09 December 2007

Next steps...towards the far horizon

Nicolas Rothwell, the Northern Territory- based journalist, has gone into print twice in the last week analysing the situation in the Territory since the previous Coalition government launched its intervention into indigenous communities several months ago.

The first, "Aboriginal surprise", is in the British magazine Prospect. I've not yet read the full article as it's only available (unless you can access it via a library's online database) if you pay, though The Australian published an extract in its Cut and Paste section:

Things have already begun to play out in intriguing ways in the deep deserts where the intervention task forces began their work in August. School attendance is up, communities are quieter, crime is down. Why, then, the hand-wringing and the outrage heard in the state capitals of southern Australia? Surely the mainstream population might be expected to welcome such an injection of resources into the deserts and the far north? That, though, would be to misunderstand the strange condition of the Australian intelligentsia and its intense engagement with indigenous causes.

Polls suggest that most Australians are mildly in favour of the intervention, to the extent that they care at all about Aboriginal matters, but the shrill hostility of the progressive classes drowns out this approval. In the rallies, television panels and opinion pages, it is not an intervention but an "invasion", a land grab, a rollback of Aboriginal rights, an episode that brings shame on the nation.

This mood of indignant moral fury on indigenous questions has become, over the past decade of conservative government, a key characteristic of a certain segment of Australian society one might call the "reconciliation class". Its moment of glory was a mass walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge (in 2000), when a quarter of a million demonstrators gathered in support of indigenous reconciliation. This largely metropolitan tendency has been deeply hostile to the Howard government, regarding the presence of a conservative populist at the helm of the nation as an insult.

For three decades, the standard setting for the management of indigenous affairs has been the enlightened Left's welfarist prescription, a prescription now being shredded by the "emergency response". These ideological dimensions explain much of the fire in the anti-intervention rhetoric, as all eyes turn to the little communities of the Northern Territory.

The second piece "No time for dreaming" is in The Weekend Australian. Rothwell knows the Territory well: read his recent book Another Country if you don't believe me.

[Prime Minister] Rudd can opt to maintain the drastic social engineering package on trial in the desert and Top End; he can roll back its coercive bite and impact or sharpen its effects and broaden its geographic scope. On the choices he makes, and their success, depend the fate of a people, the future of remote communities and even, in the long run, the economic structure of the inland and the north.

[ Indigenous Affairs Minister] Macklin has been receiving her departmental briefings this week, in private, and knows the inside story of the intervention and the trends and patterns across the remote Aboriginal domain. Despite strong signs that the federal taskforce's initial efforts are succeeding - school attendances in the centre are up as much as 30per cent, while gambling and domestic violence are down - the overall landscape remains sombre.

Vast sums have been poured into Aboriginal development during recent years, but they have been ineffectual. There is virtually no economic activity and most of the remote communities remain surreal fiefdoms presided over by outside administrators.


Opponents of the intervention denounce it as an invasion and call for it to be wound back. Supporters see it as the last opportunity to prevent social meltdown in a damaged world.


Rudd's strategy is becoming clear; it has been telegraphed by his ministerial picks and his administration's first position statements. It will be underlined by key appointments to the commanding heights of the bureaucracy in coming weeks. Its intellectual rigour and consistency will be sharply tested by the political challenges lying close ahead.

Macklin is the key choice. By opting for his established shadow minister, Rudd has also opted for Macklin's view of Aboriginal affairs, which has been substantially shaped by deep contacts with the pro-intervention Aboriginal leadership during the past six months. The new minister shares the key beliefs of the radical reform camp; she telegraphed them in uncompromising fashion in these pages last weekend . Her view is that the crisis in remote indigenous communities can be best addressed by pragmatic measures, such as restrictions on alcohol spending to control the plagues of addiction and family violence.

It is the view that lies behind the frankly coercive aspects of the intervention: the quarantining of incomes, increased policing, the requirement that communities send their children to school and the alcohol and pornography prohibitions.

The second key appointment was a negative one. By naming the territory's Warren Snowdon, a determined critic of the intervention, as Defence Science and Personnel Minister, Rudd binds this main mouthpiece of the antediluvian Left to cabinet solidarity and removes his voice from the debate.


There has been a drastic political realignment in Darwin, with the emergence of a new Chief Minister speaking the language of co-operation, Paul Henderson. Henderson knows his term in office will be judged by his ability to provide tangible improvements in the condition of remote NT communities and he has pledged himself to this goal.

One key to the indigenous policy direction of the Rudd-Macklin era lies in the new Government's choice of Aboriginal interlocutors. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the monarch of northeast Arnhem Land, has Macklin's ear: his message to her is one of respect for traditions and contempt for the provision of passive welfare payments to Aborigines. Alongside Yunupingu stands the University of Melbourne's Marcia Langton, a long-time believer in drastic social control measures to combat alcoholism and family violence.

