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.

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The PM is in trouble. This, we all well know as it’s been covered exhaustively on just about every media outlet for days, but hearing it over and over again makes it no less wonderful.

The country is awash with political commentary right now, so I’m not going to flood the market with any more. However, I will add some linguistic commentary into the mix.

It is common knowledge that for the many years that Howard has been steadily growing older and more stubborn, he has been telling anyone who asks that he will stay in the job as long as he can. Specifically, he says:

    I will stay as long as my party wants me to and it’s in the party’s best interests that I do.

On reading that, you might make the assumption that he will stay only if two necessary conditions are met: that 1. his party wants him to stay and 2. that his staying is in their bests interests. In other words, it normally gets parsed (by me at least) as:

    (I will stay as long as [(my party wants me to) and (it’s in the party’s best interests that I do)])

Logically speaking then, if either condition isn’t met, if his party do not want want him to stay or his staying is not in their best interests, he should resign as leader of the Liberal party.

However, the intonation doesn’t quite agree with this. I’ve even found the very quote, or at least one instantiation thereof – remember he’s said it that many times – and I’ve extracted the important bit, using WordPress’s nifty mp3 embedding tool (failing that you can download the mp3 from here, it’s only 30KB!):

Notice the intonation? He didn’t say he’d stay as long as it is in the party’s best interests, he said that his staying is in the party’s best interests. He (possibly) intended it to parse as:

    [I will stay as long as my party wants me to] and [it’s in the party’s best interests that I do]

At the moment it is certainly not in his party’s interest that he stays; he’s a liability. But he won’t go of course, because, under this interpretation at least, he never said he would. He only said he’d go if the party want him to. The fact that his staying is in the best interests of the party is asserted.

It’s just like interests rates. “We will keep interest rates lower” they said. The moment they went up, Howard turns around and said “when I said lower, I meant lower than they would have been had Labor been elected instead” which is of course, absolutely untestable.

A friend of mine forwarded me an opinion piece in the Maltese newspaper The Times, which argues for the further adoption of English as a lingua franca and conversely, the dropping of Maltese:

Maltese needs to have its wings clipped today, rather than tomorrow. It is a quaint, museum-piece code which requires so many foreign fixes and props to keep it alive in today’s world that the line where Maltese stops and other languages (English especially) start has become blurred to the point where it is no longer there, effectively.

I say drop Maltese and concentrate on English.

The only semblance of a reason that the writer, Mario Schembri Wismayer, appeals to is the ubiquitous ‘English literacy is plummeting’ argument. Obviously he is under the assumption that there is no better way to increase literacy in one language than to abandon all others.

Anybody involved in education will tell you that the levels of spoken and written English are plummeting and hitting desperate levels. If we turn our back on this problem, we will be allowing a vast resource to slip through our hands.

I think, and I’m sure many will agree, that this argument is entirely fallacious and isn’t borne out by the facts. One such fact is that a sizeable majority of human beings are bilingual at least, and many of those speak three, four or five languages, all learned natively, with very little, if any, difficulty.

Then there is the slightly less obvious fact that bilingual education is a very effective method of increasing literacy in both languages, and may even be more effective than monolingual English education, where children are expected to learn a new language at the same time as gaining literacy skills. This places far too much cognitive burden on the child.

It’s an argument that emerges in Australia from time to time as well, as it probably does in any location where there are minority languages in addition to a standard lingua franca. It’s been the subject of a couple of posts here, as well as elsewhere, and without fail, someone argues that everyone should have the option to speak English. I agree completely. However, what they fail to acknowledge is that learning English is by no means mutually exclusive with learning the language of one’s ancestry. Furthermore, the option to speak one’s language of ancestry is the right of all people, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (a pdf of the entire declaration is available here).

That’s a good segue into my counterpoint to Wismayer’s opinion piece. His main thesis is that we all have the right to uniformity, at least with respect to language. Sure, I’ll concede that; no person should be prevented from being able to speak any international lingua franca, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and so on. I would argue though, that in addition to the right to linguistic/cultural uniformity, we all have the right to linguistic/cultural diversity. If speaking a particular language is a salient aspect of one’s identity, and allows them to differentiate themselves from others, then by all means their right to diversity through language should absolutely be respected.

