[T]he ones who prominently say they are Aboriginal leaders are terribly wrong. They’re going backwards… and what’s mesmerised our supposed leaders is the carrot of millions of dollars. It’s not working-class principles or raising our people up. In the meantime people get fooled because…we are well up in films, entertainment, football, all world class. Okay, but politically we’ve got nothing.
– Ray Peckham, 2014.
I would argue that today the Black middle class are as great a problem as anything else that the Aboriginal community confronts. In the same way as the Black middle class in the African American situation has been the buffer between the ruling class establishment and the shitkickers.
– Gary Foley, 2021.
Over the October Labour Day long weekend in 1977, 200 Aboriginal activists and their supporters met at the Black Theatre in Redfern to discuss the launching of a new campaign for land rights. It was out of this meeting that the NSW Aboriginal Land Council was born. Its first convenor was Kevin Cook, a left-wing trade unionist and radical Aboriginal activist, and the committee was filled with activists who had been forged out of the struggles of the 1960s and ’70s. The conference also established the Trade Union Committee on Aboriginal Rights (TUCAR) to link the land rights campaign with working-class organisations.
Forty-five years later, a very different meeting involving the Land Council took place in Redfern. On 2 August 2022 an emergency community meeting was held at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence to protest against the closure of the centre and the summary dismissal of 50, mostly Indigenous, staff members. The sacked workers had been offered a humiliating $700 if they would sign non-disclosure agreements with the owners of the centre, who just happened to be the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
Co-founder and CEO of Redfern Youth Connect Margaret Haumono told the meeting that she and others had spoken to the Land Council and had been told that the closure was “not our [the Land Council’s] problem”. The meeting responded with cries of “gutless dogs” and “shame”. Wiradjuri, Yuin and Gadigal woman Nadeena Dixon, granddaughter of the Aboriginal trade union activist Chicka Dixon, said that “too many of our community leaders have become dictators”, while fired staff expressed disgust at being thrown out the door with little communication.
As if to confirm Dixon’s words, two representatives from the Land Council then pushed their way to the front of the meeting and demanded the right to reply to their critics. One of the representatives berated the crowd, explaining that “we can’t run this place on a loss” and that the only alternative to closing down the centre was to sell off the whole site to developers.
The other representative argued that there wasn’t any money to be made out of swimming pools and gyms, and revealed that the Land Council was considering handing over the whole operation to the PCYC (Police and Community Youth Club). This was met with outrage from the crowd, most of whom were all too familiar with the history and culture of the police in Redfern. It certainly didn’t help that Land Council representatives had been given a police escort to the meeting.
The Land Council had gone from an organisation run by a bunch of radicals, unionists and socialists to an organisation dominated by a group of Indigenous bureaucrats dedicated to fostering private enterprise and respectability. Its incorporation into the capitalist system is emblematic of a broader shift in many Indigenous organisations.
Originally, the NSW Land Council had been a voluntary grassroots activist group without any government funding. It relied on the resources of Tranby College, which had been established by the unions, for its land rights campaigning. In the wake of the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) in 1983 the Land Council was formally constituted as a statutory corporation. At first, continuity seemed to outweigh change: Cook was made chairperson and the Council still had a number of prominent left-wing figures.
However, by the 1990s the Land Council had undergone a significant transformation. From 1983 to 1998 it accumulated $281 million from land tax payments made in compensation for the loss of land. This money – far less than Indigenous people deserve in reparations – allowed the Council to become a self-funding independent body. At the same time, it served as the basis for the strengthening and expansion of an increasingly conservative and capitalist-minded Indigenous bureaucracy. A key moment in this process took place in 1990, when a series of amendments were passed to the Land Rights Act that gave the NSW Land Council and its subsidiaries the ability to sell, mortgage or exchange the land they had gained through land rights claims. The same amendments also made the NSW Land Council elected councillor positions full-time salaried ones.
In 2012 the impact of these amendments became clear when the NSW Land Council applied for a coal seam gas permit covering 321,300 square kilometres, with a non-disclosed business partner. This application came after the Land Council had made three petroleum exploration licence applications earlier in the same year. While pushed by the full-time leaders of the Land Council, the application was met with widespread opposition from Indigenous people and the local land councils, particularly in the Northern Rivers and Illawarra regions where the coal seam gas projects were being proposed. Fed up with the Land Council’s schemes, a number of left-wing Indigenous activists set up the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Association Inc in 2021. It was designed to be “a grassroots Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation with a mandate centred around upholding the purpose of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983”.
The development of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council was not an anomaly. The Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) was similarly established out of the struggles in Redfern during the 1970s to maintain Indigenous control over the area known as the Block. In the 2000s, the AHC helped initiate the Pemulwuy Project, which was supposed to regenerate the local Aboriginal community area. However when designs became public in 2014, it became clear that the AHC was primarily interested in realising the untapped commercial value of the land, with space overwhelmingly allocated to retail, office space and expensive student housing. This led local Aboriginal activists to establish the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which resisted the development for over a year. Eventually, Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion brokered a deal in which 62 homes would be built for Indigenous families at the same time as any commercial development of the Block.
Similarly, the Condobolin Local Aboriginal Land Council has come under sustained criticism for years from Aboriginal residents who say their housing has fallen into disrepair, with black mould, termites, electrical faults and broken sewerage pipes. “We’ve got our elders who are in their 70s and 80s that are living in houses with black mould, where the roofs are peeling off, the walls have deteriorated”, Kira-Lea Dargin, a Wiradjuri woman and advocate for several of the residents, told ABC News. In July 2021, the Land Council signed 18 eviction notices after residents refused to pay rent. Writing for ABC News, Ella Archibald-Binge summed up the situation well, noting that this “crisis has become a microcosm of a broader issue across NSW, as relationships break down between Aboriginal communities and the local bodies set up to represent them”.
Underpinning the conflicts with these organisations is the emergence of an Indigenous middle class in Australia. There have of course always been political differences among Indigenous people in Australia. In particular, there has long been a minority of Indigenous people who have found a place within the capitalist establishment. But until the later decades of the twentieth century, this was confined to a tiny number of individuals who were easy to dismiss as sell-outs. The emergence of a broader Indigenous middle class, and the development of a small but growing Indigenous capitalist class, adds new dimensions to the differentiation within the Indigenous population.
Probably the most public manifestations of the growing influence of this Indigenous middle class are the proposals for an Indigenous Voice to parliament, the various state-based treaty processes currently underway, and the prospect for more in the future – including on a federal level. There have also been shifts with regard to government and corporate policies, from Indigenous employment opportunities to economic partnerships to cultural recognition and a range of other issues, as well as broader cultural shifts in how Indigenous culture and history are understood and discussed in the media, the education system and so forth.
These shifts are related to broader changes in the dynamics of race relations and multiculturalism in modern Australian capitalism. Throughout the twentieth century, the struggles of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous activists overturned discriminatory laws and racist practices, challenged public attitudes, exploitative bosses and government bureaucracies, and legitimised the struggle for Indigenous rights. While racism towards Aboriginal people continued despite these wins, the collective impact of these reforms was significant.
