Just Another Land Grab


Over the four terms of John Howard’s Government, voters have grown used to his acts of political bastardry, particularly against Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal history has been belittled and besmirched by Howard’s Culture Wars, their self-government instrument the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was vilified as a prelude to its abolition, and critical health, education and housing programs have been cruelly starved of funds.

Now Howard is cynically using a military and police-led strategy to occupy Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory to claim the high moral ground, and grab some votes to help his re-election.

But this strategy also provides a convenient opportunity for Howard to hand over Indigenous land to the mining giants who have been vying for it.

What makes this project most despicable is that it has been founded on the proposition that Northern Territory Aboriginal communities are sordidly and squalidly rampant with child sexual abuse. Because there is not a citizen in the Commonwealth who supports paedophilia, Howard is using that moral capital to win himself favourable publicity in the months leading up to the next Federal election.

Anyone who doesn’t fall into line is dismissed as ‘politically correct.’ When asked by Fran Kelly about objections to his proposal on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast (between 7:35 and 7:45) on 22 June, Howard said:

But that sounds to me very much like the response of people who don’t want to change the old ways and who really don’t like the fact that the Federal Government has decided to intervene and who really sort of are still arguing this thing in old doctrinal, philosophical terms. I mean I have a very simple approach and that is, that caring for children, protecting them from sexual abuse is our greatest responsibility and constitutional and doctrinal niceties, to me, pale into insignificance when you are talking about the protection of children.

In other words, Howard is saying no one can criticise his plan or accuse him of ulterior motives because what we are talking about here is protecting children.

But there is an ulterior motive behind this plan. Under the cover of rescuing Aboriginal communities from moral depravity, Howard is proposing to take their tribal land and place it under the control of the Commonwealth. He blandly says the owners will be paid a ‘fair price’ as compensation but gives no guarantee that community title will ever be returned. If that isn’t a land grab,  I don’t know what is.

The purpose here isn’t so much the protection of children as it is to weaken Native Title, undermine it and eventually extinguish it in all those areas where the mining giants want to pursue exploration, mining and quarrying for everything from uranium and iron ore, to natural gas. If it looks like a Trojan Horse, moves like a Trojan Horse, then it almost certainly is a Trojan Horse.

Howard’s media cheer squad a motley collection of misfits, misanthropes, nutters and clerical ratbags have raced to the defence of their leader but they haven’t been able to explain why it is necessary to take away Aboriginal community land in order to prosecute the eradication of child abuse. No one working in the field of child welfare has ever argued that confiscation of property by the State is a prerequisite to treating dysfunctional and sexually abusive communities. Certainly, the ‘Howard doctrine’ sets an important precedent: if there are future outbreaks of sexual abuse at leading Catholic, Anglican and other religious denominational campuses, can we look forward to them being compulsorily acquired by the Government?

While Howard sees the project as a vote-winner, a kick in the guts for Native Title and an opportunity to serve the mining industry, Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough is on another track altogether. A former army officer and a desperately ambitious politician, Brough has dusted down a proposal for the military to tackle poverty and chronic health disorders in the Northern Territory that was first put forward a decade ago.

During the Australian Defence Force’s regularly-held ‘Kangaroo’ exercises in the Top End in the 1990s, top brass and members of the reserve medical corps were alarmed by the conditions they found in outback communities. They suggested ways of intervening on the grounds that it would produce invaluable reconnaissance knowledge of the expansive north and create good PR for the military. The plan was passed around. But as the demands on the army became more pressing East Timor, the Solomons, Afghanistan and then Iraq the plan was consigned to a bottom drawer.

The well-intentioned Brough, who actually believes in the humanitarian role of the armed forces, is today playing an action cameo from a Boy’s Own Annual that is causing great amusement among his Cabinet colleagues because they suspect it will all end in tears Mal’s.

In any task force operation of this magnitude, the police and military commanders have certain criteria that need to be followed:

  1. What are the goals of the mission?
  2. How long will they take to achieve?
  3. What is the total cost (budget) of the operation?
  4. What legal and coercive powers do civilian and uniformed members of the task force have?
  5. What is the task force’s exit strategy?

In Howard’s panic plan, no one has a clue about answers to any of these questions. Responses are being given off the cuff, as ministers and officials improvise their way through a policy minefield. As with the PM’s $10 billion Murray-Darling Basin rescue, the Northern Territory Aboriginal offensive is a product of his own Office and his re-election team Treasury is completely in the dark. (Treasury Secretary Ken Henry must be beside himself with alarm over Howard’s sweeping financial commitment to this ‘national crisis.’)

Labor Leader Kevin Rudd’s decision to fall into line with the PM’s plan showed a dismal lack of leadership. Rudd is equipped with undoubted intellectual and political acumen, which should have been deployed in unravelling Howard’s misconceived scheme and producing something superior.

Echoing the hopeless words of his predecessor, Kim Beazley, during the Tampa disgrace, Rudd said Howard was doing the right thing  and that he was going to treat the task force plan as a bipartisan issue.

Haven’t Labor politicians learnt that nothing is bipartisan with John Howard? And haven’t they learnt that everything should be about Labor providing a certain, proper, fundable, principled point of difference.

It took a week for the penny to drop; at which point Rudd asked for full details of the PM’s mission to rescue Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. He should have asked on day one.

And Rudd is yet to make a commitment to return all Aboriginal lands that will be seized under Howard’s misconceived plan . That, of course, will involve a breach between Labor and the mining lobby. Is Labor ready to give that guarantee to the Aborigina
l communities in the Northern Territory?

We shall see.

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.