Rethinking Social Justice: From Peoples to Populations

Rethinking Social Justice: From Peoples to Populations

by Timothy Rowse


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In the early 1970s, Australian governments began to treat Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as “peoples” with capacities for self-government. Forty years later, confidence in Indigenous self-determination has been eroded by accounts of Indigenous pathology, misplaced policy optimism, and persistent socio-economic gaps. This record accounts for this shift by arguing that Australian thinking about the Indigenous is a continuing, unresolvable tussle between the ideas of “peoples” and “population.” Offering snapshots of moments in the last 40 years in these tensions are palpable—from honoring the heritage and quantifying the disadvantage to acknowledging colonization’s destruction and projecting Indigenous recovery from it—this book not only asks if a settler colonial state can instruct the colonized in the arts of self-government, but also how could it justify doing anything less.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781922059161
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press
Publication date: 11/01/2012
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Timothy Rowse is a professorial fellow at the University of Western Sydney, who has also taught at the Australian National University, Harvard University, and Macquarie University. He is the author of Divided Nation?, Indigenous Futures, and Obliged to be Difficult.

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Rethinking Social Justice

From 'Peoples' to 'Populations'

By Tim Rowse

Aboriginal Studies Press

Copyright © 2012 Timothy Rowse
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-922059-17-8


Recognising 'Peoples' and 'Populations'

Are Indigenous Australians — that is, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders — 'peoples' or 'populations'? Perhaps the reader is puzzled by this question: what's the difference? As long as we acknowledge Indigenous Australians as people — that is, as human beings — why does it matter whether we refer to them as peoples or as populations? In this commonsense view, the phrases 'Aboriginal people of Australia' and 'Aboriginal population of Australia' mean the same thing. In this chapter, however, I want to argue that 'peoples' and 'populations' are significantly different concepts, and that when we refer to Aborigines (or Torres Strait Islanders) as a 'people', we are thinking about them in a specific way that is not the same as referring to Indigenous people as a 'population'. In this 'people'/'population' distinction, we find a subtle but important struggle in the politics of recognition.


Recognition matters, and it is political. In the emergence of Indigenous peoples as a global political presence, 'recognition' by others is complementary to Indigenous peoples' declarations of their own survival and ongoing needs and rights. For much of the twentieth century, non-Indigenous Australians recognised Indigenous Australians in ways that diminished them. Aborigines (a term often used as if it included Torres Strait Islanders) were not only a tiny minority; they were also a fading presence — demographically and culturally — in an ethnically 'white' nation. For much of the twentieth century, to the extent that they were 'recognised' it was as objects of humane solicitude, soon to be gone, 'absorbed' or assimilated. In the 1960s, that confident and sometimes regretful scenario lost credibility among thoughtful non-Indigenous Australians. They began to realise that Aborigines were not dying out; that even those with some 'white blood' identified as Aborigines; that they were aggrieved about how they had been treated; and that they were proud of their heritage. In a series of shifts in public perception — recently narrated with scholarly detail by Russell McGregor — non-Indigenous Australians began in the 1950s and 1960s to recognise Indigenous Australia in new terms. Starting in the late 1960s, reformed Indigenous affairs policy encouraged Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to maintain separate identity and to establish or maintain certain institutions; in the 1970s, they were allowed to own (according to Australian law) some of the land that they regarded as belonging to them by custom and tradition, and the Australian government initiated several inquiries into the possibility and desirability of recognising 'Aboriginal customary law'. One way to understand this transformation in non-Indigenous perspectives and practices is to see it as amounting to 'recognition' of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as 'peoples' with their own legal and governmental heritage.

