Archive for November, 2010

Not even wrong

November 28, 2010

Nassim Taleb has written a typically clever-clever piece for The Economist – his forecast for “The World in 2036” is based around the folly of prediction.

Institutions and theories that are ‘over-reliant on prediction…hence fragile to unforeseen “black swan” events, will eventually break into pieces.’ His list of fragile and at-risk entities starts with the nation-state and the publicly-listed corporation.

At first I was going to pick out the following tip as the juiciest, and that most likely to be borne out (it seems more likely, at least, than the replacement of fiat money by commodity-backed currency):

Finally, what is now called academic economics will be treated with the same disrespect that rigorous (and practical) minds currently have for Derrida-style post-modernist verbiage.

While he says ‘academic economics’, Taleb seems to be talking more about his usual targets in quantitative finance and risk management: finite-variance models, Black-Scholes, reference-class forecasting, etc. These fit his argument about vulnerability to forecast error. To this group may be added DSGE and other macroeconometric models used by central banks.

Together, each of these involves estimating an expected value x of some variable or state y of some system at time t. Taleb seems to be saying that the difference between these forecast values and the actual observed values is so great that the predictions are worthless: ‘hardly better’, he’s said elsewhere, ‘than random guesses or the intuition of cab drivers.’ They have ‘the empirical and scientific validity of astrology’.

All said, they’re equivalent to postmodern theories that contain no propositions about the world at all.

I would put things a bit differently.

In what passes for its methodological statements, modern orthodox economics places a big emphasis on the testing of theory by empirical means: from the crude instrumentalism of Milton Friedman to the descriptivism of Paul Samuelson. To these have been added more sophisticated Bayesian procedures for model building and parameter estimation.

But the fundamental ideas about how markets and agents work were established – and their validity is evaluated – via axioms and rules of inference, not by observation or experiment. Mainstream economics is thus extremely robust to predictive failure, because it sometimes predicts almost anything.

By the 1970s, post-Keynesians had discovered that the Cobb-Douglas production function, with constant wage and profit shares, ‘will always provide an exact fit, for any data whatsoever’ relating output to capital and labour inputs. As Anwar Shaikh showed, this is a ‘statistical reflection of an algebraic  relationship’, ‘not some mysterious law of production’. Revealed-preference theory is trivially consistent with almost any observed consumer behaviour: ‘if an individual selects batch one over batch two, he does not at the same time select two over one.’ Its relationship to demand theory is also entirely circular. Meanwhile the efficient-markets hypothesis, as its foremost defenders now claim to have meant all along, ‘doesn’t check off easy “predictions”‘, and is compatible with almost any set of prices.

This approach says something about the social role of neoclassical economic theory.

There are “scholarly” or intellectual pursuits, whose real purpose is entertainment, status signalling, disinformation, black propaganda or apologetics, where predictive failure or practical irrelevance don’t matter. The scorn and ‘disrespect’ that Taleb foresees for orthodox academic economics need not disrupt such a role.

Consider: ‘rigorous minds’ might sneer at ‘postmodernist verbiage’, and most of the original practitioners may now be dead. But postmodernism nonetheless maintains a secure niche in the academy, across most disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. Its personnel are constantly replenished: by now we’re into perhaps the fourth advisor-student generation. Its influence radiates outwards into publishing and the media, and from there reaches popular thought. Its stars are Teflon men: ridiculed for intellectual sloppiness or academic impropriety, but sustaining no career damage. Slavoj Žižek, when caught making stuff up, is excused for what’s, after all, just a bit of inconsequential joshing. (Take this recent 250-odd-comment thread at Crooked Timber, where economists and philosophers rushed to defend Žižek from ‘out-of-date’ and ‘racist’ ridicule.)

Similarly, astrology will not go out of business any time soon. Meanwhile the professional agnotology of climate-change denial and industry shilling is a growth profession, based out of well-funded thinktanks.

Has Taleb considered that parts of mainstream economics – the fundamental welfare theorems, policy-ineffectiveness proposition, postulates of downward wage rigidity, as well as his hated asset-price models – have for many decades performed a similar function: convincing the curious that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds? And that ‘practical minds’ haven’t found this to lessen the discipline’s credibility?

If he has, why does he think any of this should change by 2036?


Handy, wot?

November 25, 2010

Here’s something from a ‘media roundtable’ held in Melbourne on 8 November.

Answers come from the US Secretary of Defence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of them in town for AUSMIN talks:

Q: Mr. Secretary, this year we’ve seen China make its claims on the South China Sea, demand that you not send an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea on two occasions, then taking the actions on the rare earth minerals. They reacted so strongly to the Japanese taking custody of the captain who ran the Japanese ship… Will you send an aircraft carrier back to the Yellow Sea whenever you feel like?

SEC. ROBERT GATES: Well, we — let me just say that we believe and have long believed in the importance of freedom of navigation and we intend to abide by international law. But we will assert freedom of navigation, as we have for a long time. I don’t know. Do you want to add anything?

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: The only thing I’d answer is those are international waters and they aren’t owned by China. They aren’t owned by Korea. They’re not — they’re international waters in which we have and many other countries have sailed forever. My expectation is we’ll continue to do that.

Two-and-a-half weeks later:

A US aircraft carrier and other warships are heading to the Yellow Sea in a show of force by Washington to deter Pyongyang from further attacks after North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island in the area.

Of course, Mullen recently told the Asia Society (which I discussed here) how worrying he found Chinese naval activity.

Sizeism! Attack!

November 18, 2010

Wait until some of the fat-acceptance people find out about this.

Here was a typical response, back in 2007, to the New England Journal of Medicine paper by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, which applied network theory to the spread of obesity:

[The] media, in parroting the study’s claims to have documented the “social contagion” of obesity, are fueling the war on fat people by uncritically reporting that “obesity” is contagious. What can we expect next? Quarantine? Apartheid?


What the Christakis-Fowler research actually shows is the social contagion of fat hatred, especially in regard to the way it’s being disseminated and reported.


[We] see this study being used to justify more intrusive public health programs and actions. More fat children being removed from their homes to “save” them from their allegedly fattening parents…More shunning of fat kids and adults, more job and academic and social discrimination.


The first reports of this study indicating “obesity is contagious” (reports assuming, of course, that “obesity” is a terrible thing) brought chilling visions of quarantine, apartheid, and even lynching to some minds. Including mine.

