The Great Debate between Herr Howard and The Ruddster was tonight, and I do believe, unless I’m hallucinating, that I heard Mr Howard say he was sorry – and yes, it was in relation to Australia’s history with respect to Aborigines. Except, and this is the clincher, it was an apology that, rather than an apology for.

You can see the section on reconciliation extracted from the entire debate on the ABC website here, and don’t worry, you don’t have to sift through too much to find Howard’s pseud-apology, it’s right at the beginning. In his own words:

Well, I’m sorry, that people were mistreated in the past. Of course I’m sorry. But that’s different from this generation accepting responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation.

Look, the idea of asking a present generation to apologise for the deeds of an earlier generation is offensive to millions of Australians, and I will never embrace that.

Hear that? He "will never embrace that".

A few years ago I wrote a lengthy semantics essay on the subject of the apology, which earned me a high distinction¹ from the very astute Michael Walsh, and this is an excellent case-study. Howard apologised that a state of affairs has transpired, though he specifically rules out taking any responsibility for it. This is contrasted with apologising for a state of affairs for which the speaker is responsible in some way.

If you want me to go into detail, here is the breakdown of the speech act ‘to be sorry’ into semantically simple sub-events (where x represents a state of affairs). And, sorry for the simplistic language like ‘feel bad for’, but this is how semantic events are traditionally analysed:

    I know that x has occurred
    [I think that I caused x]
    I think that x was bad for you
    I assume you feel bad because of x
    [I assume you feel bad towards me for causing x]
    I say: I feel bad because of that (edict)
    I say this because I want you to know this
    I assume you want to know this

Those two lines within square brackets represent the crucial semantic difference between an apology that (where they’re absent) and an apology for. Remember the Pope’s famous apology that some people were offended by his incredibly racist remarks? He did not imply that he caused the state of affairs (the offending remark), nor did he concede that others felt bad towards him for his having caused such a state of affairs. In effect, he skillfully and tactfully avoided responsibility.

Of course I’m not suggesting John Howard is responsible, either directly or indirectly, for any of the atrocities committed with respect to aborigines in this country before about 1975. He couldn’t have been – he was just a Canterbury Boys’ High School student appearing on radio quiz shows.

Either way, specifically saying ‘sorry’ is a step much farther than he’s so far been prepared to take. His only concessions have been to move a Motion of Reconciliation, which expresses:

…deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices.

For perspective, all state and territory governments at the time issued there own apology and all of them, except for the federal ‘expression of regret’, included some inflection on the sequence ‘apologise for’. All 9 official statements are published on the Wikipedia page about the Bringing The Home report, which sparked the reconciliation debate back in mid 1999.

What’s my point in this post? Should Howard personally accept responsibility? I don’t think so, no. Should he, as the current leader of the government, issue a statement on behalf of all Australians which assumes collective responsibility for shameful acts of colonisation, systematic abuse and even genocide, resulting in there being a seriously disadvantaged group of people who stand to lose there culture if we don’t act, within a country that prides itself on its so-called economic excellence?

I personally think the answer to that one, hard as it may be for others to accept, is ‘yes’.

~


¹Sorry – it was one of the few HDs I got during my entire tertiary education.

It wasn’t long after alcohol restrictions were initially put in place in the Northern Territory that the various Recreational Fishing lobby groups threw up their arms in indignation, with the NT government firmly by their side:

Look, a fisherman having a beer in the boat on the Daly River as he goes about his normal business is not going to make any difference to the way in which Aboriginal Australia is going to develop. That’s, you know, they’re not really related.
Chris Makepeace [from the Amateur Fisherman's Association]

Apparently the tourism industry in the NT would collapse if the myriads of Grey Nomads weren’t allowed to down a XXXX Gold while letting that barra get away. Incidentally, I wouldn’t argue with that: Incidentally, I find fishing so mind-numbingly boring that I too, would have to be absolutely soused to endure it.

The result back then was the concession that recreation fishermen-or-women would be allowed to drink alcohol on a boat on a river within the confines of aboriginal land (roughly speaking), where alcohol would otherwise be completely banned. Since that original fine-tuning, we’ve seen some more exceptions to the original ‘blanket’ bans on alcohol, all of which were driven by the tourism industry.

Yesterday, five camp grounds in Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks were exempted from alcohol bans for tourists, however I can’t find any information on whether or not the alcohol bans would still apply to members of indigenous communities, though I’d assume they do. As for white residents, it’s probably considerably more hairy. Surprisingly, the NT government licensing bodies, regulators and lobby groups were critical of the changes, except that their criticisms aren’t about the laws themselves, but the way in which they themselves have been left out of the loop: 

The changes were made this week, but there is concern that Mr Brough did not inform key regulators and industry representatives of the changes until after they were applied.
Northern Territory Licensing Minister Chris Burns says his department, who administer the laws, were kept in the dark until late yesterday.

