Philosophy


I know I quite hyperbolically said I’d be gone for quite some time following the defeat of the Coalition by Labor under Kevin Rudd, but in our ecstasy, we forgot that pubs tend to, you know, close and stuff. So celebrations didn’t continue for as long as I’d imagined, meaning I’m now mentally competent enough to write a post.

By the end of last night, it was pretty clear that Labor had won about 86 seats out of a house of 150, giving them about a 22 seat majority, though there may still be some fiddling around when counting resumes tomorrow. There were a few high-profile losses for the Coalition, which notably included the seat of Longman, Mal Brough’s seat. Brough is, of course, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and was largely responsible for the mess that is the NT intervention. I won’t mourn him.

Another big loss for the Coalition was the Nationals-held seat of Dawson, which suffered a 3.7 percent swing against the incumbent De-Anne Kelly, and saw a mammoth 16.9 percent swing towards Labor, which levelled out to an overall swing of about 13.6 percent after preferences.

And possibly most surprising of all, the former Prime Minister John Howard may end up losing his blue-ribbon lower North Shore seat of Bennelong, to the former ABC journalist Maxine McKew. There was again, a mammoth swing towards Labor, at 16.1 percent, though it was largely due to Labor’s deflated primary vote of the last election in Bennelong (the number by which the swing is measured) when high-profile former ONA public servant turned Iraq whistleblower, Andrew Wilkie, ran for the Greens, and polled a surprising 16 percent of the primary vote. Wilkie also ran this election as the second Greens candidate in the senate in Tasmania, but failed to pick up a seat.

However, it hasn’t all been good news this time around, in fact it’s been quite devastating for some. Malcolm Turnbull was safely returned in the salubrious Eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth a seat he’s never really had to earn, as it was largely handed to him as a celebrity candidate back in 2004, much to the detriment of the then-sitting member Peter King, who suffered loss of pre-selection thanks to Turnbull’s tactics of branch-stacking.

I should point out though, that the Liberals don’t have a monopoly on this. Greg Combet, another celebrity fly-in, was basically handed the seat of Charlton this election when the Labor Party revoked pre-selection from Kelly Hoare, who had represented Charlton since 1998. The difference here is that Combet is great. Not only was Turnbull born with a diamond-encrusted silver spoon in his mouth, he’s barely done a skerrick of socially responsible work in his life. And to make matters worse, he gave the go-ahead for the Tamar Valley pulp mill, which should have hurt him in Wentworth more than it did.

Depressingly, it’s looking very likely that Kerry Nettle has lost her seat as the only NSW Greens senator. Nettle has been a very active and vocal senator over the past two terms, and often directly challenged the theocrat Tony Abbott, my local member, whenever he made some religious gaffe. A memorable moment for me was when Nettle wore a t-shirt to parliament to protest against Health Minister Abbott’s vetoing the use of the abortion drug RU486, claiming that Australia had developed an ‘abortion culture’. Her t-shirt bore the slogan Mr Abbott, keep your rosaries off my ovaries. Her presence in the senate will be sorely missed and I do hope she’ll stand again in the next election.

However, the Greens did manage to pick up senate seats in Western Australia and South Australia, and have retained Bob Brown’s seat in Tasmania, to bring the total number of Greens in the upper house to 5, which would mean that they will share the balance of power with both Family First’s Stephen Fielding, and the Independent Nick Xenophon.

Lastly, Andrew Bartlett, despite being one of the most active senators this last term in office, will lose his Queensland senate seat to one or other of the major parties, having polled only 2 percent of the primary vote, half as much as even the Terminatrix Pauline “She’ll be back” Hanson, whose preferences appeared to have delivered Labor the last seat ahead of the Greens. Bartlett’s loss, in conjunction with Lyn Allison’s defeat and the retirement of both Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Murray, means that the Australian Democrats no longer have any representation in parliament. That is indeed a devastating result, and I would like to congratulate Senator Andrew Bartlett on his career in office, and thank him for the focus and attention he’s given towards indigenous affairs, something that until recently had been largely ignored by both major parties. I also wish him the very best for the remaining 8 months of his term before the newly elected senate is sworn in. You can also read Bartlett’s own remarks on his blog.

