Fifteen minutes before John Howard all but declared martial law in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory last Thursday, Cape York Institute Director, Noel Pearson, took a call.
The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, had phoned to brief Pearson standard bearer of the ‘tough love’ fraternity on the raft of punitive and heavy-handed measures he and the Prime Minister were about to announce.
This gave Pearson a quarter-hour advantage on Clare Martin’s Northern Territory Government and on the people living in the Territory’s remote Indigenous communities who were about to have their lives turned upside down by an edict from Canberra. There is no suggestion that any other Indigenous leader such as, for example, Professor Mick Dodson was given such a warning about the impending explosion, underscoring the fact that Brough tends to confine his consultations to those likely to tell him what he wants to hear.
The Coalition’s grab bag of ill-conceived measures will see alcohol restrictions introduced to communities which are already dry, and social security payments quarantined equally for the negligent and the conscientious. Indigenous communities which are constantly being lectured by the Federal Government about their need to ‘take responsibility’ will be summarily ‘acquired’ and run by externally appointed managers of Government business.
The ‘permit system,’ which acts to restrict the movement of sexual predators, carpetbaggers who exploit Indigenous artists, and alcohol and drug runners, will be emasculated. This system has served communities well over the years, assisting in the protection of sacred sites, offering some right to privacy on private land, and providing a lawful means for the expulsion of visitors who present a threat to the well-being of a community. It beggars belief that the abolition of this system could even be contemplated.
The Brough ‘national emergency‘ press release speaks airily of ‘reforming community living arrangements’ through the introduction of ‘market-based rents’ and ‘normal’ tenancy arrangements. In Top End communities like Maningrida and Wadeye, where occupancy rates run to 15 or more people per house, the aching need is for more houses, not social experimentation. Only those blinded by ideology can fail to recognise that there is no ‘housing market’ in these locations.
The Prime Minister and his Indigenous Affairs Minister are clearly counting on the public support of Noel Pearson to help win broader community acceptance for these draconian measures. In these circumstances, they would do well to take careful note of Pearson’s statements, rather than simply assume that he is ‘in the cart.’
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
The feisty Hopevale community leader is fresh from a stoush with Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, on the ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program during the week. Last Wednesday morning, repeating what he had said on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report the night before, Pearson spoke to Fran Kelly about his plan to hold back welfare payments for parents who fail to meet some ‘basic obligations.’
Under the proposed arrangements, parents would need to ensure their children attend school regularly and that they were protected from abuse. Parents would also have to agree to take reasonable care of their house. A locally-based Commission, comprised of two elders and a retired magistrate, would direct dilatory parents into local support services to try and address their problems. If this intervention was unsuccessful, the Commission will have the power to quarantine welfare payments to ensure that rent, food, and clothing would be paid for in an attempt to ensure the welfare of the children.
Pearson angrily dismissed charges of paternalism, saying that ‘the terrified kid huddling in the corner, while there is a binge-drinking party going on down the hall’ is crying out for ‘a bit of paternalism.’ But surely what that child in question actually craves is long-term safety and security, and the same life chances as her contemporaries born in Mosman, Camberwell or Scarborough Beach? And it is problematic to conclude that this will happen without Indigenous Australians being able to exercise control over their life choices.
Commissioner Calma entered the fray by pointing out on Radio National Breakfast that any move to restrict the disbursement of welfare payments on the basis of race is likely to contravene the Racial Discrimination Act. Pearson was livid, describing it as ‘absolutely offensive’ that Calma was ‘talking about the prospect of racial discrimination’ and saying that every intervention Calma has made in relation to this matter had been ‘absolutely woeful.’
Calma is a considered operator who is not about to go toe-to-toe with Pearson or anybody else. His skills lie in analysing issues and assessing the merits of arguments, not in quotable quotes or headline hunting. Speaking on Kelly’s program the day after Pearson’s interview, Calma appeared to be taken aback by the vehemence of Pearson’s attack, and expressed regret that the Cape York leader ‘apparently hadn’t read any of the reports’ where ‘I raise these issues consistently.’
In his clear and precise way, Calma argued that the knee-jerk tendency of many politicians to cast complex social issues into a ‘law and order’ framework does the community a disservice. The Commissioner called for a more comprehensive approach saying that, ‘What we need to do is empower people to take control of their own lives.’
Pearson’s passion and commitment is beyond doubt, but even he freely admits that his views, nurtured by the ‘tough love’ cheer-squad at The Australian, do not meet with wide acceptance amongst Aboriginal people.
This mid-week scuffle was quickly overshadowed by the Prime Minister’s barbeque-stopper announcement on Thursday afternoon. With Howard’s popularity in freefall only months away from a Federal election, Thursday’s proclamation smacked of panic. His claim that the announcement was triggered by the tardiness of the Northern Territory Government’s response to the Little Children Are Sacred report into sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is a contrivance. The miseries of remote communities have been well documented long before the publication of this report.
A jittery Federal ALP, apparently convinced of the received wisdom that there are ‘no votes in blackfellas,’ fell meekly into line with the Government’s provocative proposals. The alternative was to expose the sleight-of-hand involved in Howard’s grandstanding. But perhaps the focus groups wouldn’t wear it.
In the Territory, Clare Martin’s Labor Government has been caught on the back foot. They are struggling to put on a brave face, while desperately trying to get a handle on the implications of the proposed changes.
While Pearson has embraced the broad thrust of the Federal Government’s proposed changes, he has also expressed some serious reservations about the heavy-handed nature of the proposals. Tellingly, Pearson has noted that ‘responsible people shouldn’t just be lumped in with irresponsibl
e people.’ And he warns that ‘Howard and Brough will make a historic mistake if they are contemptuous of the role that a proper and modern articulation of Aboriginal law must play in the social reconstruction of Indigenous societies.’
Pearson has made very clear his view that heavy-duty intervention must be accompanied by a ‘strategy for building Indigenous social and cultural ownership.’ It is on this key aspect that the Pearson prescription parts company with the Federal Government.
In June 2003, the now unfashionable Mick Dodson addressed an audience at the Australian National University. He observed that ‘the violence occurring in Aboriginal communities today is not part of Aboriginal tradition or culture.’
Noel Pearson would no doubt endorse this sentiment.
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