The Intervention


For anyone who’s interested in what is happening in remote aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, but don’t want to rely on the writings of those of us who blog and have seen the effects first-hand, last night’s Four Corners visited two communities, Maningrida in western Arnhem Land, and Aputula, or Finke, in the Simpson Desert, in a report titled Tracking the Intervention (follow the link to watch the program in full, or read the transcript from here).

Because the intervention began in the south of the Territory and gradually moved north, Aputula has endured the taskforce for longer, and is considered further down the path; it is a ‘phase three’ community. Maningrida on the other hand, is about as far north as you can go without getting wet, and is still in ‘phase one’.

Generally speaking, it was great to see such a huge and important issue given the airtime it deserves; far too few people in this country realise what is happening. In fact, my family saw for the first time glimpses of what I’ve been ranting about for the past four months, and they were all appalled at the blatant injustices being committed, and the covert assimilationist policies being carried out in the (rather insincere) name of child protection.

There were four main points detailed in the four Corners report that elicited gasps of disbelief and cynicism in my household, and I’ve summarised them here.

In Maningrida, the community women operate a night-watch called the Child Safety Service. The women ensure that children are safe at night while playing, and that they go home at a reasonable hour on school-nights. The service was praised in the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report:

The Inquiry regards the [Maningrida Community Action Plan Project, including the Child Safety Service] as an extremely valuable project and one that can be utilised to both establish a Community Justice Group and help guide reform in relation to the mainstream response to child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

However, the funding is about to cease, and none of the $1.3 billion spent so far on the intervention (a lot of which is going towards the extra Centrelink bureaucrats) is finding its way to helping out this group of 15 Maningrida women who are undertaking this ‘extremely valuable project’.

This is particularly hard to understand, since the purpose of the entire intervention is the protection of children, presumably, and not the scrapping of CDEP nor the quarantining of welfare payments, which are mere means to achieve this end, supposedly. It beggared our collective belief that something as closely related to the issue at the heart of the intervention as this project is, could be allowed to suffer, especially with all the investment the government is putting in.

The next aspect that caused considerable concern was the seizing of assets. Under the legislation, commonwealth appointed ‘Business Managers’ (community administrators, or Superintendents¹) have the power to seize community assets. In Maningrida, this means up to $40 million worth of land, structures and houses on some 32 outstations, vehicles and heavy machinery, community stores and so on, can be taken away with the mere stroke of a pen.

The community have been trying to get answers from their appointed ‘Business Manager’, Luke Morrish, as to what legal powers they have, and under what circumstances and under whose authority can the government seize their property. Here is the exchange:

MATTHEW RYAN, HEAD DJELK RANGER: There’s a lot of people are curious and want to know what’s going to happen with their assets and everything, you know, but there need to be like more members too, that way they can ask you questions as well. And like Peter said earlier, we had three times taskforce come up here …

LUKE MORRISH, TASKFORCE BUSINESS MANAGER: Mmm mmm.

MR: We’ve asked them, they haven’t come back with the answers and it’s not good enough. If you want that good working relationship with us mob, well you need to have the answers.

LM: I’ve got to say, I’m not going to be able to give you all the answers myself straight away, but when I say I’ll get the answers for you, I’ll get the answers for you. And I can’t run away, I can’t hide, I’m here so I’m going to have to do that.

MR: Well that’s what the taskforce promised us which they haven’t yet, so, hopefully it’ll be you.

LM: But they’re not, you know, and they probably had a view that, yeah, once I’m here on the ground that I’d be able to do that …

MR: Oh we hope so.

LM: And that’s why I’m here.

Same question evasion, different government department.

And so the report moves on to Aputula, where the intervention has been in full operation for months. Some people in Aputula were moved on from CDEP onto real jobs: seventeen out of the twenty-eight. Most of the seventeen are now employed in the child and aged care facility. There are also reports that people who were previously able to receive welfare without doing anything, now had to earn their money through work-for-the-dole.

There were however, a number of Aputula residents, mostly men, who were employed under CDEP to tend to the community-owned fruit orchard. While they provided food for the community, there was no commercial viability in the venture as they couldn’t grow enough surplus to sell, so the project was funded by CDEP. Its cessation meant that the former workers will be moved on to something else. In the meantime they receive ‘CDEP transitional’ payments of $8.24 (that’s not a typo: eight dollars and twenty-four cents) per fortnight, for 50 hours work! That’s less than 20 cents an hour!

Since the men’s wives often work in the aged and child care centre and get a steady wage, the men feel justifiably disinclined to work 25 hours a week for an extra four bucks. This is how the government apparently gets people into jobs.

The worst part for the men though, is that whereas before they were performing important community-oriented tasks and were widely regarded as good workers, they now feel completely undervalued.