Now there’s a new paper, co-written by Christakis and just published in PLoS Computational Biology, which develops a model for the spread of obesity on social networks. Towards the end the authors briefly discuss the likely usefulness of some hypothetical public-health interventions:

If the spatial correlations [between infected and susceptible individuals] were fixed to be a certain value (for example obese people cluster together due to selection bias in friendships or confounding factors), then this would actually serve to slow infection. Since we do not observe contagion of losing weight, it does not seem like it would be beneficial to have an intervention which broke up obese clusters…[We] can see that the fraction infected decreases with , the correlation of susceptible and infected people. If an intervention actively reduced this number, by isolating or clustering infected people, this could reduce the prevalence…Our results actually suggest that clusters of obese people serve to slow the spread of obesity by reducing social contagion to non-obese others outside of the clusters.

The “responsibility to protect”, Burma and Australia

November 17, 2010

In February 2008 the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was launched at the University of Queensland. Its stated mission was to ‘advance the Responsibility to Protect principle within the Asia-Pacific Region and worldwide.’

The following year, the Australian Foreign Ministry announced $1.8 million in funding for the centre, to ‘contribute to making [R2P] an international norm’.

In August 2008, the Ministry announced a separate $2 million Responsibility-to-Protect Fund for grants to academic institutions and NGOs, to ‘assist in developing an important body of project and research work that will materially contribute to making R2P a reliable factor in international crisis handling.’ Successful applicants from 2009 are here.

Altogether, Canberra plans to spend $4.5 million from 2008-2012 to ‘advance the R2P concept at the regional and global levels, as well as civil society.’

Responsibility to Protect” is a pseudo-concept developed by figures straddling politics and academia, like Michael Ignatieff and Gareth Evans.

Its purpose is to facilitate armed interventions by advanced capitalist states in less-developed countries.

Its debut before a public audience came in a 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. That committee, chaired by Evans, was established by the Canadian Government at the request of Kofi Annan.

It’s worth examining this background a little more.

In a September 1999 address to the General Assembly, the UN General Secretary admitted that NATO’s recent Kosovo campaign had revealed ‘difficulties in applying’ the principle of humanitarian intervention  by which was meant primarily the opposition of Russia and China inside the Security Council. ‘The inability of the international community in the case of Kosovo to reconcile’ their conflicting strategic interests at the UN’s chief war-legitimation apparatus could ‘only be viewed as a tragedy.’

Descriptive excess, perhaps?

Not if we understand the UN’s chief purpose. It is less a source of policy initiative than of validation. That the US could not use the body to obtain ex ante approval for its military action was indeed a colossal failure of purpose.

And, according to Annan, the ‘conflict in Kosovo has prompted important questions about the consequences of action in the absence of complete unity on the part of the international community.’ Stark differences between major states raised the danger of provoking popular ‘distrust, scepticism, even hostility’ to the very notion of humanitarian intervention.

The idea that the world’s most powerful states acted as custodians of humanity’s universal aspirations had been, from the outset, inherently implausible, especially to residents of lands with prior experience of British, French or US cross-border generosity.

The problem was only compounded by public disagreement between governments. Unless the UN could ‘induce States to find far greater unity’, the project threatened to exceed the limits of popular credulity.

The Kosovo experience thus ‘revealed the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century: to forge unity behind the principle’ of human intervention.

‘If the new commitment to intervention in the face of extreme suffering is to retain the support of the world’s peoples’, it was necessary to build a new repertoire of embellishment and euphemism. Humanitarian intervention must find a new rhetorical and conceptual framework ‘if it is to enjoy the sustained support of the world’s peoples.’

The task was entrusted to a panel of legal scholars, diplomats and NGO personnel.

Explaining the concept in a Foreign Affairs article, Evans and his co-author wrote:

The international community in the last decade repeatedly made a mess of handling the many demands that were made for “humanitarian intervention”: coercive action against a state to protect people within its borders from suffering grave harm… Disagreement continues about whether there is a right of intervention, how and when it should be exercised, and under whose authority… The issue must be reframed as an argument not about the “right to intervene” but about the “reponsibility to protect” that all sovereign states owe to their citizens.

Why was it so urgently necessary to legitimize ‘coercive actions’ and secure for the ‘international community’ a ‘right of intervention’?

The Commission’s report did not claim to detect an increased incidence of ‘conscience-shocking situations crying out for action.’ Instead, it suggested that ‘there were heightened expectations for effective collective action following the end of the Cold War.’

Who exactly was so expectant?  Calls for coercive intervention came not from African or Asian victims of repression and starvation, but from North American and European chancelleries, foreign ministries, universities and NGOs.

Thus, contrary to the suggestion that  ‘many demands… were made for “humanitarian intervention”‘, the factors were more supply-push than demand-pull.

And what was the basis for this increased willingness? The Pentagon Defense-Planning Guidance of 1992, setting out US strategic priorities for the coming decade, did not mention genocide, human rights or anything similar.

However, it did state that US ‘strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor’ and ‘preventing the domination of key regions by a hostile power’:

In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil… safeguard our access to international air and seaways… [and] prevent a hegemon or alignment of powers from dominating the region… [It] is of fundamental importance to preserve NATO as the primary instrument of Western defense and security, as well as the channel for U.S. influence and participation in European affairs. While the United States supports the goal of European integration, we must seek to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO, particularly the alliance’s integrated command structure.

But, with US producers accounting for an ever-diminishing share of world economic output, the economic basis for unchallenged primacy did not exist. Strategic might is ultimately founded on industrial infrastructure and an advanced capital-goods sector, and such features were increasingly to be found outside continental North America.

US primacy could only be enforced by military means. Thus from the 1990s successive US Presidents claimed the right to use war as an instrument of state policy, against decades of international law.

But unalloyed truths are not fit for public consumption. So naked imperial aggression was draped in the cloak of benevolence: ‘restoring stability’ to ‘failed states’, ‘regime change’ in ‘outlaw states’, waging ‘war on terrorism’, upholding democracy, providing relief, restoring hope and securing tomorrow, etc.

The historical language of Wilsonian idealism and liberal internationalism was mined for useful material. State Department press releases combined it with neologisms developed by scholars and NGOs. These latter, gratified by the attention, recycled such official pronouncements as accurate descriptions of both the world and the motivations of political leaders. The material then trickled down to lowly activists, via the popular media including TV shows such as The West Wing.

Thus a popular perception was created of the imperial state as moral agent.

‘Humanitarian intervention’ became a watchword of the 1990s, as European and North American state elites sought to expand NATO’s reach eastward, towards the strategic prize of Central Asia.

