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Indigenous knowledge can break our evidence gridlock

2 March 2020

News and media


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This piece of writing, written by Catherine Althaus, originally appeared in The Canberra Times on March 3 2020. Catherine is the Associate Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne and ANZSOG Deputy Dean (Teaching and Learning).

Indigenous ways of knowing and being are at Australia’s policymaking disposal, if only it is prepared to open its eyes to the value of this unique approach to evidence-based policymaking.

If the resounding success of the Indigenous Rangers program across Australia in land and sea management is so clear, why don’t we take respectful notice of the strengths-based possibilities of taking Indigenous knowledges seriously across the entire policymaking spectrum?

On point at the moment is fire management. This is a classic case where traditional knowledges and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples add insights as to how to avoid, prepare for and manage Australia’s burn season. In the wake of Australia’s horrific experiences with fires this past summer, Professor David Bowman and Ben French called on the Australian community to take advantage of Indigenous knowledges alongside Western science.

Evidence-based policymaking has taken a beating, of course, since the Trump years, with many questioning whether expertise is dead, whether there remains a role for evidence – including raising doubts about what constitutes evidence – and whose evidence should count.

This post-truth politics holds silver linings. Opportunities now abound to look beyond mainstream approaches to evidence and consider the possibilities of embracing knowledges from other civilisations and traditions.

The usual hierarchy of evidence privileges systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials as the gold standards in scientific knowledge.

But policy scholars such as Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver and Adam Wellstead note that a gap often exists between even this form of scientific knowledge and policy action. This gap points to the reality confronting decision-makers who must make primal connections between facts and values.

The evidence movement seeks to secure a single solution to a problem. But the community knows that views diverge and abound within any society about what the problem even is, let alone how to deal with it. The role of politics and public administration, therefore, is to pay attention not just to proven facts but also diverse values.

It is here that Indigenous evidence offers some game-changing possibilities.

In an article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration, I outline two discrete areas of initiative that Indigenous evidence can bring to policymaking: products and processes.

Latex from spinifex grass is one example of a new product. A partnership between University of Queensland researchers and the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu People of the Camooweal region has seen the reimagining of the deployment of spinifex grasslands ecosystems – covering a third of the Australian continent – by matching traditional Aboriginal knowledges with Western science. Together, the team has developed a method to extract nanocellulose to make super-thin, sensation-transmitting latex. A range of applications has been identified, including medical dressings and gloves, condoms, cleaning oil spills, new road surface materials and componentry for flexible electronic displays.

Commercialisation of the technology was only possible with the expertise and input of the traditional owners, and is likely to result in significant financial success due to the interest of latex manufacturers across a multibillion-dollar global market.

This exciting product innovation is mirrored in process initiatives. Indigenous ways of knowing and being have led to new ways of thinking about engagement and conflict resolution. Over 50 Indigenous sentencing courts exist across every state in Australia except for Tasmania. These courts do not practise Indigenous customary law, but use Australian criminal law to sentence Indigenous offenders. They do, though, provide for Indigenous elders and respected persons to participate in the process.

Evaluations of the County Koori Court and Children’s Koori Court demonstrate success for these alternative sentencing forums – often referred to as circle sentencing – with respect to promoting deterrence and improving rehabilitation.

The success of the models is bound to partnerships between the local communities, elders, support service staff and justice officers. While mixed reviews exist about circle sentencing with regard to reoffending, a key difference in this Indigenous-inspired approach to justice is the greater cultural alignment with Indigenous values and clear success in changing community attitudes, including opinions of the justice system, with positive knock-on effects in the form of combatting intergenerational trauma.

These are only two examples of how policymaking can be different when Indigenous ways of knowing and being are taken seriously. These products and processes offer fresh opportunities for the whole of Australian society.

But they also push the boundaries in terms of the self-determination benefits to be achieved for Indigenous people themselves, because they offer economic development opportunities coupled with environmental sustainability and positive health and wellbeing outcomes as a result of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contributing their knowledges and input.

Debates regarding evidence-based policymaking will move only so far if policymaking remains isolated within Western paradigms. Instead, Australia faces a unique opportunity to take respectful advantage of recognising the intrinsic contribution and value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, which stand as the oldest enduring civilisations in the world.

In a famous quote, David Mowaljarlai, a senior lawman of the Ngarinyin people of the West Kimberley, made this observation to the people of Australia:

“We have a gift we want to give you. We keep getting blocked from giving you that gift. We get blocked by politics and politicians. We get blocked by media, by process of law. All we want to do is come out from under all of this and give you this gift. And it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture which is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself.”

It’s time policymakers took this gift seriously and started genuinely deploying Indigenous evidence for the good of all.