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.

There’s been a lot of whining in the government over the last week. First we had Downer having a hissy fit because Rudd chose to greet Hu Jintao in his native language, then we had Howard crying because no one likes him anymore, and now we have Brough getting all blurry-eyed and tremor-lipped because the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is ‘unfair’.

“We haven’t wiped our hands of it, but as it currently stands at the moment, it would provide rights to a group of people which would be to the exclusion of others,” he said.

“The best way of putting it is, it’s outside what we as Australians believe to be fair.”

In other words (I love doing this), “Waa, the UN says we have to stop needlessly persecuting the most disadvantaged demographic in the country and make up for over 200 years of appalling treatment by giving them privileges? It’s Just Not Fair!

Grow up Malcolm.

Joe2 alerted me to an article in Crikey, which, if true, tells of a completely contemptible practice on behalf of the Howard government. The article, appropriately slugged¹ Stuart Highway robbery, is based on “a document that has come into the hands of Crikey”, which they claim suggests that the government plans to seize assets from indigenous communities, only to offer them back at a hefty price. I, for one, would very much like to see that document.

Organisational assets above the value of $400,000 are to be compulsorily acquired by Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and transferred to a new entity, the Indigenous Economic Development Trust (IEDT), and then rented back at commercial rates to the same organisations from which the asset has been taken from.

Presumably the reason for seizing ‘organisational assets’ (Community-owned infrastructure? Houses?) valued over $400,000 is because they think aboriginal people, or communities, are unable to adequately manage them. Assuming that’s the reason, then why offer such assets back, even if it is at commercial rates? Possibly it is because they are well aware that indigenous communities are so cash-strapped that they would have very little capacity to pay market rents for housing, potentially opening up communities to anyone with enough money.

In that respect, it’d be consistent with the stated reason for scrapping the permit system: to open up otherwise closed communities to outsiders.

That speculation aside, the plan suggested in this article is ominously reminiscent of a piece of commonwealth propaganda that I saw in every government and public service building in Katherine during the height of the intervention. Unfortunately I didn’t keep a copy², but to paraphrase the section on the forced leasing of land, it said that after having acquired said land, the government will fix up the houses, then lease them back to the community at market rents

If the government’s idea of helping aboriginal people out of regular old poverty is to force them into abject poverty and potential homelessness, then they really are on the wrong track.

~

¹Slugged as in the URL, not the title.

²If you’re in the Territory and feel like providing the actual quote, the propaganda is shaped like a newspaper, probably the size of the Katherine Times with a reddish colour-scheme. It’s a single folded piece of paper, that is, with four internal ‘pages’, and it has a ‘letter’ from Mal Brough on the front page heralding the good work the government is doing. You can’t miss it. I think the bit I refer to is on page 3.

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.

Mal Brough gave an address at the National Press Club yesterday in which he claimed that land rights have actually impoverished indigenous people in this country and that ‘communism’ – though certainly not in the political sense of the word – doesn’t work. You can read all about it here.

He is in effect blaming the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA) for the conditions in communities around the country, thereby mitigating himself and his government for the blatant inaction over the past eleven years and at the same time, providing a rationale under which to legitimately take apart the ALRA.

Of course, the gradual dismantling of the ALRA has been underway for some months now, probably since the government began bribing Tangentyere council to gain control over their town camps, something that continued with the coercive actions in having Nguiu council agree to similar conditions. But until now they’ve left themselves open to criticism for doing so. Now they can turn around and claim, since the ALRA has done nought but impoverish aboriginal people, that they are doing the right thing in getting rid of it.

We now have clear and unequivocal evidence that this entire debacle was about undermining land rights from the beginning, but until yesterday the government hasn’t grown the courage to ‘fess up to it. This of course became obvious for most of us, when all aspects of the intervention plan that would have any effect on the causes of the problem became swamped by those aspects that concerned land only. In their defence though, they couldn’t very well have come out from the beginning and said that the ALRA was their target, since that had nothing to do with the report at all and they wouldn’t have been able to hijack it use it as a justification.