Similarly, ‘Responsibility to protect’ looks set to become the state-financed mood music of the United States’ drive to ’re-engage in a major way’ in the littoral zone from South Asia to the west Pacific, ‘working in concert’ with Australia and other allies to counter China’s rising economic weight and strategic influence.

With state encouragement  like the funding from Canberra described above  it will enter the language and worldview of NGOs, human-rights activists, and left-liberal politicians.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York (which also acknowledges ‘generous support for its operations’ from the Australian Government) has published two recent policy briefs that discuss how R2P can be applied to Burma.

This wasn’t the first time the country had been raised as a possible target.

Bernard Kouchner is French Foreign Minister, Annan’s choice as administrative head of a newly-cleansed and NATO-occupied Kosovo from 1999-2001, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and perhaps the most famous and longstanding advocate of humanitarian interventions.

In 2008, in the wake of the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis, Kouchner suggested invoking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to force open Burma’s borders, allowing access to NGO aid workers and European and North-American military forces.

His proposal met with disquiet and consternation among some (natural disasters didn’t meet agreed-upon criteria). But it was supported by others (the original 2001 report had mentioned ‘natural or environmental catastrophes’ where states are ‘either unwilling or unable to cope’ among the ‘conscience-shocking situations’ that could justify military intervention).

Madeleine Albright wrote in the New York Times that some observers would ‘defend the sanctity of [national] sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions… but what we need to listen to is the voice — and cry  of the Burmese people.’

The Australian director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland later remarked that ‘there wasn’t at that time a prima facie case for labeling this an R2P issue’.

The seed, however, had been planted.

For example, Burma Campaign Australia describes itself as a national network of ‘communities of Burma living in Australia, human rights activists, trade unionists and aid agencies’.

Its mission includes several demands directed to the Australian Federal Government:

Investigate how the international norm of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) applies to Burma and be operationalised. R2P to ensure [sic]  the effective protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Several Greens MPs at state and federal level in Australia are affiliated with the organization. These MPs include Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon and Victorian MLC Sue Pennicuik, who serve the network as Ambassadors for Aung San Suu Kyi; Scott Ludlam, Senator for Western Australia; John Kaye, MLC in New South Wales, President of the Australian Coalition for Democracy in Burma; and Tammy Franks, MLC in South Australia.

The organization is also supported by “socially progressive” figures in the Australian Labor Party, such as Tanya Plibersek (who holds the inner-suburban seat of Sydney), and by Green Left Weekly, the newspaper of the Socialist Alliance.

To the extent that members of Burma Campaign Australia aren’t conscious allies of predatory imperialism, they are its unwitting instruments.

Girls + Maths ≠ Boys

November 15, 2010

One of the most embarrassing things I have to admit to on a regular basis is that I struggle with maths. I struggle so badly that I suspect I have a learning disability, although I’ve never been diagnosed and am a bit reluctant to categorize my lack of maths skills as such, mainly because it doesn’t really affect my day to day life in the same way that – for example – dyslexia or ADHD affect people living with those conditions.

A recent study I read about in today’s Age has shown that Victorian girls are consistently outperformed by boys in maths at VCE level – in fact, boys achieve better results in all mathematics subjects offered. I can only speculate as to why boys are more successful than girls in these subjects, and I certainly believe the reasons are cultural and not biological or “evolutionary,” as many might argue.  But having completed my entire education in Victorian public schools, and being one of those students who ‘slipped through the cracks’ in every one of my maths classes, I can certainly see how anyone, whether a boy or a girl, might feel completely disinclined to try and learn maths if they constantly lag behind the rest of the class and never seem to be able to catch up.

From Prep to Year 11, I was one of those students who could not catch up. This is despite being reasonably good at everything else – I usually achieved excellent marks in English and aside from maths, I never seriously struggled with any other subjects. If I didn’t have the most coherent understanding of science, I had a keen interest in it and (secretly) loved going to science classes. Mind you, once the science got super mathsy, I lost the thread entirely. Thankyou, Year 10 chemistry!

This is what constantly confuses me about my maths skills – I was a decent student up until Year 11, and an excellent student by the end of Year 12, achieving marks that put me close to the top of my year. How can a student excel at every subject she takes, but not be able to solve basic maths problems? And even now, at the age of 24 and having graduated from uni?

My experience of maths classes in primary and high school was so depressing it still upsets me to think about it. I remember crying during a maths test in Grade 2 because everyone around me was finished and I was still stuck on the third sum. I remember being repeatedly humiliated in Grade 4 while playing a ridiculous game, which involved competing with another student to be the first to answer a sum in front of the class. I was always beaten. One year,when I was about eight or nine years old, I was shunted off to the remedial class with all of the kids who struggled with everything at school (reading, writing, maths, socializing). That might have been alright if it was just a remedial maths class, but it covered everything – I could read at a very high level, had little trouble socializing and could write coherently. I didn’t understand why I had to read books with one word printed on every page when I had a ‘chapter book’ in my schoolbag. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the maths component of those remedial classes made no impact on my maths skills. I continued to struggle in the regular classroom.

Once I got to high school, I was fairly used to being slow at maths, and adopted a sullen, ‘quitter’ style attitude that was apt considering I was a teen. I continued to flounder at the bottom of the maths class, although I compensated by frequently talking back to the teacher and openly laughing at him when he came to school with an eyepatch, after what I can only assume was a cataract operation. Then he got sick and was replaced by a teacher who is now a convicted paedophile. Awesome.

In Year 10, something bizarre happened and I was put in the advanced maths class with all the girls who were good at it. I can only assume that I was placed there because I hung out with girls who were good at maths, or because I was good at everything else and they just assumed my maths marks were an anomaly. Whatever the reason, my teacher soon realized that placing me in the advanced class was a mistake, and I got relocated to the simple maths class. I still couldn’t do the work.

I try to avoid apportioning blame to schools and teachers when students underperform, or have behavioural or social problems. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any other explanation in my instance. Half of my issues with maths stem from the way I was taught – not through discussion, practical and collective problem solving or logical analysis – but by opening a book full of numbers and symbols that meant nothing to me, and were not adequately explained in the book or by the teacher, unless you count a rehash of the same phenomenon with more bewildering numbers and symbols. If it wasn’t the textbook, it was the teacher who drew some graphs and/or triangles on the whiteboard, with the best explanation they could manage in five minutes, then problem solving from the textbook. And if it wasn’t the teacher trying her best with limited time and resources, it was my best friend writing solutions on her eraser and throwing it at me when I was nearly having a break down on the other side of the table during a test.