Recognition is multiply constructed. The recogniser sets certain terms in which the recognised can become visible, and the recognised have an incentive to present themselves in these terms, resulting perhaps in changes to the ways in which they act and view themselves. Recognition is a more or less collaborative construction of new political subjects (it can be tense and agonistic). Recognition is multiple because states are complex assemblages of diverse practices of knowing and governing. When a settler colonial state such as Australia begins to 'recognise' Aborigines, it has more than one way to go about it. Elizabeth Povinelli has shown how the state's 'recognition' of the Northern Territory's Indigenous population as people with rights to land has turned out to be not necessarily a coherent ensemble of processes. Povinelli writes of the state's multiple production of Aboriginal subject positions — that is, laws and policies open up more than one way for Aborigines to present themselves as people with a plausible claim. 'We have here ... a set of incommensurate, though often mutually referring, state regimes sitting alongside a set of incommensurate, though often mutually referring, local social regimes.' Povinelli has investigated some 'local social regimes' in the Northern Territory. My task is to work at a more 'macro' level, tracing the history of two modes of recognition that have emerged in Australian public policy since the late 1960s. I will highlight the distinction between being recognised as an Indigenous 'population' and being recognised as an Indigenous 'people'.

The significance of the people/population distinction

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has published two covenants on the rights of the Indigenous: Covenant 107 (1957), known as the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention and Covenant 169 (1989), known as the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. The replacement of 'populations' by 'peoples' is understood to signify a shift in political vision. In 1957, the vision was 'assimilationist': the authors of Convention 107 assumed that eventually the Indigenous would be absorbed peacefully and equitably into the nation that ratified the Convention. In 1989, the authors of the Convention assumed that the Indigenous would remain indefinitely a distinct collective agent within the nation. The dimensions of that abiding distinction between nation-state and Indigenous people were to be some mixture of the cultural, the political, the territorial and the economic. Whereas an Indigenous population would one day disappear, as its individuals and households assimilated into the wider society and were counted as part of the national population, an Indigenous people would remain a lasting interlocutor of and within the nation — with a distinct identity, heritage, institutions and land base. Indigenous leaders have insisted to international forums that the key term in the discussion is 'peoples' and not 'populations'. In the 1994 session of the UN's Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, a Native American delegate protested at a US government official's use of 'population'; 'people' without an 's', 'tribes' and 'tribal': 'We are not populations, people or tribes or bands. We are not gaggles of geese or packs of wild dogs. We are peoples and nations.'

The rhetoric of Prime Minister John Howard (1996–2007) made me think again about the significance of this distinction between being a 'people' and being a 'population'. Howard contrasted 'practical' reconciliation with 'symbolic' reconciliation, and for a while he used these terms as if one had to choose between them — or at least to prioritise them. Howard insisted that his goal was 'practical' reconciliation: the equalisation of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in respect of a suite of socio-economic indicators of employment, health and educational achievement. As each Indigenous individual or household improved in terms of certain socio-economic indicators, the gap between the average (or mean or median) Indigenous individual and the average (or mean or median) non-Indigenous individual would close, until the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations had the same rates of mortality, employment, formal schooling, and so on. By offering this vision of a just society, Howard disdained — or gave a distant second place to — what he called 'symbolic' reconciliation, meaning that he dismissed or treated as relatively unimportant all those claims that Indigenous Australians were making about their rights as a people — such as their right to govern and represent themselves and to own land collectively.

When Howard spelled out what 'practical' reconciliation meant, he drew on statistical representations of Indigenous Australians — the statistics of their socio-economic disadvantage; that is, he was referring to Indigenous Australians as a population. In his distinction between 'practical' and 'symbolic', he gave priority to thinking of Indigenous people in terms of their population characteristics, and he discounted their collective rights as the Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander 'peoples'. It is one thing to represent the Indigenous as a population — as a category of individuals and households enumerated in a Census or survey — it is quite another thing to represent the Indigenous as a 'people' (or as two 'peoples'). A 'people' can plausibly be represented as a rights-bearing entity defined by its self-conscious organs of collective agency; a 'population' is merely a category within a nation's official statistical account of millions of individuals and households. An Indigenous population will be made up of rights-bearing individuals (citizens), but a 'population' is not a bearer of a collective right; a population is not even a collective agent, just an artefact of the administrative imagination.

