It’s a busy time for indigenous arts and culture, as long as you live in the South-East of the country, that is.


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

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


This is a piece that Phil Cash Cash wrote for the Indigenous Languages and Technology list (ILAT). With his permission I am posting it here in full.

As we enter 2008, we are reminded to reflect on the unique status of human languages in the world. Never before has our humanity witnessed such a dramatic decline in our linguistic and cultural diversity.

“The loss of local languages and of the cultural systems which they express, has meant irretrievable loss of diverse and interesting intellectual wealth. Only with diversity can it be guaranteed that all avenues of human intellectual progress will be traveled.”

Ken Hale, 1992.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

(Dutch backpacker)

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

The people of the Numbulwar community, on the western coast of the Gulf, were appalled to find that one of their most important cultural sites had been desecrated by the digging of a pit toilet, right in the middle of it. The 7:30 Report has the full story here.

I wouldn’t want to ascribe any maliciousness to any of the five responsible contracted workers; it was most likely just a mistake, despite the fact that the sacred site was clearly signposted. In any case, they were specifically directed by the community to use the existing amenities. They ignored this request and built a toilet near where they were erecting a demountable building for use by the taskforce when they arrive.

Taken as an incident on its own, General Chalmers is probably right in denouncing it as a merely ‘individuals behaving thoughtlessly’. But taken in the context of this entire intervention in which the thoughts, arguments and wishes of indigenous people have been ignored, and it is another, though possibly a more abhorrent, example of the fundamental lack of respect with which this intervention is being carried out. It’s no wonder that it caused sentiments such as this:

They think that our culture is a toilet culture. You know, that they think it’s not real. But to us, it’s real, because we belong to this ground. (Billy Gumana)

Bobby Numggumajbarr, traditional owner, expands further on this and demonstrates how a lack of respect for the community inevitably results in a lack of trust from the community.

They’ve got no trust for them now because they’ve done this now, they’re thinking they might do it again in the long term. So really, they haven’t got no confidence with the intervention group now.

Really. If we want to effect change for the better in indigenous Australia without further disaffecting tens of thousands of people, we have to stop being so culturally abrasive. I know it’d be asking a lot from Australian white people who so desperately lack a culture of their own that they feel the need to denigrate others’ cultures, but for the sake of peace, let’s try, shall we?

For anyone who’s interested in what is happening in remote aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, but don’t want to rely on the writings of those of us who blog and have seen the effects first-hand, last night’s Four Corners visited two communities, Maningrida in western Arnhem Land, and Aputula, or Finke, in the Simpson Desert, in a report titled Tracking the Intervention (follow the link to watch the program in full, or read the transcript from here).

Because the intervention began in the south of the Territory and gradually moved north, Aputula has endured the taskforce for longer, and is considered further down the path; it is a ‘phase three’ community. Maningrida on the other hand, is about as far north as you can go without getting wet, and is still in ‘phase one’.

Generally speaking, it was great to see such a huge and important issue given the airtime it deserves; far too few people in this country realise what is happening. In fact, my family saw for the first time glimpses of what I’ve been ranting about for the past four months, and they were all appalled at the blatant injustices being committed, and the covert assimilationist policies being carried out in the (rather insincere) name of child protection.

There were four main points detailed in the four Corners report that elicited gasps of disbelief and cynicism in my household, and I’ve summarised them here.

In Maningrida, the community women operate a night-watch called the Child Safety Service. The women ensure that children are safe at night while playing, and that they go home at a reasonable hour on school-nights. The service was praised in the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report:

The Inquiry regards the [Maningrida Community Action Plan Project, including the Child Safety Service] as an extremely valuable project and one that can be utilised to both establish a Community Justice Group and help guide reform in relation to the mainstream response to child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

However, the funding is about to cease, and none of the $1.3 billion spent so far on the intervention (a lot of which is going towards the extra Centrelink bureaucrats) is finding its way to helping out this group of 15 Maningrida women who are undertaking this ‘extremely valuable project’.

This is particularly hard to understand, since the purpose of the entire intervention is the protection of children, presumably, and not the scrapping of CDEP nor the quarantining of welfare payments, which are mere means to achieve this end, supposedly. It beggared our collective belief that something as closely related to the issue at the heart of the intervention as this project is, could be allowed to suffer, especially with all the investment the government is putting in.

The next aspect that caused considerable concern was the seizing of assets. Under the legislation, commonwealth appointed ‘Business Managers’ (community administrators, or Superintendents¹) have the power to seize community assets. In Maningrida, this means up to $40 million worth of land, structures and houses on some 32 outstations, vehicles and heavy machinery, community stores and so on, can be taken away with the mere stroke of a pen.

