I’m seizing control, says PM.

by Elizabeth on June 22, 2007 · 1 comment

in Current Affairs

JOHN Howard will seize control of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, banning alcohol and pornography and using the military to attack the “national emergency” of alcohol-fuelled sexual abuse of children.

In the most dramatic revolution in Aboriginal affairs since the 1967 referendum gave the commonwealth power to enact special laws for Aborigines and include them in the census, the Prime Minister will forcibly quarantine half of the social security payments to most indigenous community residents so that parents spend money on food and rent instead of alcohol.

Scores of doctors will be drafted to examine all 23,000-plus indigenous children in the Territory aged under 16 for evidence of sexual abuse.

Over the next month, Mr Howard will flood indigenous communities with police and the military, who will offer logistical support to rebuild communities from the ground up.

The unprecedented power grab comes a week after the release of a report that revealed rampant and often-unreported child sexual abuse in Territory indigenous communities, with children as young as three exposed to hard-core pornography.

It described frequent attacks on children by family members and their friends after parties featuring drug use and binge-drinking.

[Re-posted from The Australian, story continues at the source.]

Some additional reading:
Howard announces sweeping changes to indigenous policy (stoush.net)
Son of Tampa – The Transcripts (Larvatus Prodeo)
Tampa, 2007 edition (Larvatus Prodeo)
Senator Andrew Bartlett’s response
I’m seizing control, says PM (SMH)
Escape plan for Aboriginal students (The Australian)
No one consulted me, says Chief Minister (SMH)

Howard’s announcement yesterday of these dramatic strategies has caused heated debate all over the country. It’s been really encouraging to see that so many people are motivated to discuss a topic that has been sadly neglected for so long, and I’ve been following a number of interesting discussions throughout the day.

Unfortunately, for every thoughtful and considered piece of commentary I’ve encountered in the blogosphere, there is another article that simply exists to deliver uninformed condemnation of Indigenous people as a whole. In making special laws for a subset of our population – whether those laws are right or wrong – our government has essentially created an “open mic night” for all those people who wish to make exclusionary statements of their own. I suppose it comes as little surprise that so many have interpreted Howard’s strategy as some sort of official sanction for otherwise unacceptable racist statements.

I don’t honestly believe that this was his intention, for what it’s worth, but I can’t believe it was unexpected or undesired either. However, there are plenty of other people out there who have already pointed out the connection between Howard’s announcement and the timing of the upcoming Federal election without me joining in for now. What really inspired me to write about this topic was the underlying resentment that so many of us seem to carry towards our indigenous people.

I grew up in a city in Far North QLD where the anti-Aboriginal sentiment was strong. A small number of Aboriginal people lived in parks and on the Esplanade, and it would be dishonest of me to say that they were pillars of society. These people only bothered to conceal their wine casks or beer if a police car approached, and they often took the bladders out of the cardboard cartons to make that process a little easier. Drunkenness in broad daylight was a daily thing, and there were certain parks that you simply didn’t walk through if you were by yourself. I remember being grabbed on the arm by a homeless woman as I walked through the park with a school group, and needing a teacher’s help to get free. I don’t know what the situation is like in Cairns now, but in the late 90’s that’s just how it was.

I never felt unsafe in Cairns, because I knew where I should and shouldn’t go. These people didn’t go out of their way to find trouble, but conflict within their family units was part of their everyday lives. My dad’s office was across the road from one of these parks, and it wasn’t unusual to see two people beating each other up from the foyer if I was stuck waiting for him after school. Interestingly enough, it was almost always the women who began and ended those fights. That was just my observation.

Many people that I knew in FNQ had a very hostile attitude towards Aboriginal people, no doubt as a result of the things they saw on the streets. It never occurred to them that these homeless Aborigines were just a visible segment of the population, and not at all representative of the average. Racist jokes were a staple of the backyard BBQ (“How do you stop an Aborigine from drowning? Take your foot off his head!“) and if you asked a local they were responsible for 99% of the crime in the city. I heard more blanket statements in those years than I’ve ever heard since – even after September 11.

