Politics


I’ve been at Sydney University now for over six years, including five years as a full-time student, with full voting rights whenever any elections were held. So I’m not exactly new to the phenomenon that is the stupid election slogan, but I can’t help but wince any time I see fresh paint in the graffiti tunnel, advertising the newest slew of pseudo-political hopefuls.

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Over the past 10 months or so, I’ve made it clear that housing, in my opinion, is one of the most important factors of indigenous affairs right now. The state of the vast majority of dwellings in most aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and probably elsewhere is quite honestly despicable.

Despite this raw fact, and despite all relevant research pointing to poverty and poor housing as key risk factors for the neglect and abuse of children as well as a direct cause of most juvenile medical problems in indigenous children, the Howard/Brough intervention plan failed to address housing, and seemingly didn’t even consider it as an important issue. There was talk during the earlier days of the intervention that the military presence, under the banner of ‘Norforce’, would quickly build 500 or so dwellings in a blitz to address the problem of chronic overcrowding, which, by the way, sees up to 10 people sharing a single room in the worst cases, but this never seemed to eventuate.

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On my way to work late this morning, I took note of how many Aboriginal and Torres Straight flags there were flying prominently around Sydney Harbour. They flew above the bridge, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and notably, above Kirribilli House. I don’t know if they’ve been there any longer than just today – the day of the formal Parliamentary Apology to the stolen generations – or if they’d been there for a while, but certainly, and fittingly, today is the first time I’d noticed.

The apology itself was of course only one part of this morning’s proceedings, and a short part too. And since the text of Kevin Rudd’s first parliamentary act as Prime Minister had already been made public, the more interesting part of the session occurred after the reading of the motion. Both Rudd and opposition leader Brendan Nelson delivered very deliberated, considered speeches, each of which took more than twenty minutes, while the motion, at 361 words, was finished in under three.

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It’s been almost eleven years since the tabling of the Bringing them Home report, and tomorrow, the Australian Federal Parliament will formally apologise to the stolen generations.

This afternoon, Rudd made the full text of the apology available for the first time and, despite some earlier whining from some members of the coalition, specifically over the use of the word stolen, Brendan Nelson has signalled that he will support it as it stands.

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In less than a week, the federal Australian Government will catch up to the eight states and territories, and only a decade behind them.

The Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997. Within two days, Western Australia and South Australia, both Coalition-governed states at the time, had issued unreserved apologies¹. By the end of the year, only Queensland and the Northern Territory had yet to apologise. Queensland issued their apology in 1999, a little under a year after Peter Beattie was elected, and the NT issued theirs only six weeks after Clare Martin was elected in 2001.

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Today, Friday January 25th 2008, marks the 219th anniversary of the last day that Australia’s indigenous population had full and unchallenged sovereignty over their lands, and is therefore the day that I think should be celebrated as Sovereignty Day. Tomorrow, Australia Day, marks 220 years since Arthur Philip, by mere speech act, decreed that the entire continent belonged not to its inhabitants, but to the British Empire instead.

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It seems that Gerard Henderson, former culture warrior, has coined a new euphemism in relation to Australia’s indigenous history. Henderson has always disputed the term stolen generation, because the population of stolen aboriginal people hardly comprised an entire generation, so it’s odd that this new euphemism of his retains this word.

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In blogging, if you haven’t posted for a week, there’s a slim chance someone might consider you defunct. If you were a word, the OED might feel inclined to put an innocent looking (Arch.) next to you, or worse, (Obs.).

I feel then, that I should post something to keep the bloggospheric undertaker at bay and, quite fortuitously, there’s lots going on to discuss.

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We’ve had a few weeks of a Rudd government since the election now, and I reckon it’s been so far so good.

He’s made a few political errors of course, like gagging Peter Garrett (but let’s face it, Garret was Latham’s recruit as an environmental campaigner, not an environmental parliamentarian) and looking as though he’d obfuscate negotiations in Bali while awaiting an economic impact study (which should make the Libs very happy indeed, one would have thought) but with respect to handling the shambles that was the half-baked, knee-jerk Northern Territory intervention, he appears to be on the right track.

First of all, he pledged to keep all that $1.3 billion that Howard and Brough had earmarked for squanderin’, and spend it on the better aspects of the intervention while rolling back some of the more controversial and downright ludicrous aspects. Rudd says he’ll halt the changes to CDEP and gradually reverse them, and the permit system looks as though it’d be reinstated.

On Saturday, Rudd flew back from Dili where he stopped over on his way back from the Bali conference, and landed in Darwin to commence talks with aboriginal community leaders about what to do with the intervention. The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory, headed by Olga Havnen, have presented both the federal and Northern Territory governments with a 14-point plan to reverse the changes to CDEP, which apparently, has been welcomed.

Contrast this with the standover tactics that Brough used while in talks with community leaders; all reports depicted him as basically telling them how it would be, and not listening to their concerns at all. Rudd has therefore passed the first test of leadership on indigenous affairs; he’s engaged aboriginal people – that is, not just Noel Pearson – and included their concerns in his policy planning.

So from the outset, things look pretty good. All except for the fact that the government doesn’t plan on stopping the quarantining of welfare payments, although the scheme will be subject to annual review, which, you may recall, was one of Labor’s recommendations when the bills went (briefly) before the senate back in September, and subsequently rejected by the Howard government.