Once, my Year 10 maths teacher held my hand before she handed back an exam that I’d failed. I guess she felt sorry for me because she knew that I just didn’t get it, but also knew that I wasn’t stupid. This particular teacher did try really hard to help me, but to no avail – I gave up on maths after Year 11. As well intentioned as she was – and she really gave me a lot of her time – my problems were so far advanced by that stage that honestly, I needed to start again from the beginning.

Had teaching methods been more flexible and constructive when I was in primary school, rather than being based on exclusion and humiliation if you made a mistake, and had my maths teachers given a crap before Year 10, perhaps maths wouldn’t be such an issue for me now. I have no doubt that I was a ‘problem child’ with ‘special needs’ when it came to maths. I accept that I will never be as skilled with numbers and logic problems as I am with words and analysis. But it would be nice not to feel so ashamed when I can’t add up a bill in my head, or work out whether the change I’ve been given in the milk bar is correct. The culture of maths education needs to change if students with the same problems as me are to be given a chance at understanding the very basics, and it’s this same culture that needs to be adjusted if the outcomes of boys and girls are to be equalized at VCE level.

More on human-rights imperialism in Burma

November 13, 2010

The Asia Society was created by John D. Rockefeller in the postwar period.

It first aimed to provide the business classes and state managers of the United States with the local knowledge necessary for their new role: Pacific overlord, holder of an anti-communist beachhead in Japan, military guarantor of capitalist property in eastern Eurasia.

Over time, the organization’s key objective has gradually become to facilitate collaboration between the elite classes of North America, Asia and elsewhere, ‘working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia’.

The organization now has a branch, Asialink (a.k.a AustralAsia), at the University of Melbourne, whose stated goal is to ‘strengthen the linkages between political, business, and cultural leaders and decision makers from the Asian region with their Australian counterparts’:

The AustralAsia Centre does this by bringing to Australia access to an extensive network of prominent Asia-engaged individuals built up by the Asia Society over the last 50 years, and by running an extensive public programme of business, foreign policy, and cultural events.

The Melbourne centre hosted a visit last week by the U.S. Secretary of State, involving both an address and vapid Q & A session.

Meanwhile the Asia Society released an update to its report, compiled earlier this year by a task force chaired by General Wesley Clark (former NATO commander of Europe and Democratic presidential candidate), ‘Current Realities and Future Possibilities in Burma/Myanmar: Options for U.S. Policy’.

The original report recommended a combination of economic sanctions and ‘pragmatic engagement’ with military and government officials. This programme included the time-honoured method of cultivating a friendly or pliant national elite  through relaxing travel bans, ‘cultural outreach’ programs, Fulbright scholarships, etc.

Later, with luck, the Harvard Boys could be sent in:

U.S. policy should shift to a second stage if Burmese leaders begin to relax political restrictions, institute economic reforms, and advance human rights… [opening] the way for a much more active role by the United States in assisting with capacity building, governance training, and international efforts to encourage economic reforms.

During this stage, the Task Force recommends the following:

  1. The United States should explore the feasibility of forming a support group with Australia, Burma, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, and Japan, perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations, to provide a mechanism for organizing international coordination and assistance for Burma’s transition, both politically and economically.
  2. […The] United States must be positioned to interact with the elected politicians and civil servants in the new ministries and other government structures.
  3. The United States should prepare to implement measures that will ease the way toward improved economic relations and the eventual removal of trade and investment sanctions.

A first measure is the provision of expert advice. Accordingly, the United States should gradually release current injunctions on and partner with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank to provide Burma with advice on reform.

A second measure is for the United States and other appropriate countries to provide Burma with assistance in economic institution building.

Further down the line, the report recommends that the ‘United States should position itself  to promote security sector reform in Burma’:

[The] United States should prepare to expand bilateral relations with Burma’s security forces and restore some form of security assistance, particularly police training assistance… Military-to-military work could be carried out jointly with Indonesian officers… In the area of police training assistance, the United States could turn to other nations that have national police experience, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom.

The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch sat on the task force’s board; the NGO’s deputy director was on the advisory committee.

One of two principal advisors to the task force was Sean Turnell, Australian economist and strong proponent of economic sanctions:

Changing Burma’s circumstances will primarily be a function of events internal to the country, and at the hands of domestic constituencies that recognise the incentives for change. In the meantime, the rest of the world can best promote these incentives, and best allow their realisation, by promising to reward the eventual emergence of the policies and institutions that underlie our own liberty and prosperity.

In short, the Australian Greens’ declared policy stance on Burma is shared with many powerful friends.

The role of the Australian Greens in Asia-Pacific strife

November 11, 2010

Not naturally curious about the world beyond the core Anglosphere, the Australian political gaze does occasionally drift abroad, bringing some unfamiliar land into sharper focus.

Bumptious, it lacks the breadth of outlook and culture won from wide experience in colonial administration. Such antipodal thought therefore tends to borrow what ideas it has from the imperial heartlands of the North Atlantic.

True as a matter of course for Canberra’s security elite, this holds also for many critical voices on the margins of Australia’s political mainstream. Even the mildest, apparently well-meaning naïf is apt to reproduce generic premises of foreign policy heard originally from the roughest voices in Washington.

One recent local reverberation should be noted.

The US President, on a recent visit to India, played to local ambition and flattered Delhi’s self-regard, encouraging it to strengthen Washington’s cordon sanitaire around China.

According to Barack Obama, ‘we want India to not only “look East,” we want India to “engage East” — because it will increase the security and prosperity of all our nations.’


On the same day, the US secretaries of State and Defense, while visiting Australia, secured the local elite’s commitment to a closer military-strategic alignment against Beijing.

Washington’s two departmental heads repeated plans to ‘upgrade the presence of the United States’ in the west Pacific and East Asia.

Hillary Clinton:

[We] are determined to strengthen and deepen our already strong alliances with countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, to build relationships bi-laterally and multi-laterally with other nations to work through these regional organisations. To solve problems, like maintaining the freedom of navigation and maritime security that is essential to trade and commerce throughout the region.

And on this same day, the Australian Greens, a party that lists ‘peace and non-violence’ among its four ‘core beliefs’, demanded ‘strong action’ (including a full trade embargo) from Australia’s government to promote regime change in Myanmar.

greens assk

Myanmar, just to remind, is the shortest path between China and the Bay of Bengal. It therefore presents an alternative energy supply route to the US-controlled maritime chokepoints through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It’s the site for the new Kyauk Phu and Sittwe container ports, linked by pipeline and highway to Yunnan in southwest China. Offshore sit the Shwe gas fields; farther west are the energy resources of East Africa and West Asia.