Alongside developments in the sphere of Indigenous politics, the liberal idea of multiculturalism broadly came to replace assimilation as the main strategy for race relations. Multiculturalism involved seeing Australia as made up of a series of different, but internally homogeneous ethnic groups, each with their own legitimate cultural heritage. Rather than asking these communities to abandon their culture in order to integrate, the new policy aimed, at least on paper, to create a pluralistic society that celebrated the diversity of cultures contained within Australia. Within this framework, Indigenous people are widely seen as the first and most legitimate minority culture.
This has now been further tweaked with the development of modern identity politics. People are more than ever encouraged to embrace whatever identities they are connected with. For a significant section of academics, public servants and journalists, modern Australia is – or should be – a cosmopolitan society based on a multitude of ever-increasing numbers of intersecting racial, cultural, sexual, political and social identities. The more identities, the better. This is strongly, if often unconsciously, related to a hyper-individualistic capitalist world view in which we are all defined as individual consumers made up of an amalgamation of different intersecting personal attributes.
In the process, a curious transformation has taken place. In the not-so-distant past, a left-wing commentator on Indigenous issues could say:
Neoliberal politics, in part, rejects a politics of recognition. Addressing historical and cultural injustice through recognition and Indigenous rights is seen as irrelevant and, at its most extreme, as a hindrance to Indigenous advancement.
Today however the mainstream of neoliberalism openly embraces the politics of recognition. Governments and corporations promote and profit from oppressed identities as part of public relations campaigns and necessary checklists in the rollout of new brands or programs. This newfound institutional “wokeness” has absolutely nothing to do with any struggle for rights or liberation. The promotion of respectable spokespeople from minority groups and proposals for constitutional recognition are attempts to whitewash a system that relies on the ongoing subjugation of all sorts of oppressed groups. A conservative critique of the politics of recognition and identity is now the purview of the hard right of society.
Nowhere is this gulf between the image and reality clearer than with regard to Indigenous people in Australia. The ABC can play footage of smiling Indigenous kids singing the classic hit “I am Australian” in their Indigenous languages at the same time that it is reported that 100 percent of the children in detention in the Northern Territory are Indigenous. Albanese’s government can be hailed for beginning a process of decolonisation with its support for an Indigenous Voice to parliament, while leaving in place the key pillars of the inherently racist Northern Territory Intervention. The bosses of the mining industry, the Business Council of Australia and the Murdoch media can shake their heads at the failure to close the income, health and education gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, while overseeing the system of exploitation, privatisation and corporate greed that makes this inevitable.
Indeed there is almost an inverse relationship between the frequency with which we hear passionless acknowledgements of past wrongs and the making of real progress towards liberation.
These shifts are sometimes dismissed as mere tokenism. It’s true that they will not radically transform the oppressive conditions most Indigenous people live under. But it is mistaken to think that these shifts will have no impact at all. They will lead – and indeed already have led – to substantial benefits for a subsection of Indigenous society – what historian and activist Gary Foley calls the “Blak Bourgeoisie”.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci describes this process well in his Prison Notebooks, when he explains how ruling classes gradually absorb a layer of people from antagonistic oppressed or exploited groups, in order to give greater legitimacy to their rule and widen the social base of those who have a material interest in its continuation. This is particularly marked in oppressed groups that contain within themselves class divisions, such as women, migrants and LGBTI people.
The emergence of a new Indigenous elite is the result of a number of processes coming together. First of all, there is the creation of what academic Tim Rowse has called the “Indigenous Estate”:
In the last third of the 20th century, nearly one-fifth of the Australian land mass was transferred to Indigenous Australians’ ownership. By 2013, Indigenous interests had been recognised over more than half of Australia – a combination of land rights, native title, and Indigenous Land Use Agreements enabled by the assertion of native title. To this estate, hectares will be added every year through purchases by the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), a statutory authority set up by the Keating government in June 1995. As long as the ILC’s endowment yields an annual purchase fund, there is no limit to the acreage that can be, to some degree, Indigenous land.
There are very stringent limits to this “Indigenous Estate”: mainly that it cannot infringe on commercial interests such as mining, tourism and farming. Nevertheless, in combination with myriad urban-based Indigenous businesses, consultancy firms, NGOs and community organisations, this estate has created ‘‘thousands of organisations making up the ‘Indigenous sector’, the joint product of Indigenous political mobilisation and state funding and legislation”. As well there has been an expansion in the employment of Indigenous people in traditional middle-class academic, legal, media, governmental and cultural roles within institutions such as universities, law firms, media companies, state bureaucracies and cultural projects.
Of course, any progress for Indigenous people entails some degree of bureaucratisation. If Indigenous people win greater control over their own affairs, then organisations will be set up to facilitate this, and in the context of capitalist society, such organisations will inevitably develop some degree of institutional conservatism. This isn’t unique to Indigenous people; any oppressed or exploited group that manages to win some degree of acceptance in society develops similar problems. In the wake of the civil rights movement in the United States, there was a flowering of Black bureaucracies in government departments and private businesses. Even the workers’ movement has developed bureaucratised organisations within the trade union movement in response to its partial victories.
The problem arises when the dangers and challenges posed by these developments are ignored or downplayed.
Another factor in the development of an Indigenous elite has been the conscious intervention of the state and sections of private capital. This has been necessary because prior to the 1970s there was little class differentiation among the Indigenous population. Unlike Indigenous groups in New Zealand or North America, pre-invasion Aboriginal societies did not have class hierarchies, and after colonisation Indigenous groups were unable to develop any kind of independent economic base. Thus government and private capital have played a key role in creating opportunities for Indigenous businesses and bureaucracies to grow.
This new approach reflects a major shift in ruling-class thinking on Indigenous issues. An early sign was the Howard government’s 1998 amendment to the Native Title Act, which both weakened and entrenched the legislation. Native title has now gone from being one of the most controversial political issues in Australia to one on which there is now a large degree of consensus, as David Ritter has explained:
On and off between 1992 and 1998, native title was staggeringly divisive and controversial; the subject of immense political storm and legal battles giving rise to numerous banner headlines, blockbuster parliamentary debates and marathon litigation in front of the High Court. At times, wilder opinion forecast the break-up of Australia, the collapse of the economy and outbreaks of violence… Students born in the last twenty years often look up from their desks in some puzzlement when one tries to evoke the hysteria and volume of debate that once existed over the recognition of native title… Native title is now just part of the furniture; or maybe, so dim is the collective awareness of the legal doctrine once dubbed a “revolution”, that it can be thought of as no more than a design on the national wallpaper.
This is largely because the leaders of the mining, pastoral and tourism industries have come to see that they can get most of what they desire through the framework of native title. Whatever constraints or conflicts it might occasionally give rise to are offset by the ease with which their plans can be approved under the cover of “consultation”. Clear victories for Indigenous communities are rare and hard fought for, and the spirit of “consensus” between Indigenous community leaders and mining bosses has largely benefited the latter.
