Tuesday, August 7, 2007

It's A Black Thing.

The Australian Federal Government's response to the child abuse scandals in indigenous communities is heavy handed and lacks the very element crucial to it's success - consulation. Unfortunately, this is a message Prime Minister John Howard does not, or will not, understand.

The indigenous people of Australia are a long-suffering mob. Since 1788 thy have been systematically murdered and robbed, dispossessed and treated as second if not third rate citizens. Years of neglect by successive Federal Governments, particularly the current one who refused point blank to seize the day and apologize in the spirit of reconciliation, has resulted in a breakdown of aboriginal health, education and housing, and the horror of rampant child abuse, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

The Little Children Are Sacred, a report prepared by indigenous health expert Pat Anderson and QC Rex Wild, highlighted the wretchedness of the situation and offered ninety-seven recommendations for how it could and should be rectified. To the authors’ great surprise, the Howard Federal Government leapt into action and John Howard, ignoring his great hero Ronald Reagan’s famous edict ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”’ and announced that he is from the government and he is here to help.

The last time indigenous children were ostensibly ‘saved’ by Federal Government intervention it turned out to be all part of a concerted effort to ‘breed out the black’ so no wonder the indigenous population is a tad nervous, but suddenly the condition of aborigines became first priority for Honest John Howard.

However, in classic conservative style, Howard ignored all ninety-seven of the bleeding hearts’ ‘expert’ proposals, much to the disappointment of Anderson and Wild. ‘Let me say’ said Anderson, ‘there is not a single action that the commonwealth has taken so far that corresponds with a single recommendation…there is no relationship between this emergency protection and what's in our report.’

Anyway, Howard has declared the whole thing a ‘national emergency’ and come up with his own somewhat more ‘practical’ remedies, like ‘restoring law and order’; He obviously thought that Pat and Rex were missing out on a perfectly good opportunity to do a little shock and awe, and literally sent in the cavalry. ‘We argue’ sniffed the PM, “that our intervention plan is the way to respond’.

Anderson, however, is less than impressed; ‘When we turned the TV on and saw the troops roll into the Northern Territory’ said Ms Anderson, ‘we were just sort of devastated to think that that could happen, so we feel sort of betrayed and disappointed, hurt and angry and pretty pissed off all at the same time.’

And neither is Rex wild about Howard’s way. ‘We arranged meetings, we told people about them’ explained Rex, ‘that we were coming and why we were coming. ‘We arrived quietly with courtesy and politeness’ said Wild, ‘We didn't arrive unannounced in helicopters, we didn't arrive in gunships, we didn't arrive in tanks or trucks’

Contrary to the Liberal’s core belief of an individual’s right to choose Howard’s fix is a one size fits all, take it or, er, take it proposition. Communities with absolutely no record of child abuse, or that have controlled their alcoholism, are being targeted as if they are as dysfunctional as the worst of them and they are rightfully horrified at being stigmatized as child molesters. They are being treated with the sort of one-you-has-ruined-it-for-everybody routine that would be more at home in a kindergarten; it is patronizing, paternalist, racist and should be stopped. However, this is John Howard we’re talking about…

Anyhoo, there are seven main planks that the blackfellas will have to walk, seven main aims which are:

1) To perform compulsory health checks.

2) To ‘quarantine’ dole payments so that parents feed their children properly and get them to school.

3) To boost employment opportunities for aborigines.

4) To outlaw X-rated porn

5) To outlaw alcohol.

6) To lease aboriginal lands.

7) To abolish the entry permit system.

Many argue that Howard’s plan is racist in that is inflicting draconian measures on only one section of the community based on the colour of their skin and/or cultural practices; Howard’s scheme is discriminatory and therefore, QED, racist. It is pointed out that child abuse is pretty rife in the wider white community too, as is drinking and wanking to X-rated video nasties, but no one has mentioned that the rest of us must also be subjected to these same sanctions.

And this perception hasn’t been helped by the president of the Northern Territory AMA, who wrote a letter to Health Minister Tony Abbott stating that as Aborigines do not have ‘processes, accountability or any form of formal management structure in their culture’ then ‘Caucasians…need to exert some mild dictatorship into the management of aboriginal healthcare’. The ‘major error’, he opines, ‘started from the time self-determination was returned to the Aboriginal people some 40 years ago’.

