Friday, 29 June 2007
Dear Mr Rudd,
It is with extreme alarm that I heard you express support for Prime Minister [John] Howard's proposals to take over Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory [NT], in his averred concern over Indigenous child sexual abuse.
First, the issue has been around for decades; and people such as I warned about it at least 20 years ago. At the time when I stated it at a public meeting in Sydney, I was vilified by the media and politicians as alarmist, and being hyperbolic; others were simply ignored.
For Howard to now characterize this issue as a "national emergency" is nothing more than a political stunt, just at the time when he is facing an uncomfortable election. He needs to divert attention from some of the problems that are raising their very ugly heads within the Liberal Party, not to mention his poverty of thinking on any social issue whatsoever.
But apart from that, the real test of his concerns about Indigenous (or any other) kids being subject to abuse at all and any levels can be more accurately assessed by his previous political stunts, the Tampa affair, Children Overboard, the deportation of children born of refugees in Australian Detention Centres. The man is not only a hypocrite, he is evil (by their deeds shall we know them -- as you would know, Mr Rudd, from your Bible).
I would have expected that you'd note it was Howard, who shortly after assuming the office of prime minister, embarked on a protracted vicious propaganda program of demonising Indigenous Australians, which enabled him to put a fire bomb through Indigenous programs, pretty much with impunity, and cut $400 million [US$339 million] from Indigenous Health -- never to be restored (by him, at least). This is the prime minister who is responsible for the virtual demolition of programs which were designed to overcome the very problems which breed child sexual abuse, which cannot be crudely reduced to a law-and-order issue.
I would also have expected you to note Howard's agenda to push the development of the nuclear industry to which uranium is fundamental. And guess what? Uranium just happens to be present throughout the NT, and especially in Aboriginal Lands -- just waiting for Howard's mates to exploit it, as soon as he gets rid of the permit system, takes control of the communities, and cuts more moneys from them, thus ensuring their inability to mount any sort of resistance to any nefarious activities he might wish to get up in their homelands.
Far from Howard attempting to institute measures to ensure that Indigenous Australians will indeed get to share a place in the sun with the likes of Howard's wealthy, privileged mates, he, like so many of his ultra-conservative think-alikes, is once again engaging in the blame game. And he's about to fix it jackboot fashion by cutting services in savagely punitive fashion, and metaphorically sending these wrongdoers (Indigenous parents) to ... well ... Hell, really -- compounding the present sufferings of the little children, along with all other members of their communities.
Anyone who ever thought that we'd build a Civil Society in this country must surely have had the blinkers blasted off their faces by this week's pronouncements by this vicious overlord.
That you, Mr Rudd, would put your name to Howard's proposals is a serious indictment of your leadership, not to mention that it signifies an alarming lack of judgement.
While it is expected that you would agree that Indigenous child sex abuse is shocking (by the way, is it any worse than child sex abuse which is endemic in Western society?), it is quite another thing for you to agree to Howard's raft of proposals for dealing with the issue in NT Indigenous Communities, which are punitive, destructive, and frankly racist.
In order to distinguish yourself as a true alternative Leader of the people of Australia (that is, including Indigenous Australians) you need to clarify issues for action, such as:
■ Differentiating between Howard's land grab of Indigenous communities and the issue of child abuse;
■ Making a distinction between Howard's political and economic agenda, and the real crisis of child abuse in communities;
■ Removal of permits and the [Australian] Commonwealth's control of the territory would enable Howard to place control of the mineral resources on Aboriginal lands into private hands;
■ That solutions to the crisis of child abuse have been highlighted in a raft of domestic and international texts which do not promote deployment of police and the military as the frontline response: It requires a health, education, human services and housing response; and
■ That the Commonwealth has had the ability for decades to address this issue and has not had the political will. Let us be clear that Howard and [indigenous affairs minister Mal] Brough (not to mention [Aboriginal identities] Noel Pearson and Sue Gordon) are not the "Great White Hopes" for Aboriginal Communities.
Mr Rudd, you can have access to any number of people within the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities who would be more than willing to assist you in establishing a distinguishing platform with the aim of building a Civil Society, which would include happy, healthy Indigenous communities.
There are professional Aboriginal women who have dedicated themselves to this field for some 40 years. It is not the moral outrage of one Aboriginal male such as Noel Pearson. I refer you to Naomi Mayers at the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service [in Sydney], Gracelyn Smallwood from Queensland who has worked with the World Health Organization and has been vocal on this a issue for years, and Boni Robertson. These women are your reference points. In fact you have within the Labor party Ms Linda Burney who can clarify for you what and who needs to be considered in your response, so that your leadership position reflects integrity.