We might suppose that an Indigenous people that aspired to self-determination would insist on representing itself as a people and be wary of being represented as a mere population. However, in Australia and New Zealand, Indigenous intellectuals represent Indigenous collectivity in both the idiom of people-hood and the idiom of population. For example, Indigenous and other intellectuals use official statistics to give persuasive accounts of a recurring pattern of socio-economic disadvantage; this descriptive account of social injustice informs the 'Closing the Gaps' policy. Many Indigenous intellectuals who want the various gaps to close also want to present Aborigines as a 'people' with collective rights. Noel Pearson wrote in 2007: 'The Indigenous Australian struggle is for socioeconomic advancement and equality, but it is also about the recognition of status and rights as a people. The goal here is to preserve and win legal recognition of cultural distinctness as well as citizenship. Indigenous Australian political issues are "people-hood issues".' In his 2012 Gandhi Lecture, Patrick Dodson, while regretting that Indigenous Australians were being 'defined in the language of disadvantage and gaps, portrayed in the media as impoverished welfare mendicants who were incapable of uplifting ourselves from a state of disadvantage, dependency and social malaise', affirmed that 'parity' should still be one goal of policy; thus he lamented that Australia had been 'incapable of lifting the vast majority of Indigenous people in this country to anywhere near parity on any social indicator with non Indigenous Australians'. However, Dodson called for reconciliation to be pursued in both 'practical' and 'symbolic' terms. The 'symbolic' politics to which he devoted much of his Gandhi Lecture focused on changing the vocabulary by which the Australian Constitution refers to Indigenous Australians — as he put it, 'how to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Islander people and their unique place in the nation, and provide the Commonwealth with the power to pass laws for us without resorting to outmoded identifiers such as race'.

Indigenous intellectuals are not inconsistent if they use both the idiom of population and the idiom of people-hood. However, one argument of this book is that the effect of employing two idioms of representation — 'population' and 'people' — has been to install within Australian political culture (and Indigenous political discourse) two distinguishable notions of social justice. The idiom of 'people-hood' implies that social justice comes from a resolution of differences between political entities, between peoples; in the idiom of 'population', there are not two (or three) peoples, there are many individuals and households within an Australian population categorised by self-assigned 'race' or 'ethnic identity', and the task of social justice is to ensure that the inequalities among those individuals and households do not correspond to such characteristics as their self-identified 'ethnicity'. The social justice agenda of relations between peoples is about their respecting, via a political negotiation, each other's standing (operationalised in laws and institutions); the social justice agenda of relations within a national population is to realise the liberal ideal that socio-economic inequality should not be the result of some kind of discrimination, such as racial discrimination.

Thus we have two modes of recognitions, two notions of social justice and two distinct perspectives in the politics of Indigenous affairs. Both 'people' and 'population' are important and necessary idioms of Indigenous self-representation and state recognition, but we will understand the politics of our times better if we bear their difference in mind. In the remainder of this chapter, I will sketch the history of the recognition of Indigenous Australians as 'populations' and as 'peoples'. While 'population' is an inadequate idiom in which to encompass all the things that make Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders 'peoples', the 'people' idiom also has problems that make it vulnerable to the rival cognitive authority — official statistics — of the 'population' idiom.