Their solution?

Make it appear that the intervention is about kids being sacred and all the rest of it. Make it seem that their strategy will focus on stopping people from drinking and taking drugs. In the meantime, gradually introduce measures into the legislation that would enable the forcible seizure of land, and then ram the legislation through a Coalition-stacked parliament without due process, such as any form of debate, apart from a token one-day senate hearing, citing the imperative to act fast “when the safety of children is concerned”.

Do all that and you’ll have abolished land rights before breakfast.

A lot has happened in Canberra overnight, as it’s the start of the first parliamentary sitting since John Howard and Mal Brough announced their intervention plan.

I pointed out weeks ago that their actions implied that they were simply ignoring the 97 recommendations of the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report. The feeling is still shared by co-author of the report, Pat Anderson:

“There’s not a single action that the Commonwealth has taken so far that corresponds with a single recommendation,” she said. “There is no relationship between these emergency powers and what’s in our report.” (source)

Howard ‘fessed up to this too, putting forward the defence that ‘people who do a good job of writing up reports don’t necessarily do a very good job of writing recommendations’ (paraphrased: I saw it on ABC news last night but I can’t find a transcript). 

Now, the parliament has been handed a 500 page bill, with no more than one day to digest and debate it before they will have to vote on it. This is all too consistent with the stifling of debate under Howard that David Marr wrote about for Quarterly Essay last month¹ and has been labelled ‘pathetic’ by independent MP Tony Windsor.

“[It is] a pathetic process, and it’s obviously geared at trying to wedge the Labor Party, in my view, rather than actually have a deliberative debate in the Parliament and in the community about a very, very important issue.” (source)

Moreover, the proposed legislation specifically excludes the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act and the Anti Discrimination Act legislation of the Northern Territory. Rightly, the Greens are pissed off, even if no other party seems to be, although their concern  is echoed by Murray Wilcox QC, who has labelled it “constitutionally valid but extremely descriminatory”.

It also emerged today that, in its first year alone, and not including adequate compensation for the forced leasing of land, the intervention will cost more than $500 million, by the government’s own estimates. This is an awful lot more than the “tens of millions” that Finance Minister Nick Minchin claimed it would cost back in June.

Of course, indigenous Australia deserves ten times that amount in funding to fix the woefully inadequate housing conditions and living standards in some remote communities, so I’m not exactly going to say it’s too much (indeed to do so would mean being labelled ‘soulless’ by Brough). I’m just concerned that it will mean less funding for communities in the future, for the things they desperately need and for which they have for years been submitting funding applications.

I can just imagine it: “What? you want more?! We already spent half a bil’ on the issue during the intervention! Surely that’s enough for now.”

~

<update>
8/8: The bills passed through the lower house at about 8:30 last night, 74 to 54, after some token debate, during which Kevin Rudd reaffirmed his in-principle support for the legislation.

Let us be blunt: this emergency plan is far from perfect. We are, however, prepared on this side of the House to give it a go and we commend the proposals we have put to the government by way of amendment for their serious consideration [unsuccessfully - J]. The attitude we bring to bear to this problem in the Northern Territory is one of wanting to fix the problem and to identify solutions that work, rather than engaging in the perpetual blame game between the Commonwealth, the states and the territories on the one hand and between our two sides of politics on the other. It is time for action on behalf of all Aboriginal people, in particular Aboriginal children subject to abuse.

The Senate is supposed to vote on the bills on Friday and, unless there’s a miracle, they’ll go through without a hitch.
</update>

~

¹Marr, David. His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard. Quarterly Essay; Issue 26; 2007; 1-84 (available online for free with an institutional subscription).

As if it weren’t bad enough that the Borroloola community was denied justice by the Territory government in a decision to retroactively change the legislation that prevented Xstrata and McArthur River Mine (MRM) from turning the McArthur River zinc mine site into an open-cut operation.