At the end of the day, I believe monolingualism is conducive to a narrow-minded, monocultural world view, in which the concept ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and exclusion generally, abounds. Multilingualism and multiculturalism on the other hand, engender inclusion, broad-mindedness and awareness of and respect for others with different cultural backgrounds.

Surely in this increasingly divided world, the latter is what we should aim towards.

Last Tuesday I wrote about a “Herald Investigation” into the government’s creative book-keeping on funding of indigenous affairs. To sum up the story, their accounting gives the impression that the commonwealth has for years been throwing billions at aboriginal Australia. Such funding has frequently and dysphemistically been termed ‘sit down money’.

That, in contrast with the clear squalor and poverty in which some people in some communities infamously live, leads the majority to one conclusion: Aborigines are no good at spending money. This has had severe corollaries, not the least of which has been the move to quarantine commonwealth welfare payments to aboriginal people.

In today’s Herald, the editorial has leapt onto the issue with a scathing attack on the government’s ‘creative accounting’.

With grim irony, some of the money the Federal Government claims it spends for Aborigines is, in fact, used against them. This includes no less than $30 million spent over the past six years opposing native title and compensation claims. Another $35 million spent on reconciliation projects – which, one might think, is intended to benefit all Australians – is counted as spending on Aborigines alone.

It is certainly welcome that the Herald editor has decided to publicise this issue (as most indigenous issues in this country tend to go a little under-the-radar, until recently), and I can absolutely agree with the sentiment the editor (no byline is ever given in Herald editorials) expresses, when s/he says:

Such creative accounting helps explain the enormous gap between the impressive figures nominally budgeted for indigenous Australians, and the deprivation that confronts visitors to remote communities in the Northern Territory and beyond.

Before leaving for my most recent field trip, issues of funding were becoming more discussed, especially in the blogosphere, regarding such events as Mal Brough’s despicable ultimatum to Tangentyere Council: $60 million dollars in housing funding in exchange for tenure of their land. In such discussions, the term ‘sit down money’ was strewn about like parmesan cheese in an Italian restaurant¹. I was mindful therefore, when I arrived in the Territory, of the conditions in the community, the apparent abandon with which the community organisation is alleged to have been wasting their generous federal funds, and the behaviour of individuals rumoured to be awash with welfare money.

What confronted me was consistent with a community almost entirely bereft of adequate funds. I’ve written about this before, but the community president has been perpetually writing grant applications to fund desperately needed housing and infrastructure upgrades, only to be repeatedly fobbed off. In fact it has come to the point where the community president merely phones whichever Territory or commonwealth department is in charge of such things, and asks plainly whether or not he has a shot of getting any funding. The answer is usually ‘no’. This saves him hours otherwise spent writing futile applications.

All in all, the concept of ‘sit down money’ was never made apparent in my recent time there, and I spent a lot of time discussing these matters with the community president. I feel vindicated then, that critical evaluation of the typical opinion towards indigenous communities and their funding is emerging as a result of the Herald‘s investigation. I also feel personally vindicated in a position I publicly took last week, when I said:

This of course is reminiscent of the initial estimates of the cost of the NT intervention, some $580 million, most of which will go to the 725 odd people employed to administer the changes. That too, will probably be counted in the grand total of ‘indigenous spending’.

Compare that with the editorial’s closing statements of yesterday (emphasis added):

Successful indigenous organisations must not be scapegoated and marginalised. Otherwise, the Federal Government’s $580 million intervention in remote communities risks expensive failure – a failure that will no doubt be counted as “Aboriginal spending”.

Maybe I have a future career in writing editorials.

~

¹Sorry for that metaphor. I couldn’t bring myself to say something as rote as strewn about like confetti.

~

<update>

Joe sends me this troubling image from Wadeye, where he’s currently doing some fieldwork, of a banner on a government building, which means it probably counts as ‘Aboriginal spending’ (Click the image to see the larger size):

nomo jidanabat

Note the imagery: sitting down is bad money while working in a mine (or in a kitchen if you’re a woman, evidently) is good money.

I wonder how much it cost the Indigenous Affairs department to design and make signs like this.