In general terms Australia is going down a path similar to that forged by Canada and New Zealand decades ago. As in those places, the new policies will not end or even significantly ameliorate Indigenous oppression. However it will increase the scale and significance of the Indigenous upper and middle classes in Australian society, and irreversibly change the contours of Indigenous politics.
From the political establishment, there seems to have been a clear push towards “partnerships” with Indigenous leaders in the wake of Tony Abbott’s campaign to close 150 Indigenous communities in Western Australia during 2015. While there was general agreement within government policy circles that “rationalising” the number of Indigenous communities was a worthy goal, Abbott’s gung-ho attitude had generated more opposition than they were comfortable with, particularly as there was also growing public consciousness around issues such as racist policing and Australia Day. What these policy advisors proposed was greater engagement and partnerships with Indigenous leaders to try to avoid such opposition emerging in the future. The fruits of this can be seen on a number of fronts.
The Morrison government made a concerted effort to develop an Indigenous capitalist and middle class. From September 2020 to September 2021 the federal government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy saw 10,920 government contracts, valued at $1.09 billion, awarded to 943 Indigenous businesses. This is set to increase in coming years, with Albanese maintaining the goal that 3 percent of the value of Commonwealth contracts be awarded to Indigenous businesses from 2022. It is notable that it is often government departments traditionally associated with the hard right of politics that have had some of the biggest contracts with Indigenous businesses. The largest number of contracts is with the Department of Defence, which signed 6,476 contracts (valued at $610 million) in 2020–21. State and territory governments have their own Indigenous procurement policies as well, similarly running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
To take just one example, the Department of Defence signed a $452 million contract with Indigenous-owned construction company Pacific Services Group Holdings (PSG) to work on redeveloping Garden Island dockyards. The director of PSG is Indigenous man Troy Rugless, a former rugby league player, who has been involved in the construction industry for years as a director of several companies. Through the government’s procurement policy PSG has gone from a small cleaning service in a rundown warehouse to a multi-division construction company aiming towards listing on the Australian stock exchange.
The Indigenous Procurement Policy has helped to facilitate the rapid growth in Indigenous business owners, albeit from a very low base. Many start on more lucrative government jobs before competing in the private sector. Between 2006 and 2018, the number of Indigenous businesses jumped by almost 74 percent. The gross income for these businesses increased by 115 percent and in 2018 was $4.88 billion. This probably underestimates the numbers as it only includes businesses that are both at least 50 percent Indigenous-owned and are officially registered as Indigenous businesses. Other estimates put the number of Indigenous owner-managers at around 17,900 in 2016 (an increase of 30 percent compared to 2011), a figure that would be even higher today.
While Indigenous businesses are still a very small section of capital, they are growing disproportionately. The percentage of non-Indigenous people who are business owners is of course far higher than among Indigenous people, but the gap is narrowing. Interestingly, registered Indigenous companies are larger than non-Indigenous counterparts, with a report published in 2018 finding they had an average gross income of $1.6 million and 14 employees, compared to $400,000 and two employees for the wider community. A report by Supply Nation, an organisation that connects Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses, found that despite the impact of COVID-19 in the years from 2019 to 2021, “there was an increase in Indigenous businesses across all types of business ownership with the most growth observed in the number of registered sole traders and partnerships”.
Private capital has also played a role in promoting the formation of Indigenous businesses. In 2011 Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) awarded just $20 million in contracts to two Indigenous-owned companies. By 2021 that had risen to $3 billion. One of these was with the Indigenous-owned mining maintenance contractor Warrikal Engineering, which recently signed a contract worth $350 million. Warrikal was only founded in 2017 and has already had major contracts with Rio Tinto and Pilbara Minerals. The company’s workforce is around 20 percent Indigenous and Warrikal’s chief executive is Amanda Healy, a Wonnarua Koori woman, who has run several different businesses and was recently appointed Adjunct Professor at Curtin University’s business school.
In 2019 the Business Council of Australia (BCA) launched the “Raise the Bar” initiative which pledged businesses to collectively spend $3 billion on contracts with Indigenous businesses over the next five years. The businesses that signed up include Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank, Lendlease, BHP, BP, Rio Tinto, BAE systems and Westpac. Reconciliation Action Plans have also become widespread in the business world, particularly in some of the largest companies in Australia, including BHP, LendLease and 44 companies on the ASX200.
Mining companies, in particular, have been keen to reset their relationships with the Indigenous community. This is particularly the case in the wake of Rio Tinto’s deliberate destruction of 46,000-year-old artifacts in Juukan Gorge, and further revelations that they dumped heritage material from the Marandoo mine into a Darwin rubbish dump in the 1990s. The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, whose land the Marandoo mine is on, has cut ties with Rio Tinto and a moratorium has been placed on mining in the Juukan Gorge. This has caused a reduction of about 2 million tonnes in Rio Tinto’s production. In the aftermath of this disaster, their rivals BHP have taken the opportunity for some Black-washing, by pushing for the South Australian and Western Australian governments to introduce strict penalties for companies that damage heritage sites as well as giving Indigenous communities a greater ability to appeal heritage decisions. This cynical campaign is being launched with the full knowledge that they will be less affected by such legislation than their rivals in Rio Tinto.
The goal of these mining groups is to neutralise the morally powerful opposition to their projects posed by Aboriginal activism. The new agreement that BHP signed in 2021 with the Barada Barna Aboriginal Corporation is a case in point. It is chock full of cheap symbolism, like giving a local airport an Indigenous name and painting Indigenous cultural murals at the airport and the mining site. At the same time, it prioritises building up Indigenous corporations and consciously seeks to enmesh them in the mining industry in order to undermine potential criticisms. This includes a historic level of investment, training and contracts for local Indigenous businesses that will last for multiple generations. Both BHP and the Barada Barna Aboriginal Corporation frame this project as one of “self-determination”, which shows how much this term has become detached from any radical let alone anti-capitalist association. Barada Barna Aboriginal Corporation chairperson Luarna Walsh celebrated the agreement as one that
sets Barada Barna on a path of self-determination. It will ensure BBAC is sustainable into the future and help our next generation of descendants achieve their goals through schooling and university, and employment and training. This Agreement also provides BBAC with the ability to diversify our income streams, by creating Traditional Owner business that can tender for a variety of contracts on Country.
The promotion of a layer of Indigenous people with a material interest in Australian capitalism isn’t confined to a few thousand business owners. Alongside this has developed a broader layer of middle-class Indigenous people, involving tens of thousands of managers, bureaucrats and professionals.
In the ten years from 2011 to 2021, the number of Indigenous managers grew from 9,406 to 21,218. This is an increase of 125.5 percent, the largest increase in any Indigenous occupation outside of sales assistants. There has also been a modest increase in the percentage of Indigenous people who are managers compared to other occupations. In 2006 only 3.8 percent of employed Indigenous people were managers, in 2021 it was around 8.2 percent.