As if it weren’t bad enough that the bill was passed almost unanimously, the only dissenters being the indigenous Labor and independent MLAs (an indigenous opposition member abstained from the vote).

As if it weren’t bad enough that the bill was passed on the day of the funeral of the man who was the spokesperson for the community and the most vocal person in their fight to protect their country, to protect 5 odd kilometres of the McArthur from being diverted to accommodate the open-cut mine.

As if that weren’t all bad enough, and now the Kurdanji people have been prevented from performing a ceremonial dance on a patch of their land that has been forcibly leased to Xstrata and its subsidiary company, McArthur River Mine.

Remember what Clare Martin said? “We’re doing this with the greatest respect for everyone involved.”

Nauseating.

…There’s been very little action here of late with the Brough plan. There was a rumour last week that the army were headed here, but we haven’t seen anything as yet. They really want to know if they’re considered one of the 60 (or however many there are) communities, because if they are, they might reconsider putting so much effort into the myriad of projects that have been set up to combat alcohol abuse, housing shortages and other pressing issues, since the federal government might want to take over such projects altogether.

The federal government (this was the situation last week anyway, things may have changed since then) claims that it would be dangerous to say which communities it has in its sights, because they may pre-emptively, temporarily force out grog-runners and so on to make the place look good. I doubt that. I think they’re playing it entirely by ear and don’t even know which communities are included.

Also, remember to watch insight tomorrow night (Tuesday 24/7), which will focus on this issue. SBS, 7:30pm (or 8:00pm 7:00pm [I got the direction of the timezone wrong, silly me - this also meant I missed the first half as I was watching ABC news] if you’re in the territory).

During the week, MLA for Daly, Rob Knight, visited the community here to explain the federal government’s initiatives and plans in straightforward terms.

I always try at least to be healthily sceptical whenever listening to a politician. In spite of how much I still favour his party’s policies over the federal government’s, recent resources-related issues have made me bitter towards both Labor and the Coalition.

That aside, one of his main points was to differentiate between those aspects of Howard’s plan that are more or less recommended by the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle “Little Children are Sacred” report, and those that were not at all mentioned in the report. While the former were all pretty much related to health, housing, alcohol and drugs, pornography and so on, most of the latter were related to land or, more specifically, to the federal reclamation of aboriginal land.

It’s not hard to imagine this. They have, after all, been trying to do away with the Land Rights Act for years, but have never had the support to do so. This report gave them the political ammunition to take control.

Of course, there have been other reports in the last 10 or so years, all saying much the same thing: that living conditions in many aboriginal communities in remote Australia were well below the poverty line, that this contributes to alcohol and drug abuse, which in turn contributes to domestic violence and child abuse and neglect. But no other report was ever taken up by the government, let alone has one ever provoked any change.

Why, for instance, didn’t the government latch onto the finding of several months ago that health in aboriginal people in Australia lagged behind the rest of the country, or the entire west even, by a rough estimate of 100 years? Surely that’s a very serious issue and is huge cause for alarm, yet it sparked no emergency response, no taskforce and no military intervention.

As an aside, a letter to yesterday’s Herald made the profound point, keeping in mind that he is soon to celebrate turning 68, that had Howard been an aboriginal man, chances are he’d have been dead before being elected in the first place.

~

As I started saying in this post before getting distracted, it’s all about land. Alan Ramsey’s opinion piece¹ in today’s Herald provides plenty of evidence for this. It goes right back to late-nineties and Howard’s attempt to ‘gut’ the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA) of 1976, using a report that recommended as much, commissioned by the government back in ’98, compiled by John Reeves QC, a former Labor-right NT mining advocate. Reeves now serves on the PM’s Emergency Response Taskforce.

