03 February 2008

Comments on indigenous matters

The Weekend Australian has two good pieces on indigenous matters. The first "A symbol of intent" by Mike Steketee discusses the views of Ian Tuxworth, a former CLP (conservative) Chief Minister of the NT and resident of Tennant Creek,and Richard Court, former Liberal WA Premier, about the proposal to say sorry to Aboriginal people".

An apology is not the most important issue facing the Rudd Government. But nor should the power of symbolism be dismissed. The policies of child removal adopted throughout Australia treated indigenous people not just as bad parents but as racial inferiors. Acknowledging how mistaken this was matters. Going further through what [former WA Premier Richard]Court called a national change of heart and incorporating the oldest civilisation on earth into the Australian consciousness would be something of which we could all be proud.

Tuxworth wrote last year: "It is easy for us to see Aborigines as members of dysfunctional communities, remote skin groups or disruptive mobs hanging around in public places, with little to do but be a nuisance which offends the sensibilities of the wider community.

"In fact, they are also individuals whose beliefs, confidence and self-esteem are at such a low ebb it is going to take at least a generation to rekindle in the Aboriginal community the inner spirit that drives other Australians."

An apology can help light that flame.

The second "Standing on secret ground" by Paul Toohey asks "Is the national emergency response still an emergency?" Although Major-General Chalmers, the head of the Federal government's emergency response taskforce, says it is because the government has said it is, Toohey's response is more nuanced in places and forthright in others:

The intervention is in three stages: the current stabilisation period, which will nominally last a year and seeks to establish order through increased police presence, changes to alcohol and pornography laws, the quarantining of welfare, the gathering of population data, and explaining the intervention to residents of 73 communities and 45 town camps; part two is the longer normalisation stage, in which communities will - they hope - be provided with the services they need for good health, education and infrastructure; the final stage is the exit strategy.

The emergency response legislation will be dismantled after five years. If all goes well, not just Aborigines will know their responsibilities by that time, but the Territory and federal governments, which have long neglected Aboriginal communities, will know theirs as well.

Fears that the legislation, which allows the federal Government to control communities for the five-year period, was a disguised land grab have not been justified.

If some of the shriller opponents of the intervention were now to look more closely at what is happening, they would find the intervention is less invasive than they imagine. The Northern Territory Government, initially shocked by the emergency, then humiliated, has seen the benefits: it knows that over the five-year period will come an enormous injection of commonwealth funding to the bush. The quarantining of welfare money, or income management, is being rolled out in stages, with a sweep of central Australian communities the first to experience the regime. As of a few weeks ago, it was being introduced in one of the Territory's biggest northern communities, Wadeye. So far, Katherine, Tennant Creek and the whole of Arnhem Land are yet to be affected by the intervention at all, except for health checks. People can choose to have their welfare quarantined to their local store, which electronically manages the money for food or essentials (but not cigarettes), or, if a person wishes to spend in, say, Alice Springs, they can get a Centrelink card that works at Woolies or Kmart, but not at the bottle shop.

"There are problems with it and these are very complex things to introduce," says Chalmers. "When a problem crops up it aggravates people but people who often don't have voice (women): they know this is making a difference and money is available to be spent on children. Stores where we've introduced income management have had an increased turnover of 20-30 per cent. To me, that money that was potentially being spent on gambling or grog is now being spent on food and essentials."

If income management is implicitly discriminatory, Mavis Malbunka, 63, an emerging spokeswoman for Aboriginal women from Hermannsburg, in the centre, is prepared to overlook the fact. She has now lived with income management for close to six months. "We see the benefits," she says. "There's no money running out. Income management is a great help for Aboriginal people; in Hermannsburg I hear no complaint about income management." She says it is too early to say whether gambling has been stamped out, because there is still cash money available in the un-quarantined welfare payment.

"But I do know people are buying more food," Malbunka says. "We see income management as more safe." She witnessed the initial visit by the army and medical teams. She says an infrastructure crew is in the area talking about renovations and building improvements but, as a grandmother, she says what she really wants from the intervention is practical assistance with disciplining kids.

"Old people and family feel there's a threat coming from the children. If we hurt them, they go to police and we are charged. We are not looking to hit kids, but we want support to work with the kids. They're going over us." Her point is valid: how can you help kids, and protect them from harm, if they won't listen? Therein may be Dave Chalmers' toughest intervention challenge.


Chalmers won't comment on Macklin's decision to reinstate the permit system for townships. So I will. It is a disaster. She has said keeping the permit system will keep out the pedophiles and the grog and the ganja. But aren't the pedophiles supposedly already in the communities? Wasn't that the basis of the emergency response? As for drug and ganja runners, they are not outsiders: they are Aboriginal locals, looking to make some extra money or taking in their own supply.

In its intention to reinstate the permit system, Labor is not acting in the interests of Aborigines but reaffirming Labor's strong political base in the bush. Journalists will be allowed in without permits, but so what? It isn't about journalists, it is about allowing normality to return - or begin - in the bush.

Labor's position will undermine every successful step the intervention has taken and will see, in five years' time, communities return to their rotten isolation. It should be very clear: permits will, and should, still be required for the vast Aboriginal land holdings that surround the towns. If people want cultural privacy, all that land is theirs to use. But Aborigines and whites who don't like the intervention should be able to see, by now, that it was the permit system that created the intervention. A secret world is not necessarily a sacred one.

I've quoted lengthy extracts from them, but both articles are worth reading in full.

1 comment:

Miss Eagle said...

And when all is said and done, after five years or ten years or whenever what will be the result? Will there be an economy on Aboriginal land (in some areas there already is and the intervention could be a threat to its continuation)? Will another generation of white bureaucrats be walking away with their salaries and travel expenses and living away from home allowances taken from so-called Aboriginal budgets? Will some of the currently "doing nicely thank-you" Aboriginal leadership be doing even better - and those who are poor and uneducated will have added to their family tree with more poor and uneducated?

The Prime Minister wants 1,000 people to pour their bright ideas into national strategy. I don't see one bright idea anywhere in all this intervention. I see nothing to date which is markedly different from previous policy directions - many of which have failed or been neglected and some of which have been success stories.

Social inclusion for Aboriginal people has to mean economic, democratic and policy inclusion. The intervention, to date, has not demonstrated that this will happen and I see no evidence of any policy projections that will bring that about.

I don't believe that the intervention is universally bad - few things in life are all bad all of the time for all of the people. I think it will be good for some for a while. But we are not talking about intervention a la Dr Phil here - a bit of a shock, off to rehab, back on the straight and narrow and problem solved. Next patient please!

When we talk about Aboriginal problems we seem to neatly exclude ourselves from their problems. Does it ever occur to us that we might need intervention in our own thoughts, processes, and lives? Like: do unto Aboriginal people as you would expect to have done unto you. Love Aboriginal people like you love yourself. Some of us do this, some of us give lip service to this (but don't want to do without anything like tax cuts etc to do this), and an awful lot of us have the Rhett Butler response - just couldn't give a damn.

Part of the problem will not be addressed - and it is a problem shared by many white people. It is the problem of remote Australia: the out of mind, out of sight syndrome that adversely affects both black and white communities. This is a problem of the suburban nature of this country where most of the population (who influence political decisions with their votes and opinion poll responses) live on the fringes of the continent and never get to The Outback, let alone stay long enough to understand properly its unique culture.

In the end, changes will be a three way process. Aboriginal restraint and effort; Government interest, will, and resource allocation; the interest, drive, and political will of the Australian polity. These three factors have to be there, held in a creative and progressive, tension or the whole thing comes tumbling down.