I look forward to hearing you outline a more considered policy response to the NT situation, and particularly to John Howard's promotion of further violence and disempowerment in Indigenous communities, and his continuing demonisation of the people.
Pat O'Shane AM LLM
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The first Howard Government Budget 1996-7 removed $400 million from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. In 2004 he abolished the Commission in its entirety.
Howard claimed he was going to solve the practical problems which prevented Indigenous people taking their place in modern Australia. He claimed he would end “dependence on welfare”. Howard attacked those he accused of promoting a black armband version of history. He refused to say “Sorry” to the stolen generations. He consistently argued that issues of symbolic importance to Indigenous people paled into insignificance when compared with his determination to seek practical solutions to the problems facing the Aboriginal community.
Confronted by the Wik High Court Judgment he launched his 10 Point Plan attack on Native Title legislation in order to give pastoralists and miners “certainty”. He eroded some significant autonomy promoting provisions of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. He has criticised legal recognition being given to customary law and bilingual education.
He, assisted by his Minister Mal Brough, has coerced some Indigenous communities to sign over their communally owned land to 99-year leases. At the United Nations he has opposed efforts to recognise Indigenous self determination. He claims to have set out to mainstream the administration of Indigenous affairs.
In this, his 11th year in office and in the run-up to the next election it is timely to review his progress towards practical reconciliation. This is all the more relevant now as he has just launched his “save the Aboriginal children of the Northern Territory” blitzkrieg. Soldiers and police are being rushed into Indigenous communities as the vanguard to doctors and child protection officials who will follow.
The reality on the ground
Indigenous Australians are dying on average 17 to 20 years earlier than other Australians. And it has been like this during his entire period in office. At every stage of life Aboriginal people experience more illness and injury than other Australians. Indigenous Australians are considerably more likely to live in over crowded housing than other citizens: 15 or more people to a dwelling is the rule in many Aboriginal townships across northern Australia.
Indigenous unemployment is rife throughout most parts of rural and remote Australia. In the Northern Territory, there are 8,000 Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) workers. This is an Indigenous “work for the dole” program. The Howard Government has not had the wit to create sufficient meaningful employment in these communities nor the common sense to realise that without sufficient money to sustain industry and commerce, widespread poverty is the only guaranteed outcome.
There are many jobs which need to be done in these communities. The lack of sufficient housing is a major priority which could be addressed by training local Indigenous people to build and maintain their own housing. When I visited Yarrabah and Hopevale communities in 1963 all the housing had been built by Indigenous workers. They had even processed local timber in their own saw mill. I saw similar examples in many parts of tropical Australia.
These days, much of the housing is built by white contractors without involving local people. Indigenous involvement is not valued and, consequently, houses often have a very sort shelf life.
There are many other important jobs which need doing in Indigenous communities which could be done, and in many places are being done, by local people: care for children and older people, supplying food, running tourist enterprises and community stores, vehicle maintenance, ensuring decent sanitation services, and so forth. The Government has had 11 years to train people if that were necessary - it has not done so. Surely this would have been a good place to start on its alleged path to practical reconciliation.
Instead of attacking the teaching of children in local Aboriginal languages, the Government could work to ensure that people become literate in at least one language: if only because once people become literate in one language, they can more easily learn to read and write in other languages. English is certainly a useful language to learn in Australia but, in many remote communities, English is not the lingua franca.
The Howard Government has not been able to end “dependence on welfare”. It may have been able to impose harsh “mutual obligations” on many social security recipients but to what end? “Mutual obligation” is a self-defeating policy. The Government has denigrated Indigenous people who have sought to build their self-esteem and to pursue issues of symbolic importance to them and their communities.
If the present Government was not so mired in its celebration of western capitalist contractual arrangements, it might realise that people exercising autonomy have a far better chance to gain dignity and cultural success.
Indigenous people may not want to celebrate the arrival of Captain Cook, the achievements of Don Bradman and the Anzac soldiers - they might want to celebrate Land Rights heroes, Elly Bennett, Cathy Freeman and Indigenous service men and women. They might prefer to worship their own language group’s Dream Time ancestors rather than celebrate mass. A truly democratic, multicultural society would welcome such cultural diversity.