One would hope that they’d be even slightly critical of the laws on the basis that indigenous groups have been similarly kept ‘in the dark’ with respect to just about everything. They went on to accuse Brough of legislating ‘on the run’, something that I and others have been charging him with since the very beginning:

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.
(June 30, 2007)

I have two further points to make on this. First of all, it’s quite frankly appalling that the interests of tourists are given this much more weight in the decision-making in Darwin and in Canberra than those of indigenous people – by far the most disadvantaged demographic in the country. It’s sufficient, so it seems, for a tourism or fishing lobby group to cry foul for Brough to move Heaven and Earth to protect their birthright to intoxication. If nothing else this sends the message that black people in this country still have no voice.

Secondly, I would posit a hypothetical: Suppose a big mob of Wagiman people went for a drive up the road to Gunlom, one of the exempted camp grounds, which is Mayali country and not Wagiman country, and proceeded to crack a tinny.

Are they considered tourists?

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.

Today’s Herald contains an encouraging story about the place of indigenous languages in public high schools. Year 8 students at Bourke High School were compulsorily taught Wangkamurra this year, and the results have been positive enough that the State Government is planning on extending the program to more state schools with large enough populations of aboriginal students.

Since Aboriginal language was made compulsory at Bourke High School in year 8, student attendance rates and retention of students to year 9 had improved, [NSW Director-General of Education, Michael] Coutts-Trotter said.

It had also helped improve English literacy and numeracy.

It’s also been especially positive for Bourke High’s indigenous population, who normally finish year 12 at half the rate that non-indigenous students do.

It also helped Aboriginal students identify with their culture, which improved their confidence and sense of identity.

“All this can then lift student confidence in approaching other study areas,” he said.

This is clearly a good program and I would personally like to see it adopted by all state and territory governments. Surely most would agree. 

Except there’s seemingly never a piece of good news about indigenous issues in this country without some bad news alongside it…

Howard has defended the government’s choice to not ratify the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which passed on Thursday by an impressive 143 to 4, citing its implicit legitimisation of customary law and the possibility of “separate developments inside one country” as his key points of dispute. I wish he’d elaborate on the latter, because it doesn’t appear to me to be all that bad.

Mr Howard says the decision was an easy one.

I bet. He also attacked Labor for their support for the declaration, claiming it is at odds with their support for the NT intervention. I don’t think that’s the case. Even if you ignore the politics, it isn’t the case that supporting paternalistic action to reduce rates of abuse in aboriginal communities requires you to oppose rights for indigenous people. The fact that Howard appears to think so is perhaps not unexpected, but worrying all the same.

Interestingly, in that article it paraphrases Howard as saying:

…there should not be special arrangements for special groups in the Australian community.

Yet, this is precisely why the government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to allow the NT intervention legislation to pass, because it makes special arrangements for special groups within the Australian community. The only difference with that and the UN Declaration (apart from the fact that the latter is legally impotent) is that Howard’s ‘special arrangements’ are detrimental to aborigines.

Every day reveals more blatant hypocrisy from this increasingly desperate autocrat.

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.

The United Nations is due to vote on the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples tomorrow, as I’ve just learned from an article sent out on ILAT.

“Basically, it’s a very wide-ranging declaration that recognizes rights that they already have, such as the right to cultural integrity, the right to education in their own language, the right not to be dispossessed of their ancestral land and so on,” [Kali Mercier of Survival International] says.

[...]

“There has been a lot of support for it from some countries. Other countries have not been quite so keen and they’re some of the countries in which we would have hoped to have a much better example set. For example, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, all countries with indigenous peoples, have been very opposed to some of the wide-reaching rights recognized by the declaration.”

“Have not been quite so keen” is putting it very mildly. The Declaration has been about 24 years in the making, but suffered a setback earlier this year, when, possibly under pressure from John Howard, the recently elected Canadian government withdrew their support.

If adopted the declaration would encourage states to do things such as:

  • Not dispossess indigenous people of their land,

  • Undertake efforts to prevent loss of indigenous languages, and

  • Make bilingual education possible,

Australia, the United States and Canada between them have many hundreds of different indigenous ethnic groups spanning many hundreds of distinct languages, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that these countries would do what they can to thwart the adoption of this declaration. Protecting hundreds of indigenous languages, some spoken by, or affiliated with as few as a hundred people, is a very costly affair. And any good economic rationalist government would weigh up cost with benefit and conclude that doing so isn’t worth it, especially when we can do things like buy helicopters, give election-motivated tax cuts, or throw massive soirées at Kirribilli House instead.

Understandably, economic rationalism is an ideology I don’t altogether buy.