Golly! Imagine! Returning self-determination! Why did we ever get rid of those nice missionaries! That’s the thing about dealing with fuzzy-wuzzies – you’ve got to show them who’s boss! Oh, why can’t they just be more like us!
The good doctor then compounded his stupidity by entering into a certain amount subterfuge about the use of the dreaded ‘D’ word; ‘neither you nor I’, he whispered, ‘must ever use this word publicly’ but worryingly, now that it is out in the open, it doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Local good ol’ boy Dave Tollner, Country Liberal Party member of the house of representatives, didn’t have much a problem with it – he was actually CC’ed a copy – and worst of all, neither does Mal Brough, the hapless bastard of a Minister who has to implement Howard’s little land grab; he says that Beaumont was ‘frustrated’, and the AMA are quite happy too. ‘Peter’, sniffed AMA national president Rosanna Capolingua draws us to the attention of many issues’ – like he’s a complete and utter fucking racist – ‘and I am very proud that he continues to want to represent the AMA.’ Oh. So that’s all right then.

The trouble is with Howard solution, or solutions, is they’re all madness, and every one of Howard’s answers will result in the exact opposite of what is purportedly trying to achieve. Let’s take a peek.

1) Performing compulsory health checks.

It turns out the compulsory health checks would constitute assault, so it’s back to the drawing board with that one.

2) Quarantining dole payments.

This one has hit some rocks along the road. The government swears that the greater community will be also exposed to this privation, although there are no details available no how this will be accomplished nor how taking money away from people will improve their diets.

However, for aborigines to eat properly they might need something proper to eat. Decent fresh food is not simply not available in the remote communities Howard is trying to target, and when it is it’s wildly expensive, so how anyone is supposed to buy it when their income has been halved is beyond me.

Furthermore, although the getting the kiddies into school is a laudable enough concept, the schools on many, if not most, of these communities are incapable of physically fitting them all in, let alone seating them, let alone finding someone to teach them. Or maybe we should take up Noel Pearson’s idea and send them all of those black kids to the leafy city suburbs’ elite boarding schools.

3) Boosting employment opportunities.

It is a constant grumble of the migrant community (the rest of Australia) that indigenous Australians should get with the program and BE LIKE US! Why they should be like us no one can really say – it’s not as if they asked for our culture to be imposed upon them, or begged to be poisoned and shot, or pleaded to be rounded up and imprisoned on missions and settlements, or demanded that they not be counted on the census, or requested that their tribes, clans and culture be deliberately mixed up and obliterated – but no matter! Mal to the rescue!

The current concern is that if aborigines don’t work they become ‘welfare dependent’ but it may come to a surprise to white Australia but the indigenous folk agree. ‘Aboriginal people are worried about their kids’ said Anderson, ‘but they want to be part of the solution not merely to be passive recipients. The days of being passive recipients are over, absolutely over. That isn't going to work, that hasn't worked.’

That indigenous Australians should get a job has been an article of faith for the invaders since 1789, and in 1977 the highly successful Community Development Program (CDEP) was introduced to help communities by employing their inhabitants for twenty hours a week and paying them for it. Not much, a little more than the dole, but with the various extra payments available to those involved in viable operations, the 35,000 people on the CDEP were able to carve a living and not be part of the unemployment statistics.

The CDEP is working; communities have locally run stores, garages, all manner of things going on that employ something like 35,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across the country, empowering those who volunteer to be involved and providing a gateway to employment outside of the scheme.

As a result, people are making financial commitments and breaking out of the ‘welfare dependency’ trap that conservatives wail about from dawn ‘til dusk. Who knows? If the blackfellas keep this up they might even make Howard’s wettest dream come true and start getting mortgages! They’re becoming…more like us!

So Mal is ramping up this proven success in order to achieve the government’s objective forging an independent and self-motivated indigenous population that will flourish in the face of the 21st Century’s harsh realities, yes?

Er, no. In fact, the government is so hell-bent on punishment as a way looking tough for the edification of the white electorate that, when they were told that ‘quarantining’ the money earned CDEP participants was actually illegal because it is not ‘welfare’ as such, well, Brough just took the 8,000 CDEP employees in the Northern Territory sacked ‘em and stuck ‘em on the dole!

Now that is one progressive policy! Now they are all on Newstart, instead of being allowed to earn money they are being penalized for it as deductions from the Newstart allowance begin after twenty bucks a week has been earned. This means that loans will be defaulted on, money will be a whole lot tighter, people will be angry, let down, depressed, and who will bear the brunt of this? The kids and their mothers, the very people the ‘strategy’ is supposed to help. Welcome to compassionate conservatism, Aussie style! Way to end welfare dependency!