I have to say, I’m rather optimistic about this. Well, optimistic that things will pretty much go back to where they were a year ago. Clearly, there’s an awful lot left to do and, to their credit, the government did a good thing in identifying the appallingly high rates of preventable disease in children. Hopefully some of that $1.3 billion pie will go towards fixing some of these shameful health problems, something for which this current generation of Australians should formally apologise.

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By the way, two intervention soldiers have been slapped on the wrist after getting drunk and supplying grog to local aborigines. However, the matter is now being investigated by the defence force, which is kind of like the Mafia investigating its own activities.

Remember the allegations of sexual assault in the defence force that were revealed on Four Corners earlier this year? What about the systematic bullying in the defence force that likely caused the suicide of a soldier? Both these matters were investigated by the defence force itself, and nothing untoward was found.

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Comments?

It’s been less than a week since Howard conceded defeat to the Labor party on election night, but already things are beginning to change in indigenous policy. In fact there’s so much going on in Canberra, Darwin and elsewhere, that I barely know where to begin. I apologise (taking responsibility, that is) for what may therefore be a structural mess of a post.

Picking a starting point completely at random; The new Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson, has pledged to not support the government’s position of drafting and issuing an official apology to indigenous people. This is what he said:

Look Kerry, we are very proud of what our forebears did at Gallipoli and other campaigns. That doesn’t mean that we own them. Similarly, we feel a sense of shame in some ways of what was done in the past, where with good intentions, but not always with good outcomes, Aboriginal people were removed from what were often appalling conditions. We, in my view, we have no responsibility to apologise or take ownership for what was done by earlier generations.

This in my view is going to be a rather difficult point for the Liberal party, and will probably keep them at odds with the majority view until the apology is made and the issue is diffused. Nelson cannot now support an apology of course; it was the main reason he was elected above Malcolm Turnbull. Or more accurately, Turnbull lost votes in the party room because he said he would support an apology.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin resigned during the week, citing the pressure she has been under during the last six months due to the Howard government’s intervention. She resigned not long after saying she would fly straight to Canberra to begin talks with Rudd about how some key aspects of the intervention could be immediately reversed.

Martin’s resignation saw Paul Henderson ascend to the Chief Ministership, and saw prominent aboriginal woman, Marion Scrymgour become deputy – the highest office ever held by an aboriginal Australian. During the year, Scrymgour publicly attacked the intervention, calling it the “black kids’ Tampa“, and she also diverged from the party line with respect to the McArthur River mine issue, which I wrote about here and here. Apparently such was her disappointment with the Labor party back then that she considered resigning. Scrymgour’s appointment as deputy – and possibly her taking on the role of Indigenous Affairs Minister -  is an excellent move for the Northern Territory government.

Federal Labor went into the election last week with the promise to reinstate the (albeit imperfect) permit system and reverse the changes to the (occasionally misappropriated) Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP). Based on the election results in the bush, they certainly have a mandate to do so. The swing to Labor in remote communities was enormous. The remote polling booths (which I mentioned back here) returned primary vote numbers consistently in the high 80s. In Wadeye, where vanquished former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough did a lot of photo-opping, Labor MP Warren Snowdon polled an amazing 90.27% percent of the primary vote, and enjoyed a swing of almost 16%.

But Brough refuses to accept this indictment of his intervention, and has called for Prime Minister Rudd to continue on with the intervention.

I took the chance during this campaign to go back out to places like Hermannsburg and Mutujulu (sic), and I saw in the eyes of the women out there their desperate need for this to continue.

So I have a plea to Mr Rudd – I know you don’t agree with much of what I’ve done out there but not for me, not for some ideology, but for the children of the next generation, please, give them a chance, give this a chance to work.

For all intents and purposes though, the intervention will continue; much-needed houses will be built, health checks and follow-up treatments will go on and, irritatingly, welfare payments will still be contingent on certain conditions. The only difference is that aboriginal people will still have control over who comes into their land, and they will be able to earn a livable wage doing community work.

I don’t personally know how things are going out in communities at the moment, as I haven’t been out there in a few months, and news reports from the ground are really drying up in the mainstream media. For what it’s worth, I’m looking into the possibility of doing more Wagiman work in about a year’s time. It’s probably going to be rather a nightmarish task of submitting a grant application to get funding to do so, but here’s hoping.

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Elsewhere, and this isn’t really related to the intervention or the election, the Anangu people are considering a blanket ban on climbing Uluru, as they’re seeing more respect and consideration from tourists of their wishes for them not to do so and it therefore seems an appropriate time to ban climbing it altogether, something they’ve wanted to do since Bob Hawke (conditionally) handed it back to them in 1985. Interestingly, Europeans are statistically least likely to climb Uluru, whereas Australian and Japanese tourists are most likely.

We did not climb it because we were told that your original Aboriginals would not like us to do that, so we respect their religion and we didn’t do it.

(Dutch backpacker)

The entire report is available as an mp3 from here, and if you’re unaware of some of the more irritating quirks of Australian accents, watch out for the cracking example of high-rising intonation as demonstrated by AAT Kings spokesperson, Dianne Easson.

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