Similar changes can be seen in in the number of Indigenous professionals. From 2011 to 2021 this layer almost doubled, from 19,358 to 36,013. ABS data is too imprecise to draw a clear line between middle-class and working-class people in that group, but presumably some thousands more middle-class people have been created in the process of this growth. These figures do not include the significant number of Indigenous writers, artists, musicians and political commentators who play an increasingly prominent part in shaping political discussion and popular culture, far beyond their numbers. While income levels aren’t an exact guide to class differences, the widening levels of economic inequality within the Indigenous population are also a sign of growing class differentiation, as Ross Gittins has explained:
While the gap between the two groups [Indigenous and non-Indigenous] has been narrowing, the gap within the Indigenous group has been widening. If you take the weekly disposable personal incomes of all Indigenous people aged 15 or older, adjust them for inflation, rank them from lowest to highest, then divide them all into 10 groups of 10 percent each, you discover some disturbing things.
Between 2011 and 2016, the average income of those in the top decile rose by $75 a week, compared with $32 a week for those in the middle decile. Individuals in the bottom decile had no income (possibly because they were students or at home minding kids), while those in the second and third lowest deciles saw their incomes fall.
Similarly, the 2021 census records that while 52.2 percent of Indigenous households had an average median weekly income of less than $1,000, only 36.7 percent of households earned above this threshold.
The emergence of an Indigenous elite and shifting attitudes in the Australian ruling class have combined to produce calls for new institutions to better manage Indigenous affairs. A range of options have been canvassed, the most notable of which is the Voice to parliament.
The origins of the Voice lie in debates around the issue of constitutional recognition for Indigenous people which coalesced in 2012 with the launching of the Recognise campaign. This multimillion-dollar advertising project was overseen by the NGO Reconciliation Australia and received widespread support from major businesses such as BHP and Qantas, and right-wing politicians like former Liberal prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. While a minority of conservative Indigenous figures supported the Recognise campaign, it fell apart in the face of strident grassroots opposition by many Indigenous people who saw it for the face-saving sham it was, and was finally disbanded in 2017.
The inadequate symbolism of constitutional recognition fuelled interest in an alternative proposal for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to parliament created through a national referendum. This would be a political body that would serve in an advisory capacity for government Indigenous policies. A constitutionally recognised Indigenous Voice to parliament was one of the main proposals in the Uluru Statement of the Heart endorsed at the Referendum Council’s Regional Dialogues and the National Constitutional Convention, held at the Ayers Rock Resort near Uluru in May 2017.
Advocates of the Uluru Statement present the Indigenous Voice to parliament as the first step in a process that will deal with the structural dimensions of Indigenous oppression, end the powerlessness that plagues Indigenous communities and, along with a Makarrata Commission of truth-telling and agreement-making, lead to genuine Indigenous self-determination for the first time since colonisation.
In reality, while the Voice goes beyond merely recognising the existence of Indigenous people in the constitution, it too is an almost entirely symbolic gesture. The proposed model of the Voice will be an advisory body only, with no actual power over government policy. Parliament will have to listen to its views – which it can then freely ignore.
While the Voice was developed by a layer of Indigenous academics and lawyers it has gained broad support in ruling-class circles and within the Albanese government. It was strongly endorsed by 86 percent of the public submissions to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. These included public submissions by most of the key sections of the Australian capitalist class. The submission by the Business Council of Australia for instance stated:
The Business Council and its members are committed to the empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (in this report referred to as Indigenous Australians) and the creation of opportunities for full participation in the Australian economy and accordingly supports meaningful constitutional recognition of a Voice to the Parliament for Indigenous Australians. Without recognition of Australia’s First Peoples, the Australian Constitution cannot be complete…
…The Business Council believes this issue is too important to be kicked into the weeds as we approach an election year. Equally, we do not support the politicisation of constitutional recognition and would not want to see a question put alongside next year’s federal election. The Business Council believes the question should be agreed, formulated and put to the Australian people via referendum within 12 months of the next federal election.
For the Labor government the Voice is seen as a part of Albanese’s broader strategy of presenting a progressive gloss to the public while pursuing a right-wing alliance with big business, the mainstream media and wealthy but socially liberal Australians. The Labor Party hope to strengthen their hold over governmental power by isolating the Liberals and the Nationals – presenting them as incompetent dinosaurs out of touch with both urban middle-class voters and corporate Australia, both of whom have shifted to embrace cultural recognition for Indigenous people over the last couple of decades. In the process they also hope to be able to neutralise the healthy and progressive anti-racist sentiment in society by folding it into a tame-cat institution unlikely to upset the status quo. This approach is hardly unique to Indigenous issues: on everything from climate change to union rights, foreign policy and LGBTI issues, hollow progressive symbolism dominates current government practice.
On the other side of politics a significant section of conservative politicians are trying to cohere a right-wing campaign against the Voice. This is centred around the federal National Party and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation; however Liberal leader Peter Dutton has also attacked the Voice, although in more veiled terms. These right-wingers are trying to galvanise the existing racist sentiment in Australian society against Indigenous people into what they hope will be a humiliating defeat for the Labor Party in the referendum – a hope made possible by the weaknesses of the proposed reform itself.
There are however some fractures within the right, with prominent moderates from the Liberal Party backing the Voice proposal. The NSW Liberal Party in particular is dominated by pro-Voice Liberals such as NSW MP Julian Leeser, Senator Andrew Bragg and the moderate Liberal Party power broker Matt Kean. In February the NSW Liberal Premier Dominic Perrott pledged to run a joint Yes to the Voice campaign with the Albanese government if the Liberals were re-elected in the NSW state election.
Support for the Voice from mining bosses and Liberal moderates reflects the fact that the proposal can hardly be described as a reform. It will be an advisory body with no real control over funding, legislation or communities. It will not make any difference to the lives of the vast majority of Indigenous people, but will further the social and political capital of a small section of the Indigenous middle class. Most importantly, a victory will give progressive legitimacy to an insipid Albanese government that refuses to address either the specific issues facing Indigenous communities or the wages crisis facing the working class more broadly.
The Voice essentially represents a balancing act by the dominant parts of the Australian ruling class, concerned with the need to appear modern and anti-racist on one hand, but without giving Indigenous people any real power.
Opposition to the Voice has been dominated by right-wingers but there is a minority of figures critical of the Voice from a progressive direction. This was on display at the Invasion Day rallies this year, which in most cities stridently attacked the Voice, and when the former Greens senator Lidia Thorpe resigned from her party over the issue. Concern over the Voice goes back in fact to the 2017 Constitutional Convention, which saw a breakaway group of seven delegates and their supporters from Victoria, Canberra and New South Wales, including Lidia Thorpe and long-standing Indigenous activists Jenny Munro and Lyall Munro Jr, walk out in protest of what they saw as a charade that had been stitched up by conservative Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson. A statement by Les Coe, Nioka Coe and Ruth Gilbert condemned the Constitutional Convention as a “scandalous, deceitful process” dominated by the “Conservative Black Political elite” in which any genuine discussion about sovereignty and self-determination was marginalised in favour of surface-level changes.