Yunupingu envisages a generational reconstruction project in the territory, rechristened as the "special measure" program and buttressed by the formation of a council of traditional leaders.
Langton accepts the broad thrust of the emergency response and views it as a defensive campaign undertaken on behalf of indigenous women.

In flat contradiction to this stand, a group of more recently established Aboriginal spokespeople, marshalled by figures such as Olga Havnen and Larissa Behrendt, want the intervention stopped at once and replaced by consultation with the targeted communities.

This split in indigenous ranks, a divide over first principles rather than mere tactics, seems more profound than past disputes. It spells the end of pan-Aboriginal campaigning and may well hasten the development of different strains of indigenous identity and political programs based on region, philosophy and economic circumstance. More immediately, it forces the Rudd Government to choose between stark alternatives: to back the realist tendency represented by Langton and Yunupingu or make concessions to the rejectionists, whose campaigns have broad support from Labor's progressive wing.

Hence Macklin's longing for an indigenous compromise and her desire for the anti-intervention campaigners to sit down with their opponents and broker a development program that may give the takeover in the NT, in its Rudd version, a softer face.

Hence, too, the temptation the new Labor team feels to modify key elements of the intervention, as it promised in the election campaign on the advice of NT Labor strategists. Rudd is thus committed to restoring aspects of the territory's community development employment programs, closed down by Brough early in the intervention.Not even CDEP's few proponents regard this strange make-work system, which pays remote community part-time employees slightly above welfare rates, as anything more than a stop-gap.

But the true grotesquerie of the environment CDEP engenders is little understood by outsiders. A typical CDEP program is run by a highly paid white adviser and provides basic work teams fulfilling municipal and public tasks, in effect subsidising the NT Government and local councils. Many art centres rely on CDEP to pay their indigenous staff low part-time wages and thus use the program as a kind of taxpayer subsidy to keep the price of artworks competitive. False economic signals fly everywhere and create a shadow realm that barely meets the outside financial system. CDEP, with its dependent workers, thus acts as a force to maintain poverty and deprive people of the chance to fulfil their capabilities.

The tragedy is that it is the best system so far devised and the best indigenous societies have been offered. Brough canned CDEP only when it became clear that its payments could not legally be quarantined, but this was the reform that most urgently signalled to Aboriginal communities that a new world was upon them.

Rudd and Macklin will be urged by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations teams overseeing the Northern Territory project to keep alive the most ambitious aspect of the intervention's mid-term blueprint: the promise that all jobs on communities will be paid at standard rates, with features such as career development, education and superannuation.

The second change federal Labor endorsed in mid-campaign is the retention of the permit system controlling access to communities. No reporter committed to press freedom could support access permits, which are granted by land councils, and function to ensure favourable media portraits of communities and the powerbrokers who control them.

But the NT Labor Government, despite being stuffed full of former journalists, bizarrely opposed, and still opposes, Brough's extremely limited plan to lift the permit requirement for road access and public areas in large communities.

It is salutary to bear in mind how vital permits have been in maintaining the silence over sexual abuse and violence in remote communities. Permits also limit economic initiatives from outsiders and touristic activity. The system's defenders portray them as a force protecting culture, whereas strong cultures are those in robust contact with the world and seclusion produces inevitable decline.


In the remote communities today, a controlling elite seeks to limit and control access, so as to prevent the intolerable from being seen and felt and reported to the wider world. A masking version of reality is circulated and an oppressed class, in this case female, is maintained in fearful subjugation.

There are caricatural aspects to this summary of a complex social map, different in every tiny community, but the control system tends always to function in a similar way and to breed estrangement from the energies of the wider world. This is a straightforward moral issue for Rudd and, with his immense political capital, he can intervene in the policy debate to open up the bush while guaranteeing adequate policing and social services in communities.

Intervention, emergency, special measure: whatever the reforms in the NT are called in the Labor era, the process is set to continue. In truth, if it aims at raising remote societies to Western education and health levels, it is a project with at least a 50-year time frame. It has hardly even begun.

The commander of the emergency response, Dave Chalmers, gave an update this week on progress in the 73 target communities across the territory: 5000 health checks have been completed in 45 communities, 39 additional police have been stationed in the remote NT, 10 community stores have been licensed and 38 business managers are in place, overseeing the new order.

This is a pinprick on the surface; vast additional resources will be needed and fresh measures as yet undreamed of by policy architects if the Aboriginal societies of the centre and the north are to thrive and prosper and mesh on their own terms with the wider world.

As Labor leaders contemplate Brough's dream and seek to avoid it mutating into their own open-ended nightmare, they may want to consider far more ambitious levels of reconstruction than the conservative political order envisaged.