4) Outlawing X-rated porn

The X-rated material is either illegal anyway, having been distributed by illicit traders in the Northern Territory, and as a result is far more graphic and violent than the legal, classified variety, but such is the price of prohibition, or is beamed in via the Austar satellite Pay TV service.
With regards to the first component of the porn problem, all good capitalists know that a demand will result in a supply, that is, if people want porn they will get it, so if classified porn is easily available it will reduce the supply of unclassified porn. Contain and control (More on this coming up on Let’s Ask Elroy!™ real soon!).

The second bit may be trickier. The Austar satellite has two adult channels and Elroy is looking forward to seeing John Howard go in to bat for the future of indigenous kiddies with Austar’s majority shareholder, the quietly achieving media magnate billionaire John C. Malone, a man known in the cable industry, due to his understanding nature, as Darth Vader, as Elroy knows that Howard loves nothing better than showing media magnate billionaires who’s boss.

5) Outlawing alcohol.

The alcohol ban is way stickier. The vast majority of NT communities are dry already, due in the main to agitation from indigenous women, except for the drinking permits granted to white teachers, policemen etc that may work there. This system does rankle deeply with many indigenous denizens of said communities as it is, quite obviously, racist, so the question is whether the Feds are going to stop that practice as well?

But if the communities are for the most part dry, how does the grog get there? From the big towns, roadhouses, corner shops and petrol stations, but the chances of them being subject to the kind of draconian regulation that would be required is negligible – indeed, the liquor outlets have fought tooth and nail against any restriction to their trade, no matter what effect on the local population, and not without some success.

So here’s Mal’s latest genius idea: allow, nay, FORCE the hitherto dry communities to open ‘wet’ canteens! That’s right! The Liberal/National coalition’s brilliant scheme to eradicate drinking in the communities is to, er, introduce drinking to the communities.

Now, Elroy is no fan of prohibition (more on that in an upcoming Let’s Ask Elroy!™ special investigation), but if a population of a community is overwhelmingly in favour of it, then who is anyone to argue? The point is, many communities have discovered that the ready availability of alcohol has been a disaster, and so have tried hard to stop it, and it is those initiatives that the Government is intent on overturning.

This is a complicated issue, and Elroy is treading a very thin wire to avoid quite valid accusations of hypocrisy. In most cases, but by no means all, Elroy holds that prohibition does not work, and in indigenous communities this is still true – those that really want alcohol will get it – but the difference is that communities choose an alcohol ban for themselves instead of having it imposed upon them.

There is, of course, another angle as to why communities desperate to stay dry must become wet. The trouble is that aborigines that want to drink have the nerve to come into town to do it! In a pub! Well, as that’s just plain not nice for the tourists, white chambers of commerce across the NT have been trying for years to keep them darkies on the missions and settlements and out of the towns, and they think the ‘wet canteen’ would be a perfect solution. The white pub owners would be perfectly happy to ferry the grog out there, at a price, cleaning up the streets and the dole cheques while they’re at it, so when you read that Howard wants to institute ‘new alcohol restrictions’, remember that means new alcohol restrictions in white communities.

6) Leasing aboriginal lands.

The Howard Government intends to ‘lease’ Aboriginal communities from the relevant Land Councils for five years, after which time Howard says that the lands will be returned unless they’re not. ‘We are not going to take anybody’s land’ he sniffed the other day, ‘without just compensation’, and any suggestions of a land grab were sneered off as ‘Ludicrous!’

And just to show he meant it, he repeated himself. ‘The purpose of this is not to violate people’s land rights’ we weaseled, ‘the purpose of this is get control of these townships and if there is any disturbance of title’ – Uh oh! Title disturbance alert! – ‘just compensation will be paid’.

Disturbance of title? A curious turn of phrase, no? Well, he sure meant it, meant it so much he said it again. ‘We are leasing the land for five years and then it goes back’ he condescended, ‘and if there is any disturbance of title involved in that there’ll be, er, compensation paid.’ Never mind if the communities don’t want to lease it it’s going to be leased anyhow –What’s all that mewling that conservatives do about the sanctity of property rights?

Howard knows exactly what he is saying – he is a wizard with the weasel word, a Sultan of semantics – because he hardly ever says anything he does not mean. He is the lord of linguistic smoke and mirrors, of plausible deniability, of sounding like he said one thing when he really meant the opposite, a paragon of parsing. He is a creature of the law, and knows as well as any other suburban solicitor just how malleable the letter of law can be.

Anyhoo, if there is one mob that really deserves that land, one mob that Howard owes above all others it’s not the voters of Bennelong, it’s the miners, and on crown land, well – they’re more than welcome! Shame about those sacred sites and that, but hey! We’re progressing here!