There is then at least some awareness of the growing role of Indigenous elites, although the debates around the Voice also reveal the difficulties in developing concrete alternatives. For instance, treaties are often presented as a more left-wing alternative to moderate proposals like the Voice. But while there has been relatively more reluctance about the granting of treaties by the Australian establishment, there have been shifts on this front too.
The Victorian state government for example is involved in an already quite developed treaty process. This has led to the establishment of a First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, which in conjunction with the state government, has created a Treaty Authority that is supposed to be an independent body overseeing treaty negotiations, a Treaty Negotiation Framework that sets the parameters of these negotiations, as well as a Self-Determination Fund that is supposed to provide financial resources to Indigenous people in Victoria so they can participate in these negotiations on a more equal footing with the state government.
Socialists should be sceptical about the ultimate outcome of treaty processes such as that being pursued in Victoria. After all, governments in New Zealand and Canada have not allowed Indigenous political bodies, truth and reconciliation commissions, or even treaties to stop them from violating land rights in the pursuit of profit. In 2020, the Canadian government persevered with a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline project, despite fervent opposition from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation representatives. In New Zealand, successive governments have repeatedly rejected the Waitangi Tribunal’s recommendation that the Māori be given foreshore and seabed rights.
Whether it is an Indigenous voice to parliament or a treaty, or some combination of both, there is significant and growing support for some kind of Indigenous political representative body. Of course, the left cannot be against such a body in principle. But for it to have a real impact it needs to be a step towards self-determination and justice, involving real funding and control. The alternative is just another committee like the many we’ve seen before, which enriches and empowers the minority who are lucky enough to be part of it, while doing nothing for Indigenous people more broadly.
One example of such a body is the Coalition of Peaks. This is a grouping of over 50 Indigenous organisations formed in 2019. Within a few months it had established an agreement with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). In 2020 a National Agreement on Closing the Gap was signed between the Coalition of Peaks, the prime minister, premiers, chief ministers and the president of the Australian Local Government Association. The National Agreement was ostensibly motivated by the lack of Indigenous input into Closing the Gap programs. While this is a valid critique, the inclusion of the Coalition of Peaks doesn’t appear to have made much of a difference. The problem is not to be found in the colour of the skin of the bureaucrats implementing the program, but in its fundamentally neoliberal nature. As the National Agreement states:
This Agreement builds on, and replaces, the NIRA. It continues the successful elements of the NIRA, strengthens others and addresses foundational areas previously excluded from consideration. The most significant of those was that NIRA was only an Agreement between Australian governments whereas in this Agreement, for the first time, representatives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also parties.
Despite this supposedly landmark agreement, the 2022 Closing the Gap report stated that the targets for adults in prison, deaths by suicide, children in out-of-home care, children being school-ready and income inequality were either “not on track” or worsening.
We can look at other countries where the class divisions within the Indigenous population are more developed to see where this all leads. Across Canada there are now more than 250 First Nations, Metis and Inuit development corporations, with collectively several billion dollars in assets. Strong ties have been built between the Indigenous capitalist class in Canada and the resource-extractive industry in particular, which is now the largest private employer of Indigenous people in Canada.
The Haisla Nation for instance has established strong links with the liquified gas industry (LNG) and its Working Group boasts that Suncor Energy spent more than $4 million with Haisla-owned businesses in 2013, and that there are now 19 Petro-Canada stations owned and operated by First Nations companies. In 2016 the Haisla Nation-owned Cedar LNG obtained a 25-year LNG export licence from the Canadian government. The most controversial decision of the Indigenous capitalists who run the Haisla Nation though has been its participation in the $40 billion LNG Coastal GasLink pipeline project. The project has been endorsed by elected chiefs and councils from 20 Indigenous nations but has been rejected by some of the Wet’suwet’en people, including a number of hereditary chiefs. In 2020 this clash led to a substantial movement across Canada by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters who drew attention to the environmentally destructive and profit-driven nature of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Another expression of the convergence of interests that has arisen between First Nations elites and fossil fuel capitalists is the alliance of West Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart with the leaders of the Piikani Nation in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. They are seeking to overturn a court-ruled environmental ban on a proposed coal mine.
Canada also has an extensive network of Indigenous political structures such as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which represents First Nations peoples living on reserves, and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents those living in other rural or urban areas. Both bodies have substantial government funding and access to private capital (including a First Nations bank), and they play a key role in overseeing the implementation of treaty processes and negotiations. The existence of these bodies has not ended, or even demonstrably lessened, the structural racism oppressing Indigenous communities. Despite these bodies existing for decades, the proportion of the prison population that is Indigenous skyrocketed from 17 percent in 1999 to over 30 percent in 2020.
Instead, bodies like the Assembly of First Nations have played a key role in cohering an Indigenous elite that has become disconnected from the interests of the vast majority of First Nations people.
In 2007, AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine publicly criticised the National Aboriginal Day of Action protests for encouraging illegal road blockades and confrontations with the police. An article in the Star newspaper revealed that Fontaine secretly met with the Canadian Police in a coordinated attempt to suppress the protests. This was followed by the resignation in 2012 of AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, who came under pressure because of his open hostility towards the Idle No More movement. During the 2020 Wet’suwet’en protests, the AFN, led by National Chief Perry Bellegarde, unanimously supported the pipeline and pressured First Nations activists to back down. They even deployed identity politics to try and wedge the movement, attempting to paint it as a group of outsider white “professional” protesters.
These political divides should not be surprising. All communities are divided, most importantly by politics and by class. Bellegarde is close to Justin Trudeau – the undisputed champion of fake symbolism – and last year invited him to be the first Canadian prime minister to attend a national meeting of the AFN. As Yellowknives Dene First Nation activist and writer Glen Coulthard has explained in his book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, the AFN’s vision of “self-determination” is based on a consensus between the AFN and the Canadian government, in which the AFN accepts neoliberal capitalism in return for a bigger seat at the table.
New Zealand is different again. There has always been a section of Māori elites willing to play an intermediate role with capitalism, expressed in the system of tribal councils and reserved Māori parliamentary seats during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the adoption of a policy of “biculturalism” by the Labour government during the 1980s ushered in a new era, allowing for the greater development of both a conservative Māori bureaucracy in the state sector and a Māori capitalist class.
The Labour government did this in two ways. First, they devolved – ie, semi-privatised – programs and services formerly delivered by the NZ central government to local tribal authorities. Secondly, they expanded the role of the Waitangi Council that had been first established in 1975 in response to the Māori protest movements of that time. The plan then was to coopt Māori activists from these movements by giving them state jobs to oversee programs for the Māori community. This strategy of co-opting Māori activists was significantly expanded during the 1980s and 1990s, and by the late ’90s “Māori units, divisions or secretariats had been established in Ministries of Education, Environment, Health, Inland Revenue, Justice, Labour, Social Welfare and Women’s Affairs”.