The grog and sexual abuse
Australians are being told that the Federal Government has had to take control of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory because of the “rivers of alcohol flowing through Indigenous communities”, the neglect and sexual abuse of children and rampant pornography.
If governments fail to create sufficient meaningful employment while denigrating attempts at self-help in communities and, on top of this, impose “a nice white mutual obligation” regime, it is little wonder that alcoholism is a problem.
Alcoholism won’t be cured by John Howard denouncing Aborigines for failing to meet their “mutual obligations”. The impact of alcoholism could be lessened by providing decent work, proper pay, adequate housing, good health staff and alcohol rehabilitation services (see also Tomlinson, J. (2005) Must be the grog can’t be the Government (PDF 235KB)).
Police and soldiers can’t, on their own, stamp out neglect and sexual abuse of Indigenous children. Only the Indigenous community, working in conjunction with children’s services and health workers (ultimately backed up by police authority), can achieve that and this will only happen when these services are available and the community has come to trust the workers. However, while 15 to 20 people are crowded into one house then domestic disputes, violence and inappropriate sexual behaviour are an ever-present danger.
Howard has not learnt his history lesson
The old quip that John Howard preferred a white blindfold view of history to a Black armband one might not be too wide of the mark. The story of the stolen generations revealed in the Bringing Them Home report showed again and again that at least some of the white families who took the children, removed from their Indigenous mothers, thought they were acting in the best interests of the children. It is a strange view of family which allows people to believe that you have to destroy one generation to save the next.
Throughout Australia, the various pieces of legislation used to control Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were commonly referred to as Protection Acts and the people who administered them were “protectors”.
In Queensland, the Act was originally called the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. By 1939, it had been renamed the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act. The degree of a misnomer such titles bestowed was noted by Professor Charles Rowley who commented in relation to Section 36(3) of this 1939 Protection Act that “An almost incredible provision was that if a person were charged under the Queensland Criminal Code with carnal knowledge of an Aboriginal girl under the statutory age of consent, ‘it is a defence to a charge of any of the offences defined … to prove that such a girl had developed a state of puberty’” (Outcasts in White Australia, Pelican, Harmondsworth).
The Protection legislation in all its various forms remained in place in Queensland until 1975. The “protection” which such legislation afforded Indigenous citizens was not sufficient to ensure the “protectors” or the Department of Native Affairs paid Aboriginal workers the wages which white employers of Indigenous labour, were required to pay to the “protectors” or the Department (See Kidd, R. The Way We Civilise, University of Queensland, St Lucia 1997).
In Queensland, the Beattie Government accepted that this was the case and has made a paltry offer of partial repayment of up to $4,000 (Kidd, R. Stolen Wages - A National Issue (PDF 56KB))
Howard’s failure to address the practical problems confronting Indigenous people is a disgrace. Over the last 11 years the Government he leads has not significantly improved the health, housing, sanitation, employment, nutrition and even access to clean drinking water confronting the majority of Indigenous Australians in most rural and remote areas.
To rub salt into the wound he has denigrated those who have requested he come to terms with the need for symbolic reconciliation. He has refused to say “sorry”. He has demonised those who have sought self-determination for Indigenous Australians.
Now, in the dying days of his government, he is again attempting to stir up a storm of moral panic about the mess that confronts many Indigenous communities in rural and remote areas of this continent. It’s time he admitted that his government’s policies and actions are a substantial part of the practical problems facing Indigenous Australians.Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.
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Aboriginal Sexual Abuse
If Noel Pearson is a man of integrity (and I think he is), he will be appalled by John Howard’s just announced “plan” for Northern Territory indigenous Australians. Certainly, Pearson’s plans also involve breaking the cycle of welfare dependency in Cape York by tying receipt of welfare benefits to children’s school attendance, maintaining their houses and the like. But it does so in the context of a carefully developed, comprehensive plan for basic health care, education, vocational skills training and enterprise development. Contrary to Mark Bahnisch’s view, I think Pearson’s proposals have a great deal of merit.
But there is no sign of any of those careful, considered elements in the “plan” John Howard announced today. Like Howard’s $10 billion water “plan”, it appears to have been hastily cobbled together on the back of an envelope aiming solely at electoral advantage by playing to the “Howard battlers” and wedging the ALP. It appears to be little more than a cynical, desperate, Textor focus group-driven grab for redneck votes, by targeting the poorest , most vulnerable Australians. Sadly it may well work, judging by the supine response of Kevin Rudd and other Labor leaders to date.