The community have been trying to get answers from their appointed ‘Business Manager’, Luke Morrish, as to what legal powers they have, and under what circumstances and under whose authority can the government seize their property. Here is the exchange:

MATTHEW RYAN, HEAD DJELK RANGER: There’s a lot of people are curious and want to know what’s going to happen with their assets and everything, you know, but there need to be like more members too, that way they can ask you questions as well. And like Peter said earlier, we had three times taskforce come up here …


MR: We’ve asked them, they haven’t come back with the answers and it’s not good enough. If you want that good working relationship with us mob, well you need to have the answers.

LM: I’ve got to say, I’m not going to be able to give you all the answers myself straight away, but when I say I’ll get the answers for you, I’ll get the answers for you. And I can’t run away, I can’t hide, I’m here so I’m going to have to do that.

MR: Well that’s what the taskforce promised us which they haven’t yet, so, hopefully it’ll be you.

LM: But they’re not, you know, and they probably had a view that, yeah, once I’m here on the ground that I’d be able to do that …

MR: Oh we hope so.

LM: And that’s why I’m here.

Same question evasion, different government department.

And so the report moves on to Aputula, where the intervention has been in full operation for months. Some people in Aputula were moved on from CDEP onto real jobs: seventeen out of the twenty-eight. Most of the seventeen are now employed in the child and aged care facility. There are also reports that people who were previously able to receive welfare without doing anything, now had to earn their money through work-for-the-dole.

There were however, a number of Aputula residents, mostly men, who were employed under CDEP to tend to the community-owned fruit orchard. While they provided food for the community, there was no commercial viability in the venture as they couldn’t grow enough surplus to sell, so the project was funded by CDEP. Its cessation meant that the former workers will be moved on to something else. In the meantime they receive ‘CDEP transitional’ payments of $8.24 (that’s not a typo: eight dollars and twenty-four cents) per fortnight, for 50 hours work! That’s less than 20 cents an hour!

Since the men’s wives often work in the aged and child care centre and get a steady wage, the men feel justifiably disinclined to work 25 hours a week for an extra four bucks. This is how the government apparently gets people into jobs.

The worst part for the men though, is that whereas before they were performing important community-oriented tasks and were widely regarded as good workers, they now feel completely undervalued.

The welfare quarantining has also come into effect in Aputula. The basic premise is that the government, under the guise of the ‘Minister’, can mandate that half of all welfare payments in proscribed areas (all aboriginal communities and town camps) will be spent on certain goods or services, including food, clothing and bills, and will be spent either at a Woolworths (of which two exist in the Territory excluding Darwin) or a community store. And it’s lucky that Aputula have one of the latter, otherwise residents will have to drive some three-and-a-half hours to get to the nearest Woolies, in Alice Springs.

It sounds simple, but it has been an administrative nightmare and required the enlisting of some 350 extra staff for Centrelink to figure out the details. But it seems that when it comes to Aputula, they’ve merely passed on the job of working out the details to the communities.

Every morning Centrelink emails her updates on the quarantined money owed to each Finke [Aputula] resident on welfare. She downloads it and then enters the new data on her computer in the shop. She then prints out this list so she can refer to it all day when customers want to use their income managed funds for purchases.

Many customers come into the shop several times a day for small purchases. Every time they do, they sign their receipt.

Many can’t write, so they mark the receipt with a cross, and Rewa Angell [Manager of the Finke store] prints the name and attests that it is the customer in question. At the close of business, she then reconciles each receipt against the Centrelink data.

It’s turned community store operators into micro accountants.

I’d like to finish off this post by pointing out that I really haven’t spoken much about child sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, incarceration rates and all those other issues that are central to this debate and central to (the most recent incarnation of) the report that started it all. There’s a good reason for this, and that is that the response from the government to these issues – this very intervention – doesn’t address them either. Instead they’ve gone after community assets, land rights, the permit system, and everything there is that makes living in remote communities possible. In this respect, and I say this (repeatedly) without delving too far into the realm of politicking, it looks as though the real motivation is to free up that resource-rich land.

Kim Christen has written an excellent post on the history of the intervention so far, as a guest-post on the brilliant Anthropology blog Savage Minds, which I have thus far neglected to add to my blogroll (note to self: fix that) and it is well worth the read. I spent quite a few minutes composing a lengthy response there, but as it contained a link or two, it hasn’t appeared yet. In other words, I rote U a rply but Askimet eated it².


¹White bureaucrats who were employed in the earlier days of Australia, during the height of the Assimilationist days, to act as paternal overseer of all aboriginal people within their jurisdiction. Their job was effectively to keep them downtrodden.

²I can’t believe I just made a lolcat reference! I’ll make amends by showing you this xkcd comic:

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.

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