These state jobs were complemented by the creation of another section of the Māori state bureaucracy to staff the specialist Māori advisory and liaison bodies set up to oversee the new consultative arrangements and treaty discussions between the NZ government and local and pan-tribal Māori bodies from the late 1970s onwards.
At the same time there was an explosion in the Māori private capitalist class. This was centred on Māori-owned consultancy companies which were contracted to
help government to incorporate Māori values and perspectives into the operating procedures and management styles of mainstream government departments and to identify and remove discriminatory and culturally prejudicial practice.
The Marxist Māori writer ES Te Ahu Poata-Smith has explored how the career paths of two prominent Māori activists from the 1970s and early 1980s, Donna Awatere and Ripeka Evans, highlights the role of these consultancy companies:
Awatere established Ihi Communications Consultancy in 1985, which developed into a million-dollar annual enterprise providing expert Māori advice to government agencies and the private sector organisations delivering programmes and services to the public. Meanwhile, Ripeka Evans became the “Cultural and Planning Assistant” to the chief executive of State owned Television New Zealand, which under the influence of biculturalism, increased its Māori staff by seventy percent over three years by 1989.
The Labour government helped create a Māori “tribal capitalist” class by concentrating control over Māori community assets in the hands of a small number of “tribal executives”. A key role was played, as in other countries, by the new bodies set up to administer compensation funds that were granted in response to the land struggles of the 1960s and ’70s. At first these Trust Boards simply administered these funds but during the late by the 1980s their role had expanded into overseeing the economic development of Māori communities, pursuing commercial ventures and settling land disputes.
The Labour government’s move to substantially expand a Māori ruling class was made easier by the development of Māori politics during the 1980s, as Poata-Smith explains:
Unfortunately, the fourth Labour Government’s attempt to appease Māori discontent was made easier by a qualitative change in the direction of the Māori protest movement itself with the proliferation of “identity politics”. In the absence of mass struggles against oppression with the decline of the working class movement internationally and the rise of the New Right, many of the assumptions of identity politics were reflected in the New Zealand context with an emphasis on cultural identity as the determining factor in Māori oppression. The inherent traits of Pakeha were seen as the basic causes of an oppressive and unequal society, while the traditional and egalitarian virtues of the Māori community were critical for their resolution. Such a “cultural” explanation for Māori inequality was easily accommodated by the state because unlike the demands of the earlier movement, cultural nationalism did not represent a fundamental threat to the underlying social relations of capitalism. In fact, the partial adoption of bicultural rhetoric by the state and the co-optation of elites into state institutions gave the illusion of a “partnership” as espoused under the Treaty of Waitangi, while marginalising the more radical demands.
During the 1990s there was a revival of Māori protest movements. An important factor shaping this revival of protest was that the “commercial interests of Māori tribal executives, Māori corporate enterprises, and the Māori bureaucracy” were “increasingly at odds with the interests of the vast majority of working-class Māori families”.
These divergent class interests were highlighted as the NZ government and the capitalist class pushed for greater neoliberal reforms, and tried to limit the fiscal impact of unresolved treaty claims. In order to achieve this the National government started secret negotiations with a select group of Māori capitalists who agreed with the free market economic model being promoted by the NZ government and capital. When the content of these deals became public, they led to widespread anger among the Māori population. This was notable in the negotiations between the National government and commercial Māori fishing interests and tribal executives over the purchase of Sealords, at the time the largest single fishing company in New Zealand. The National government agreed to provide $150 million so Māori fishing interests could buy half of Sealords shares. In return, this deal was to be a full and final settlement of all Māori claims over sea, coastal and inland fisheries. This was the first step in the National government’s plan to resolve all treaty claims through a $1 billion fiscal cap. While the Sealords deal generated substantial Māori opposition, activists were unable to stop it from being signed and then endorsed in the courts. In the aftermath of the deal there was a further push to cement free market ideas as the economic model for Māori development and a growing corporate “militancy of Māori commercial interests both at the tribal and individual level”. During the 1990s,
there was a consistent advertising expose on the success of certain Māori businesses and the emphasis on Māori commercial development in both individual and tribal forms as the key to successful Māori economic and social development. The Māori-owned press, radio and television repeatedly saturated the Māori community with the idea that Māori business was the way forward for Māori and the “corporate warrior” philosophy emerged as the catch-cry for Māori development in the 1990s. It was convenient for a government faced with the fiscal pressures of a recession, that advocates of Māori capitalist development argued, like the New Right ideologues in treasury and the Business Roundtable, that the welfare system had held Māori back and that real self-determination and liberation for Māori can only be achieved under unrestrained, free market capitalism.
The National government’s broader aim of a final settlement for all treaty claims however faced sustained opposition. Hundreds of protesters dramatically disrupted the official Waitangi Day celebration in 1995, booing conservative Māori leaders and scuffling with the police. Then Whanganui Māori occupied Moutoa Gardens on 28 February 1995, initiating the largest act of collective civil disobedience for decades. The protest sparked a wave of occupations involving thousands of protesters throughout 1995.
While these protests revealed the gulf that had opened up between the majority of working-class Māori and the Māori elite, the activists who led the protests had a limited awareness of political implications of the class divisions among the Māori. The vast majority of activists were still strongly influenced by cultural nationalist politics and its fundamental idea “that all Māori, despite class or gender differences, are bound to each other by their overriding common interests as Māori”. The conservative Māori leaders and business interests were seen as breaking with Māori culture, selling out their people and adopting a white European mindset, rather than expressing the class interests of the social layer within the Māori population. This cultural nationalist outlook continues to shape Māori politics in New Zealand to the present day. Poata-Smith argues:
[I]t has become increasingly difficult to sustain the notion that all Māori share the same sets of experiences of inequality, and that Māori, irrespective of their place in production relations, are united as a community of resistance. While it is certainly the case that successive governments have been responsible for establishing a settlement framework that locks Māori self-determination into a free-market, capitalist economic framework, it is also a notorious fact that the political ideologies and practices that have dominated Māori protest politics since the early 1980s have left the majority of Māori ill-equipped to resist the repressive and anti-working class policies that successive governments have introduced to restore the economic conditions for profitable capital accumulation. In particular, the insistence that Māori are a culture united in their resistance against Pakeha has failed dramatically as a strategy for the majority of working class Māori whanau.
Indigenous people are often understood, even by people on the socialist left, in a sympathetic, but ultimately romantic, ahistorical and stereotyped fashion. A noble desire to reject the long-standing racist assumptions about Indigenous people, propagated for decades by many of the key institutions of capitalist societies, can easily lead anti-racists to portray Indigenous peoples as homogenous, exotic and incapable of change. Preconceived and moralistic notions of Indigenous people then get in the way of trying to unpack the actual class relations within Indigenous groups, and the contradictory and often complex economic and political developments within them.