So overall, it has been a rather bittersweet victory. On one hand we’ve punished a hubristic, arrogant, highly conservative government, and have replaced it with a slightly less conservative opposition, and quite resolutely so, but we’ve also lost a minor party in the process. For the most part, I think the country voted correctly for the first time in a long time, for as long as I can remember, as a matter of fact. Now, all that’s left is to hope the senate will be strong enough to keep the Labor government in check, but that’ll be difficult when the senate is so tightly balanced.

All in all, I’m very much looking forward to the next three years.

~

<update>
News of Rudd’s win has already filtered into the podean linguabloggosphere, with Language Log’s Bill Poser pointing out that at long last, we have a non-monolingual Prime Minister, as Rudd speaks Mandarin quite fluently. Of course I wrote about this back here.

If only he spoke an aboriginal language, he’d be perfect.

I couldn’t agree more. May I suggest Wagiman?
</update>

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:

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)

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.

A friend of mine forwarded me an opinion piece in the Maltese newspaper The Times, which argues for the further adoption of English as a lingua franca and conversely, the dropping of Maltese:

Maltese needs to have its wings clipped today, rather than tomorrow. It is a quaint, museum-piece code which requires so many foreign fixes and props to keep it alive in today’s world that the line where Maltese stops and other languages (English especially) start has become blurred to the point where it is no longer there, effectively.

I say drop Maltese and concentrate on English.

The only semblance of a reason that the writer, Mario Schembri Wismayer, appeals to is the ubiquitous ‘English literacy is plummeting’ argument. Obviously he is under the assumption that there is no better way to increase literacy in one language than to abandon all others.

Anybody involved in education will tell you that the levels of spoken and written English are plummeting and hitting desperate levels. If we turn our back on this problem, we will be allowing a vast resource to slip through our hands.

I think, and I’m sure many will agree, that this argument is entirely fallacious and isn’t borne out by the facts. One such fact is that a sizeable majority of human beings are bilingual at least, and many of those speak three, four or five languages, all learned natively, with very little, if any, difficulty.

Then there is the slightly less obvious fact that bilingual education is a very effective method of increasing literacy in both languages, and may even be more effective than monolingual English education, where children are expected to learn a new language at the same time as gaining literacy skills. This places far too much cognitive burden on the child.

It’s an argument that emerges in Australia from time to time as well, as it probably does in any location where there are minority languages in addition to a standard lingua franca. It’s been the subject of a couple of posts here, as well as elsewhere, and without fail, someone argues that everyone should have the option to speak English. I agree completely. However, what they fail to acknowledge is that learning English is by no means mutually exclusive with learning the language of one’s ancestry. Furthermore, the option to speak one’s language of ancestry is the right of all people, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (a pdf of the entire declaration is available here).

That’s a good segue into my counterpoint to Wismayer’s opinion piece. His main thesis is that we all have the right to uniformity, at least with respect to language. Sure, I’ll concede that; no person should be prevented from being able to speak any international lingua franca, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and so on. I would argue though, that in addition to the right to linguistic/cultural uniformity, we all have the right to linguistic/cultural diversity. If speaking a particular language is a salient aspect of one’s identity, and allows them to differentiate themselves from others, then by all means their right to diversity through language should absolutely be respected.

At the end of the day, I believe monolingualism is conducive to a narrow-minded, monocultural world view, in which the concept ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and exclusion generally, abounds. Multilingualism and multiculturalism on the other hand, engender inclusion, broad-mindedness and awareness of and respect for others with different cultural backgrounds.

Surely in this increasingly divided world, the latter is what we should aim towards.

It looks as though, mercifully, the scrutiny and media coverage of the NT intervention isn’t going to stop just because the House of Review Rubber-Stamp senate has passed the suite of five bills.

This morning, groups such as the NT government and the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory continued to attack the laws and indeed, the Senate for unhesitatingly approving them.

The NT Government says Aboriginal people should feel let down by every senator who voted for legislation allowing the federal intervention in Indigenous communities.

Olga Havnen, from the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory, criticised the incongruity between the problems presented by the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report and the government’s response.

Ms Havnen says extra child protection workers and programs to strengthen families should have been the first measures.

“I think the second part of it that was absolutely necessary and yet has not been done, is a commitment to the long-term planning to meet the existing and future needs of Aboriginal people in remote communities, and to get some genuine commitment about the level of resourcing to even address the backlog for houses,” she said.

And this from NT Attorney-General Syd Stirling:

Five-hundred pages of legislation, around about a week, couple of days in the Senate – that just makes a farce of the democratic process of parliament.