~

No more than an hour after hitting the ‘publish’ button for this post, I opened the Herald to see that this story had been taken up there. While the conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in town after the APEC summit monstrosity, the minor parties are lobbying hard to have the government support the declaration, which will probably pass tomorrow irrespective of Australia’s position.

On Monday, the Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett moved an urgent motion in the Senate urging the Government to change its position while the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was in Canberra. Labor, the Greens and Family First supported the motion, which was defeated by 35 votes to 33.

It also brought to light an interesting snippet of information which is especially pertinent with all the current hoo-haa:

The Government, which has lobbied since 1998 to have the phrase “self-determination” – saying it could lead to calls for a separate indigenous state – removed from the draft declaration, is standing firm.

Now of course, they are all for self-determination. Well, “self-determination” inasmuch as it doesn’t impinge on the federal government’s self-imposed sovereignty over mineral-rich land that they would very much like to dig up and sell to China. They’re ecstatic with “self-determination” when it refers to their getting away with not funding vital services in remote communities.

The hypocrisy is nauseating.

~

<update>

Despite Australia thinking its opinion is worth anything on the world stage, the Declaration passed overnight by a whopping 143 to 4 with only eleven abstentions. I find it encouraging that so many nations supported the declaration, but deeply embarrassing that we, along with the US, Canada and New Zealand (I still can’t believe that, Helen Clarke was otherwise highly likeable), chose to oppose it.

Robert Hill, Australia’s ambassador to the UN and former Howard government Cabinet Minister (independent diplomatic appointments is a thing of the past, apparently) again made it clear that the Australian government’s opposition was motivated by the term self-determination, which, I might point out again, is the very term they use for the ultimate goal of the current NT intervention.

It’s interesting that the ABC news website now allows comments on many stories, this being one of them, because we can see a glimpse of the ideology that drives Australia’s opposition to this declaration.

Good on the government for voting against this crap.
It’s time these people stopped living in their stone-age past and realise they were conquered, the white man came and took over.
Nobody is excluding them from being a part of our society, the only thing that is excluding them is the chip on their shoulder.

(from “Realist“)

</update>

This came out a few days ago, but I was a bit busy, what with trying to navigate my way through the city during APEC and being held-up by motorcades, and neglected to write about it. This morning though, I noticed that Lauredhel had mentioned it in brief at Hoyden About Town, so I suppose I’d better have a crack as well.

What I’m referring to is the news that the government have finally provided more, albeit tantalisingly scant information regarding how the quarantining of welfare payments will operate.

Thousands of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory will be unable to use quarantined welfare payments to buy food anywhere other than Woolworths or remote community stores.

[...]

“If you want to buy bread at a bakery then you would use 50 per cent of your discretionary money to do that,” [leader of the intervention Major General David Chalmers] said.

He says people would also need to use the discretionary portion if they wanted to buy clothing at a shopping centre.

There is a serious problem with this apart from the obvious, well, just about all of it, and that is, as far as I can tell, there are only six Woolworths in the entire Northern Territory, and four of those are in Darwin. This aint so bad if you live in Pine Creek as it’s only a 90 kilometre drive south to Katherine to do your shopping, except remember that a lot of people don’t have cars or even reliable access to a car.

But what if you live in Tennant Creek? You’re only options are (and these distances are from Woolworth’s own store locator):

  1. Alice Springs, 451.09 km south,
  2. Mount Isa, 565.72 km east,
  3. Katherine, 611.70 km north, or
  4. Cluncurry, 669.01 km east again.

That’s an awful lot of driving around to buy a weekly load of shopping.

There is of course the other option of ‘community stores’, except that it’s not at all clear what a community would have to do in order to have their store accredited. Moreover, a community store’s licence may be revoked by the department and its property summarily seized “if [the department] thinks a licence condition has been breached or that the store is not being operated in a satisfactory manner”.

The above quote (as well as those below) is from the Central Land Council’s short and easy guide to the Commonwealth intervention, a simplified, reader-friendly fact sheet outlining the main legislative changes, who they will effect and how they will affect them. It’s an awful lot more readable than the government’s legislation digest (pdf).

~

As an aside, Lauredhel rightly questions the implication of the ABC article, that everyone‘s welfare payments would be quarantined, and not only that of those parents whose children fail to attend school. Well unfortunately, the implication is spot on.

The quarantining of welfare payments applies across the board, to all persons living in a “declared NT area”, which includes the usual “Aboriginal land under the Land Rights Act” and “all town camps”. It also includes the worrying “any other area in the NT declared by the Minister”. The remaining 50% (or “lower amount specified by the Minister”) will also be quarantined in case of “lack of school enrolment”, “lack of school attendance” or “child neglect”.

Again, see the CLC’s fact sheet for the full details – Link courtesy of David Nash, who passes on so much information to me that I sometimes think he should start his own blog.

