In the midst of composing my series of reports or short essays on the communities I visited in recent weeks, I find myself appalled, astonished, and agonized to be reading about Prime Minister John Howard’s invasion of the Northern Territory and his program for the destruction of those very communities. If you want to get a heavy dose this weekend, have a look at The Australian‘s Indigenous Welfare Special Report for a dozen or more articles on what Howard is proposing, why it’s time, and what it all might mean. Nicolas Rothwell’s analysis, “Nothing less than a new social order,” gets to the heart of the matter quickly.
With rapier speed and devastating force, the federal Government seized control yesterday of the Aboriginal heart of Australia, sweeping away a generation’s worth of political assumptions and imposing a completely new pattern of surveillance and control over the remote indigenous communities of the centre and the north.
Let there be no mistake: yesterday’s declaration of a national emergency by John Howard ranks with the referendum of 1967, or the passage of land rights in the Northern Territory, as a turning point in Australian history: in what direction remains to be seen.
Jim Belshaw has offered the best outline of exactly what the Prime Minister is proposing on his blog, Personal Reflections.
First, the intention to introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months. The Federal Government will ban the sale, possession, transportation and the consumption of alcohol and (introduce the) broader monitoring of take away sales across the Northern Territory.
Second, the Government will bear the cost of medical examinations of all indigenous children in the Northern Territory under the age of 16 and will provide the resources to deal with any follow up medical treatment that may be needed.
Third, change welfare payment arrangements so that 50 per cent of the payments to parents can only be used to purchase food or other essentials. This requirement will follow the parent wherever that parent may go, so the obligation cannot be avoided simply by moving to another part of Australia.
The Prime Minister also foreshadowed that Mr Brough would be bringing to Cabinet at its next meeting some proposals to further extend the conditionality of welfare payments to all Australians receiving income support to ensure that these payments are used for the benefit of their children.
Fourth, the Government will enforce school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land. The Government will ensure that meals are provided for children at school with parents paying for the meals.
Fifth, the Government will take control of townships through five year leases to ensure that property and public housing can be improved. If that involves the payment of compensation on just terms as required by the Commonwealth Constitution then that compensation will be readily paid. The Government will also require intensive on ground clean up of communities to make them safer and healthier by marshalling local workforces through Work for the Dole arrangements.
Sixth, the Government will scrap the permit system (this controls outside access) for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal land.
Seventh, the Government would ban the possession of x-rated pornography in the proscribed areas and would check all publicly funded computers for evidence of the storage of pornography.
Eighth, to enforce law and order there would be an immediate increase in policing levels. Here the Government would be asking each state police service to provide up to 10 officers who’ll be sworn as police in the Northern Territory. Special financial incentives would be provided to reward the police in question.
Ninth, additional resources would be provided to set up an Australian Government sexual abuse reporting desk, while the Government would also ask the intergovernmental ministerial council to formally refer the issue of child abuse to the Australian Crime Commission to allow the Crime Commission to locate and identify perpetrators of sexual abuse of indigenous children in other areas of Australia.
To support these measures, the Government will legislate to amend the Northern Territory land rights legislation and the Territory self government legislation.
The measures themselves are going to be overseen by a taskforce of eminent Australians. This will include logistics and other specialists and child protection experts. In addition, managers will be appointed to control Government activities in particular communities.
There has been much commentary on the need to take action against the social dysfunction plaguing Aboriginal communities, and a great deal of it has focused on the inspiration provided by Noel Pearson in outlining plans to reduce welfare dependency and the pernicious effects of alcohol on Cape York. The constant and repeated invocation of Pearson’s plan and leadership is no doubt meant to paint the Prime Minister’s actions as somehow endorsed by Aboriginal people, and by extension the residents of the 110 communities who now will find themselves living in a police state….although possibly without the policemen. All this law and order is to be effected in the short term by a tripling of the available police forces. This means an increase of 60 policemen, if each of the states agrees to Howard’s request that they send ten officers to the Territory to supplement the 30 available now in the affected communities across what amounts to half the land mass of the Territory.
But as “arleeshar” reports on stoush.net, quoting another piece in The Australian:
Howard and Brough appear to have overleaped the Pearson bandwagon and jumped straight to 1950s Australia.
Widespread bans on alcohol and X-rated pornography would be enforced, and all indigenous children under the age of 16 in the territory would be medically examined, Mr Howard said.
Mr Howard said the reforms would include scrapping the permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal lands, and marshalling work-for-the-dole participants to clean up Aboriginal communities.
Possession of X-rated pornography would be banned, and all publicly-funded computers searched for evidence of stored pornography, he said.
Mr Howard said law and order would be a central focus of the dramatic measures.
I think I should make it clear that I am not opposed to many of Noel Pearson’s proposed initiatives, and I find his “quest for a radical centre” quite a useful, if intellectually and emotionally challenging agenda. This is not to say that I agree with everything he says, or in fact believe that his views are broadly representative of indigenous views. Rather, I appreciate that his approach is genuinely based in a desire to empower indigenous communities to rectify their own problems, and also the realisation that current approaches are not working.
But these are not Pearson’s suggestions made flesh. This is not, by the sound of it, a collaborative, tailored, locally-administered programme fuelled by community consultation. Rather it is a top down, prohibitive and punitive regime designed to take over communities and lives.
No, I don’t find this to be the genuine article, either. As someone who’s lived through a series of escalating terrorist alerts in the United States as elections draw nearer and nearer, who has come to recognize the manipulation of fear and disapproval of the “other” as a tool for the enhancing of political agendas of greed and hatred, I think I can recognize what Howard is doing here pretty clearly. I would like to say that I’ve seen it coming, that I’ve suggested in past posts that the assimilationist, anti-Aboriginal posture that fueled Pauline Hanson and One Nation and that Howard manipulated so skillfully by downplaying its extremes while covertly catering to its biases was on its way back again. But honestly, I never believed that such black-heartedness would see the light of day.
I fear that the Prime Minister has acted now in the Territory because he could. And Brough, smarting from Clare Martin’s refusal to accede to his jackboot directives a year ago, has found an outlet for taking his revenge. They have seized upon the Teritory’s own report on sexual abuse (both the full report and the executive summary are available for downloading) to advance a political agenda that seems in very few practical ways to address the problems of abuse, but does set the stage for the demolition of land rights and self-determination, for crushing the distinctiveness of Aboriginal culture–to kill the patient to cure the disease–and to open the way for exploitation of a different sort: the exploitation of Aboriginal lands and people for private gain. Once again, as it was done in America, relegating the indigenous population to the least desirable land in the country has not proven enough. Decades of neglect, underfunding, and refusal to work with those who have been marginalized are not enough. In order to promote his political agenda and to ensure his place in history, Howard, like his mentor and political inspiration, George W. Bush, must crush a people he does not understand in order to secure victory for his party and his place in history.