What difference to child sexual abuse, availability of drugs, alcohol and pornography will 10 additional AFP officers (or even 10 from each State, assuming all State Premiers agree that the NT’s needs are greater than their own) make across more than 60 remote Aboriginal communities?
How will taking federal control of 40 community town areas for 5 years make any difference at all to housing standards? The Howard government sent military forces into a few Territory indigenous communities during its early years in office, and it made scarcely a dent in the housing backlog. In many remote communities, people live 15 or 20 to each house. The cost of clearing the indigenous housing backlog in the Territory alone is generally estimated at more than one billion dollars. The current Commonwealth-NT Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Agreement commits a total of well under $100 million per year, scarcely enough to keep pace with existing maintenance and repairs let alone make a hole in the backlog. There is no mention of any additional funding in Howard’s announcement today, without which it’s merely empty tokenism.
What effect will banning alcohol from all remote remote Aboriginal communities have? I can tell you immediately, from 24 years living in the NT. All the drinkers would immediately move into town in Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek, where there is no way they could be stopped from drinking without restriction. The electoral effects of this urban social chaos would certainly be fatal for Dave Tollner, the incumbent CLP federal member for the Darwin-based marginal seat of Solomon. At least some Liberal advisers (notably Territory born and bred senior Howard adviser and policeman’s son Mark Textor) would be well aware of the practical effects of such a policy, which is why you can guarantee it won’t actually be introduced before the election and will be quietly shelved thereafter whoever wins.
What will happen if, as announced, all Aboriginal parents living in remote communities have 50% of their welfare benefits withheld to ensure that their children are fed? Well, apart from the repugnant unfairness of treating all Aboriginal people indiscriminately as irresponsible children when the majority are responsible parents and only a minority of them drink at all (albeit that those who do are disproportionately serious alcoholics), how could any such policy practically be enforced across 70 or more very remote communities, without employing a large army of additional bureaucrats to dispense the withheld proportion and ensure that it is spent on food? And what would happen if they did somehow find an effective way to enforce such a policy? Again, lots of people (especially the drinkers) would simply vote with their feet and move to the major towns, abandoning their children with extended family members. Any such policy would simply worsen existing social dysfunction.
Today is a day of shame in Australian politics. Everyone deplores the appalling incidence of violence and child sexual abuse in indigenous communities. But there simply isn’t any quick, magical solution. The policy Howard has just announced is worse, more racist and more wildly impractical and misconceived than anything Pauline Hanson ever spouted. Kevin Rudd’s meek, knee jerk endorsement of it is almost as disgusting, and marks him unfit to lead Australia. At least Howard has the guts to announce policies of his own, however repugnant and ill-considered.
Further thoughts - I should also comment on Howard’s announced cancellation of the permit system for entry to Aboriginal townships. Not only does this abolish one of the most central attributes of private property (and therefore take a major step towards what one suspects is a covert ideological aim of abolishing land rights), but it has nothing whatever to do with Howard’s professed objective of tackling child sexual abuse in indigenous communities. In fact it is likely to prove counter-productive in that regard. The recent Wild/Anderson report highlighted the incidence of sexual predation on young Aboriginal girls by white miners and others. Removing permit restrictions will create open slather for these predators to enter indigenous communities without restriction, not to mention others trying to peddle alcohol, illicit drugs pornography and so on. Removing the permit system will make it much harder for the handful of additional police Howard is supplying to enforce the new restrictions he professes to wish to impose.
Howard’s plans also involve a proposal to deliver school breakfasts/lunches to Aboriginal children, at parents’ expense. In fact, such schemes already exist in many indigenous schools, but are currently delivered free of charge. Far from assisting Aboriginal families in need, this proposal is actually reducing existing programs and imposing a “user pays” system on the kids Howard professes to want to help.
His announced taking of control of Aboriginal townships also apparently involves a commitment to charge “market rents” for housing. That too will cause drastic financial hardship among the very people Howard professes to be trying to help. Most indigenous housing associations charge their tenants concessional rents, because not only are many of those tenants unemployed, but the cost of food, transport and just about all other necessities of life is vastly higher than in major towns and cities. While a significant hard core minority certainly squander welfare money on drugs and alcohol, increasing the cost of living indiscriminately to the poorest Australians hardly seems a sensible way to address that problem.Ken Parish
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Aboriginal Sexual Abuse