How’s this for a resurgence of public debate?

While the debate between Howard and Rudd was going on, Bob Brown and the Greens were holding their own ‘People’s Forum‘ in another room in Parliament House, and had asked for questions from the general public on their blog not long ago, some of which would potentially be asked tonight.

I asked a simple question about whether or not the Greens would push for endangered indigenous languages in Australia to be urgently documented in an effort to prevent any further loss – a pretty vacuous question, especially to ask of the Greens, I admit. But lo and behold, it was summarised (for the sake of time) and asked at the forum, and the whole thing was recorded straight away and uploaded to YouTube!

So witness (halfway through), the most concise answer a politician has ever given.


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. 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 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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fact that the plan lacks detail or even any long-term goals and targets (Howard on NT Stateline last night) and the fact that the government has already back-pedalled on a few aspects, both make it overwhelmingly clear that the plan is little more than a knee-jerk reaction.
(June 30, 2007)

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

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

Are they considered tourists?

I just read an emotional and inspiring post at Will Owen’s blog about a speech that Mal Brough gave on Tuesday October 2, for the Alfred Deakin Lecture at Melbourne University. A recurring theme of Brough’s speech (reproduced in full at Will’s blog) is his outrage at the situation. Here is an extract of Will’s commentary:

I, too, am outraged, and not just by the suffering of indigenous people in Papunya and elsewhere in the Northern Territory. If you read Brough’s remarks, you will find no mention of indigenous action in the face of this suffering. He talks about the “war zone” of nighttime in the Outback; he doesn’t talk about the night patrols that women in Maningrida and other communities organized until the funding that allowed them to operate effectively was stripped by the machinations of the Intervention.

He doesn’t mention Titjikala and the indigenous-run tourism business that has closed down because CDEP is being dismantled. He doesn’t talk about the capital raised for community-based health care through the sale of art from Kintore and Kiwirrkura.

Reading Brough’s words in this speech angered me as well, mostly for the reasons that Will gives, but also because of the shameless lack of debate, the fact that as citizens living in a country whose two levels of federal governance are held hostage by the whim of a single man and his unconscionable cronies, we have depressingly little power. I’m angry that as much as we are putting up strong arguments for better, more considered policies, for the strengthening of CDEP rather that its scrapping, for cultural diversity rather than assimilation, for co-operative community-based societies rather than competitive-based urban life, as much as we shout and yell, there’s an overwhelming silence that sounds like no one with any power is listening.

The rest of this post is going to concentrate on a single instance of this lack of debate; the seemingly superhuman ability of Brough and the rest of the government to not allow the logic of their argument to be tested, their ability to willfully ignore reasonable dissent and to dismiss any detractors. This ability stems from mere syllogistic sleight-of-hand.


There is a massive logical gap in the government’s arguments; in Brough’s arguments. Any good syllogism is supposed to begin with any number of agreed-upon premises and finish with a conclusion that is derived by mechanistic processes involving axiomatic, pre-defined operators such as ‘hook’, ‘and’ and ‘not’. That sentence glosses over perhaps an entire 2 millennia of scientific and philosophical investigation and analysis, but it is the foundation upon which modern western thought, culture and law is based.

Brough’s argument doesn’t follow this formula. He has a number of premises: that the living conditions in indigenous communities are atrocious and cannot be tolerated any longer, and that there is a particularly abhorrent, high level of child sexual assault and neglect that must be addressed. Moreover, he has a number of conclusions, that have become manifest in the legislative action that he and the government have undertaken. What’s missing is a logical step from premise to conclusion.

This is possibly a very easy way to argue and may seem trivial, but it has serious consequences. Brough’s rhetoric omits the entirety of the logical progression, rendering it unable to be argued. He simply sticks to the agreed upon premises and his own deduced conclusions. If anyone disagrees with his conclusions, then according to Brough, they are being unreasonable.

Take this example. During the Alfred Deakin Lecture, Brough referred to two questions that were asked of him at another speech a week earlier, both of which were met with the same ‘raucous’ applause from the audience, meaning that they collectively agreed with the implication of each question. The first asked why he had to suspend suspend the Racial Discrimination Act, to which his (frankly inadequate) response was that aboriginal people living in these appalling conditions are more concerned about the well-being of their children and not the Racial Discrimination Act. The second question asked why he, or the government, hadn’t done anything for the last eleven years. This was his commentary:

I thought isn’t it interesting the same audience can have two totally different perspectives. One, why did you breach the Racial Discrimination Act, and point up that that’s wrong, and then 15 minutes later applaud when challenged for why I didn’t breach it 10 years ago.

The question did not ask why he didn’t breach the Racial Discrimination Act ten years ago, it asked why he didn’t do anything 10 years ago. His conflation of the two indicates that to Brough, they are logically equivalent.