</update>

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald, which, for the first time in a couple of months, I am reading from paper rather than a computer screen, owing to the fact that I returned from my field trip last night, has on the front page a “Herald Investigation” into the dodgy book-keeping of the commonwealth and how it makes itself look good with respect to the funding of indigenous affairs.

A significant portion of the money the Government says it has spent since 2000 – which has risen annually and reached $3 billion last year alone – was either underspent or the result of creative accounting, a Herald investigation has found.

Essentially, the government has for years, it seems, been labelling money as ‘aboriginal spending’ when in fact it is plainly not. For example, the cost of the commonwealth mounting legal defences against native title claims, hardly classifiable as funding for indigenous people, is put down as exactly that.

Spending figures have also been bloated by money spent on services that benefit everyone – such as medical centres – but the money is nevertheless described specifically as the “black dollar”.

Other examples include the cost of ensuring aboriginal corporations pay enough GST and the cost of putting payphones in remote communities whether they are indigenous communities or not.

This is significant with respect to all the current hoo-haa about aboriginal communities in Australia, because for years, the argument against increased funding for housing, employment, education and health has been something along the lines of ‘you can’t just throw money at them, it gets wasted’. Well now, it emerges that the argument was in fact right; the money did get wasted, but it was wasted by bureaucrats and ministerial staffers, not by aboriginal people.

This of course is reminiscent of the initial estimates of the cost of the NT intervention, some $580 million, most of which will go to the 725 odd people employed to administer the changes. That too, will probably be counted in the grand total of ‘indigenous spending’.

My suggestion: Let’s actually spend money on aboriginal communities. That is, as opposed to knocking back funding applications for housing, say, on the basis that there’s not enough money left to fund the projects after it had all been spent hiring, training and paying the people employed to knock back the funding applications¹.

~

¹That’s quite Heller-esque, isn’t it?

~

<update>

Wednesday, 22nd August:

Today, Professor Jon Altman has more to add to this, and about the unreasonable conditions the government imposed on Alice Springs town camps in return for adequate funding, which I wrote about way back when.

“An example [of the Government’s placing “unreasonable hurdles before Indigenous people”] is the Alice Springs town camp housing, where the conditionality was that land be leased for 99 years, and when the land owners said ‘We didn’t want to lease our land’, the Government just withdrew $60 million worth of funding,” he said.

“So in some ways you can always make it sound as if you’re spending a lot of money, but if you have enough conditionality to it you may end up spending none of it.”

This vindicates the position I took back then, somewhat facetiously, that the government deliberately included completely unreasonable conditions, such as the relinquishing of hard-fought-for land, knowing that the community would reject the offer, so that they could turn around and say ‘we tried to give them these funds, but they wouldn’t negotiate’.

Call me a cynic if you like.

 </update>

It looks as though, mercifully, the scrutiny and media coverage of the NT intervention isn’t going to stop just because the House of Review Rubber-Stamp senate has passed the suite of five bills.

This morning, groups such as the NT government and the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory continued to attack the laws and indeed, the Senate for unhesitatingly approving them.

The NT Government says Aboriginal people should feel let down by every senator who voted for legislation allowing the federal intervention in Indigenous communities.

Olga Havnen, from the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory, criticised the incongruity between the problems presented by the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report and the government’s response.

Ms Havnen says extra child protection workers and programs to strengthen families should have been the first measures.

“I think the second part of it that was absolutely necessary and yet has not been done, is a commitment to the long-term planning to meet the existing and future needs of Aboriginal people in remote communities, and to get some genuine commitment about the level of resourcing to even address the backlog for houses,” she said.

And this from NT Attorney-General Syd Stirling:

Five-hundred pages of legislation, around about a week, couple of days in the Senate – that just makes a farce of the democratic process of parliament.

Legislation that goes as far into people’s lives as this legislation does, warrants months of consideration, not days.

Damn straight.

The legislation was always rather unpopular in the wider community, but the general consensus was that ‘doing anything is better than doing nothing’. Meanwhile, the nexus between the problem and the proposed solution had been growing thinner every day under scrutiny. If the government had waited any longer, the wider community, or the electorate (given that it’s an election year) would have become accutely aware of the tenuity of this link and perhaps would have turned more vocally against it. Even Noel Pearson, the government’s own indigenous affairs mascot, has begun to criticise the way the government neglected to consult the communities who will be most affected by the laws, and the way they brazenly refused to consider the amendments put forward by other political parties.