The welfare quarantining has also come into effect in Aputula. The basic premise is that the government, under the guise of the ‘Minister’, can mandate that half of all welfare payments in proscribed areas (all aboriginal communities and town camps) will be spent on certain goods or services, including food, clothing and bills, and will be spent either at a Woolworths (of which two exist in the Territory excluding Darwin) or a community store. And it’s lucky that Aputula have one of the latter, otherwise residents will have to drive some three-and-a-half hours to get to the nearest Woolies, in Alice Springs.

It sounds simple, but it has been an administrative nightmare and required the enlisting of some 350 extra staff for Centrelink to figure out the details. But it seems that when it comes to Aputula, they’ve merely passed on the job of working out the details to the communities.

Every morning Centrelink emails her updates on the quarantined money owed to each Finke [Aputula] resident on welfare. She downloads it and then enters the new data on her computer in the shop. She then prints out this list so she can refer to it all day when customers want to use their income managed funds for purchases.

Many customers come into the shop several times a day for small purchases. Every time they do, they sign their receipt.

Many can’t write, so they mark the receipt with a cross, and Rewa Angell [Manager of the Finke store] prints the name and attests that it is the customer in question. At the close of business, she then reconciles each receipt against the Centrelink data.

It’s turned community store operators into micro accountants.

I’d like to finish off this post by pointing out that I really haven’t spoken much about child sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, incarceration rates and all those other issues that are central to this debate and central to (the most recent incarnation of) the report that started it all. There’s a good reason for this, and that is that the response from the government to these issues – this very intervention – doesn’t address them either. Instead they’ve gone after community assets, land rights, the permit system, and everything there is that makes living in remote communities possible. In this respect, and I say this (repeatedly) without delving too far into the realm of politicking, it looks as though the real motivation is to free up that resource-rich land.

Kim Christen has written an excellent post on the history of the intervention so far, as a guest-post on the brilliant Anthropology blog Savage Minds, which I have thus far neglected to add to my blogroll (note to self: fix that) and it is well worth the read. I spent quite a few minutes composing a lengthy response there, but as it contained a link or two, it hasn’t appeared yet. In other words, I rote U a rply but Askimet eated it².

~

¹White bureaucrats who were employed in the earlier days of Australia, during the height of the Assimilationist days, to act as paternal overseer of all aboriginal people within their jurisdiction. Their job was effectively to keep them downtrodden.

²I can’t believe I just made a lolcat reference! I’ll make amends by showing you this xkcd comic:

As Lauredhel noted this morning, the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) will take legal action against the federal government’s Northern Territory intervention in the High Court in an attempt to stop legislative changes that would threaten the viability of Maningrida and other communities and their 32 outstations.

The BAC operates one of the largest CDEP programs in the country, with over 600 employees. As such, they stand to lose greatly from the cessation of CDEP and are threatened with the closure of the corporation altogether. This would seriously endanger the livelihoods of the 800 people living on the outstations serviced by the BAC, based in Maningrida.

There is apparently sound basis for this case, although most of the reports seem to imply that it rests on the interpretation of one phrase, just compensation. That aside, St John Frawley, a Melbourne based lawyer representing the BAC, believes the case is strong:

The acquisition under the powers under which the Act is made mean that the acquisition should be on just terms, and we say that the acquisition is other than on just terms, for a number of reasons.

I just love the way lawyers make me have to re-read a sentence several times.

As is always expected, Brough is crying political conspiracy, harking on about how David Dalrymple, one of the lawyers working on the case, is in bed with the NT Labor party, literally:

This has now been in for over three months, and what I am doing is simply stating what I understand to be the facts.
That is that the lawyer taking this up is the husband of the Labor Minister from the Northern Territory who has just condemned every aspect of it.

Big deal! It’s up to the High Court at the end of the day, and presumably they don’t care who’s married to whom.

While we’re on the subject of the NT government; they’re not formally supporting the legal action but have reiterated their criticisms of some aspects of the intervention strategy, specifically those with which this case is concerned.

"We didn’t see the link between ending the permit system and protecting children," [NT Chief Minister Clare Martin] said.
"We as Government didn’t see the link between protecting children and five-year leases, and I’ve been clear about that all along."

It is likely a matter of political expedience that Martin won’t support the legal action any further, since Kevin "07" Rudd has given his (in principle) support to the intervention and, with an election just four weeks from today, could do without any more embarrassments from the state governments.

This single case could also have much wider implications in the Territory and elsewhere, as the legal representatives of the BAC believe it could render invalid the entire foundation for the removal of aboriginal assets, including the forced leasing of land.

"My understanding is if we’re successful in this action, then the Commonwealth will not be able to compulsorily acquire land elsewhere in the Northern Territory," [Ian Munro from Maningrida’s Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation] said.

Even if this case doesn’t invalidate this particularly hairy part of the intervention legislation, it could set a legal precedent for other communities to pursue similar legal action against the government. It could in effect become a landmark case for indigenous sovereignty in this country; it’d potentially be right up there with the Mabo and Wik decisions. Just imagine: Mabo, Wik and Bawinanga.

A final bit of good news, as it’s considered a matter of urgency, the High Court is listing this case as a high priority and will hold a directions hearing next Thursday.