Legislation that goes as far into people’s lives as this legislation does, warrants months of consideration, not days.

Damn straight.

The legislation was always rather unpopular in the wider community, but the general consensus was that ‘doing anything is better than doing nothing’. Meanwhile, the nexus between the problem and the proposed solution had been growing thinner every day under scrutiny. If the government had waited any longer, the wider community, or the electorate (given that it’s an election year) would have become accutely aware of the tenuity of this link and perhaps would have turned more vocally against it. Even Noel Pearson, the government’s own indigenous affairs mascot, has begun to criticise the way the government neglected to consult the communities who will be most affected by the laws, and the way they brazenly refused to consider the amendments put forward by other political parties.

Imagine how devastating it would have been for Brough personally and professionally, if he had to retract or drastically change this legislation due to public pressure just months away from an election. That’s why there was an imperative to push it through the hoops of due process (however pointless they may appear). Be under no illusion, the reason for the haste was not to ensure safety to children living in ‘dangerous’ communities, as Brough would have us believe; he was merely doing his political job as a minister in charge of a tricky portfolio in an incumbent government facing a tough election.

The bureaucratic process will still take plenty of time in rolling out the laws. Finding, hiring and transferring to the NT the 725 odd staff required to enact the changes can’t be done overnight. The laws may not therefore have any tangible effect for weeks, and even then, the first effects will be on the more pertinent aspects of the legislation as the government sees it; land tenure, the permit system and welfare reform. Ergo, if any given child was in danger of remaining in an abusive situation last month, they will likely still be in another month’s time.

Brough got his victory, but it was at the expense of the integrity of the senate and the democratic process.

~

By the way, for anyone reading from the US, a ‘postmortem’ is British for an ‘autopsy’.

I awoke this morning to the unusual sound of rain, something I hadn’t expected up this way until later in the year. If I were more of a literary person, I’d draw a Shakespearean connection between the inauspicious ‘worsening’ of the weather and the Senate’s rubber-stamping of the NT intervention legislation earlier today. But I’m not enough of a Shakespeare buff, and I like rain.

The bill passed, 56 votes to 6, through the apparently useless House of Review with only the Democrats and the Greens opposing it. The Labor party supported the bill in its entirety, despite the government rejecting each and every one of their amendments. One such amendment sensibly supported an annual review of the unfolding of the intervention, something that the government evidently disagrees with, for some obscure reason.

Some very important questions were asked during the Senate inquiry and debate, which, according to Senator Nick Minchin:

…has now gone on for more than 15 hours and is becoming one of the most exhaustively-tested pieces of legislation in Australian history.

Some of the questions concerned compensation for the forced take-over of lands and whether or not it would be constitutional. Alas, the government has decided to push ahead with the plan regardless:

The laws offer Aboriginal people “a reasonable amount” of compensation in return for losing control of their land, but not compensation on “just terms” as required by the constitution.

The government refused to amend the bills this week to enshrine the constitutional guarantee of compensation, amid warnings the laws could be the subject of a High Court challenge. (AAP)

But a legitimate question remains unanswered: who decides what “a reasonable amount” is, and by what yardstick?

The cost of the intervention strategy is predicted to come close to $600 million in the first year alone. Jane Simpson has provided a breakdown of where the majority of that money will end up, and it appears as though - like every other aspect of indigenous affairs in this country – only a very small proportion of it will reach the ground.

The government’s refusal to listen to any amendments put forward by any of the non-coalition parties has even drawn criticism from their Indigenous Affairs mascot, Noel Pearson, who warned the government against such intransigence as it has displayed towards other parties’ proposals. I might warn Mr Pearson against any more dissent from the Coalition plan, lest he get labelled a kava addict, as happened to the entire community of Yirrkala after they asked the survey team to leave last week.

The only good news is that due to the rain, I might not have to spend as long washing my car before returning it on Monday morning.

ABC Radio National’s indigenous arts and culture program Awaye is broadcasting over five weeks, beginning last week, a series of lectures by the Canadian Cherokee author, Thomas King, about storytelling.

Last week’s story, “The truth about stories”, was a thoroughly interesting talk in which King tells his version of the Cherokee creation story. He combines autobiography, history, theology, mythology and science to recount a compelling, hour-long tale that ultimately concerns the art of telling stories.