The 'recognition' of Indigenous Australians as a 'population' could easily be taken for granted as merely a technical achievement. To grasp the significance of this 'recognition', we must first concede that an Indigenous population is not a natural fact that the colonists must recognise; colonial authorities have choices about whether to count 'Indigenous' people and about how to define them as sub-groups of the national population. Because the Australian colonies passed special laws to control Aborigines, it was legally necessary to define 'Aborigine' and it was administratively rational to count them. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, most Australian jurisdictions were recording what they thought to be the absolute size and the sex composition of the Aboriginal population. The colonies began to record the ages of Aborigines in different years (Victoria from 1871, New South Wales and Western Australia from 1891, Queensland from 1901, and South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory from 1911). From 1860 to 1905, as each colony began to form a specialised administration and statutory regime through which to govern its Indigenous population, two other features were noted: the racial character of Indigenous people (differentiating 'full-bloods' from 'others' who were of mixed Aboriginal and European parentage) and their relationship to administrative control. There were two variables within 'administrative control', and each jurisdiction made use of at least one of them. The Indigenous population could be recognised as subject to enumeration or imagined as living beyond enumeration — a distinction sometimes conveyed by the distinction between 'settled districts' and regions that were beyond colonial settlement and administrative reach. The other 'administrative control' variable had to do with differentiated institutional authority: whether or not Aborigines were 'in employ', or 'under the Act', or living within reserves and government institutions.

When the Commonwealth government began to standardise the six Australian colonies' Indigenous statistical archives in the 1911 Census, it adopted the practice of the Western Australian 1901 Census of enumerating Aborigines if they were accessible to ordinary enumeration procedures; assuming those not enumerated to be 'full-bloods' and estimating their number; including 'half-castes' (but not 'full-bloods') in the general Australian Census population; and publishing separate figures on 'full-bloods' and 'half-castes' as two components of the 'Aboriginal population'.

The 1966 Census was the last to use fractional racial terms: the government allowed respondents to distinguish 'one-quarter' Aboriginal descent from 'half'. From 1971, the Census ceased to ask respondents to distinguish such fractions of 'racial' descent. The 1971 question asked each head of the household about each member:

What is this person's racial origin? (If of mixed origin, indicate the one to which he considers himself to belong. Tick one box only or give one origin only): 1. European origin; 2. Aboriginal origin; 3. Torres Strait Islander origin; 4. Other origin (give only one).

This transition from a fractional to a unitary conception of descent (in later Censuses 'origin') was important, but it has overshadowed another innovation that preceded it. Although the statisticians were not confident of the technical adequacy of the 1966 enumeration, on 16 April 1969 the government published, for the first time, tables that compared the 'Aboriginal' with the 'Australian' populations in respect of occupation and level of education. The measurement of what we now call 'gaps' began with The Aboriginal population of Australia: summary of characteristics (ABS, cat. no. 2.23). Social scientists in the late 1960s had complained of Indigenous Australians' statistical invisibility. These comparative tables on occupation and education were the beginnings of a remedy; they seemed to advance the scientific grasp of the difficulties of assimilating Aborigines. Appreciative social scientists and public servants argued that Australia should continue to measure a distinct 'Aboriginal population' so that such comparisons could gauge progress (or a lack of it) and inform policy. In 1975, Australia's leading demographer, Professor W Borrie, welcomed the decision by the Whitlam government that the National Population Inquiry should 'include the Aboriginal population not only in the total situation, but also as a separate sub-study'.


Excerpted from Rethinking Social Justice by Tim Rowse. Copyright © 2012 Timothy Rowse. Excerpted by permission of Aboriginal Studies Press.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Fr Frank Brennan,
Acronyms and Abbreviations,
Part I: Recognising 'Populations' and 'Peoples',
1. Recognising 'Peoples' and 'Populations',
Part II: Evoking People-hood,
2. Hasluck and Elkin,
3. Strehlow Damns Coombs,
4. 'The Whole Aboriginal Problem in Microcosm': The South Australian Land Rights Debate of 1966,
5. The Politics of Enumerating the Stolen Generations,
Part III: Critical Reflections on Political Capacity,
6. The Changing Cultural Constitution of the Indigenous Sector,
7. The Ambivalence of Helen Hughes,
Part IV: Thinking Historically About 1967–76,
8. 'If We are to Survive as a People ...': Noel Pearson's Economic History,
9. Peter Sutton and the Historical Roots of Suffering,
10. The Coombs Experiment,
Part V: The Appeal of Quantification,
11. The Australian Reconciliation Barometer and the Indigenous Imaginery,

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