In case you were wondering about the title for this post, it’s an allusion to the meaning of the place-name Maningrida, which, according to the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, is an anglicisation of the Djeebbana (Ethnologue’s spelling) name Manayingkarírra, which comes from a phrase mane djang karirra and basically means ‘place where the dreaming changed shape’.

Perhaps someone who’s more knowledgeable than me in the Burarran languages can verify this and provide a morpheme gloss or something. It’s not that I doubt it at all, but it would interest me nonetheless.

On the ABC news website’s equivalent of a front page this morning, it was reported that the Northern Territory Family and Community Services Minister denouncing the NT intervention as an election ploy. As expected, Mal Brough has come out on the defensive, saying Marion Scrymgour doesn’t know what she’s talking about. 

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough says Ms Scrymgour should resign over the speech because she is out of touch with people on the ground.

Perhaps if she paraphrased a nameless olgaman¹ in the mythical community ‘on the ground’ and gave some minute piece of anecdotal evidence, she might have a bit more credibility, at least in Brough’s eyes. He also took the opportunity to get in a quick jab, attacking both the Labor NT government and the federal opposition:

“Marion needs to resign. She is part of a Territory Government that has signed up to this,” he said.

“She is there blatantly saying it’s wrong. She is one of a long list of Labor people including Jenny Macklin who have been out there who have said they will reinstitute the permit system and they’ll reinstitute CDEP.”

Firstly, I think he goes a tad far to suggest that Ms Scrymgour should resign, and I don’t see how being ‘a part of a government that signed up to this’ affects her ability – as a minister who’s heavily involved with the issue – to make an informed decision about the efficacy or otherwise, of federal policy. In fact it sounds like attempted censorship to me: if he managed to get his way and she did resign, would other parliamentarians be encouraged to speak out when they see good reason to do so? Would Liberal party dissenters speak out?

Secondly, he completely disregards any possibility that the down-grading of the permit system and the complete scrapping of CDEP is perhaps not the best course of action. This is another example of the flawed logic that Brough uses to stifle debate, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

In the interests of a return to healthy debate – not that I think anyone with any power would listen to this – I hereby affirm my belief that the cessation of CDEP is counterproductive to the government’s stated position of lifting aboriginal communities out of poverty and moving people from welfare to work.

CDEP has been a vital source of desperately needed funds for heavily impoverished communities for years now. It’s probably arguable that it has been misappropriated as ‘wages’ and communal revenue when it should have been used to train community members to eventually enter the private workforce, but there are problems with that; private sector jobs don’t exist in large enough numbers. CDEP is not ‘without blemish’, to borrow a phrase, but it’s heavily relied upon in many communities to bridge the gap between passive welfare and commercial operations, like art centres and tourism ventures, or much-needed healthcare services like alcohol rehabilitation centres.

I fail to see how scrapping CDEP could possibly help any of the dysfunctional communities in the Northern Territory (or elsewhere; it’s a federal service), yet Brough seems so sure that it will, that he’s willing to do what he can to put an end to the debate.

I, for one, would like to hear his argument.

~

<update>
I just learned from Kim’s blog that Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett issued a media release today, in which he criticises Brough for the bullying tactics with which he deals with any dissent towards his intervention.

Mr Brough seems to believe that everybody except himself is out of touch with what is happening on the ground, even Aboriginal people who have lived in the Territory their whole lives.

I keep reminding myself not to doubt Brough’s sincerity when it comes to the real motivation for the intervention, but sometimes he really tries my patience.
</update>

~

¹Olgaman, ‘old woman’ (Kriol)

You might have noticed, or rather, I hope you will have noticed that I’ve been rather slack in writing lately. This isn’t because nothing has been happening, far from it, it’s just because I’ve had way too much stuff to do off-blog to spend any reasonable time writing posts.

Here’s a quick round-up of some of the things I should have written about over the last week or so:

1. Howard brought reconciliation back onto the agenda with a promise (core or non-core?) to hold a referendum on the addition of a clause on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the preamble of the constitution. This was of course, knocked back by the electorate when it went to referendum in 1998, even after the wording had been sufficiently watered down, from affirming indigenous people’s custodianship of the land to affirming their rather more insipid and less legally binding kinship with the land.

It’s hard not to be cynical of this move, especially if you look at the last eleven-and-a-half years of this government and their failure to do anything positive for them. Dragonphoenix at My2point2cents (incl. GST) has a very concise and informative timeline of Howard’s actions on indigenous affairs since being elected in 1996.

My guess is that the NT intervention is so disastrously unpopular in the electorate that he needs to claw back some territory – metaphorically, he’s already clawing back way too much of that literal territory that the Crown lost in native title claims – on the indigenous front. It’d be pretty unwise for anyone to disagree with the policy of recognising the rights of indigenous people in the constitution.