In 2007, Indian, US, Japanese, Singaporean and Australian forces staged a massive naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Beijing  ‘concerned’ at what an Indian military think tank called a ‘mammoth war-game in the Bay of Bengal… close to the international sea-routes leading to the Malacca Straits’  ‘sought clarification’ from the participants.

Yunnan itself forms part, with Tibet, of the PRC’s politically vulnerable western frontier; Indian counterinsurgency forces sit permanently poised nearby in Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland.

The highlands of the North-East Frontier, still disputed, provided the occasion for Sino-Indian war in the 1960s.

Today New Delhi and Beijing are hastily constructing road and rail infrastructure to these respective hinterlands.

Control over the hydroelectric resources of the Brahmaptra is a perennial source of contention, recently given ventilation, from the perspective of an Indian strategic think thank, in the Washington Post.

China’s southwest plateau contains the glacial headwaters that furnish the downstream river systems and food production of East and South Asia, ‘an effective bargaining tool and potential weapon’ that ‘gives Beijing enormous strategic latitude with its neighbours.’

tibet rivers

Chinese dam-building in Yunnan spills over the Burmese border: the 6000MW Irrawaddy-Myitsone project is one of seven that will transmit power to Yunnan, as part of Beijing’s regional development program.

The local powers  New Delhi typically backed by London and Washington  have each pursued their regional ambitions by arming and financing respective ethnic proxies, or the central state, in Myanmar’s relentless internal conflicts.

Given these facts, and the proximity of successive events, it would be selling the Greens short to describe their call for the Gillard government to ‘support the genuine democratic aspirations of the Burmese people’ as merely naive and quixotic.

As Clinton and Robert Gates described it, Australia and the US will be ‘working even more closely together’ over the next few decades as the US ‘re-engaged in a major way’ in the southwest Pacific and east Asia, to counter ‘evolving strategic threats’.

Stripped of euphemisms, the US is no longer satisfied with delegating responsibility for the regional ‘arc of instability’  to the Australian ‘deputy sheriff’.

That strategy, employed for several decades, has failed to slow the rapidly growing influence of Petrochina and the PRC in East Timor, PNG, Fiji etc.

Meanwhile unreliable executives in Canberra and Tokyo (Kevin Rudd and Yukio Hatoyama) were both accused of displeasing the State Department by pursuing strategic goals independently of the hegemon. Each leader was dispatched from office in June, and more deferential replacements installed in the local chancelleries.

Regional protectorates thus brought to heel, Washington can proceed with its agenda.

Its new project, given voice by thinkers from the foreign-policy establishment in the capital and Boston, is for a direct re-assertion of US authority, to maintain its position relative to ascending rivals such as China, in the face of competitive decline of the US industrial base, the diminishing regional weight of its ally in Tokyo, and the increasing scarcity of low-cost energy.

Australia will participate  just as it does in the ‘global war on terror’  to maximize opportunities for local firms, protect the security of the latter’s property and investments, maintain regional influence and secure raw-material supplies against Chinese expansion.

Using the above events as an example, the specific contribution of the Greens to this project may be easily stated.

In the first instance, they will publicly oppose the subordination of ‘Australia’s national interests’ (sic) to US aims. Thus the party’s sole response to the AUSMIN meeting was a press release from new MP Adam Bandt: ‘We don’t want US ships.’

The Greens have gained ‘progressive’ credentials, and the support of some Australian voters uneasy with the invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, by criticizing use of ‘the armed services at the behest of President Bush rather than in the direct interests of our nation’.

The party regularly voices lofty opposition, to no practical avail, against placement of Australian troops under US command.

In response to the longstanding, seamless fusion of Canberra’s external stance with Washington’s, the Greens state that ‘[our] troops should be reserved for our own region of the world. We need a foreign policy based on Australia’s relationships with our region and south Asia, not on a White House strategy.’

What does this mean?

Australian military forces, according to Greens leader Bob Brown, should be concentrated in the south-west Pacific (e.g. East Timor and the Solomon Islands) where ‘instability is rife and our defence forces are already stretched.’

The Greens have had no qualms about identifying such a ‘regional’ focus as an attempt to prevent Chinese infiltration of Australia’s sphere of influence.

In a recent opinion piece, setting forth his party’s military and diplomatic priorities, Brown wrote that ‘we are neglecting neighbours in need like Timor-Leste, which is, this week, exploring new defence ties with China! The Greens’ strategy is to have our defence forces personnel at home to secure our own arc of stability.’

Brown has expressed concern ‘that Australia has so much more to do in terms of economic relationships with places such like Fiji and Timor Leste again who are turning to look at what China has to offer.’

Indeed, Brown tends towards unhinged Sinophobia, the latter supplementing his native anti-communism, as in his warning that ‘the communist bosses in Beijing will exert control over the management of Rio Tinto’s Australian mineral resources.’

More broadly, the moralizing idiom in which the Greens discuss Canberra’s security, diplomatic and external affairs itself serves several ends.

It borrows from Washington’s own preferred salvationist language for presenting its imperial statecraft, taking for granted a Western droit d’ingérence that overrides state sovereignty.

Brown’s 1986 speech on the ‘morality of protest’ found a new application from the late 1990s in international affairs.

Canberra was duty bound, as government of a wealthy nation, to intervene across borders for humanitarian purposes:

In Australia we are far too shy to act…

How dare we do so little? How can we be so cold-hearted, so frightened for ourselves, so extravagant in the face of such need?

[How] dare we sell our lives so short as to not grasp our privileged position as individual Australians and get much more involved in the planet’s affairs? How dare we not be protesters? All that is needed for the world to disintegrate is for good people to do nothing.

In the manner of a Bernard Kouchner, no less than Paul Wolfowitz, the Greens encourage a nationalistic faith in the local state as a benevolent force for global good: Canberra can, by undertaking ‘strong action’ with moral purpose, advance the ‘genuine democratic interests’ of downtrodden people in Burma and elsewhere.

Joschka Fischer and his German Greens show the likely outcome of this tendency.

The Greens’ electoral appeal, concentrated in a narrow demographic band, exploits well-meaning features of popular opinion. In the manner of Clinton-era diplomatic self-presentation, it translates power politics into a moral-humanitarian idiom.

Popular feeling, stoked via the bien-pensant opinion column, is thereby gathered behind elite policy goals, granting the latter a potent ideological supplement. The constituency for war and regime change, of otherwise limited size and narrow social origin, is broadened and mobilized.