This small excerpt is the science bit. For Background, “she” is Charm, the mother of the Cherokee creation, who fell off another planet and is now heading rapidly for the prehistoric Earth, which is entirely water and inhabited only by the water animals.

And as she came around the moon the water animals were suddenly faced with four variables – mass, velocity, compression and displacement – and with two problems. The ducks who have great eyesight could see that Charm weighed in at about 150 pounds. And the beaver who had a head for physics and math knew that she was coming in fast; accelerating at, oh, 32 feet per second per second to be precise, give or take a little for drag and atmospheric friction. And the whales knew from many years of study that water does not compress while the dolphins would tell anyone who asked, that while it won’t compress, water will displace.

I’m not going to give away any more of that story here, I think it’s worthy of listening to, but unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, it can’t be downloaded as an mp3, it has to be streamed from the Awaye website.

This week’s story, “You’re not the Indian I had in mind”, focuses on the difference between Indians, as they exist in mainstream American cultural ethos, the sort of person who wears a feathered head-dress and a bone breastplate sitting in a tipi smoking a peace-pipe, and an Indian with a name, a personal identity and a background, the one that is often ignored.

King also tells about the period of his life he spent in New Zealand and Australia. Despite working for a little while as a miner in Tennant Creek, he never saw an indigenous Australian, nor had the people he worked with, while they were happy to profess to know that it was their own fault that they were in such debilitating poverty. King characterises the different cultural attitudes to indigenous people in Australia and in New Zealand with an epitaph that’s probably no less applicable today than it was back then.

The two groups [White New Zealanders and Maoris] seem to have organised themselves around an uneasy peace between equals. In Australia there was no such peace. Just a damp, sweltering campaign of discrimination that you could feel on your skin and smell in your hair.

There will be three more of these lectures and since I thoroughly enjoyed these first two, I’ll be waiting patiently for the rest.

Yesterday’s Herald’s News Review section included an edited version of a piece written by David Marr for the Quarterly Essay, about the gradual corruption of public debate and the stifling of free speech under John Howard. Here is one of the opening chapters:

Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.

At a lazy 4000 words, the edited version is just a fraction of what is in the QE, but unfortunately doesn’t contain any explicit detail as to the instances that Marr is alluding to. I presume the full version will, and I eagerly await the internet release, which should soon be freely available to anyone with university access, just like any other journal.

Still, I expect that the specific instances won’t include anything previously unknown, in fact Marr says exactly this.

We haven’t been hoodwinked. Each step along the way has been reported – perhaps not as thoroughly and passionately as it should have been, but we’re not dealing in dark secrets here. We’ve known what’s going on. If we cared, we didn’t care enough to stop it.

There’s also an entertaining debate between Marr and Andrew McIntyre, pundit, commentator, Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, from Radio National’s Late Night Live programme last week (Mp3 available here) which Marr convincingly won¹. Unfortunately it’s rather short relative to the breadth of issues that Marr’s essay addresses.

However, one issue that was discussed briefly was that Aid/Watch, a charitable organisation set up to scrutinise foreign aid, have lost their status as a charity for the reason that they recently drew attention to Australia’s foreign aid figures being inflated by more than $1 billion, and made it clear that they would like this to change, thereby acting in a partisan manner. Contrast this with the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank that does have charity status from the Tax Office, as conceded by McIntyre himself in this debate. In its ‘About’ page, the IPA claims that:

By the close study of Australian policy, we can recommend the best path for our politicians, policy makers and businesses to take.

Which sounds an awful lot to me as though the IPA seeks to influence public policy, the very reason for Aid/Watch’s loss of charity status.

Another reason this particular debate wasn’t quite long enough was that McIntyre kept saying outrageous claims as premises while on the way to a point, while never actually getting to the point itself. One such claim was that if you “google Howard is a fascist then you will [be directed to some ABC website]“. The net result is that McIntyre said absolutely nothing that related to the topic at hand while simultaneously denouncing Marr, (the presenter) Philip Adams, Kevin Rudd, Stuart Littlemore, the entire arts industry, Antonio Gramsci, Pat Byrne and the AEU, the entire Islamic world, the ABC and the supposed left in general.