2. The election was called, after weeks of Howard saying ‘it will either be in late November of early December’. Turns out, lo and behold, he was right, it will be in late November, the 24th. If you haven’t enrolled yet, you just got electorally disenfranchised, as you only had until this past Wednesday, 8pm.

The polls out this morning indicated that the electorate is largely happy with $34 billion being taken away from services and given back to the tax-payer so they can buy more plasma screen TVs. But it’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than a 2% rise in the Coalition’s two-party-preferred polling to thwart the momentum of The Rudd. I’ll be voting Green of course, but I’m still allowed to prefer one of the decreasingly distinguishable pair of contenders over the other.

3. Residents of Kybrook Farm¹, as I read by chance a while ago, will be the first to vote in this year’s election, in a demonstration of the remote mobile polling services.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) says one of the reasons Kybrook Farm, which is an hour outside of Katherine [they obviously don’t drive like I do – J], was chosen was because of its picturesque backdrop.

AEC’s Iain Loganathan says the 70 people enrolled to vote there will go to the polls on November 12.

I’m glad that the community won’t be disenfranchised by bureaucratic oversight, such as what happened during the census last year, when entire towns of thousands of people went un-counted.

4. The federal government have approved the Pulp Mill in the Tamar Valley in Northern Tasmania. We all know this. What most of us don’t know is at the same time, the Minister for² the Environment Malcolm Turnbull, approved the Pluto Gas plant, to be built among the world’s largest and oldest collection of rock-art anywhere in the world, in the Burrup Peninsula.

A spokesman for the Minister says [Assistant Minister for the Environment, John] Cobb was not satisfied that the area was of particular significance to Aboriginal people in accordance with Aboriginal tradition.

5. Difference of Opinion, the ABC’s inferior version of SBS’s highly successful program Insight, last night focused on the Intervention in the NT. The panel consisted of Olga Havnen, Tom Calma, Professor Lowitja O’Donahue AC, and Dr Sue Gordon OAM. To those who have been following even slightly the events of the past three and a half months, these names will be familiar. The first three are vocal critics, while Sue Gordon is the head of the NT taskforce and spent most of the night trying to defend it, quite unsuccessfully. I’ll try to remember to update the link to the show’s website when an archived version is available.

6. This really deserves its own post, but this will have to suffice. News.com.au has released an interactive website called Culture in Crisis that contains a huge amount of information and multimedia content about indigenous Australian history and culture, and also addresses the reality of the crisis faced by aboriginal culture in this country. Here is the blurb:

Soothing the dying pillow is the description used 50 years ago to describe white Australians’ predictions that Aborigines would die out.
The official view was that the Government’s duty was to ease the death of Aboriginal culture while educating their children to be white people.
This interactive shows what, if any, progress has been made on child sexual abuse, domestic violence, health, and short life-spans.
It points to crucial changes which must be made if the world’s oldest living culture is to survive.

It’s a very interesting and informative website with a huge amount of content, including interviews with various highly informed people, including Prof. Jon Altman and Patrick McConvell, and many interviews and discussions with some of the Yolngu people. I probably don’t have to declare anything, but I will just in case. The Culture in Crisis website was produced for News.com.au by an affinal relative of mine.

7. This one’s hot off the press: Katherine is going dry – except for private houses, licensed premises and the low-level crossing area, between 7am and 7pm. No more long-necks in the long grass.

I’m sure to have forgotten something, but this will hopefully bring me more or less up to speed.


¹I should point out that I’m interested because this community is where I did my three field trips.

²For the Environment’ here is surely meant to be taken sarcastically, right?

It wasn’t long after alcohol restrictions were initially put in place in the Northern Territory that the various Recreational Fishing lobby groups threw up their arms in indignation, with the NT government firmly by their side:

Look, a fisherman having a beer in the boat on the Daly River as he goes about his normal business is not going to make any difference to the way in which Aboriginal Australia is going to develop. That’s, you know, they’re not really related.
Chris Makepeace [from the Amateur Fisherman’s Association]

Apparently the tourism industry in the NT would collapse if the myriads of Grey Nomads weren’t allowed to down a XXXX Gold while letting that barra get away. Incidentally, I wouldn’t argue with that: Incidentally, I find fishing so mind-numbingly boring that I too, would have to be absolutely soused to endure it.

The result back then was the concession that recreation fishermen-or-women would be allowed to drink alcohol on a boat on a river within the confines of aboriginal land (roughly speaking), where alcohol would otherwise be completely banned. Since that original fine-tuning, we’ve seen some more exceptions to the original ‘blanket’ bans on alcohol, all of which were driven by the tourism industry.

Yesterday, five camp grounds in Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks were exempted from alcohol bans for tourists, however I can’t find any information on whether or not the alcohol bans would still apply to members of indigenous communities, though I’d assume they do. As for white residents, it’s probably considerably more hairy. Surprisingly, the NT government licensing bodies, regulators and lobby groups were critical of the changes, except that their criticisms aren’t about the laws themselves, but the way in which they themselves have been left out of the loop: 

The changes were made this week, but there is concern that Mr Brough did not inform key regulators and industry representatives of the changes until after they were applied.
Northern Territory Licensing Minister Chris Burns says his department, who administer the laws, were kept in the dark until late yesterday.