It is notable that writers on the socialist left have been far more hesitant to discuss questions of class in Indigenous groups than they have among other oppressed peoples under capitalism. This is in large part because of the dominance of identity politics within academic and left-wing political circles. As Samuel W Rose has explained in the context of debates in North American anthropology:
The Marxist turn in the 1970s saw the proliferation of anthropological work about Native North America, including the expansion of the historical critique of indigenous articulations with capitalism as well as the beginning of the critique of contemporary Native American political economy… An indigenist critique emerged in the 1980s, which was in reaction to this proliferation of Marxist thought. The critique, while having unique characteristics, should be viewed as part of the postmodern turn in theorizing in academia and within the political Left itself. In this postmodern vein, it is part of the larger turn where class politics give way to identity politics as the central organizing concept. The indigenist critique focuses on Marxism’s Western and modernist origins and theoretical connections, using this foreignness as a means to discredit Marxism. As such, they denounce Marxism as another face of the colonial project.
Even when writers on the left have acknowledged the emergence of Indigenous elites they have often understood them not in class terms but rather through what is still an essentially cultural identity framework. So the activist-academic Nandita Sharma can reveal the limitations of confining Indigenous liberation to a nationalist, and ultimately pro-capitalist, framework but she does not link this to the emergence of class divisions within Indigenous societies. Partly this reflects the elasticity of class relations inside Indigenous communities for whole periods of history. It can appear that other differences between Indigenous people, such as the divides between “assimilated” and traditional, so-called “half-caste” and “full blooded”, reservation and urbanised, militants and moderates, or between different Indigenous nations, are more decisive than those between different social classes within Indigenous groups. Certainly, in some periods of history they actually were more important.
However as Indigenous people have been drawn into capitalist development a sharper differentiation of social classes within Indigenous groups, replicating those within capitalist societies as a whole, is inevitable. The exact way in which this differentiation occurs is shaped both by the previous history of socio-economic development within the Indigenous group in question, as well as the particular interests and concerns of non-Indigenous capital and the state. The development of class divisions within Indigenous groups to the point at which an Indigenous elite emerges from within them doesn’t inherently lead to a generalised advance for the majority of Indigenous people in that group. Instead, such a development tends to lead to the entrenchment of inequalities within Indigenous groups as the elite gain greater material advantages, political influence and cultural legitimacy.
Indigenous elites are often criticised because they have in some way “sold out” to non-Indigenous interests, and contemporary Indigenous bodies such as the proposed Voice to parliament are condemned because they are apparently non-Indigenous settler political projects. This ignores the fact that Indigenous capitalists have a shared material interest, along with their non-Indigenous counterparts, in exploiting all workers in the production process – whether Indigenous or not.
Indigenous bosses and bureaucrats are thus not hapless victims of non-Indigenous capital and states. They are eager collaborators with them, always pursuing their own class interests, which are increasingly distinct from and antagonistic to the interests of the Indigenous working class and poor. This doesn’t mean that the interests of Indigenous elites and non-Indigenous capital and states are totally harmonious. The interests of the Indigenous elites can clash to a greater or lesser extent with the priorities of non-Indigenous capital and governments. After all, the primary concern of non-Indigenous capitalists and states is the accumulation of profits and the continuation of the exploitative class relations that make those profits possible, not the creation of Indigenous elites. But often these goals are compatible and mutually reinforcing, as is the case in the mining industry.
The emergence of an Indigenous elite then becomes a barrier for the future advance of the interests of the majority of working-class Indigenous people, due to the differing class interests between the two, and the way in which those conflicting interests are often obscured by a shared Indigenous heritage. This necessitates a more serious political engagement with Indigenous struggles, in which the socialist left should be sensitive to the differing interests and arguments of the various actors. The rejection of any serious discussion about the relationship between class, capitalism and Indigenous people by most contemporary progressive writers on Indigenous issues only obscures the vital issues involved, and makes it harder to set on the path for true liberation.
The flipside to the emergence of Indigenous elites is of course the growth of an Indigenous working class. The Indigenous population in Australia is becoming increasingly proletarianised and urbanised. During the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, the vast majority of the Indigenous population was confined to the fringes of capitalist society, whether on the missions, in urban slums or in remote communities. Today the majority of the Indigenous population is a part of the working class, and a significant section has been integrated into the urbanised blue- and white-collar working class. Fewer than 100,000 Indigenous people now live in the remote and very remote communities in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The vast majority of the other 700,000 Indigenous people counted in the census live in coastal cities and large rural towns, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland. The 2021 census revealed that 37.1 percent (or over 300,000) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived in capital cities, and that the fast growing Indigenous populations were found in the more urbanised eastern states of NSW, Queensland and Victoria, while Western Australia and the Northern Territory, which have larger Indigenous populations living in remote areas, have recorded very little population growth.
Greater Western Sydney is emblematic of this trend. The Indigenous population doubled between 2006 and 2021: from 26,467 to 55,128 people. This population is overwhelmingly working-class: only 7.1 percent in the region are managers and 10.7 percent are professionals, with most working in manual labour, manufacturing, transport and social and community services. This compares to the 11.1 percent of non-Indigenous people who are managers and 23.9 percent who are professionals.
The same pattern can be found in Queensland, the state with the second largest Indigenous population. More than one-third of Indigenous people live in what statisticians call the Brisbane Indigenous Region (which includes Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast). The Indigenous population in this area now includes over 100,000 people: roughly one-eighth of the entire Indigenous population. As in western Sydney, Indigenous people living in the Brisbane Indigenous Region are overwhelmingly working-class. Out of the 80 percent in either full- or part-time work, 35.7 percent are employed as labourers, tradespeople and transport workers, a further 38.1 percent as retail, social and office workers and only 22.1 percent are either professionals or managers.
Importantly, this proletarianisation of Indigenous people has not led to assimilation, with all the negative connotations that has, but to a progressive cultural fusion. Positive references to Indigenous culture and politics are increasingly part of public life in the major cities, particularly in working-class institutions like trade unions. As well, the number of people identifying as Indigenous is growing, as more discover and celebrate their previously repressed heritage. These social changes partly explain why support for Indigenous rights is so hegemonic among younger generations.
These shifts have important implications for the future of Indigenous struggle. Issues such as land rights will remain an important part of Indigenous politics – even for those Indigenous people who live in urban environments – due to their historic significance. But the central site of exploitation for the vast majority of Indigenous people is in the heart of the capitalist economy itself. The greater integration of Indigenous people into the working class significantly strengthens both their potential power to advance their interests and the greater likelihood, although it is not guaranteed, that such action could win support from non-Indigenous workers. At the same time the continued racism that Indigenous workers face gives lie to the idea that racism against them will be overcome merely through greater integration into the mainstream of capitalist society.