It emerges that most of the initiative that the government is proposing in repsonse to the apparently above-average levels of child abuse (though not in reality, it seems), that is, the 5-year leases (after which there is no guarantee that the land will revert to the current ownership), the taking over of town-camps, the 99-year leases in the Tiwi Islands and the Kimberly and the scrapping of the permit system, are all basically rehatched versions of the recommendations in Reeves 1999 report.

With some modifications, the current proposals are a revisiting of the 1998 review by John Reeves, QC. Reeves’s central target was the role of traditional owners under the act. He recommended breaking the nexus between traditional owners and decision-making. His recommendations were widely criticised at the time and were rejected by a 10-member parliamentary committee in a unanimous cross-party report in 1999.

Reeve’s recommendations were unanimously rejected. So how is it that 8 years later, the government is able to get away with much the same, with very little meaningful or even vocal opposition (I’m talking to you, Kevin Rudd)?

~

In other news, Northern Territory police support the current permit system.

¹Yes, I know I’ve linked to Ramsey’s column two weeks in a row now, but realistically, he’s just spot on when it comes to the political history of these issues, and of most of Australian local politics over the past 40 years or so. Today’s is a brilliant piece, as usual.

Out here in the field it’s not easy to get a sense of people’s reactions to the federal government’s proposals. This is mainly because of the lack of detail and the complete politicisation of what has been anounced. The fact that the plan lacks detail or even any long-term goals and targets (Howard on NT Stateline last night) and the fact that the government has already back-pedalled on a few aspects, both make it overwhelmingly clear that the plan is little more than a knee-jerk reaction.

The best evidence so far of this has been the retraction of the completely illegal and unethical compulsory forensic medical examinations, yet this has only been replaced with an equally unethical, but legal, coercive version of the same, if children don’t get examined, their parents don’t get their welfare money¹.

Of course the government doesn’t see it as a retraction. The prime minister last night (again, on NT Stateline) claimed that when he said ‘compulsory’, he didn’t mean compulsory-compulsory², what he apparently meant was that surely no parent would refuse a medical examination of their child, the result therefore, would be de facto compulsory. I don’t think I have to point out the logical flaws in that argument. The government, quite typically, appear to be more interested in maintaining face rather than coming up with a workable plan. This also explains why they have been so cavalier in blaming the states for all the problems; so they can be seen to take charge and tackle the hard problems.

The problems though, are chronic, complex, long-term and devastating. They demand something more sophisticated than a bunch of scarcely considered militaristic tactics that serve only to perpetuate this destructive us-vs-them ideology. The government’s favoured weapon here, and really the only legal weapon it has, is the threat of retention of welfare payments to achieve certain goals, and they’ve been rather trigger-happy lately: Make your kids go to school or lose your welfare; sign over your land to us or lose your welfare; and now, force your kids to undergo intrusive, invasive and quite potentially frightening forensic medical examinations – or lose your welfare.

Alan Ramsey put it best when he said “Excuse me while I vomit”.

It’s not just in the community that people are unsure of the situation, in town too, the miners (the vast majority of the population up here) are unaware that many of these measures will affect them. When I alerted them to the fact that the proposed ban on grog would similarly apply to them, they were suitably gobsmacked. I’m sure that it would apply to them because the government couldn’t possibly justify an alcohol restriction that depends on ethnicity, and because it is clear from the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle “Little Children are Sacred” [pdf] report  that the sexual abuse is not only being perpetrated by aboriginal men but also significantly frequently by white men, and especially in mining-based towns (some anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard over the last few days certainly suggests this). Then again, the government appears to have no qualms in ignoring the recommendations of the report, so why not also ignore the content?

In other news, a chance meeting with Bulanjdjan during the week alerted me to the fact that I’ve been over-using the carrot-and-stick metaphor of late, and that I need to find a replacement dichotomy, so any suggestions will be welcomed.

~

¹Whether or not the welfare money is ‘sit-down’ money as Noel Pearson has termed it is beside the point here.

²I just knew English had reduplication.

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