One key to unlocking remote Aboriginal disadvantage lies in a new description of the bush: the "failed state" model, advanced by former top NT bureaucrats Mike Dillon and Neil Westbury a year ago, explains the collapse of indigenous communities in terms of their systematic neglect and underfunding, but also in terms of the chaotic political and governance arrangements in place.

This is the far horizon of the intervention, which Rudd and Macklin will eventually have to face.

Rothwell asks more questions than he answers, but it should be clear where his (and my) sympathies lie. He seems relieved that these issues are now more out in the open than they were, but any optimism he has will be tempered by the enormity of the tasks, many of which are yet to be defined, the long time frame and the huge financial investment (not handout) required.

I hope to post more about these matters, but not now. I will be interested to see how letter writers and commentators react to Rothwell's forthrightness: the worst thing that could happen is that few will care.


Miss Eagle said...

Oh, cass, I could not even finish the Rothwell stuff. The first piece angered me no end with his resort to "the intelligentsia" and I only got part of the way through the second. I have lived in Melbourne for three years. I have a BA gained through long labour from the University of Queensland when it was still offering external studies. Most of this degree was obtained in the heat and isolation of Mount Isa in north-west Queensland. Most of my life has been spent in Northern Australia living in significant black communities. Don't tell me I'm some toffee-nosed member of an intelligentsia to which Rothwell is more likely to belong than I. Rothwell is an excellent journalist and at least he has travelled the country but he is conservative and clearly adopts the epithets of a Howard-type conservatism.

I am not on the Yunupingu and Langton side - Aboriginals of privilege. Not that I'm denying them their achievements - but each has long (and not always attractive) history. Yunupingu's recent effort has been to do a deal with Brough to protect land for future tourist development. Yunupingu can always be relied upon to place Yunupingu interests first just as Noel Pearson can be relied upon to place Pearson family interests first - especially when huge dollars are involved. Langton is an unusual personality (years ago left the Qld bureaucracy in a great huff) and I find it interesting to have the Yunupingu-Langton team in operation.

I am in the Olga and John Havnen (John is Olga's brother) camp who have experience in the neck of the woods I have inhabited. The way Rothwell speaks it is as if only the sort of action brought about by the Howard/Brough military intervention can bring a quieter life in schools and communities. What rubbish! As if Aboriginal communities - given the sort of support that white suburbia gets - can not govern themselves. Tennant Creek gave the lie to this more than a decade ago. The Aboriginal community there through its marvellous organisation, Julalikari, brought about radical change in relation to alcohol laws. Read about it in Grog War by Alexis Wright, this year's Miles Franklin Award winner. This was the same creative community who came up with the idea of night patrols which have been copied in Aborignal communities across Australia. So what if mainstream Australia supported the Howard/Brough intervention. It also stood by for years and let the Howard Government get away with absolute neglect, mischief, and antagonism towards Aboriginal people and communities. To most of mainstream Australia living on the fringes, Aboriginal people are there only in the abstract not in any semblace of equality with themselves; not as citizens who have rights as they themselves do.

I am disappointed to hear that Macklin has allied herself with Yunupingu and Langton. Great mistake. I hope that she gives an equal ear to Patrick and Mick Dodson, to David Ross of Central Land Council, as well as to Olga and to the people on the ground themselves. These are people. Not pawns to be moved around and controlled and coerced in a manner in which we do not even treat the worst of white criminals. And all these controls about the money - are these controls to be for some infinite time way into the future. Otherwise, what happens when the controls come off. One way or another, white fellas have found a new way of colonialism and paternalism instead of a co-operative way forward which may produce a new paradigm which will result in an effective form of self-determination for Aboriginal people and the communities in which they live. And what do some of these communities want for Christmas? An economy with real jobs please, Santa Rudd!

Shortshadow said...

Other indigenous people are supporting the intervention, eg Thursday's ABC RN World Today

Alison Anderson is a Labor member of the Northern Territory Parliament. She says the intervention is yielding results.

ALISON ANDERSON: First of all, I mean this might just sound very, very small to a lot of people, your listeners, but those communities are a lot cleaner. There's been an increase in school attendance. People are more motivated now to do more work through work-for-the-dole. And the income management is starting to keep the money in the community.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: And she says it is making the lives of women and children safer.

ALISON ANDERSON: Well, it's actually given a lot more power now to women and children to go up and approach police and talk to other people in the community about what's going on because they've seen so much on TV and heard their local members going around telling people why the intervention's in there, so you know, it's… People are quite aware of it. So it's been a really, really good education strategy.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Alison Anderson says she'd be happy to tell this to Anna Bligh.

ALISON ANDERSON: One of the things that I would say is that since the intervention's been in place in my area in central Australia, it has really, really had a positive effect on children understanding their rights and women understanding their rights. And the key factor in all this is the safety of the communities as well now.

Alexis Wright's book is hard to find - I've only looked briefly at in the cafe at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs. Has she said anything recently?

I think we'll just have to agree to differ on this one.