One would hope that they’d be even slightly critical of the laws on the basis that indigenous groups have been similarly kept ‘in the dark’ with respect to just about everything. They went on to accuse Brough of legislating ‘on the run’, something that I and others have been charging him with since the very beginning:

The fact that the plan lacks detail or even any long-term goals and targets (Howard on NT Stateline last night) and the fact that the government has already back-pedalled on a few aspects, both make it overwhelmingly clear that the plan is little more than a knee-jerk reaction.
(June 30, 2007)

I have two further points to make on this. First of all, it’s quite frankly appalling that the interests of tourists are given this much more weight in the decision-making in Darwin and in Canberra than those of indigenous people – by far the most disadvantaged demographic in the country. It’s sufficient, so it seems, for a tourism or fishing lobby group to cry foul for Brough to move Heaven and Earth to protect their birthright to intoxication. If nothing else this sends the message that black people in this country still have no voice.

Secondly, I would posit a hypothetical: Suppose a big mob of Wagiman people went for a drive up the road to Gunlom, one of the exempted camp grounds, which is Mayali country and not Wagiman country, and proceeded to crack a tinny.

Are they considered tourists?

I just read an emotional and inspiring post at Will Owen’s blog about a speech that Mal Brough gave on Tuesday October 2, for the Alfred Deakin Lecture at Melbourne University. A recurring theme of Brough’s speech (reproduced in full at Will’s blog) is his outrage at the situation. Here is an extract of Will’s commentary:

I, too, am outraged, and not just by the suffering of indigenous people in Papunya and elsewhere in the Northern Territory. If you read Brough’s remarks, you will find no mention of indigenous action in the face of this suffering. He talks about the “war zone” of nighttime in the Outback; he doesn’t talk about the night patrols that women in Maningrida and other communities organized until the funding that allowed them to operate effectively was stripped by the machinations of the Intervention.

He doesn’t mention Titjikala and the indigenous-run tourism business that has closed down because CDEP is being dismantled. He doesn’t talk about the capital raised for community-based health care through the sale of art from Kintore and Kiwirrkura.

Reading Brough’s words in this speech angered me as well, mostly for the reasons that Will gives, but also because of the shameless lack of debate, the fact that as citizens living in a country whose two levels of federal governance are held hostage by the whim of a single man and his unconscionable cronies, we have depressingly little power. I’m angry that as much as we are putting up strong arguments for better, more considered policies, for the strengthening of CDEP rather that its scrapping, for cultural diversity rather than assimilation, for co-operative community-based societies rather than competitive-based urban life, as much as we shout and yell, there’s an overwhelming silence that sounds like no one with any power is listening.

The rest of this post is going to concentrate on a single instance of this lack of debate; the seemingly superhuman ability of Brough and the rest of the government to not allow the logic of their argument to be tested, their ability to willfully ignore reasonable dissent and to dismiss any detractors. This ability stems from mere syllogistic sleight-of-hand.

~

There is a massive logical gap in the government’s arguments; in Brough’s arguments. Any good syllogism is supposed to begin with any number of agreed-upon premises and finish with a conclusion that is derived by mechanistic processes involving axiomatic, pre-defined operators such as ‘hook’, ‘and’ and ‘not’. That sentence glosses over perhaps an entire 2 millennia of scientific and philosophical investigation and analysis, but it is the foundation upon which modern western thought, culture and law is based.

Brough’s argument doesn’t follow this formula. He has a number of premises: that the living conditions in indigenous communities are atrocious and cannot be tolerated any longer, and that there is a particularly abhorrent, high level of child sexual assault and neglect that must be addressed. Moreover, he has a number of conclusions, that have become manifest in the legislative action that he and the government have undertaken. What’s missing is a logical step from premise to conclusion.

This is possibly a very easy way to argue and may seem trivial, but it has serious consequences. Brough’s rhetoric omits the entirety of the logical progression, rendering it unable to be argued. He simply sticks to the agreed upon premises and his own deduced conclusions. If anyone disagrees with his conclusions, then according to Brough, they are being unreasonable.

Take this example. During the Alfred Deakin Lecture, Brough referred to two questions that were asked of him at another speech a week earlier, both of which were met with the same ‘raucous’ applause from the audience, meaning that they collectively agreed with the implication of each question. The first asked why he had to suspend suspend the Racial Discrimination Act, to which his (frankly inadequate) response was that aboriginal people living in these appalling conditions are more concerned about the well-being of their children and not the Racial Discrimination Act. The second question asked why he, or the government, hadn’t done anything for the last eleven years. This was his commentary:

I thought isn’t it interesting the same audience can have two totally different perspectives. One, why did you breach the Racial Discrimination Act, and point up that that’s wrong, and then 15 minutes later applaud when challenged for why I didn’t breach it 10 years ago.

