Culture


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 …

LUKE MORRISH, TASKFORCE BUSINESS MANAGER: Mmm mmm.

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.

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?

The National Gallery of Australia are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year with an exhibition of aboriginal art, both traditional and modern, produced in the last three years. The collection is called Culture Warriors and, according to the NGA’s website, is ‘designed to break aboriginal art stereotypes’.

Here is one of the featured works, Treasure Island by Daniel Boyd, that hopefully, will break a few stereotypes of its own, those of indigenous homogeneity and monoculturalism.

I can’t remember just how many times I’ve been asked something like ‘so you speak aboriginal?’, but there have been many, by otherwise intelligent people. Curiously, they’re often the very same people who, as calmly as if they were describing the weather, speak of Kriol as ‘bastardised English’.

I guess I’m naively hoping that such people will look at a depiction such as the artwork above and realise that there was, and is, great cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity right around the country. Then again, they may see it as a bunch of coloured shapes on a map of the country.

In case you need to be told, these aren’t just a bunch of coloured shapes on a map of the country, they are the best guess at pre-colonial linguistic boundaries as surveyed and published by AIATSIS.

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.

It’s rare that a week should go by without there being some massive indictment of the Brough/Howard Intervention in the Northern Territory. This week is no exception.

First, we had multiple calls for Major General Dave Chalmers to resign as the head of the Task Force on the basis that he is a military man, which is inappropriate given the role.

Ms [Olga] Havnen [from the Combined Aboriginal Organisations] says the involvement in such a controversial operation on home soil risks politicising the military and somebody with a deeper understanding of Aboriginal affairs should be in charge.

“To have even had the Army deployed and to have this task force headed up by military officials was overkill and completely inappropriate.”

Moreover, one such call came from Neil James, Executive Director of the Australian Defence Association, underlining the fact that this is not merely the opinion of some political group and cannot be (easily) dismissed as such¹. James is not critical of the principle of the intervention, I might point out, but he is critical of the way the Defence Force has been used for what overtly appear to be politically partisan projects. In any case, the standard procedure should be for a military commander to hand over to a civilian after the very early stages of a so-called ‘emergency’.

Because of the attendant and growing controversy about the federal intervention in Aboriginal communities, and because it encompasses law enforcement, it would be better if this long-term operation, emergency or not, was now headed by a civilian official (say a senior physician) rather than a military officer.

Then, we had more foreseeable – yet apparently unintended² – consequences of the cessation of CDEP.

It has been in the news for weeks (albeit the less-widely read bits) that scrapping CDEP will inevitably have a major impact on the funding for valuable and necessary projects such as alcohol rehabilitation centres, and culturally empowering commercial ventures like aboriginal art centres (see also Kim’s post on this). Now, the prospect of having to operate with significantly less capital is hitting some cultural tourism ventures.

The community of Titjikala has been running a moderately successful indigenous tourism venture for the past 3 three years, but it is now under threat as an indirect consequence of the cessation of CDEP, much to Titjikala’s bemusement. Ironically, Titjikala’s tourism project was held up as a model for other communities to aspire to:

Task force chair Sue Gordon said the venture was the envy of Aboriginal people across Australia during her visit to the community in July, and suggested it be used as a model for other communities.

But, it relies on the flexibility of CDEP in that the work is not constant and employees may have to frequently go back to claiming CDEP when there isn’t tourism work to be done. However under the work-for-the-dole scheme, you’re classed as unemployed and receive benefits in virtue of that. You also endanger that status by doing any work, however infrequent. The bottom line is, it will be safer to ‘sit-down’ on welfare than go through the rigmarole of changing your employment status week-in, week-out when the work is there.

<politicking>
This is surely contrary to the government’s stated goals with respect to moving people from CDEP into ‘real jobs’ – ironically via unemployment. However, it is consistent with their more clandestine goal of rendering it near impossible to live in a remote community, thereby forcing aboriginal people into towns and cities, freeing up the land for mineral extraction, toxic waste sequestration and other unsavoury activities.
</politicking>

~

Just in, It appears that the tourism venture is not merely ‘under threat’ as I implied above, but has actually completely closed. Except the project’s director is confident that, at some point in the future, if they have enough funding to make ends meet, to train employees, that they will be able to make their tourism venture viable again. This is great of course, but it’s a shame that in the meantime the venture has to be put on hold.

It seems that CDEP, at least in this instance, has worked as a stepping stone, bridging the gap between real employment and real unemployment, with the flexibility to support people who aren’t really classifiable as either. Removing it means that infrequent casual work just won’t do to entice people into jobs and off unemployment. The insecurity of casual or infrequent work, not to mention the humbug dealing with Centrelink and the previous fortnight’s paycheque, ensures that it really is just easy to opt out of the job market and collect welfare.

How odd, given that nomo jidanabat ‘no sitting about’, or ‘no more sit-down money’, is the government’s ongoing theme.

~

¹I would have thought it’d be difficult to dismiss an independent commenter as politically partisan, until yesterday that is, when the government generally, and Peter Costello and Joe Hockey specifically, dismissed as ‘contaminated’ research into their WorkChoices laws that was half funded by the Australian Research Council, half funded by a number of groups, including some NSW workers unions, and carried out by The University of Sydney, one of Australia’s top… 4 (?) research institutions. They also implied that the independent researchers (that is, employees of the University) were ‘guns for hire‘. The authors of the report are now threatening legal action. If this were any more of a political blog, I’d have posted about that by now.

²I think I may have discussed this before, but there is a theory of ethical behaviour, in which forseeable consequences of intended actions cannot be unintended. That is, if you know that what you do will have some consequence, then for all intents and purposes, you intended that consequence.

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’ve just heard over email from Linda Barwick, that the CD by Kevin Djimirr, Wurrurruni Kun-Borrk: Songs from Western Arnhem Land, with extensive notes by Murray Garde, has just won, jointly with the Kembi dance group, the Northern Land Council’s 2007 Traditional Music Award.

I heard the CD when I got back to Sydney and I have to say (objectively of course) that it’s brilliant. An excellent production for which all involved should be proud. In case you’re interested, which you should be, the CD can be bought online from Sydney University Press for a mere 25 Australian dollars. It’s excellently packaged too, with very detailed anthropological and historical notes from Murray Garde, including both transcriptions in Kuninjku and English translations.

I don’t have a copy of the CD handy, so I can’t give an example of the poetry, but this excerpt from the SUP page should give you an inkling:

Unlike the totemic song genres of many other ceremonies in Arnhem Land, kun-borrk songs concentrate more on the episodic minutiae of human emotions, subtle physical movements of the body, conflicts, suspicions, and the gossip of interpersonal relationships. An examination of the song texts on this CD reveals an almost haiku-like poetic beauty. Small isolated incidents without any given context are presented in a few lines of a song.

Congratulations to Kevin, and to everyone involved.

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