Howard's 'House Niggers'

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‘House niggers’ was how activist Darren Godwell referred to some of his fellow Aborigines in The Australian newspaper back in June last year. Godwell claimed that those who, in his view, colluded with the Howard government, effectively seduced by the privileges their positions gave them, did ‘great damage’ to indigenous people.

It was a provocative opinion that upset a great many people. Godwell said that indigenous affairs were killing his people and went on to plead for true reconciliation stating that without it his people would languish in poverty, beyond hope or reprieve.

At the time, the board of ATSIC was in uproar as it came under heavy scrutiny because of an alleged conflict of interest that culminated in the resignation of Deputy Chair ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson. What had begun as a slow burn earlier in the year with Geoff Clark’s continuing legal battles and investigations into his travel allowances, turned into the unstoppable demise of the only national forum for Aboriginal voices.

The Howard Government has longed to rid itself of ATSIC and it will finally do so in June 2005. The trials and tribulations of Geoff Clark and Ray Robinson were like manna from heaven for a Government who believed ATSIC’s billion dollar budget was being squandered by irresponsible representatives who played favourites and were driven by self interest.

The Government was royally assisted in their quest by Mark Latham who called for the abolition of ATSIC earlier this year. Latham wanted yet another ‘review’ and advocated a body that was formed in ‘consultation’ with indigenous people.

Vanstone’s solution was to absorb all the functions ATSIC performed into existing government agencies. It was called ‘mainstreaming’. Other feel-good words like collaboration, flexibility, shared responsibility and leadership were bandied about and just about everyone in the Cabinet got a guernsey on the Ministerial Taskforce on Indigenous Affairs.

Incredibly, Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary, Peter Shergold, extolled the virtues of the government’s ‘New Arrangements in Indigenous Affairs’ by boasting that: ‘mainstreaming, as it is now envisaged, may involve a step backwards “ but it equally represents a bold step forward.’ Imagine that.

Whilst the government also promised no new layers of bureaucracy they nonetheless established the Office of Indigenous Policy and announced their intention to appoint a council to provide policy advice. After being turned down again and again by the country’s most prominent Aboriginal leaders the Government, after much hand-wringing, has delivered a Council to legitimise its indigenous affairs agenda.

One of the phrases I’ve heard over the past few days when talking about the Prime Minister’s new National Indigenous Council was ‘nigger traitors’. Harsh words indeed and it doesn’t stop there. Some talk about these men and women ‘taking thirty pieces of silver’, saying that the appointees will never have the support of the majority of aboriginal people and that by agreeing to serve on Howard’s advisory body they will become pariahs.

On paper the fourteen men and women who have taken up Vanstone’s invitation sound impressive. There’s a magistrate, a star football player, one or two academics, a barrister and a couple of AMs for good measure. But the one name whose appointment has caused the most angst is the sole adviser from New South Wales, Warren Mundine.

In just over twelve months Warren Mundine will become the first indigenous National President of the Australian Labor Party. His acceptance of a position on Howard’s new and improved version of ATSIC can only be interpreted one way: Labor tacitly endorses the Government’s advisory council.

Labor’s new Indigenous Affairs spokesman Kim Carr and Parliamentary Secretary Warren Snowdon trotted out the obligatory press release on Monday dissing the whole idea while oh so politely ‘commending the expertise of the new members’.

Not once was there any mention made of Mundine.

Some in the party don’t think Mundine’s involvement matters all that much. Mundine needed Mark Arbib and Tim Gartrell to sign off prior to agreeing to be part of the show. But now they have it places Carr in the unenviable position of defending Labor’s opposition to the Council, and being unable to criticise its dealings if he needs to, because his future National President is happy to serve on it. Talk about a conflict of interest.

Questions must also be asked about Sue Gordon’s involvement as the body’s Chair. Is it appropriate for a magistrate, who is supposed to be independent of Government – whether it be state or federal – to act almost as a ministerial adviser, assisting the government of the day in the policy making process?

The fundamental tenet of our Constitution is the separation of powers. Whilst Gordon is only a State magistrate and in the strictest sense her involvement may not be unconstitutional (as it most definitely would be if she served on the Federal Court) surely, in this case when so much is at stake for Aboriginal people, she cannot serve two masters. Writing an independent report for Government, as Sue Gordon has done, is one thing. Helping Government decide policy that one day she may need to use to help her deliberate a legal issue is pretty dubious.

While Sue Gordon will need to weather future attacks on her credibility, as a chosen representative of her people, I wondered how Gordon thinks she’ll be able to speak for her people or help them if she doesn’t engage with them. On Monday she told the ABC’s PM program:

‘I don’t know how we’re going to work with Aboriginal groups, because as I said at the outset, we’re individuals. We’re there to give an individual point of view.’

The divisive and fractious nature of indigenous politics means that Howard’s Council will not be in for an easy ride. As yet there are no terms of reference, and any processes that need to be put in place to deliver outcomes will not happen overnight. The Council will need the practical support and assistance of the communities whose leaders seem determined to shun them.

It now appears that other high profile indigenous leaders will be forced to continue to press their case for an elected representative body from the sidelines. In the wake of the Government’s announcement to abolish ATSIC, Mick Dodson, Jackie Huggins and Lowitja O’Donoghue organised a meeting in Adelaide in June for some 100 Aboriginal leaders to try and work out a coherent response to the decision.

The group canvassed a myriad of ideas about what could replace ATSIC. Various positive suggestions and models were put forward and some of these proposals are being circulated to communities for feedback. In the hope of keeping lines of communication open between the Government and indigenous leaders, Dodson and Huggins wrote to the Prime Minister to inform him of the meeting, what was discussed and what they hoped to achieve.

His response was pretty much thanks but no thanks.

Howard knows he doesn’t need the support of Dodson and co. The PM has just enough people agreeing to serve, like Warren Mundine and Sue Gordon, to provide him with the political legitimacy the Council needs to get established. Some want a foot in both camps. O’Donoghue decided to endorse the advisory body despite her involvement in convening the Adelaide meeting and her obvious desire for elected Aboriginal representatives.

If the old ATSIC, or anything like it, is unpalatable to Government and the broader electorate and the new National Indigenous Council is unacceptable to most other black leaders (some of whom plan to impede measures the Council may be responsible for); the impasse makes the immediate future bleak if the divisions between the two groups cannot be rectified.

It seems that the prospect of indigenous people being able to empower themselves and exercise greater control and accountability at the grassroots level seems nigh impossible in the current political climate and any kind of true reconciliation is further away than ever.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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