You might have noticed, or rather, I hope you will have noticed that I’ve been rather slack in writing lately. This isn’t because nothing has been happening, far from it, it’s just because I’ve had way too much stuff to do off-blog to spend any reasonable time writing posts.

Here’s a quick round-up of some of the things I should have written about over the last week or so:

1. Howard brought reconciliation back onto the agenda with a promise (core or non-core?) to hold a referendum on the addition of a clause on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the preamble of the constitution. This was of course, knocked back by the electorate when it went to referendum in 1998, even after the wording had been sufficiently watered down, from affirming indigenous people’s custodianship of the land to affirming their rather more insipid and less legally binding kinship with the land.

It’s hard not to be cynical of this move, especially if you look at the last eleven-and-a-half years of this government and their failure to do anything positive for them. Dragonphoenix at My2point2cents (incl. GST) has a very concise and informative timeline of Howard’s actions on indigenous affairs since being elected in 1996.

My guess is that the NT intervention is so disastrously unpopular in the electorate that he needs to claw back some territory – metaphorically, he’s already clawing back way too much of that literal territory that the Crown lost in native title claims – on the indigenous front. It’d be pretty unwise for anyone to disagree with the policy of recognising the rights of indigenous people in the constitution.

2. The election was called, after weeks of Howard saying ‘it will either be in late November of early December’. Turns out, lo and behold, he was right, it will be in late November, the 24th. If you haven’t enrolled yet, you just got electorally disenfranchised, as you only had until this past Wednesday, 8pm.

The polls out this morning indicated that the electorate is largely happy with $34 billion being taken away from services and given back to the tax-payer so they can buy more plasma screen TVs. But it’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than a 2% rise in the Coalition’s two-party-preferred polling to thwart the momentum of The Rudd. I’ll be voting Green of course, but I’m still allowed to prefer one of the decreasingly distinguishable pair of contenders over the other.

3. Residents of Kybrook Farm¹, as I read by chance a while ago, will be the first to vote in this year’s election, in a demonstration of the remote mobile polling services.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) says one of the reasons Kybrook Farm, which is an hour outside of Katherine [they obviously don't drive like I do - J], was chosen was because of its picturesque backdrop.

AEC’s Iain Loganathan says the 70 people enrolled to vote there will go to the polls on November 12.

I’m glad that the community won’t be disenfranchised by bureaucratic oversight, such as what happened during the census last year, when entire towns of thousands of people went un-counted.

4. The federal government have approved the Pulp Mill in the Tamar Valley in Northern Tasmania. We all know this. What most of us don’t know is at the same time, the Minister for² the Environment Malcolm Turnbull, approved the Pluto Gas plant, to be built among the world’s largest and oldest collection of rock-art anywhere in the world, in the Burrup Peninsula.

A spokesman for the Minister says [Assistant Minister for the Environment, John] Cobb was not satisfied that the area was of particular significance to Aboriginal people in accordance with Aboriginal tradition.

5. Difference of Opinion, the ABC’s inferior version of SBS’s highly successful program Insight, last night focused on the Intervention in the NT. The panel consisted of Olga Havnen, Tom Calma, Professor Lowitja O’Donahue AC, and Dr Sue Gordon OAM. To those who have been following even slightly the events of the past three and a half months, these names will be familiar. The first three are vocal critics, while Sue Gordon is the head of the NT taskforce and spent most of the night trying to defend it, quite unsuccessfully. I’ll try to remember to update the link to the show’s website when an archived version is available.

6. This really deserves its own post, but this will have to suffice. News.com.au has released an interactive website called Culture in Crisis that contains a huge amount of information and multimedia content about indigenous Australian history and culture, and also addresses the reality of the crisis faced by aboriginal culture in this country. Here is the blurb:

Soothing the dying pillow is the description used 50 years ago to describe white Australians’ predictions that Aborigines would die out.
The official view was that the Government’s duty was to ease the death of Aboriginal culture while educating their children to be white people.
This interactive shows what, if any, progress has been made on child sexual abuse, domestic violence, health, and short life-spans.
It points to crucial changes which must be made if the world’s oldest living culture is to survive.

It’s a very interesting and informative website with a huge amount of content, including interviews with various highly informed people, including Prof. Jon Altman and Patrick McConvell, and many interviews and discussions with some of the Yolngu people. I probably don’t have to declare anything, but I will just in case. The Culture in Crisis website was produced for News.com.au by an affinal relative of mine.

7. This one’s hot off the press: Katherine is going dry – except for private houses, licensed premises and the low-level crossing area, between 7am and 7pm. No more long-necks in the long grass.

I’m sure to have forgotten something, but this will hopefully bring me more or less up to speed.


¹I should point out that I’m interested because this community is where I did my three field trips.

²For the Environment’ here is surely meant to be taken sarcastically, right?

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.

Bulanjdjan just reminded me of something I have wanted to do for a while now, and this afternoon I managed to do it.

What I’m referring to is using Google Earth to map a linguistic boundary, to show where a language was traditionally spoken, or to show which land is traditionally associated with which language or languages. By way of example, the red blob in this Google Earth file represents where Wagiman was traditionally spoken, at least as far as AIATSIS is concerned.

Paul has a pretty good step-by-step in a comment at Jabal al-Lughat about how exactly to do this, except I didn’t think about the importance of including a landmark or two so you can easily get the image in exactly the right location in Google Earth. I had to flip back and forth from Photoshop to line up my image correctly with the different satellite images.

This is of course, not the first time I’ve used Google Earth for linguistic purposes. Almost a year ago I collated all the public information¹ that I could that related to place names in the traditional languages of Sydney, and I put them all into another Google Earth file. Except the spelling conventions that the dual-naming board decided on left a lot to be desired: Meeliyahwool?!

Anyway, there are plenty of possibilities for applications of this kind. Imagine if similar images were created for every language in Australia, or even other parts of the country, and the transparency of an image depended on the severity of endangerment; the more highly endangered, the more faded the image, just like in Back to the Future. That way, people could look at a map of Australia and visually gauge just how much language we have lost.


¹I want to stress that all of this – the Sydney place names and the traditional Wagiman land – is publicly accessible information. I’m not making any claims as to land ownership or anything like that, and I’m certainly not responsible for any inaccuracies.

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>

I just saw an ad for SBS’s indigenous current affairs program, Living Black, which this week, will air the visit of a survey team’s visit to the community of Yarralin.

I’ll be watching with keen interest, since, having been fortunate enough to witness one such visit last month, I would like to see others’ experience with the fly-in-fly-out bureaucrats. Have sympathy with the bureaucrats though, as they’ve been given the mammoth task of informing people about the legislative changes and how they will affect whom, without actually knowing much themselves.

It screens this Wednesday night at 6:00pm EST, 6:30pm Central, and I dunno about the west. So check local guides!

It will probably also be vodcast afterwards on the Living Black website.

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.

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