalized representation. Of course there are, and were, exceptions among us. But there was a pretty radical disjunct in the 80s and 90s between what most of us chose to write about and what our informal conversations with each other revealed. We KNEW what was happening … But in our complicity with and subtle enforcement of the code of silence, we left the space of analysis … vacated, and it has … been colonized by the likes of the journalists and conservative commentators.7

In sum and as the workshop revealed, anthropologists have focused on difference and on securing Aboriginal land rights. Their commitment to “separation” has positioned them poorly to address marginalization and poverty. In the remainder of this account, I propose to stipulate the space of analysis that anthropology has left (largely) vacant. My remarks concern anthropology itself and the issue of consultancy.

The Space of Analysis Left Vacant

Regarding anthropology: the economic marginalization in remote Aboriginal Australia is not manifest simply as poverty, or even as unemployment. As former hunter-gatherers, Aboriginal people once lived in Sahlins’ “limited good” economy and within a world where the self was objectified in kin and country, not in moveable property or “work” (Sahlins 1972). Throughout the twentieth century, most were held on pastoral stations or reserves in a condition of institutionalized poverty and provided with payment in kind or meager incomes subsidized by the state. Consequently, at the time that Aboriginal Australians were released to land rights and self-determination, they were also, for the first time, fully incorporated into a cash and commodity world that was also the state's welfare economy. As arrivals in a newly commodified world, Aboriginal Australians were diffident consumers with welfare incomes that, at the outset at least, seemed relatively ample. In fact, one dimension of the poverty was a disengagement from the world of work, and cash and commodities, especially as bureaucratic strangers flooded into communities (Austin-Broos 2006; Peterson 1998, 2005). However, this could not last given the very unequal meaning/power relations that prevail between the market society that capitalism supports and a tiny minority milieu in which a separate economy with its forms of value is long passed (and even though some ritual life remains). In many remote communities, ritual has attenuated rapidly notwithstanding the advent of land rights. As a result, remote Aboriginal Australians have been increasingly incorporated into the larger Australian society, economy, and state. This has brought the experience of the anomie produced by life-long under-employment, collapsing local authority and violence, and the illnesses of the poor. These conditions have affected many lives (Austin-Broos 2009a). In 1985, Nicolas Peterson noted the anomaly of inalienable land held by communal title—land rights—in a capitalist society. Given the interest of mining companies in parts of this land, he remarked that land rights for the state was as much a welfare measure as one of restorative justice (Peterson 1985). The state in fact was recruiting private enterprise to assist, with royalties, in financing Aboriginal marginality. At the same time as the state has mediated this Aboriginal involvement in a national and trans-national world, it has also “serviced” Aboriginal people in a way that supports separation. A virulent and violent marginalization has been the outcome of this policy, a product of the state's contradictions and of Australian society's indifference to a racialized minority. The deeply troubling dimension of this situation is that a neo-liberal account denies Australia's history of invasion, the contradictions in state policy that must follow, pathologizes both poverty and cultural difference and seeks a solution inspired by Friedrich Hayek (1944). The compliant state and market society itself are let entirely off the hook.

And now to consultancy: apart from some significant essays by Peterson, from which I have quoted, and my own recently published work, there has been very little discussion of remote Aboriginal life that goes to the history of this circumstance and to the contradictions involved (Austin-Broos 2009a,b; Peterson 1998; see also Beckett 1988). When the Aboriginal Land Rights (N.T.) Act was passed in 1976, it had significant implications for anthropologists working in the NT. Many became involved in the support of land claims in which the principal objective was to establish continuities in “spiritual” affiliations to country. There was a boom in anthropological debate and modeling that revolved around issues of ritual, tenure, and relatedness with less and less on the foraging economy although Aboriginal people were still described as “hunter-gatherers.” The ambiguity in this situation is exemplified in Maddock's (1982:29) remark that “Aborigines idealized the country and their relations to it through their religion. Rite and myth—and the information stored in them—can stay alive after the hunter-gatherer economy has collapsed,” but not unless that rite is repositioned in a different social order (see also Wolfe 1999:178). A bounded model of Aboriginal culture was sustained long past its use-by date presenting, on the one hand, a picture of separate homelands and, on the other, an exaggerated view of the differences between Aboriginal peoples in the NT and those in south and east Australia. Anthropologists consulting on service delivery to the homelands saw it as their task to defend and advocate for these bounded, separate cultures with little acknowledgement of the fact that who remote Aboriginal people are today is, in part, a product of state-managed difference and of the way in which capitalism has unfolded in rural and remote Australia.