Thus there is legitimate repugnance among the Australian population for authoritarian regimes such as the PRC, Fijian and Burmese leaderships, and widespread popular sympathy for various oppressed groups and ethnic minorities in these countries and others.

The Greens provide an outlet for such feelings, by suggesting that the ‘international community’ or the Australian state ‘do something about it’, using military and diplomatic instruments — with purity of purpose, of course.

Machtpolitik, with UN support, thus becomes ‘humanitarian intervention’.

The public’s concern is absorbed, then connected to the strategies and concerns of the upper layers of society. An elite project thereby assembles a broader ideological programme with which to attract mass support.

The message of the Greens  with their concern for human rights, ‘his holiness’ the Dalai Lama, Tibet and ‘Lady’ Aung San Suu Kyi is pitched at exactly the right frequency for this task.

This is not to say that the party’s electoral platform will become openly pro-war. A large subset of Greens members and voters are, it seems, sincerely interested in the welfare of people in Burma, Tibet, West Papua etc, and would also seem likely to oppose and resist direct Australian power-projection.

But so long as this electoral base lacks, as it does presently,  a principled opposition to armed interventions by imperialist states, it remains vulnerable to manipulation from above, on the basis of a ‘responsibility to protect.’

Here’s Adam Bandt, MHR, in the parliamentary debate on Canberra’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan:

The Greens do not oppose the deployment in Afghanistan based on any absolute opposition to the use of military force or from any lack of commitment to our troops. We led the call for military intervention in Timor Leste and are proud of the role our men and women played in the struggle for freedom and independence in that country.

Here’s Senator Bob Brown, a few days later, contributing to the same debate:

Australia, a small to moderate nation in terms of international clout, should secure its own region while offering aid through the United Nations to solve greater global problems.  Except in very extraordinary cases, and Afghanistan in 2010 is not one of them, our troops should be available for Australia’s immediate regional security, stability and welfare. We do not underestimate the need for armed services to defend this nation and its neighbourhood.  The Greens urged military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Timor Leste before the Howard Government decided on that justifiable deployment.

The claim by both MPs that Australian military intervention in East Timor aimed to ‘stop the bloodhead’ and secure ‘freedom and independence’ strains credulity.

So, for 30 years Australian governments of all stripes ardently supported the Suharto regime’s annexation, before in 1999 John Howard’s Coalition government stepped in to defend East-Timorese self-determination?

This surely overstates the degree to which Australian government policy in 1999 responded to popular pressure rather than manipulating it. It underestimates the everyday strategic calculations involved: the latter so blindly obvious and universally desirable to elite policymakers that they could remain unspoken, kept safely withheld from public view or media comment.

Canberra’s goal was simply to preserve its local beachhead in an energy-rich outpost of the collapsed Portuguese empire, one with a substantial Chinese minority. (On Beijing’s designs, see this article by the son of José Ramos Horta, a graduate of both the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University and the Pentagon’s National Defense University.)

The Australian envoy Richard Woolcott famously stated in 1974 that ‘a treaty on the oil and gas-rich seabed could be more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor.’ Departmental planners concurred: ‘bear in mind that the Indonesians would probably be prepared to accept the same compromise as they did in the negotiations already completed on the seabed boundaries between the two countries. Such a compromise would be more acceptable to us than the present Portuguese position.’

Minutes published in 2000 record the utter cynicism of the Australian government’s position: ‘The Prime Minister [Gough Whitlam] noted that, for the domestic audience in Australia, incorporation into Indonesia should appear to be a natural process arising from the wishes of its people.’ Whitlam remarked in September 1974: ‘I am in favour of incorporation but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I want incorporation, but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia.’

The subsequent Coalition government later operated with the same motivation, Prime Minister Fraser justifying his attitude thus: ‘The government is being subjected to growing pressure from exploration companies with permits in the East Timor area to clarify the legal status of these permits… the fact remains that Indonesia is clearly the only government which is in a position both to conclude and to enforce an agreement with us.’

Of additional concern was maritime control over key regional straits.

In 1976, after Jakarta’s annexation of East Timor, the Ford and Carter Administrations fretted about deepwater naval routes through the Ombai-Wetar straits.

It was declared ‘essential’ for the passage of ballistic missile submarines between the Western Pacific (and Northeast Asia) and Indian Ocean that these straits be ‘controlled by states with which the United States maintains good relations and working modus vivendi, and which have and probably will continue to permit passage for submerged U.S. submarines’:

The two Indonesian straits, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar, might be closed to unannounced underwater passage of U.S. SSBNs in any case because according to Indonesia’s interpretation of the archipelago principle of enclosed waters, they are considered internal rather than international waters.

On the other hand, the United States seems to have a working arrangement with Indonesia for passage of SSBNs through its straits though the Indonesian government has argued that the archipelago principle does not infringe on innocent passage, it requires prior notification of transit by foreign warships and has raised questions about the innocence of supertanker passage because of the danger of pollution.

In spite of Indonesian jurisdictional claims, the United States maintains that the Indonesian straits are international. According to press accounts and Indonesian sources, however, the United States routinely provides prior notification of transit by surface ships and presumably (if only as a practical convenience) relies on some special bilateral navy-to-navy arrangement for submerged passage, consistent with the requirements of concealing the details of SSBN passage from foreign intelligence.

Although this modus vivendi is rather contingent, it satisfies America’s needs as long as an Indonesian government as friendly as that of Suharto is in power.

In August 1976 Australian newspapers reported that US State Department officials had impressed such concerns upon the Australian prime minister, by way of a ‘blunt warning’, on his visit to Washington.

Indonesia maritime chokepoints

The decisive element in Australian strategic thinking on East Timor had not changed by 1989, 1999 or 2006.

The overarching concern remains to protect the security of property rights of Woodside Petroleum and Santos, and with luck to broaden the reach of domestic firms against competitors like ConocoPhillips, Total, ExxonMobil and now Petrochina.

The only change has come in the language in which such calculations are couched: now it is ‘failed states’, the ‘responsibility to protect’, ‘support for democratic aspirations’, etc. And the chief agent of such rhetorical changes was the man who is pictured below, sharing a toast with Ali Alatas as they fly over the Timor Sea in 1989.

Neglectful of such realities, the Australian Greens will electorally absorb any popular anti-war sentiment in ways that allow the local state to continue its unpopular military expeditions without provoking any domestic crisis of confidence or sapping the legitimacy of the political system and its basic institutions.

The proper vehicle for anti-war opposition, the Greens will explain at rallies and on hustings, must remain federal parliament and the electoral system.

