Police raids and promises


John Howard is constantly reminding his colleagues to be humble in victory because the Prime Minister knows that Australians punish smart-arses. When you win, you’d better be good natured and gracious about it and if the inclination takes you, go all out and throw a bone to the underdog.

This is what happened on election night, in 1998, when a gleeful Howard carefully wound up his victory speech with what appeared to be a heartfelt promise to commit himself, ‘very genuinely’, as he put it then, ‘to the cause of true reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia by the centenary of Federation’.

The irony of those words would not have been wasted on Chris Graham, the editor of the National Indigenous Times, on the morning of Armistice Day, recently, when he and his partner were forced to sit at their kitchen table in Canberra while five Federal Police officers searched through their house, car and office. The Feds had been called in by Dr Peter Shergold, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister, to look for leaked documents that had embarrassed the government by outlining its future plans for Indigenous Australians.

The following day, Democrats Indigenous Affairs spokesperson, Senator Aden Ridgeway, damned the raid as racist, arguing that mainstream newspapers carry stories based on classified intelligence. The Herald Sun’s story by Andrew Bolt that discredited Andrew Wilkie comes to mind without being subject to the same outrageous treatment.

The leaked documents, which betrayed the government’s intention to link welfare payments to the ‘behaviour’ of Indigenous Australians, were not the first the Indigenous Times had made public. The paper had also publicised a leaked letter from Philip Ruddock to the Prime Minister, in which the PM was told that every single government minister, ‘almost without exception, [had]failed to undertake a major review into mainstream programs to see how they could be better delivered to Aboriginal people’.

On the ABC’s Media Watch, David Marr highlighted the difficulties Chris Graham had gone through promoting his leaked scoops to a mainstream media more interested in reporting scandals at ATSIC (news from the documents was eventually picked up by the Financial Review). It was the Indigenous Times alone that reported another equally newsworthy story — a story that takes us back to Howard’s promise in 1998 — the fact that Reconciliation has now been permanently deleted as a publicly stated policy of the Indigenous Affairs department.

Where once Senator Amanda Vanstone’s title as Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs had concluded with the words, ‘Minister assisting the Prime Minister on Reconciliation’ the rubric has been quietly altered since the recent election to read, ‘Minister assisting the Prime Minister in Indigenous Affairs’, only. Perhaps, as the Prime Minister is way past his self-imposed deadline of the centenary of Federation, the promise of true reconciliation is no longer valid.

Ridgeway calls Indigenous Affairs Howard’s ‘biggest failing’, saying that, ‘he hasn’t achieved reconciliation and things have not improved markedly in any way for Indigenous people. There is intergenerational trauma and depression that exists within our communities and there is a high degree of an inferiority complex so that people don’t wake up in the morning and feel like they’re going to have the same chances as anyone else.’

ATSIC, badly battered by the obloquy mainstream media has dumped on Ray Robinson and Geoff Clarke, will cease to exist at the same time that Senator Ridgeway finishes his term as Australia’s second federal Indigenous representative, leaving only the government appointed National Indigenous Council (NIC).

‘It’s government policy through Aboriginal appointed managers’, Ridgeway says of the NIC. ‘Really, in some respects, it’s getting back to mission-manager days, where the government decides who’s going to be the manager, under certain welfare or protection legislation, and they make decisions about what happens in the lives of Aboriginal people.’

If Indigenous Affairs is going back to the bad old days, Ridgeway is better placed than most to point it out, not least because he worked with John Howard on the government’s statement of regret, back in 1999.

‘The biggest challenge was dealing with what I thought were the very narrow minded views held by the Prime Minister and certainly reflected in government policy’, he says of that relationship.
‘I think he’s a product of his time, he’s a 1950s man and he looks at the world in that sense.’

Child-care horrors kept from parents www.smh.com.au/news/national/caring-for-kids-the-dollar-beats-dazzle/2006/03/12/1142098346972.html

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.