He believes it is inconsistent to give in-principle support for the need to address the issue, as was the implication of the second question, without supporting everything the government is doing in addressing it. It’s as though breaching the Racial Discrimination Act is logically necessitated by the imperative to act; it is therefore no longer susceptible to debate.

If you read the speech, you’ll notice that it’s heavily-laden with nauseating tales of specific cases of child sexual assault, and some rather horrifying statistics. You’ll also notice that it’s heavy with Brough’s defences of his and the government’s actions, and subsequently, lots of denouncement of any opposition. The way the two connect is in itself quite sickening; he’ll make reference to some “white academic in a university down south” as attacking him for racist legislation, which he then counters with a description of a three-year-old with gonorrhea. There is absolutely no explanation of the logical connection between that child and, for instance, taking several thousand people off important community-oriented jobs, like night patrols, and placing them on welfare. The mere existence of the child is all the justification he needs.

By omitting the entire logical progression of an argument – everything between the premise and the conclusion – Brough manages to force the debate to boil down to a simple equation: if you accept that there is a problem, then you are compelled to accept our solution. A worrying corollary of that is something along the lines of: if you don’t support our solution then you are acting in the interests of child abusers.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not arguing that there is no problem. Far from it. There is a very serious and devastating social problem and we have a real obligation to fix it – I think my beliefs on this point have been consistent. What I’m arguing for here, is that it benefits no one to denounce as unimportant any legitimate questions as to the efficacy of the legislation, or to ignore any sensible suggestions about how they might address these issues with a bit more foresight, and a little less election-sight.


This is a good place to bring up that Will also drew analogy with the progress of the Iraq war. He warns Australia not to be so easily led down that same path, coming from a country that dealt with the same sort of thing 6 years ago, when the US justified a primarily resources-based military strike on a sovereign state using trumped up weapons of mass destruction accusations and overblown cries of the evils of a tyrant. I’m not saying that child sexual assault is a bogus charge or that the whole thing is trumped up, but I am saying that the government is taking advantage of this most serious and grave of situations, with more sinister goals in mind, which I’ve written about here many a-time before.

The similarity of the rhetoric is uncanny; ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ was the crux of Bush’s means of silencing any critics of he and his administration’s invasion of Iraq. Now I think it’s fair enough to say the same of Brough’s way of silencing his critics.

I’ll close this lengthy and meaty post with a reprint of Will’s warning, and I suggest we heed his advice:

So I hope that Australians will not follow in America’s footsteps this time. I hope they will engage in critical examination of what their government claims to be doing, and why. When Brough announces, as his does in this lecture, “I have breached the Racial Discrimination Act in a positive sense,” I hope someone will point out that governments that put themselves above the law–as the Bush administration has done consistently in America since taking office–tread dangerously close to the borders of tyranny.

Kim writes that Labor have announced their policy to not only retain CDEP, but to strengthen it and to attempt to smooth out the problems. This is of course very welcome, well, to everyone except for Brough predictably, who thinks it’ll be a ‘backward step’. Backwards or forwards: it depends which way you’re facing, and Brough is certainly facing the wrong way.

But Mr Brough says Labor is failing to listen to Aboriginal leaders who argue that CDEP must go.

“We have seen what is a crucial element of the intervention, that is curtailing the amount of cash that can be available for alcohol, drugs and gambling being reinjected into those communities by reinstating of CDEP,” he said.

If Brough thinks the problem is that there is too much money in communities, which I think the above quote clearly demonstrates, then he should bite the bullet and say he doesn’t want blackfellas to have the same economic opportunities as white folk. I would personally contend that the problem is not too much money but too much time and too little work. Moving CDEP employees onto work-for-the-dole will not help.

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.

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.


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.

I don’t want to be presumptuous about the up-coming election or anything, but since it seems quite probable that the government won’t be re-elected, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the good old days when John Howard wasn’t Prime Minister.

So here’s an extract of his very entertaining appearance on Jack Davey’s radio quiz show on 2GB in 1955, except it’s considerably shorter than a version I heard on ABC radio a couple of years ago. If anyone knows where a copy of the original is, don’t keep it a secret. It goes for about 10 minutes and is hilarious.

Here’s the extract I found:

I especially like his answer than you’d find a mezzanine floor ‘on the floor of a house in a- a middle-eastern country’.

As funny as it is, hearing this is kind of eery. It’s like watching Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with a young, innocent Anakin Skywalker, who you know is inevitably going to become Darth Vadar in time for the story to catch up to the original Star Wars films… of thirty years earlier, and summarily bugger up the galaxy.

You – well, not me, since I was never hugely into Star Wars, but this was too fine an analogy to pass up – you kind of want to yell to the young Skywalker Don’t turn to the dark side, Anakin!

Don’t go into politics, Little Johnny!