The question did not ask why he didn’t breach the Racial Discrimination Act ten years ago, it asked why he didn’t do anything 10 years ago. His conflation of the two indicates that to Brough, they are logically equivalent.

He believes it is inconsistent to give in-principle support for the need to address the issue, as was the implication of the second question, without supporting everything the government is doing in addressing it. It’s as though breaching the Racial Discrimination Act is logically necessitated by the imperative to act; it is therefore no longer susceptible to debate.

If you read the speech, you’ll notice that it’s heavily-laden with nauseating tales of specific cases of child sexual assault, and some rather horrifying statistics. You’ll also notice that it’s heavy with Brough’s defences of his and the government’s actions, and subsequently, lots of denouncement of any opposition. The way the two connect is in itself quite sickening; he’ll make reference to some “white academic in a university down south” as attacking him for racist legislation, which he then counters with a description of a three-year-old with gonorrhea. There is absolutely no explanation of the logical connection between that child and, for instance, taking several thousand people off important community-oriented jobs, like night patrols, and placing them on welfare. The mere existence of the child is all the justification he needs.

By omitting the entire logical progression of an argument – everything between the premise and the conclusion – Brough manages to force the debate to boil down to a simple equation: if you accept that there is a problem, then you are compelled to accept our solution. A worrying corollary of that is something along the lines of: if you don’t support our solution then you are acting in the interests of child abusers.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not arguing that there is no problem. Far from it. There is a very serious and devastating social problem and we have a real obligation to fix it – I think my beliefs on this point have been consistent. What I’m arguing for here, is that it benefits no one to denounce as unimportant any legitimate questions as to the efficacy of the legislation, or to ignore any sensible suggestions about how they might address these issues with a bit more foresight, and a little less election-sight.

~

This is a good place to bring up that Will also drew analogy with the progress of the Iraq war. He warns Australia not to be so easily led down that same path, coming from a country that dealt with the same sort of thing 6 years ago, when the US justified a primarily resources-based military strike on a sovereign state using trumped up weapons of mass destruction accusations and overblown cries of the evils of a tyrant. I’m not saying that child sexual assault is a bogus charge or that the whole thing is trumped up, but I am saying that the government is taking advantage of this most serious and grave of situations, with more sinister goals in mind, which I’ve written about here many a-time before.

The similarity of the rhetoric is uncanny; ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ was the crux of Bush’s means of silencing any critics of he and his administration’s invasion of Iraq. Now I think it’s fair enough to say the same of Brough’s way of silencing his critics.

I’ll close this lengthy and meaty post with a reprint of Will’s warning, and I suggest we heed his advice:

So I hope that Australians will not follow in America’s footsteps this time. I hope they will engage in critical examination of what their government claims to be doing, and why. When Brough announces, as his does in this lecture, “I have breached the Racial Discrimination Act in a positive sense,” I hope someone will point out that governments that put themselves above the law–as the Bush administration has done consistently in America since taking office–tread dangerously close to the borders of tyranny.


Kim writes that Labor have announced their policy to not only retain CDEP, but to strengthen it and to attempt to smooth out the problems. This is of course very welcome, well, to everyone except for Brough predictably, who thinks it’ll be a ‘backward step’. Backwards or forwards: it depends which way you’re facing, and Brough is certainly facing the wrong way.

But Mr Brough says Labor is failing to listen to Aboriginal leaders who argue that CDEP must go.

“We have seen what is a crucial element of the intervention, that is curtailing the amount of cash that can be available for alcohol, drugs and gambling being reinjected into those communities by reinstating of CDEP,” he said.

If Brough thinks the problem is that there is too much money in communities, which I think the above quote clearly demonstrates, then he should bite the bullet and say he doesn’t want blackfellas to have the same economic opportunities as white folk. I would personally contend that the problem is not too much money but too much time and too little work. Moving CDEP employees onto work-for-the-dole will not help.

It’s rare that a week should go by without there being some massive indictment of the Brough/Howard Intervention in the Northern Territory. This week is no exception.

First, we had multiple calls for Major General Dave Chalmers to resign as the head of the Task Force on the basis that he is a military man, which is inappropriate given the role.

Ms [Olga] Havnen [from the Combined Aboriginal Organisations] says the involvement in such a controversial operation on home soil risks politicising the military and somebody with a deeper understanding of Aboriginal affairs should be in charge.

“To have even had the Army deployed and to have this task force headed up by military officials was overkill and completely inappropriate.”

Moreover, one such call came from Neil James, Executive Director of the Australian Defence Association, underlining the fact that this is not merely the opinion of some political group and cannot be (easily) dismissed as such¹. James is not critical of the principle of the intervention, I might point out, but he is critical of the way the Defence Force has been used for what overtly appear to be politically partisan projects. In any case, the standard procedure should be for a military commander to hand over to a civilian after the very early stages of a so-called ‘emergency’.