The upshot? In return for the ALP’s agreement to the Greens’ demand for a parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, the party recently promised to support the war’s funding for the next three years.

The emergence as state policy of land rights and “self-determination”

November 8, 2010

It’s well known that, in the late 1960s, the US governing elite, keen to advertise its pluralism, decided to cultivate what Richard Nixon called ‘black capitalism’.

As radical pressures mounted, giving a ‘piece of the action’ to a ‘Negro managerial class’ would, it was hoped, ease social conflict and safeguard the prevailing order. Elite prudence and self-preservation required that African Americans should be afforded ‘full participation in our free enterprise system’.

Shorn of euphemism and uplift, this meant that the enormous popular mass of African-American employees and poor would have to be supplemented, its anger diluted, by co-opting a small but visible and well-promoted number of Black employers and proprietors.

Through ‘the classic means: ownership of business’, a class of ‘Negro entrepreneurs with capital, business training and markets’ would gain a stake in the survival of status-quo institutions.

Office of Minority Business Enterprise 40 years

The activity of ‘militants’, meanwhile, was deliberately to be ushered into the safe channel of Black nationalism. Once there, it would be either suborned by establishment liberalism, or confined to a narrow niche by the endless cell division of identity politics.

Ensuing decades have duly shown the success of this policy, judged on its own terms.

Around the same time, Nixon announced ‘Indian control of Indian programs’, reviving the status of tribes as legal entities authorized to enter into ‘self-determination contracts’ with the federal government.

In 1971, following the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, Nixon’s Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act ‘explicitly re-organized indigenous peoples into corporations composed of shareholders whose rights were based on genealogy, whose traditional lands became private, alienable property, and whose cultural products, a growing proportion of them trademarked under the Silver Hand, were directed toward the market.’

Leaders at the head of local authorities were thus granted administrative powers, control rights in property, and responsibility for service delivery of health programs, etc.

Less attention, however, has been given to a similar project begun around the same time by the Australian state elite.

According to conventional wisdom, acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘land rights’ was a measure of compensatory justice won from the state as part of a movement for ‘self-determination.’

Yet there is plenty of evidence that the emergence around 1970 of new institutional forms, like incorporated land trusts and land councils, was part of a deliberate strategic initiative by Australian state managers, begun during the 1960s, to preserve the status quo.

To that end, a stratum of ‘community leaders’, ‘elders’ and Aboriginal business owners was cultivated, and a limited set of property rights and coercive powers assigned to them.

Barrie Dexter Charles Perkins

A paper by Tony Smith in the Australian Economic History Review (subscribers only; a longer version is available here) is a rare and valuable example of scholarly interest in the topic.

Smith describes the bipartisan project (which he calls indigenous trusteeship) thus:

To arrest urban drift and to deal with emerging social destitution of unemployed station workers and their families, leading Aboriginals were now to be the agents or trustees for their community’s development.

A major plank of this policy would involve recruiting nascent Aboriginal enterprises into organizing and managing labour. Finance and labour would also be provided, and large tracts of land would be ceded to Indigenous individuals and organisations, especially in remote and regional areas…

These areas were to be places for sequestering surplus labour, as well as providing a basis for underpinning Aboriginal enterprises, particularly in pastoral and agricultural production.

The Commonwealth was granted concurrent legislative power over Aboriginal affairs in 1967.

At that time, state managers were preoccupied by both an upsurge of activism and deep changes to the pastoral industry across Australia’s northern half.

From about 1965 onwards, thousands of station hands and their families were expelled from cattle stations in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. This followed the extension of the Pastoral Industry Award to Aboriginal workers, a downturn in beef prices, and labour-saving technical change (motorbikes, aerial mustering).

The social disruption was enormous.

Camps on the fringes of towns, scarcely provisioned with basic infrastructure, became crowded new living areas. Rates of infant mortality, respiratory and digestive diseases – having fallen throughout the twentieth century – suddenly rose again. In Western Australia, convictions of Aboriginal people for offences against property doubled in the course of three years; those for breaches of the Native Welfare Act quadrupled.

The degree of official concern can be gathered from the words of Kim Beazley Snr., speaking in 1967 before the House of Representatives:

[We] flinch from facing the fact that their employment opportunities at the present time are diminishing. The cattle industry has always been an employer of Aborigines, but changes in the working of pastoral properties are steadily reducing the need for a large labour force in that industry. As the demand for stockmen decreases more and more Aboriginal youths will become dispirited and disillusioned unless remedial action is taken. Where Aborigines live on the fringes of towns, in the cities or in the north…[continuation of] the policies of complacency pursued by Australian governments in the past are simply going to generate purposelessness, despair and passivity, or else a socially explosive atmosphere among them… The Aboriginal population at present is an underprivileged, underfed, underpaid, undertrained labour force, increasing in numbers and not closely considered. While we enthuse about the development of our natural resources we make no real effort to draw this force into the process of development. We are allowing social dynamite to accumulate.

Politicians repeated, with a mixture of trepidation and pleasure, remarks made by Charles Perkins to the Sydney Morning Herald:

There is a subversive influence in Aboriginal affairs throughout Australia which is trying to undermine the confidence of the Aboriginal people to cope with their situation, to undermine the confidence of the white community in the Aboriginal people, and by so doing to create a situation of disorganisation which can be manipulated politically.

The following year (1968), a Cabinet submission issued a warning to an Interdepartmental Committee investigating Aboriginal affairs:

Hesitation in formulating a policy could have quite serious repercussions for us, both internally and internationally. Communists are devoting great efforts to capturing Aboriginal organizations, and unless we have an alternative to offer, they are likely to succeed.

The favoured policy response, in the language of the time, was to foster ‘economic independence’ and a layer of Aboriginal people to  ‘manage their own affairs.’

More details were set out in an appendix to the Cabinet submission, on “Encouragement of Newly-Emerging Forms of Aboriginal Society”:

The types of Aboriginal self-help organizations, which it is desired to encourage, are proprietary companies, co-operatives, savings and loans groups, social welfare associations etc.

(a)    It is envisaged that these organizations should register with appropriate State Authorities (e.g. registrars of co-operatives) and with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. It is intended that Special Liaison Officers be appointed to work, preferably in association with State and other authorities, to train Aboriginal groups to form and conduct such organizations.

(b)   It is hoped that in time the elected officers of these organizations might constitute a source of whence consultants and possibly Aboriginal Council members could be drawn.