These facts are often downplayed by commentators on the left internationally. So Glen Coulthard, a Yellowknives Dene writer, while acknowledging that most Indigenous people in Canada today are wage earners living in urban areas, still insists that “dispossession, not proletarianization, has been the dominant background structure shaping the character of the historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state”. From this he draws the necessary conclusion that Indigenous anti-capitalist resistance “is best understood as a struggle primarily inspired by and oriented around the question of land”.
Similarly the Vancouver-based socialist Indigenous activist Mike Krebs argues that it is wrong for the socialist left “to frame the Indigenous struggle in Canada as one of an oppressed minority without taking up the question of land and the question of Indigenous people as nations”. Krebs argues that this “approach unscientifically separates the discrimination that Indigenous people face from its material base”. However, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has argued, “all capitalism starts with expropriation of land from the producers, and not just in the Americas but as the prerequisite for the development of capitalism in Europe”. The dispossession of the European peasantry of control over land, often achieved via state force, was necessary to create an industrial proletariat during the industrial revolution.
Socialists of course support the demand for land rights and reparations. But this insistence that land dispossession remains the central element of Indigenous oppression today is totally unscientific.
This framework has serious political implications. For example, Tom Keefer’s work on Indigenous reserves in Canada wildly exaggerates their anti-capitalist potential:
As counterintuitive as it may seem in an advanced capitalist country like Canada, the transition to capitalism remains incomplete on Indigenous reserves, and the Indian Act – designed as a means to control and disenfranchise Indigenous populations destined for extinction – now acts as the primary blockage to the full penetration of capitalist social relations into these reserves.
This argument is not merely counter-intuitive, it is utter rubbish. The reserves themselves are a product of capitalism, and were incorporated into the broader Canadian economy long ago. Societies do not need to look like Toronto or Melbourne to be capitalist.
More importantly, this analysis fails to see that the primary faultline in capitalist societies – including those with Indigenous populations – is the class cleavage between a multiracial working class that has the potential to unite within itself all the oppressed and exploited, and those social classes that have a stake in the continuation of capitalism, including those of Black and Brown heritage.
As Poata-Smith has argued, the key weakness of Māori cultural nationalist politics in New Zealand is that it ignores
the significance of the location of the majority of Māori in the working class within New Zealand’s class structure and therefore in their objective interest, along with other members of the working class, in collectively transforming and ultimately transcending the exploitative and oppressive foundations of capitalist society.
This same weakness plagues Indigenous identity politics, and the left more broadly, in Australia today.
The emergence of an Indigenous middle class is an expression of the fact that Indigenous people have been able to win greater acceptance for themselves from Australian society in recent years. The natural consequence of this is that sections of the Indigenous population have been able to integrate themselves into the broader Australian middle class, even while most Indigenous people struggle at the bottom of our class-divided society.
Recognising the development of this elite Indigenous layer is vital for understanding some of the dynamics of modern Indigenous politics. The political horizons of the Indigenous elite are narrowly focused on the classic middle-class themes of political and cultural representation, integration into institutions of power and the accumulation of private wealth as key to personal fulfilment.
The narrow self-interest of this elite is obscured, and worse, promoted, by the language of identity politics. The establishment of more Indigenous-owned businesses is thus presented as a step towards self-determination, the creation of yet another Indigenous advisory body is hailed as the dawn of true reconciliation, the upward mobility of an influential Indigenous figure is interpreted as an advance for all Indigenous people.
Invocation of identity politics also suits the Indigenous elite because of their particular position within capitalist society. While their growth has been significant, they remain a small social layer that is highly dependent upon the capitalist state and to a lesser degree private capital for social advancement. This layer lacks an independent economic base, unlike Māori in New Zealand or Indigenous groups in Canada, and so campaigns aggressively for its own advancement. This is however presented as being in the interests of Indigenous people as a whole, mirroring the trajectory of middle-class women, migrants and African Americans.
Rather than accepting the agenda of the Indigenous elite, the left must advocate a strategy based on mass movements that seek to disrupt the status quo by building united action from below. Throughout the twentieth century it was precisely movements of this kind that led to the greatest advances for the largest numbers of Indigenous people, including the famous land rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, but also the post-war campaigns to end racial segregation that involved both Indigenous and non-Indigenous left-wing trade unionists.
Such movements will inevitably spring from specific outrages and injustices facing Indigenous people. There are many demands and issues that need to be taken up, including genuine land rights, stopping Black deaths in custody, ending structural racism, and so on. But while supporting and strengthening any such campaigns, socialists also have an obligation to make the case for the need to dismantle the capitalist system.
It is the capitalist system that is the root cause of the oppression and exploitation of Indigenous people in particular, alongside the majority of the population. It is capitalism with its racism, inequality and inexhaustible desire for greater profits that stands in the way of true liberation. The sooner this is recognised, the quicker we can begin to build a movement to challenge it.
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 From the NSWALC video interview “Legends of Land Rights – Ray Peckham”, on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbF0N0olVUQ
 From the Melbourne Calling video interview “Gary Foley the Godfather of Aboriginal activism speaking the truth” on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VH_W_G4uBz4
 The following description of the NCIE protest meeting is based on personal observation by the author, reported in Humphreys 2022a.
 See Norman 2015 for the history of the NSWALC.
 Howden 2012.
 NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Association Inc n.d.
 Archibald-Binge 2021.
 Morris 2014, p.10.
 Hall 2023.
 Rowse 2017, p.287.
 Rowse 2017, p.380.
 Ritter 2009, p.xii.
 National Indigenous Australians Agency 2021.
 Australian Defence Force Magazine 2019.
 Evans et al. 2021 and Shirodkar et al. 2018.
 Evans et al. 2021.
 Supply Nation 2022, p.8.
 Smit 2021a and Smit 2021b.
 BCA 2019.
 Knowles 2021.
 BHP and BBAC 2021.
 The following statistics are all from ABS 2022.
 Gittins 2018.
 ABS 2022.
 BCA 2018.
 See the Walkout Statement: Aboriginal Embassy Statement from the Sacred Fire at https://nationalunitygovernment.org/content/walkout-statement-aboriginal-embassy-statement-sacred-fire
 Closing the Gap 2020.
 Closing the Gap 2022.
 Nowlin 2020.
 de Kruijff 2021.
 Report of Dr Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada, quoted in Public Safety 2020.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.261.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.261.
 Poata-Smith 2001, pp.261–62.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.261.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.276.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.276.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.293.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.6.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.11.
 Rose 2015.
 See Humphreys 2022b.
 For a more substantial elaboration of this argument see Indigenous Liberation and Socialism, forthcoming from Red Flag Books.
 Statistics from 2021 are from ABS 2022.
 Lawton 2016.
 ABS 2022.
 ABS 2022.
 Coulthard 2014.
 Krebs 2008, pp.3–4.
 Dunbar-Ortiz 2016.
 Keefer 2010.
 Poata-Smith 2001, p.319.