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’ve managed to avoid APEC almost entirely thus far, both here on this blog and in real life. But last night, I was held up while walking along Pitt St. in Sydney, as a motorcade pulled out of the Hilton. It’s only fitting then, that I stop avoiding it on the blog.

Kevin Rudd, the Opposition leader, demonstrated his skills in Mandarin during an official APEC welcome for Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday, in which he ‘wowed’ a room full of Chinese press as well as the great Hu himself. The whole thing went for about half an hour and had to be interpreted on-line¹ for the local crowd (a small taste of Rudd’s Mandarin can be seen in this report, at about 4:30) [See the updates below].

~

This section of perpetual updates is getting a bit out of hand, so I might detach it using my conventional section-breaking tildes.

[Sep 8: David has just alerted me to the fact that the link to Rudd's Mandarin doesn't work. Unfortunately I can't find a working one, except for a transcript of the report here (actually, it has the video too, over on the right, just noticed), which only transcribes Rudd's Mandarin as "KEVIN RUDD, OPPOSITION LEADER: (greetings in Mandarin)", which isn't very helpful. Apparently the ABC doesn't have good Mandarin transcribers, which is why we need SBS, Paul Sheehan. For video, you may have to navigate to the 7:30 Report's front page and select the video called 'The Politics of APEC". Again, it's about 4:30 through.]

[Sep 9: Both SBS and The Australian have reports specifically on Rudd's meeting with Hu Jintao whereas the ABC report uses it as a segue. The Australian report also contains a translation of what Rudd had to say; mostly mundane stuff really.]

~

Anyway, we all know that Rudd speaks excellent Mandarin, and today some Chinese people found that out for the first time. Big deal. This post is about Downer’s reaction.

Asked if he was impressed by Mr Rudd’s language skills, Mr Downer, a French speaker, said he was not one to flaunt his talent with foreign tongues.

“I know dozens and dozens of people who speak a lot of languages, they don’t just speak Mandarin, but other languages as well.”

In other words: “Woopty-doo! Kevin can speak Mandarin, he’s such a show-off. Who cares anyway? I can speak French but I don’t show off whenever Sarcozy’s in town.”

Grow up, Alex.

Apart from that little whinge, Downer elaborated on his own linguistic prowess and genius, as opposed to the relative sloth with which Rudd evidently acquires languages:

I did the French language course and Mr Rudd did the Chinese language course. I did mine in two months and he did his in two years, that could say something [about] him and me or something about the two languages. I think the former but that sounds a tad partisan.

Downer “did” his in two months while Rudd “did” his in two years? I don’t think that says anything about you and him or the two languages, Mr Downer, but I do think it speaks volumes about your attitude towards multilingualism.

Hu Jintao doesn’t speak English as far as I know (perhaps Laurie could fill me in here), but alas, he is a native Mandarin speaker. Rudd also speaks Mandarin. The logical thing to do then, rather than having to go through an interpreter, which can be decidedly awkward in my experience, would be for Rudd and Hu to conduct their parlance in a language that they have in common.

Sure, Rudd may have been ‘flaunting’ it a tad, but why on Earth wouldn’t he? Why should multilingualism be something one has to hide? Why does Downer of all people seem to think so? He’s the Foreign Minister.

To be honest, I think Downer is a little sour that Rudd was getting so much attention over his talks with Hu, which is almost (but not really) taking some of the limelight away from Australia’s Woodside Petroleum’s $35 billion natural gas deal with China.

~

¹On-line as in ‘live’ or ‘directly’, by an interpreter pumping out the English as quick as Rudd pumps out the Mandarin. I don’t mean it was ‘Babelfished’ or anything, unlike they appear to do at the Australian Federal Police, as Jane implies.

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.

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.

Yiligawu – ‘I’m alright now, I’m ready’ (but it isn’t exactly true).

I leave for the Northern territory on Monday morning, to start my third fieldtrip, the longest one yet, at a lazy 8 weeks. Unfortunately, work has been considerably busy over the last week, tying up all the loose ends, making sure I’ve finished any jobs I was working on, et cetera. After all that, there hasn’t been too much time left over to actually prepare for my fieldwork.

Plus, the price of gold makes things considerably more difficult. What has it got to do with the price of fish gold, I hear you ask? Accommodation, that’s what. Pine Creek is a gold mining town from way back, 1850 or so. In it’s heyday, the town was bursting at the seams with gold-diggers and the population was in the thousands. Then, the gold ran out, or more accurately, the nuggets ran out; there’s plenty of gold left in the soil, but it’s expensive to process. The town all but collapsed to a small blip on the map, nestled somewhere behind the intersection of the Stuart and Jabiru highways.

Only since the price of gold has shot through the roof in recent years has it actually been worthwhile to process the ‘tailings’ – as the dirt is referred to – to extract whatever minuscule trace elements of gold there are. Plus, the resources boom generally means it’s now worthwhile to go deeper into old mines and extract other minerals, like iron ore and copper.

The result? A small town that can really only cope with 500 people at the most (that is, there are only three pubs), is full of miners employed by any one of three global mining corporations, who, among themselves, own all the mines in the area.