7) Abolishing the entry permit system.

The last part of the equation is the entry permit system, which the government seeks to abolish. This is pure ideology; John Howard just seems narked that Aboriginal communities get to say ‘We choose who comes to our country and the circumstances in which they come’ about their patches of dirt when Howard cannot do the same in Bennelong.

He said the same about Australia when it came to bombed out Afghans clinging to the side of a sinking bathtub, and circumnavigates the irony that had the indigenous population said ‘We choose who comes to our country and the circumstances in which they come’ to Captain Cook they might be in better shape today; instead, Howard insists on maintaining the conceit that Australia is one country and will demands that black Australia become white.

It all gets particularly loopy when the Liberal Party starts accusing the left, and Aborigines, of being ‘racist’ for arguing for a system that, on the surface, promotes inequality. Apparently it is un-Australian to lock our indigenous brothers and sisters up in outback ghettos and really, if the left had any heart at all, they would understand that what the blackfellas really need is some input from the rest of modern day Australia; not only that, throwing the permit system on the municipal tip of paternalism would mean greater scrutiny for evil doers who might be tempted to roam around the outer bush doing evil.

But that’s the point. After the Aborigines’ previous experiences of white mans’ input, Elroy cannot blame them for wanting to keep whitey as far away as possible but, as usual, logic has taken a holiday. The indigenous folk say that, contrary to John Howard’s educated and knowledgeable opinion, the best way to keep evil doers at bay is with – get this – a permit system!

Yup, the locals have the bizarre notion that being able to screen who can visit their isolated communities actually reduces the evil done to them by evil doers and even the police, not known for taking a blackfella’s side when a little oppression is in the air, agree! However, it seems that a community on Bathurst Island, rife with youth suicide and alcohol abuse, has been offered to keep their permit system in place if they sign a 99-year lease, so suddenly permits and all the little children are not as important as land. Why is Elroy not surprised?

Unfortunately for the communities however, the wagon trains are a-circling on the prairies as people doomed to forever wander a sunburnt country, the lost tribe of Australis known as Nomadus Greyus, look for a promised land to put their barbeque sets and park the Winnebago, ask for directions to the toilet block and where they can buy some fresh Tupperware, purchase doilies and air freshener.

Some forward reconnaissance backpackers have already been spotted asking the whereabouts of the local Centrelink office in the more remote locations, and nomads have started campervanning where no white man has campervanned before, despite the relevant legislation not having been passed yet. ‘Oh’ dithered the oldies, ‘we’d heard that we the permits had been scrapped’ as they putted around the perplexed peoples of the pittianhajara, ignoring the fact that they were in breach of the law and liable to be fined $1000 a day. Elroy always thought that oldies respected the rule of law, but it seems they follow the example of their man Howard and disobey if he says to do so.

Not that the grey nomads and backpackers are necessarily evil doers, but where goeth the Jayco Heritage so goeth the bootleggers, pornographers and miners both off duty and on. The Government says it is all for the aborigines own good, but has so far failed to reveal how exactly that will be achieved; meanwhile, forty years of land rights struggle is about to be undone as a favour to the mining chums, and forty thousand years of culture is about to breath its last.

So, in short, in order to save kiddies form child abuse the Howard Government is going to perform common assault on all aboriginal kiddies in the Northern Territory, to get them to schools that don’t exist and eat food they can’t afford the government is going to take their money, to boost employment and reduce welfare dependency the people will all be sacked and put on welfare, to outlaw porn the government will allow 24 hour sex channels on satellite TV, to outlaw alcohol the government will open ‘wet canteens’ on dry communities, to encourage self-determination the government will steal, er, ‘lease’ aboriginal lands, and to keep the bootleg alcohol and pornography out of the communities the government will abolish the entry permit system that keeps bootleg alcohol and pornography out of the communities. Excellent! What are waiting for!

Elroy is not suggesting for one second that the indigenous population don’t need help – they do – and Pat Anderson recognizes that it will take the logistical and financial heft of the Feds, saying ‘We needed the assistance of the federal government that had the bigger cheque book’; she knows that the problem of land rights, substance abuse, housing, education and health care will take years, generations, to improve, and millions of billions of dollars to enable that improvement, but Mal Brough says that the report’s ninety-seven recommendations along these lines are ‘band-aid solutions’; far better, obviously, to go with John Howard’s timeline of ‘six months’ and dollar expenditure in the ‘tens of millions’.