Imagine how devastating it would have been for Brough personally and professionally, if he had to retract or drastically change this legislation due to public pressure just months away from an election. That’s why there was an imperative to push it through the hoops of due process (however pointless they may appear). Be under no illusion, the reason for the haste was not to ensure safety to children living in ‘dangerous’ communities, as Brough would have us believe; he was merely doing his political job as a minister in charge of a tricky portfolio in an incumbent government facing a tough election.

The bureaucratic process will still take plenty of time in rolling out the laws. Finding, hiring and transferring to the NT the 725 odd staff required to enact the changes can’t be done overnight. The laws may not therefore have any tangible effect for weeks, and even then, the first effects will be on the more pertinent aspects of the legislation as the government sees it; land tenure, the permit system and welfare reform. Ergo, if any given child was in danger of remaining in an abusive situation last month, they will likely still be in another month’s time.

Brough got his victory, but it was at the expense of the integrity of the senate and the democratic process.

~

By the way, for anyone reading from the US, a ‘postmortem’ is British for an ‘autopsy’.

Yesterday’s Herald’s News Review section included an edited version of a piece written by David Marr for the Quarterly Essay, about the gradual corruption of public debate and the stifling of free speech under John Howard. Here is one of the opening chapters:

Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.

At a lazy 4000 words, the edited version is just a fraction of what is in the QE, but unfortunately doesn’t contain any explicit detail as to the instances that Marr is alluding to. I presume the full version will, and I eagerly await the internet release, which should soon be freely available to anyone with university access, just like any other journal.

Still, I expect that the specific instances won’t include anything previously unknown, in fact Marr says exactly this.

We haven’t been hoodwinked. Each step along the way has been reported – perhaps not as thoroughly and passionately as it should have been, but we’re not dealing in dark secrets here. We’ve known what’s going on. If we cared, we didn’t care enough to stop it.

There’s also an entertaining debate between Marr and Andrew McIntyre, pundit, commentator, Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, from Radio National’s Late Night Live programme last week (Mp3 available here) which Marr convincingly won¹. Unfortunately it’s rather short relative to the breadth of issues that Marr’s essay addresses.

However, one issue that was discussed briefly was that Aid/Watch, a charitable organisation set up to scrutinise foreign aid, have lost their status as a charity for the reason that they recently drew attention to Australia’s foreign aid figures being inflated by more than $1 billion, and made it clear that they would like this to change, thereby acting in a partisan manner. Contrast this with the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank that does have charity status from the Tax Office, as conceded by McIntyre himself in this debate. In its ‘About’ page, the IPA claims that:

By the close study of Australian policy, we can recommend the best path for our politicians, policy makers and businesses to take.

Which sounds an awful lot to me as though the IPA seeks to influence public policy, the very reason for Aid/Watch’s loss of charity status.

Another reason this particular debate wasn’t quite long enough was that McIntyre kept saying outrageous claims as premises while on the way to a point, while never actually getting to the point itself. One such claim was that if you “google Howard is a fascist then you will [be directed to some ABC website]”. The net result is that McIntyre said absolutely nothing that related to the topic at hand while simultaneously denouncing Marr, (the presenter) Philip Adams, Kevin Rudd, Stuart Littlemore, the entire arts industry, Antonio Gramsci, Pat Byrne and the AEU, the entire Islamic world, the ABC and the supposed left in general.

~

¹(Inserting my tongue firmly in my cheek) I reckon it was fixed. Marr only won the debate because it was on the ABC, that leftist, communist, anarchic, chardonnay-swilling, latte-sipping, inner-urban, pinko, bleeding-heart, anthropogenic global warming fanatical, anti-American ABC, on a programme that McIntyre describes as “the tax-payers’ answer to [extremely influential right-wing shock-jock] Alan Jones”.

There. I said it so that no one else needs to point it out.

²I’ll concede that Howard isn’t solely responsible for this; Paul Keating more or less began the current trend towards censorship, but according to Marr, Howard does it better than anyone.