This paper explores the complex and never-ending dialectic between equality and difference in Australian Indigenous affairs. It begins with examples from debates over the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the income security system in the 1960s and 1970s, and then explores Noel Pearson’s contributions on this topic in the early 2000s, with his advocacy of a less ‘passive’ and responsibility-based welfare system. It notes ultimately how Pearson’s contributions revisit difference arguments developed in the 1970s, arguments which led to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) Scheme as an alternative to unemployment payments.
The paper then moves on to Aboriginal housing policy debates, first in the 1970s, then the 1990s and early 2000s. It argues that Aboriginal housing policy is dominated by an equality-based ‘needs’ agenda, but that in the 1970s and 1980s an alternative, appropriate housing agenda for remote areas based on difference arguments did gain some attention. The paper uses recent work on the measurement of Aboriginal housing need and a field-based study of Aboriginal camping in a small Northern Territory town to demonstrate how difference-based arguments have been losing ground to equality arguments in Aboriginal housing debates in recent years.
The paper laments the rather simplistic recent ascendancy of equality arguments in Aboriginal income support and housing debates, and suggests that Indigenous affairs in Australia would currently be improved by somewhat greater consideration of difference arguments.