Anthropology's central form of engagement has been either in constructing models of culture that emphasize continuity and boundedness for land rights, or in advising on service delivery to this imagined whole (see Austin-Broos 2011). These consultancy roles have been pursued at the expense of a critical anthropology that gives due weight to both political economy and cultural difference and to the state's role in mediating these dimensions of remote Aboriginal lives. The politics of difference has been privileged to a degree that almost entirely overlooks poverty and equality politics (see also Fraser 1997b). The point to be drawn from my sketch of the workshop is that anthropologists should not foreclose on the degree of localism in their lives that remote Aboriginal people actually want. Views on this will vary from community to community and, within them, from family to family. Moreover, the matter is a moving target over time. Nonetheless, it is clear that for many Aboriginal people there currently exist quite extreme costs for remaining local, whether this is due to enduring cultural difference or to a lack of capacities to move or some combination of both. In addition, anthropologists should not assume that cultural difference means boundedness. In fact, maintaining small regional socialities requires quite elaborate and sophisticated forms of investment, and diverse chains of exchange both of goods and services. The answer to the problem of marginalization in a global economy is not simply re-asserting the local when the foundations of that local order have already been significantly undermined by the intersection of economy and law that settlement brought. Correlatively, the future of cultural otherness lies not in simply re-asserting the local but rather in different specific ways to be different within a trans-national milieu (see Robotham 2005:125, 135–141). Rather than meeting this complex situation with silence, anthropologists need to acknowledge it by giving equal weight in their reflections to those who wish to remain and to those who might go—for a shorter or a longer time. This is an easier matter to address once Aboriginal difference in its variation from place to place is seen for the post-invasion product that it is, mediated by the state and an indifferent (racist) society. Not embracing this form of engagement left a space in Australian debate that was filled by neo-liberalism.


  1. 1

    In 1998, the title of my article was “Equality and Difference: How Service Delivery to Aboriginal People is part of the Politics of Difference.” This article began a line of interpretation in my Australian research that followed on twenty years of research in the Caribbean. My experience in the Caribbean influenced my interest in race and marginalization in Australia. The details of the panel were as follows: “Regimes of Truth: Anthropological Authority, Structures of Power and the Study of Population.” Organizers: Nina Glick Schiller and Antonio Lauria-Perricelli. 97th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia PA, December 2–6, 1998. My Australian research has produced two books one published in 2009 and one currently in press. I list them in the references. Naturally, my ideas have developed in the interim. The position I took in the initial article foreshadowed but is not the same as the one recorded in recent publications.

  2. 2

    This article discusses Australian anthropology only as it pertains to remote Aboriginal life in central and northern Australia. Plenty of other Australian anthropology does not concern indigenous peoples in Australia or elsewhere. I will continue to use the term “Australian” anthropology rather than “Australianist” which is clumsy, but with this restricted reference.

  3. 3

    The workshop, held in 2009 at the Australian National University (ANU) was chaired by Professor John Altman who, at the time, was also head of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research located at the ANU. I discuss the Centre's relevant research in Austin-Broos 2011. The comments cited in this account of the workshop were definitely not Altman's although his Centre has focused on “community-based” development to the exclusion of labor market and human capital approaches. This emphasis fosters a marked degree of localism in discussion about remote Aboriginal communities. These ideas are linked in turn to reified notions of bounded cultural difference.

  4. 4

    Discontinued in 2009, this scheme was known as Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP).

  5. 5

    I refer here to Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd., owner of The Australian newspaper, Australia's sole national daily. Elsewhere, News Ltd. is better known for other news media, including the UK News of the World and Fox News in the United States. Prior to taking U.S. citizenship, Murdoch was an Australian citizen.

  6. 6

    Unfortunately, two anthropologists who have sought to respond to this view have also ignored structural factors. As a consequence, they locate the source of “pathology” in corrupted traditional culture rather than in welfare dependency. This does not forward the discussion (see Martin 2008; Sutton 2009).

  7. 7

    David Martin on the Australian Anthropological Society email list, Sensationalism (the suffering child) October 22, 2009.