Because of the attendant and growing controversy about the federal intervention in Aboriginal communities, and because it encompasses law enforcement, it would be better if this long-term operation, emergency or not, was now headed by a civilian official (say a senior physician) rather than a military officer.

Then, we had more foreseeable – yet apparently unintended² – consequences of the cessation of CDEP.

It has been in the news for weeks (albeit the less-widely read bits) that scrapping CDEP will inevitably have a major impact on the funding for valuable and necessary projects such as alcohol rehabilitation centres, and culturally empowering commercial ventures like aboriginal art centres (see also Kim’s post on this). Now, the prospect of having to operate with significantly less capital is hitting some cultural tourism ventures.

The community of Titjikala has been running a moderately successful indigenous tourism venture for the past 3 three years, but it is now under threat as an indirect consequence of the cessation of CDEP, much to Titjikala’s bemusement. Ironically, Titjikala’s tourism project was held up as a model for other communities to aspire to:

Task force chair Sue Gordon said the venture was the envy of Aboriginal people across Australia during her visit to the community in July, and suggested it be used as a model for other communities.

But, it relies on the flexibility of CDEP in that the work is not constant and employees may have to frequently go back to claiming CDEP when there isn’t tourism work to be done. However under the work-for-the-dole scheme, you’re classed as unemployed and receive benefits in virtue of that. You also endanger that status by doing any work, however infrequent. The bottom line is, it will be safer to ‘sit-down’ on welfare than go through the rigmarole of changing your employment status week-in, week-out when the work is there.

<politicking>
This is surely contrary to the government’s stated goals with respect to moving people from CDEP into ‘real jobs’ – ironically via unemployment. However, it is consistent with their more clandestine goal of rendering it near impossible to live in a remote community, thereby forcing aboriginal people into towns and cities, freeing up the land for mineral extraction, toxic waste sequestration and other unsavoury activities.
</politicking>

~

Just in, It appears that the tourism venture is not merely ‘under threat’ as I implied above, but has actually completely closed. Except the project’s director is confident that, at some point in the future, if they have enough funding to make ends meet, to train employees, that they will be able to make their tourism venture viable again. This is great of course, but it’s a shame that in the meantime the venture has to be put on hold.

It seems that CDEP, at least in this instance, has worked as a stepping stone, bridging the gap between real employment and real unemployment, with the flexibility to support people who aren’t really classifiable as either. Removing it means that infrequent casual work just won’t do to entice people into jobs and off unemployment. The insecurity of casual or infrequent work, not to mention the humbug dealing with Centrelink and the previous fortnight’s paycheque, ensures that it really is just easy to opt out of the job market and collect welfare.

How odd, given that nomo jidanabat ‘no sitting about’, or ‘no more sit-down money’, is the government’s ongoing theme.

~

¹I would have thought it’d be difficult to dismiss an independent commenter as politically partisan, until yesterday that is, when the government generally, and Peter Costello and Joe Hockey specifically, dismissed as ‘contaminated’ research into their WorkChoices laws that was half funded by the Australian Research Council, half funded by a number of groups, including some NSW workers unions, and carried out by The University of Sydney, one of Australia’s top… 4 (?) research institutions. They also implied that the independent researchers (that is, employees of the University) were ‘guns for hire‘. The authors of the report are now threatening legal action. If this were any more of a political blog, I’d have posted about that by now.

²I think I may have discussed this before, but there is a theory of ethical behaviour, in which forseeable consequences of intended actions cannot be unintended. That is, if you know that what you do will have some consequence, then for all intents and purposes, you intended that consequence.

Today’s Herald contains an encouraging story about the place of indigenous languages in public high schools. Year 8 students at Bourke High School were compulsorily taught Wangkamurra this year, and the results have been positive enough that the State Government is planning on extending the program to more state schools with large enough populations of aboriginal students.

Since Aboriginal language was made compulsory at Bourke High School in year 8, student attendance rates and retention of students to year 9 had improved, [NSW Director-General of Education, Michael] Coutts-Trotter said.

It had also helped improve English literacy and numeracy.

It’s also been especially positive for Bourke High’s indigenous population, who normally finish year 12 at half the rate that non-indigenous students do.

It also helped Aboriginal students identify with their culture, which improved their confidence and sense of identity.

“All this can then lift student confidence in approaching other study areas,” he said.

This is clearly a good program and I would personally like to see it adopted by all state and territory governments. Surely most would agree.

Except there’s seemingly never a piece of good news about indigenous issues in this country without some bad news alongside it…

Howard has defended the government’s choice to not ratify the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which passed on Thursday by an impressive 143 to 4, citing its implicit legitimisation of customary law and the possibility of “separate developments inside one country” as his key points of dispute. I wish he’d elaborate on the latter, because it doesn’t appear to me to be all that bad.

Mr Howard says the decision was an easy one.

