Howard Ignores Children, When It Suits Him


Last week, John Howard discovered the plight of some vulnerable children. This, after instituting a policy of incarcerating refugee children for anything up to five years as a way of ‘protecting’ Australian borders from foreign incursion.

For all the time Howard has been in politics the health of Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal children, has been of concern to many good people within and outside of communities.

The late Professor Fred Hollows, for example, highlighted the issue in the 1980s through his constant battles with Federal and State Governments. He was made Australian of the Year in 1990 for his work, among other things, in the area of Aboriginal health particularly as it related to eye care.

Similarly, Professor Fiona Stanley was made Australian of the Year in 2003 for her work, among other things, in the area of child Aboriginal health care.

John Howard can hardly claim that he was unaware of the issue of need in Aboriginal communities.

In 1991 I brought four nursing sisters from Soweto to Australia for training under the Australia-South Africa Training Trust Program. After visiting Aboriginal communities and observing the level of health care, the South Africans publicly said it was worse than South Africa under Apartheid. The then Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, threatened to cut the programs funding if any more South African trainees commented on aspects of Aboriginal life.

The standard of Indigenous health care has deteriorated further during Howard’s years of so-called ‘practical reconciliation’ and his dismantling of ATSIC. In receipt of information relating to Aboriginal communities from numerous sources, Howard, as Prime Minister, has callously ignored the plight of Indigenous children over the last 11 years.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Howard ignores the bigger picture. The redistribution of wealth as a result of his economic policies over the past decade has widened the gap between rich and poor.

The ‘Dropping Off The Edge’ Report published in February 2007 by Professor Tony Vinson for Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia, details areas of entrenched disadvantage nationally. Drawing on a range of indicators of social disadvantage and mapping cumulative disadvantage, the Report also shows that areas of primary need have increased steadily from 1999 to 2007 in rural and major centres in NSW and Victoria.

The Vinson Report found, ‘that despite our nation’s recent strong economic growth, some communities remain caught in a spiral of low school attainment, high unemployment, poor health, high imprisonment rates and child abuse’ demonstrating that the problems Howard has focused on in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities also exist more broadly in Australia.

Captive as they are to the Government’s spin machine, the mainstream media has chosen not to investigate what is happening under their noses. The new Howard Nationalism has stymied investigative reporting. Editors and program directors have bought the line that in fighting the ‘War on Terror,’ criticism of Australian Government decisions or policy shortcomings should be glossed over, lest we play into the hands of our enemies.

However the most damning criticism of Howard’s callous indifference to the needs of children comes in former Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Paul Cleary’s book Shakedown (see the extract published in New Matilda here). Cleary details the sad story of how Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, acting on behalf of major oil interests, have deprived the people of East Timor of oil revenues that would allow them to address such basic issues as child health care and education.

If Howard cared about children, he would not have screwed the life out of the fragile East Timorese economy. The detailed exposé by Cleary of the negotiating tactics employed by Howard and Downer make one ashamed to be an Australian. For instance, in October 2003, a 12-year-old East Timorese girl, Julmira Babo died a slow and painful death from suffocation caused by a worm infestation. An Australian journalist, Rochelle Mutton, wrote a story which appeared in The Age in early May 2004. The story said the girl’s life, and perhaps thousands like her, could have been saved by a tablet of medicine that cost 10 cents.

A wealthy Melbourne businessman, Ian Melrose, read the story and was horrified. He had a daughter about the same age. Cleary writes:

Melrose had also been reading about the ongoing dispute over Timor Sea oil and gas, and how Australia had been collecting disputed taxes at the rate of US$1 million a day since 1999. He made a connection. Australia’s negotiating tactics were depriving East Timor of revenue that could save lives.

Melrose funded TV adds that highlighted how unfairly the Australian Government was behaving saying, in part:

East Timor, one of our nearest neighbours, is a country so poor that eight out of every 100 children die before they are five Australia, let’s be fair in dealing with oil and gas. Give the East Timorese the entitlements that would be due under international law so that they can build hospitals and schools and feed their children.

Cleary writes, ‘Upon learning of the advertisements, Downer sought an urgent meeting with Melrose,’ who said he would withdraw the ads if Australia negotiated in good faith but Downer was unable to convince him of this and the ads went ahead. But Cleary tells us that:

Melrose underquoted the estimated level of child mortality, which at the time was that 12 children out of every 100 children would die before their fifth birthday. (In Australia it is 0.6 out of every 100) The mistake had enabled the East Timor Government to distance itself from the advertisements.

Cleary’s book is a chilling account of a Government, led by Howard, that makes the lives of the East Timorese people, particularly children, secondary to the profits of oil companies and a bureaucratic seabed and maritime boundary agenda.

It is not possible to reconcile the Howard Government’s appalling social justice record in relation to children over the past 11 years with the rhetoric accompanying its takeover of Aboriginal towns and settlements in the Northern Territory without seeing it in the context of a shameless pre-election wedge.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.