So maybe that’s why I was especially angry to read the ignorant commentary that I came across today. No, the solution is not to bomb the NT. Or kill all the men. Or put them all onto a ship and sink it out at sea. In the space of just a few hours I came so many statements that dehumanised Aboriginal people in this way, and absolved the rest of us of any responsibility for the state they find themselves in now. It’s not only offensive, it’s ignorant and does nothing at all to help the victims of this abuse. Furthermore, I am willing to bet that these same people would not publish those statements if they were directed at Muslim people in our current climate. Racism is racism, regardless of the group at which it is targeted.

I have witnessed alcohol-fueled violence between Indigenous Australians first-hand, but I don’t pretend to know the extent of the problems being faced in the NT. The statistics paint a horrible picture of widespread child abuse and domestic violence in communities up there, and I agree completely that the situation deserved our complete attention a long time ago. I totally support the government’s decision to do something meaningful to protect these children and I hope that the issue doesn’t blow over in a couple of weeks because we’re distracted by something else.

However, I don’t believe that Howard has got it right. It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that these decisions have been made without any consultation with community leaders or even Clare Martin, the NT’s Chief Minister. Instead we have a disturbing paternalistic intervention that does not address the two biggest contributors to their predicament: Addiction, and the horrific events of the past 200 years that began the cycle of this widespread addiction. For the record, non-indigenous Australia is responsible for most of those.

Andrew Bartlett has responded to the news on his blog, and I found this part most interesting:

Professor Boni Robertson, who compiled a similar report in relation to Indigenous children in Queensland in 1999, has been reported making very critical comments about aspects of the plan. “When is this knee-jerk nonsense going to stop and when are they going to start proper consultation with our people so that we can get it done properly?”

You can read a short summary of the report here. It includes this list of “important points made by the Inquiry”:

  • Child sexual abuse is serious, widespread and often unreported.
  • Most Aboriginal people are willing and committed to solving problems and helping their children. They are also eager to better educate themselves.
  • Aboriginal people are not the only victims and not the only perpetrators of sexual abuse.
  • Much of the violence and sexual abuse occurring in Territory communities is a reflection of past, current and continuing social problems which have developed over many decades.
  • The combined effects of poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, gambling, pornography, poor education and housing, and a general loss of identity and control have contributed to violence and to sexual abuse in many forms.
  • Existing government programs to help Aboriginal people break the cycle of poverty and violence need to work better. There is not enough coordination and communication between government departments and agencies, and this is causing a breakdown in services and poor crisis intervention. Improvements in health and social services are desperately needed.
  • Programs need to have enough funds and resources and be a long-term commitment.

I don’t pretend to have any of the answers. These people lack the funds and resources to make positive changes through self-determinism alone, but there is no excuse for our government to bypass the indigenous community leaders who really are willing to get their hands dirty. All I know is that Howard’s approach is treating the symptoms rather than the disease, and I don’t see much evidence of long-term policies to complement his new laws.

And if today’s reading taught me one thing, it’s this: In order for there to be long-term improvements there needs to be a shift in attitude from non-Indigenous Australia as well. Unless we improve our understanding of these issues we cannot hope for people in remote Aboriginal communities to understand ours. We could all start by showing a little respect for our fellow Australians in the way that we write, and resist the urge to make simplistic generalisations that ignore our role in this mess.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Raya June 24, 2007 at 8:32 am

Look, Howard is a racist (as well as a sexist and a homophobe) and this plan is a terrible idea. What’s particularly offensive about it is that the reason these people are in this mess (i.e. the reason Aboriginals are so disproportionately poor and “shiftless” compared to the general population) is because the Europeans came and STOLE THEIR COUNTRY and then institutionalised discrimination against them. The answer is not institutionalise yet more discrimination. The answer is to get in there and SPEND SOME MONEY to educate the poor and create opportunities for them to help themselves — and that applies to the white Australians who are too freaking ignorant to wipe their own arses, as well.


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