I bet. He also attacked Labor for their support for the declaration, claiming it is at odds with their support for the NT intervention. I don’t think that’s the case. Even if you ignore the politics, it isn’t the case that supporting paternalistic action to reduce rates of abuse in aboriginal communities requires you to oppose rights for indigenous people. The fact that Howard appears to think so is perhaps not unexpected, but worrying all the same.

Interestingly, in that article it paraphrases Howard as saying:

…there should not be special arrangements for special groups in the Australian community.

Yet, this is precisely why the government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to allow the NT intervention legislation to pass, because it makes special arrangements for special groups within the Australian community. The only difference with that and the UN Declaration (apart from the fact that the latter is legally impotent) is that Howard’s ‘special arrangements’ are detrimental to aborigines.

Every day reveals more blatant hypocrisy from this increasingly desperate autocrat.

The United Nations is due to vote on the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples tomorrow, as I’ve just learned from an article sent out on ILAT.

“Basically, it’s a very wide-ranging declaration that recognizes rights that they already have, such as the right to cultural integrity, the right to education in their own language, the right not to be dispossessed of their ancestral land and so on,” [Kali Mercier of Survival International] says.

[…]

“There has been a lot of support for it from some countries. Other countries have not been quite so keen and they’re some of the countries in which we would have hoped to have a much better example set. For example, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, all countries with indigenous peoples, have been very opposed to some of the wide-reaching rights recognized by the declaration.”

“Have not been quite so keen” is putting it very mildly. The Declaration has been about 24 years in the making, but suffered a setback earlier this year, when, possibly under pressure from John Howard, the recently elected Canadian government withdrew their support.

If adopted the declaration would encourage states to do things such as:

  • Not dispossess indigenous people of their land,

  • Undertake efforts to prevent loss of indigenous languages, and

  • Make bilingual education possible,

Australia, the United States and Canada between them have many hundreds of different indigenous ethnic groups spanning many hundreds of distinct languages, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that these countries would do what they can to thwart the adoption of this declaration. Protecting hundreds of indigenous languages, some spoken by, or affiliated with as few as a hundred people, is a very costly affair. And any good economic rationalist government would weigh up cost with benefit and conclude that doing so isn’t worth it, especially when we can do things like buy helicopters, give election-motivated tax cuts, or throw massive soirées at Kirribilli House instead.

Understandably, economic rationalism is an ideology I don’t altogether buy.

~

No more than an hour after hitting the ‘publish’ button for this post, I opened the Herald to see that this story had been taken up there. While the conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in town after the APEC summit monstrosity, the minor parties are lobbying hard to have the government support the declaration, which will probably pass tomorrow irrespective of Australia’s position.

On Monday, the Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett moved an urgent motion in the Senate urging the Government to change its position while the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was in Canberra. Labor, the Greens and Family First supported the motion, which was defeated by 35 votes to 33.

It also brought to light an interesting snippet of information which is especially pertinent with all the current hoo-haa:

The Government, which has lobbied since 1998 to have the phrase “self-determination” – saying it could lead to calls for a separate indigenous state – removed from the draft declaration, is standing firm.

Now of course, they are all for self-determination. Well, “self-determination” inasmuch as it doesn’t impinge on the federal government’s self-imposed sovereignty over mineral-rich land that they would very much like to dig up and sell to China. They’re ecstatic with “self-determination” when it refers to their getting away with not funding vital services in remote communities.

The hypocrisy is nauseating.

~

<update>

Despite Australia thinking its opinion is worth anything on the world stage, the Declaration passed overnight by a whopping 143 to 4 with only eleven abstentions. I find it encouraging that so many nations supported the declaration, but deeply embarrassing that we, along with the US, Canada and New Zealand (I still can’t believe that, Helen Clarke was otherwise highly likeable), chose to oppose it.

Robert Hill, Australia’s ambassador to the UN and former Howard government Cabinet Minister (independent diplomatic appointments is a thing of the past, apparently) again made it clear that the Australian government’s opposition was motivated by the term self-determination, which, I might point out again, is the very term they use for the ultimate goal of the current NT intervention.

It’s interesting that the ABC news website now allows comments on many stories, this being one of them, because we can see a glimpse of the ideology that drives Australia’s opposition to this declaration.

Good on the government for voting against this crap.
It’s time these people stopped living in their stone-age past and realise they were conquered, the white man came and took over.
Nobody is excluding them from being a part of our society, the only thing that is excluding them is the chip on their shoulder.

(from “Realist“)

</update>

I just saw an ad for SBS’s indigenous current affairs program, Living Black, which this week, will air the visit of a survey team’s visit to the community of Yarralin.

I’ll be watching with keen interest, since, having been fortunate enough to witness one such visit last month, I would like to see others’ experience with the fly-in-fly-out bureaucrats. Have sympathy with the bureaucrats though, as they’ve been given the mammoth task of informing people about the legislative changes and how they will affect whom, without actually knowing much themselves.

It screens this Wednesday night at 6:00pm EST, 6:30pm Central, and I dunno about the west. So check local guides!

It will probably also be vodcast afterwards on the Living Black website.

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