Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Effect of ‘Disempowerment’ on Aboriginal Suicide

Empowerment means giving someone the authority to act. To ‘disempower’ is to remove that authorisation. However, it has come to mean that a person has no sense of confidence in his or her ability to make decisions unaided. If power is intended in its political, or Weberian, sense of a person being able to exert his or her will
in competition with others, then ‘disempowerment’ can, at a stretch, be taken to mean ‘powerless’, or the condition of powerlessness.

There various categories of suicide which may arise from this sense of powerlessness. The desire or the need to express autonomy, or ‘selfhood’, for perhaps the only time in their lives—even, or only, by the act of suicide—is a possible explanation for some forms of self-destruction. I also discussed existential suicide, embracing as it does the notion of hopelessness and futility.

In the broader sense, there is communal ‘disempowerment’. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the late Professor Charles Rowley and I declared that what Aborigines needed was ‘more lawyers and fewer welfare officers’. We meant that legal recourse, to discover and recover rights, was a better avenue than the ‘welfare’ model, and the best way for Aborigines to go forward was to protect themselves by forming associations or corporations with distinct artificial legal personalities. The legal cocoons provided by incorporation would make the ‘naked individuals’ less susceptible to treatment meted out by government agencies. Western society has always had greater respect for corporate power than for individual rights. Thus, we argued, there could well be greater respect arising from contests initiated by ‘organisation’ people rather than from conflicts waged by individual men and women.

From the early 1970s, Aboriginal groups began their systematic incorporation as legal associations. By 1996, the National Directory of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organisations occupied 511 pages, subdividing land rights and councils; community groups; community aid groups; housing and accommodation bodies; women’s groups; pre-schools and day-care centres; employment, education and training organisations; and legal and civil rights associations. The Directory is incomplete, but New South Wales has at least 108 land councils, 50 community corporations, 62 housing associations, 22 women’s group associations, 34 health corporations, 35 pre-school bodies, 43 educational and training associations, and 25 legal aid and/or advice bureaux. A safe figure is 400 corporations, servicing a population of about 109,000 people(producing a somewhat absurd-looking statistic of one corporation per 272 people).These are in addition to the services provided by the regular governmental agencies.

It seems that Rowley and I were wrong in one unexpected sense. The plethora of associations has led, not to ‘empowerment’, but ‘disempowerment’. The associations, albeit with detailed mission statements and articles of incorporation defining their reasons for being, compete for a share of what they call ‘the money bucket’. That bucket is finite. Jurisdictions or agendas often overlap. ATSIC and other authorizing bodies are reluctant to refuse requests for association status, and all too often one clan decides it wants to form an association because of factionalism. Either because of unintended and unforeseen reasons, or, as some Aborigines would have it, for ‘divide-and-conquer’ reasons, these associations can be divisive rather than cohesive, antagonistic rather than co-operative, ‘jealousing’ rather than moving forward.

The structure of Aboriginal corporate bodies causes additional problems. They are based on a Western, legal template for corporate organisation, with agendas, meetings, quorums, minutes, presidents, vice-presidents, treasurers, auditors. It is alien template that has been imposed, as such structures are rarely consonant with (what were) traditional methods of decision-making. Those in positions of power claim they have neither the time nor the patience to construct more culturally appropriate mechanisms. However, the essentially assimilationist philosophy—which insists that the ‘colonised’ accommodate to metropolitan models and values—has long bedeviled Aboriginal administration.

Deloria argues that American Indian corporations are the new tribe, one that should aim at ensuring as beneficial a life as possible for its members. He sees it as a ‘technical weapon by which Indian revivalism can be accomplished’. Importantly, ‘at the same time it is that element of white culture closest to the tribe and can thereby enable it to understand both white and Indian ways of doing business.’ Aborigines, like Amerindians, can absorb the corporation ‘as a handy tool for its own purposes’. I agree. But the sadness is that most corporations are still too heavily engaged in ‘fortress’ activity, of meeting deadlines set by white agencies and of beating off financial investigations.

The other sadness is that Aboriginal children are rejecting the corporation life. These are the children whose parents occupy senior, paid positions. These youth are children of literate parents: yet many demonstrate their preference for illiteracy, and for not following parental footsteps and progress up the mobility ladder. Several young informants said they hatred the in-fighting, the power play, and the internecine strife involved in this corporation world. For these young people, this alien world of power, prestige, income, status and skill is to be avoided.

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