~

Another small point on this that I might bring up: The CLC’s fact sheet was published (I think) on Friday last week, September 7, and the Bills were presented to the lower house on Monday, August 6. This means the  CLC were able to have their lawyers read, understand and summarise the legislation in 32 days. The House of Representatives were given only one day a few hours to debate the bills, most of it taken up by Brough’s hour-and-a-half long presentation of it to the parliament. The senate had a bit more breathing room and clocked in at 27 hours before passing it.

I find it hard to believe, given the time-frame of the CLC’s publication, that both houses of parliament, all those Representatives and all those Senators, had fully read and understood the hundreds of pages of legislation before they voted on them. Call me naive, but should this not be a necessary condition for doing so?

Perhaps someone more versed in the Westminster model of governance could enlighten me as to what indeed are the necessary conditions for voting to pass legislation. Because it isn’t important that those we elect in order to vote on legislation for us don’t actually fully grasp said legislation, then we have a serious problem.

Hopefully the quarantining of welfare payments will be among those aspects of the legislation that are currently being proposed for amendment.

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.

Last Tuesday I wrote about a “Herald Investigation” into the government’s creative book-keeping on funding of indigenous affairs. To sum up the story, their accounting gives the impression that the commonwealth has for years been throwing billions at aboriginal Australia. Such funding has frequently and dysphemistically been termed ‘sit down money’.

That, in contrast with the clear squalor and poverty in which some people in some communities infamously live, leads the majority to one conclusion: Aborigines are no good at spending money. This has had severe corollaries, not the least of which has been the move to quarantine commonwealth welfare payments to aboriginal people.

In today’s Herald, the editorial has leapt onto the issue with a scathing attack on the government’s ‘creative accounting’.

With grim irony, some of the money the Federal Government claims it spends for Aborigines is, in fact, used against them. This includes no less than $30 million spent over the past six years opposing native title and compensation claims. Another $35 million spent on reconciliation projects – which, one might think, is intended to benefit all Australians – is counted as spending on Aborigines alone.

It is certainly welcome that the Herald editor has decided to publicise this issue (as most indigenous issues in this country tend to go a little under-the-radar, until recently), and I can absolutely agree with the sentiment the editor (no byline is ever given in Herald editorials) expresses, when s/he says:

Such creative accounting helps explain the enormous gap between the impressive figures nominally budgeted for indigenous Australians, and the deprivation that confronts visitors to remote communities in the Northern Territory and beyond.

Before leaving for my most recent field trip, issues of funding were becoming more discussed, especially in the blogosphere, regarding such events as Mal Brough’s despicable ultimatum to Tangentyere Council: $60 million dollars in housing funding in exchange for tenure of their land. In such discussions, the term ‘sit down money’ was strewn about like parmesan cheese in an Italian restaurant¹. I was mindful therefore, when I arrived in the Territory, of the conditions in the community, the apparent abandon with which the community organisation is alleged to have been wasting their generous federal funds, and the behaviour of individuals rumoured to be awash with welfare money.

What confronted me was consistent with a community almost entirely bereft of adequate funds. I’ve written about this before, but the community president has been perpetually writing grant applications to fund desperately needed housing and infrastructure upgrades, only to be repeatedly fobbed off. In fact it has come to the point where the community president merely phones whichever Territory or commonwealth department is in charge of such things, and asks plainly whether or not he has a shot of getting any funding. The answer is usually ‘no’. This saves him hours otherwise spent writing futile applications.

All in all, the concept of ‘sit down money’ was never made apparent in my recent time there, and I spent a lot of time discussing these matters with the community president. I feel vindicated then, that critical evaluation of the typical opinion towards indigenous communities and their funding is emerging as a result of the Herald‘s investigation. I also feel personally vindicated in a position I publicly took last week, when I said:

This of course is reminiscent of the initial estimates of the cost of the NT intervention, some $580 million, most of which will go to the 725 odd people employed to administer the changes. That too, will probably be counted in the grand total of ‘indigenous spending’.

Compare that with the editorial’s closing statements of yesterday (emphasis added):

Successful indigenous organisations must not be scapegoated and marginalised. Otherwise, the Federal Government’s $580 million intervention in remote communities risks expensive failure – a failure that will no doubt be counted as “Aboriginal spending”.

Maybe I have a future career in writing editorials.

~

¹Sorry for that metaphor. I couldn’t bring myself to say something as rote as strewn about like confetti.

~

<update>

Joe sends me this troubling image from Wadeye, where he’s currently doing some fieldwork, of a banner on a government building, which means it probably counts as ‘Aboriginal spending’ (Click the image to see the larger size):

nomo jidanabat

Note the imagery: sitting down is bad money while working in a mine (or in a kitchen if you’re a woman, evidently) is good money.

I wonder how much it cost the Indigenous Affairs department to design and make signs like this.

</update>

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.

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