Ergo, I can’t find accommodation. That’s what it’s got to do with the price of gold!

Thankfully there are various people in town who know me quite well now and they’re all nice people, so I’m sure I’ll find somewhere to sleep. It’s just going to have to be a matter of getting into town and seeing what I can muster up.

Besides trying to get my accommodation organised, I have to pack, make sure my computer is all ready to go (truth be known, I’m sick to death of the thing; it’s an oversized, heavy, loud thing, which I’ll probably reformat and convertto a linux machine when this fieldtrip is over) and gather together my recording equipment and essential accessories.

I should also be preparing my actual research, but there’s been precious little time left to do so, and I may have to do it in situ. Plus, there’s another speaker in town whom I haven’t previously met, which will be interesting and exciting.

As for the blog, well, I won’t be posting very regularly as the internet speed out there is remarkably slow. But I can get on broadband from an internet café in Katherine, which I’ll probably do every two weeks or so, every time I go to see the footy. Right Wamut?

There’s been a further development to the saga of Xstrata and the McArthur River, which I wrote about earlier in the week.

I missed this when it came out last night, but Clare Martin’s legislation, which prevents traditional owners from launching legal action to stop Xstrata from diverting the river and basically digging the world’s largest zinc and lead mine on their land, was passed by the Northern Territory parliament, 17 votes to 5.

The only people to vote against this Bill – which heralds the return to European domination of indigenous peoples through the courts¹ – were two independents and three indigenous Labor MLAs, Member for Macdonnell Alison Anderson, Member for Stuart Karl Hampton and Member for Arnhem Barbara McCarthy.

Barbara McCarthy was most vocal in parliament last night, taking the floor during the final reading of the Bill as a last-ditch effort to thwart the legislation, futile as it was.

She said the people of the Gulf Region are mourning the death of a prominent leader, and to pass the Bill in the middle of sorry business is the worst sign of disrespect to them.

‘The worst sign of disrespect’. That’s a cruel understatement. This is blatant disregard of the Kurdanji people’s home, land and culture and no commercial need for lead or zinc is quite strong enough to override that. I gave this quote from Martin in my last post on this, but it seems more relevant here, especially when juxtaposed against Barbara McCarthy’s sentiments about the disrespect:

We’re doing this with the greatest respect for everyone involved.

You can stick a noxious weed in a bucket of dirt and call it a flower, Ms Martin, but it don’t make it so.

~

¹Sorry for editorialising, but it really infuriates me that short term economic advantage from mining companies can trump not only the imperatives of the environment, that doesn’t surprise me anymore, but also the cultural considerations of the rightful owners and custodians of the land. This is not the sort of thing that makes people proud and patriotic, flag-waving, happy little vegemites. I, for one, am increasingly ashamed to be an Australian when I hear stuff like this.

~

<update>
May 8: Last night The 7:30 Report carried this story, outlining the history of the case, of the mine, of the community’s protest of the mine’s expansion. They also spoke to Barbara McCarthy about her strong opposition, not only to the legislation, but the timing of it – two days before the funeral of the man who most vigorously fought Xstrata. Transcripts and video available on this page (contains footage of the deceased).
</update>

It’s been a busy week in Borroloola and there’s little chance things’ll slow down soon.

The week started brilliantly as legal action by the Kurdanji people against the Xstrata mining company successfully put a stop to their plan to expand a current underground zinc mine into an ‘open cut’ operation. Such an expansion would have required the diversion of five and a half kilometres of the McArthur River.

The jubilation of the traditional owners was echoed by the Northern Land Council, who rightly point out that “you simply can’t trample over the rights of traditional Aboriginal people”. But Xstrata, who had previously promised to leave the territory if this court case didn’t go their way¹, said they were disappointed and would ‘consider the judgement carefully’. Translation: ‘find a loophole’.

Tuesday was pretty quiet.

Today though, was a serious blow for the Kurdanji people, as Clare Martin, Chief Minister of the territory, made it clear that they would effectively ignore Monday’s decision. It seems Xstrata didn’t have to do much searching to find that loophole; the government will just make one:

Ms Martin says the Government will change the original legislation² that governs the mine to allow it to have an open-cut operation.

This is despite the fact that it was the NT government’s fault for giving Xstrata the go-ahead for the expansion when the original agreement never said anything except ‘underground’ – it was never put to the traditional owners that this mine would eventually become an open pit on their land.

That’s where the title of this post comes in. The Northern Territory Minister for Mines, Chris Natt, was downplaying the legal battle today with this:

It’s just one small word – the word ‘underground’ has provided a situation where we’ve got to amend the situation.

The Kurdanji people are suitably pissed off about this, not only because they weren’t told, but also because Xstrata and the NT government are disregarding entirely some of their most sacred sites, the Rainbow Serpent dreaming, some of which will be disturbed by the diversion of the McArthur. But in spite of this, Clare Martin maintains that “we’re doing this with the greatest respect for everyone involved.”

What a sad day for the rights of indigenous people in this country.

~

¹Never trust a mining company to keep a promise.

²Emphasis added.

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