To be fair, the government has revised his guesstimate to $500 million per year and Howard now says ‘This will take a number of years, it will be expensive, it will be very costly’ but it is still not enough, and the haste with which this is all being cobbled together belie the possibility that the Howard Government, with an election merely months away, are actually serious about this mission.

The legislation is in the post, but a last-ditch effort by people who have no place at the table in this debate, those who actually know what they are talking about, is being made to head the postman off at the pass. A high-powered delegation spearheaded by Pat Turner, former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Coordinator and John Ah Kit, former NT government minister, is barreling off to Parliament House in an attempt to talk the government into taking a few deep breaths and, uh, thinking about it all a little bit more.

The government has pulled out all the hairdryers to try dry the ink on the 500 page legislation before the vote today, Tuesday, before the rest of the House of Representatives have even had a chance to spill their coffee on it. This is a huge constitutional shift, a major alteration in the Federal/State relationship but it is not even being allowed to go to a one-day inquiry by a Senate committee because, according to Mal ‘It'll only have the accusation that this is insufficient time.’ So apart from thinking that it is perfectly acceptable for him to second guess the Upper House and nominate himself as a one-man senate, what Mal is saying is that isn’t time for the senate to consider this legislation and to tell him that there isn’t time pass it. Viva democracia!

The delegation is also going after the opposition, whose me-tooism is not helping. ‘Federal Labor's job is to distinguish itself from the conservatism of Howard's government’, said Pat Turner,‘It has to show the people of Australia that it has backbone, that it is prepared to lead a proper united Australia that all stands for a fair go. The Labor party has to differentiate itself. It cannot hide behind the excuse of avoiding wedge politics.’

Politics, of course, is what the whole thing is about, and it all feeds into Howard’s brand new War on States. He says that his intervention is ‘an example of where a function that was meant to be carried out by states and territories has not been carried out, and it has been necessary for the federal government to intervene’, which means that he is being deliberately antagonistic, which means that aborigines are but a political football. Again.

In the end, no one in the government has been able to convince anybody except themselves of how any of these measures will prevent child abuse. There are methods but they will require extensive consultation, education, and lots and lots of time. One point The Little Children Are Sacred report stresses over and over again is that a top-down, fly-in/fly-out, Canberra driven response is the one sure way of guaranteeing failure, but Elroy is thinking that Howard is just planning ahead.

If, through some gaping vent in the space-time continuum, Howard makes it back to Kirribilli then this little initiative will quietly fade away. However, if sanity prevails and the PM is sent checking out the Twighlight Home for the Terminally Vanquished, whoever comprises the opposition can deride the ALP for not doing enough, or doing too much, or not doing it right, all the while knowing that, given the legislation they had bequeathed Labor, Rudd had no chance of success and that the sacred little children would not be saved.

The thing is, it does not have to be this painful. Among The Little Children Are Sacred report’s ninety-seen ignored recommendations are exhortations to improve school attendance; provide education campaigns on child sexual abuse and how to stop it; reduce alcohol consumption in Aboriginal communities; build greater trust between Government departments, the police and Aboriginal communities; strengthen family support services; empower Aboriginal communities to take more control and make decisions about the future; and appoint a senior, independent person who can focus on the interests and wellbeing of children and young people, review issues and report to Parliament.

Finally, after making such a fuss about actually asking the indigenous people what they think would be effective and working with them as opposed to at them, the last word goes to The Combined Aboriginal Organizations of the Northern Territory, who have released an alternative Emergency Response and Development Plan to protect Aboriginal children.

The plan is a comprehensive approach that gives priority to protection from immediate physical or emotional harm but also addresses underlying issues including housing, health care and education.

Unlike the current Government approach the Combined Aboriginal Organisations' plan builds on the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report and programs that are already working in Aboriginal communities. It adopts a partnership approach between Government and Aboriginal people and would strengthen the governance and capacity of Aboriginal communities.

It envisages the creation of a national lead agency to implement the plan and an independent monitoring and evaluation body to report on progress.

There are 68 actions in the plan ranging from developing an emergency response in conjunction with Aboriginal community representatives, boosting child protection services, proper training of a permanent police presence in communities, tackling alcohol take away sales and buyback of existing hotel licenses and improved schooling strategies to trauma counseling for victims of abuse.

Australians for Native Title and Reconcilliation (ANTaR )considers that this plan has a far greater chance of success than the current Government approach. We urge the Federal Government and Opposition to adopt the plan in a bipartisan manner.

There. Simple really, but John Howard would never understand – it’s a black thing.