Public Opinion and Public Advocacy (Part Two: Advocacy)

In my previous post I noted that one of the things that struck me most forcibly in my reading of Murray Goot and Tim Rowse’s Divided Nation?: indigenous affairs and the imagined public was the distinction between the use of opinion polling in the latter half of the 20th century as a means of influencing public policy regarding Aboriginal issues and the importance of the actions of what they call (following A. P. Elkin) “interested citizens.” 

I noted as well that I haven’t seen any reports of new opinion polls on questions of sexual abuse in indigenous communities or even the abolition of the permit systems, and given the vacuousness of what Goot and Rowse call “the imagined public,” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Of course, it may be too soon to tell. Public opinion polls take a while to mount, analyze, and represent, and it’s only been three months since the Intervention strategy was shot out of the hastily constructed cannon of a so-called “National Emergency.”

As for “public advocacy” by interested citizens, I’m happier to report that we have seen some of that. I have been wondering why we haven’t seen more, or at least why there haven’t been reports of marches in Canberra and across the Harbour Bridge on through the CBD’s. Goot and Rowse have partially answered that question for me: one thing their analysis of the polls tells us in that the majority of Australian citizens are largely indifferent to Aboriginal affairs when they are not inflamed by anti-Aboriginal interests.

Still, there have been campaigns mounted. The Australian Centre for Democracy and Justice urged citizens to “Stop the Land Grab.” Likewise Get Up! Action for Australia‘s “No Rubber Stamp” campaign argued sensibly for the Senate to consult and debate the Northern Territory Emergency Response and coordinated travel to Canberra to urge the important action of consultation with indigenous communities before Parliament took action. Neither of these organizations should be faulted for the failure of their programs in the face of the Broughernaut. I hope that they will continue to mount actions against the egregious elements of the Intervention. However, both organizations work broadly for social justice and their scope extends far beyond issues of concern to indigenous Australians, and I believe that more concentrated, focused resources need to be brought to bear over the coming months.

One organization now focused squarely on “monitoring the Federal action in the Northern Territory” is Women for Wik. Originally formed ten years ago to fight the extinguishment of Native Title as the beginning of Howard’s tenure, the group now led by Claire Smith of the World Archaelogical Congress and Sydney film-mamker Christine Olsen, hopes to “re-ignite” opposition at Howard’s End. News of the re-emergence of the WfW was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 1, and the group plans an international day of protest for Friday October 19.

I find their most valuable contribution to date has been the vast amount of media coverage of all sorts that they have gathered on their website. It tends to be up-to-date and timely, and additionally casts a wide net. There are reports from the national newspapers, links to politically-oriented sites like Crikey , and media releases from Aboriginal organizations. There’s even a couple of links to You Tube that I appreciate for their awareness of the importance of exploring alternate avenues of media delivery. I also appreciate the fact that one of the links is to the satire of John Clarke and Brian Dawe “on a matter of National Emergency.” The other link is to an affecting and eloquent statement from Mervyn Rubuntja about his homeland at Ntyelkeme.

Even more recently, Desart, ANKAAA, and Ku Arts have banded together to focus on the threat to indigenous art centres that is posed by the abolition of the CDEP. The National CDEP Art Centres Action Group sent out a press release on September 15 reiterating the importance of this program to the most economically successful initiative in remote communities. If economic development is a real goal of the Intervention, this radical surgery threatens to kill the patient before treatment can be administered, and the importance of continuing the benefits of CDEP in the art centres can not be restated often enough. I’m grateful to Judy Lovell and Flick Wright for making the press release and the supporting The Abolition of CDEP & Indigenous Artists: a working paper to outline the threats posed & the responses of artists and art centres available to me.

Desart has further announced the Peak Organisation Lobby Project, described in the Project Brief as “a process of coordinated action to identify how Art Centres might be affected and to initiate discussion and action to inform and influence Government and public opinion,” in other words, precisely the sort of work carried out in decades past by Elkins’ “interested citizens.” A working group comprised of ANKAAA staff, Desart staff, Flick Wright (Ku Arts), Dianna Isgar (Papulankutja Artists), Alan Murn (Julalikari Arts), Liz Tregenza (Nyinkka Nyunyu Culture Centre), Judy Lovell and Nicole Schimionek (Keringke), Andrew West and Abbie Cerchi (Independent Art Centre mentors) was formed a month ago and a consultant is to be hired to assist them in completing significant work before the election is held.

As much as the arts are dear to my heart, and as much as the Government insists that the Intervention is about sacred little children, I firmly believe that the Emergency Response is fundamentally about control of land, much as the American intervention in Iraq is about oil. And in the past three months, no one has spoken as consistently and as eloquently on the subject as Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University.

Altman has the distinction, from what I’ve seen, of being the critic of the government’s program most frequently quoted in the national press. It is perhaps not surprising, given the emphasis that the press (and the government in most instances) places on economic matters, that Altman is able to be heard in public forums as diverse as the ABC,Crikey, and the Sydney Morning Herald. It is also fortunate for supporters of Aboriginal causes, in that Altman is equally eloquent discussing land rights, arts marketing, or CDEP.

Altman’s facility is evident also in the speed and comprehensiveness with which he is able to respond to issues raised by the Intervention. Take for example, his paper for Oxfam Australia, The ‘National Emergency’ and Land Rights Reform: Separating fact from fiction, published on August 7, 2007. In it Altman clearly lays out the dangers to indigenous communities posed by the government’s determination to scrap the permit system and to engage in compulsory acquisition of land. Beyond that, he refutes the relevance of either initiative to the supposed root problem of child abuse. And he succinctly lays bare the inherent contradictions in the proposals that, even if one were to support them, would presage their failure. This Oxfam briefing paper is an important review of some of the essential controversies now being debated, and should be read widely. (As a bonus, Altman provides numerous references to the “Northern Territory Emergency Response Fact Sheets” prepared by the Australian Government; anyone interested in knowing what the official line on the Emergency Response is should have a copy of these reports to hand.)

If, as Goot and Rowse suggest in Divided Nation?, public opinion is often ill-informed or absent, then the efforts of organizations and individuals like those I have discussed here are all the more important at this point in time. The government seems hell-bent on returning indigenous affairs to the state they were in sixty or more years ago, and in pushing its legislation through Parliament without allowing time for study or debate, seems equally to realize that its window of opportunity could close very soon. If Labor wins the election before year’s end, Australians must be prepared to make the strongest and timeliest case for undoing the damage that has already been done and halting any further deterioration of the situation. Interested citizens must make themselves heard, and they must take it upon themselves to make their voices carry.


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