~

¹(Inserting my tongue firmly in my cheek) I reckon it was fixed. Marr only won the debate because it was on the ABC, that leftist, communist, anarchic, chardonnay-swilling, latte-sipping, inner-urban, pinko, bleeding-heart, anthropogenic global warming fanatical, anti-American ABC, on a programme that McIntyre describes as “the tax-payers’ answer to [extremely influential right-wing shock-jock] Alan Jones”.

There. I said it so that no one else needs to point it out.

²I’ll concede that Howard isn’t solely responsible for this; Paul Keating more or less began the current trend towards censorship, but according to Marr, Howard does it better than anyone.

I awoke this morning to find that the old debate about the roles of indigenous language and English in Aboriginal Australia had crept back into the news. Except this time, the debate is getting considerably more polemic.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough has called for aboriginal children to be forced to learn English. He proposes to ‘quarantine’ welfare payments to parents unless their children attend school. That is, similar to the land ownership issue that I wrote about only yesterday, he is using money that is rightfully theirs, and threatening to keep it unless they do as he says.

“Too many still only have a rudimentary understanding of the language spoken throughout our country and can only speak their own language, which perhaps is only known to 200, 300 or 400 other people,” he said.

“That must end.”

This isn’t mere coercion, this is blackmail¹.

While he says that he is “not asking anyone to give up their own language”, the broader implication and the government’s failure to recognise indigenous languages say otherwise.

Of course, it is quite reasonable for someone to speak multiple languages. Aboriginal people traditionally spoke many languages, depending on the geo-political situation in the area. People still know three or more languages each, and claim affiliation with many more again. This is the situation in Wadeye, where, as he claims, there are a handful of distinct languages resulting in groups of people who cannot communicate.

These children, like all Australian children, will benefit from a strong grasp of English which allows them to make choices in their lives which they simply don’t have when they only speak a language that only a handful of people understand. (mp3 here)

Apart from the notion that Aboriginal people will benefit from speaking English in an English-speaking country, with which I agree, this is mostly nonsense. Most people in Wadeye speak Murrinh-Patha as well as another traditional language or two. In addition, just about the entire town speaks Kriol, the lingua franca of most of indigenous Australia. To put it another way, I would bet that there are no two Aboriginal people living in Wadeye who are unable to communicate with any language in their arsenal.

If the government wants aboriginal people to all learn English, then fine, fund programs to do it. But don’t use this nonsensical, flawed argument from unintelligibility to promote the further discouragement of indigenous languages.

NSW MP Linda Burney has countered Brough’s claims this morning, pointing out this government’s track record when it comes to the retention of languages and culture.

Aboriginal kids do need to be bilingual but it’s a bit rich coming from a person who actually is part of a Government that took away funding for bilingual programs in the Northern Territory.

She was also on ABC radio this morning reiterating the woefully shameful statistic that, of around 600² languages originally spoken in Australia, only 60 odd remain. The debate seems to centre on allowing aboriginal people to integrate into the mainstream economy (make of that what you will) but ignores the cultural imperative to do what we can to ensure languages don’t unnaturally cease to be spoken.

Language is the mechanism through which Aboriginal people in Australia relate to their family and other kin, to their ancestry and to their land. Language is not a mere means of communication, it embodies identity and culture.

For most of the world, and certainly for Europe, land is independent from people and language. Languages are embodied by people who inhabit land. When people move to another land, they take the language with them. In traditional Australia, this isn’t quite the case. Language is embodied by land and people are transient; taking on new languages as they take on new land³. For this reason (among others), language is an utmost important aspect of one’s culture and identity. To deny an Aborigine the right to speak their language is to forcibly remove their identity.

This, I believe, is one of the causes of social ills that indigenous people endure.

Burney also pointed out that Brough lacks even a fundamental understanding of aboriginal people, which should be compulsory in his portfolio. He fails to understand the importance placed on language and culture, which is immeasurably more important to them than some abstract, white man’s notion of being integrated into the mainstream (which sounds an awful lot like ‘assimilation’ to me).

~

¹I might point out that I do think that Aboriginal children, in fact all children, should be attending school, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks otherwise, but threatening to withhold vital funding is not the right way to do it.

²The numbers are difficult to ascertain, since it depends on your definition of language and your definition of dialect. 600 is near the higher end of the spectrum and relies on a liberal definition of language. I usually quote 350 to be conservative.

³See Merlan, Francesca. 1981. Land, language and social identity in Aboriginal Australia. Mankind 13(2):133-148.

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