W.C. Wentworth, who in the Gorton Government became Minister-in-charge of Aboriginal Affairs, spoke before the House of Representatives in August 1967:

I do not think that in the future our Aboriginal people should be treated simply as employees. In common with other Australian people they have to be given the opportunity to take over certain functions of ownership. I do not think a policy which is directed simply at their employment opportunities is good enough either for them or for Australia.

Then there is the development of the reserves that have been kept for our Aboriginal people. Certainly in the north of Australia – I know something of the north – the resreves which are appropriated for them are sufficient to give them a good and rich life. It is not always easy to say how these reserves should be developed. I believe that in some cases they should be developed on a group basis. We have made the mistake, perhaps, in the past of trying to rubbish too much of the Aboriginal organisations as based upon a group concept. In this period of transition, which may be for more than one generation, the group concept could perhaps be developed for the advantage of the Aboriginal people, because it is their concept.

C.E. Barnes, Minister for Territories, delivered a statement to Parliament regarding a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers responsible for Aboriginal welfare, which had been held in Perth during July 1967:

Conference recognised that the advancement of Aboriginals should be considered not only in terms of their becoming wage and salary earners in the community but also in their taking up avenues of self-employment or business undertakings. These developments should be fostered wherever possible. Conference drew attention to the value of the continuing development of individual business and corporate enterprises conducted by Aborigines and affirmed that the further development of such projects would contine to be encouraged.


Ministers noted that considerable attention been devoted to the question of “land rights” for Aborigines during the referendum campaign. A major concern appeared to be that Aborigines should have the opportunity to own or lease land on reserves and they should be given assistance to establish themselves on the land.

This was not idle verbiage. In 1968, Commonwealth legislation created a Capital Fund for Aboriginal Business Enterprises, to ‘enable persons of the Aboriginal race of Australia to engage in business enterprises that have prospects of becoming or continuing to be successful.’ Firms backed by the fund were required to ‘be predominantly Aboriginal owned or have a preponderance of Aboriginal shareholders.’

BG Dexter HC Coombs WEH Stanner

But what Perkins described as a ‘new Aboriginal leadership’ was not merely to be concerned with commercial activities. It also assumed responsibility for administrative tasks, including provision of housing and municipal services.

This layer also took up positions on land councils and trusts, newly created statutory bodies to which communal title was vested. While property was officially held by local populations, council and trust members acted as their trustees or agents.

The latter were thereby conferred with some of the prerogatives that usually make up the private propertyholder’s bundle of rights. They controlled the management of land, negotiated the terms of its use and made decisions regarding its development. Of course, these trustees were legally obliged to act in the interest of the communities on whose behalf they held property titles. And directors were not assigned rights of residual claimancy over the net income generated by these assets.

But a more insuperable case of the principal-agent problem can scarcely be imagined.

Representatives privately negotiated land-use agreements with mining firms and governments (and had responsibility for managing asset portfolios). Beneficiaries couldn’t observe or monitor the performance of trustees or agents, and neither effort nor competence could reliably be inferred from the outcome of negotiations. In the event of an unfavourable agreement of terms, trustees could plausibly claim they secured the best equity stake, lump-sum payment, royalty equivalent, infrastructure provision or ‘community development’ package they possibly could, given the circumstances. Trust beneficiaries, since the native-title group endured in perpetuity, included unborn future generations who, of course, could not issue directions to trustees.

The very purpose of mandating that corporate trusteeship would be the form in which land was held and managed on behalf of native-title owners was, as Paul Keating explained to parliament, to ‘facilitate dealings in relation to the land’, i.e. to allow mining transactions to be undertaken with outside parties, without the mining enterprise having to negotiate with individual members.

Meanwhile the trustee’s right to manage and disburse the group’s funds (e.g. through granting business loans and operating licenses to entrepreneurs and firms) allowed them to nurture patron-client relationships. More generally, they could invest in establishing personal contacts and improving their social status, allowing them to participate in government advisory panels, earn consultancy fees, sit on executive committees, gain directorships and otherwise pursue private benefits.

Aboriginals Benefit Account - royalty equivalents

(See Tirole and Aghion’s observation that, where agents perform such duties independently or behind closed doors, administrative power in an organization effectively confers ‘real’ authority over assets to bureaucrats, in the absence of formal legal rights. The principal or owner, on whose behalf power is formally being exercised, is reduced to rubber-stamping decisions).

It was presumably to paper over such obvious agency problems, whereby trustees of ‘communal property’ became endowed with such clear privileges, that the new policy so readily invoked the unifying notions of ‘community’ and ethnicity. The vast gulf in status, incentives and personal experience between the Indigenous population and its ‘leadership’ was to be bridged by the bonds of traditional culture.

That one concern behind this agenda was the maintenance of social control and discipline can be seen from the following statement of aims by the Woodward Royal Commission (1973) into Aboriginal Land Rights.

The promotion of social harmony and stability within the wider Australian community by removing, as far as possible, the legitimate causes of complaint of an important minority group within that community. The provision of land holdings as a first essential for people who are economically depressed and who have at present no real opportunity of achieving a normal Australian standard of living.

A further consideration was to facilitate investment in e.g. resource extraction without provoking the sort of political disturbance or combustion of ‘social dynamite’ which worried the politicians quoted above. This was helped by the creation among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations of a thin layer of bureaucrats and employers imbued with the same priorities and preferences as state executives and capitalist firms.

Indigenous Land Use Agreements

The West Australian Commissioner of Native Welfare remarked in 1971 on the effects of the new policy of consultation and self-management:

[It] is an indisputable fact that, for the first time, there is genuine consultation between Aboriginals and the government and the hard facts of economic and political reality are being absorbed by an emerging [Aboriginal] leadership… All Superintendents report that, at a regional level, the methods of handling matters of local concern have been immeasurably assisted by the understanding and advice of the Consultative Committee.

These two functions – social control and facilitation of profit – often dovetailed.

A case in point is the career of Ernie Bridge, cattle-station owner and WA State Minister under the Labor Government of Brian Burke. Bridge was a founding member of the Aboriginal Lands Trust in 1972, and later (in 1975) an inaugural member of the Aboriginal Lands Fund Commission.

According to the minutes of a WA Lands Trust meeting in December 1974, Bridge remarked that ‘for some time now councillors from various Aboriginal reserves have undertaken the task of maintaining discipline among their own people… In order for this system, which has proved successful, to continue, Mr. Bridge suggested that perhaps a set of uniforms be provided.’

The not-so-great schlep

November 3, 2010

Not sure why the Democrats couldn’t sustain voter turnout among young people and African Americans. What else do people in those groups have to do with their time?