There Was No Hurricane, Prime Minister


‘This is our Hurricane Katrina,’ an emotional Prime Minister said of the much-publicised miseries facing remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory in a speech delivered at the Sydney Institute early last week. ‘That it has unfolded more slowly and absent the hand of God should make us humbler still.’

But even in offering the natural disaster metaphor, Howard lent the lie to its invocation for there has been no hurricane, no tsunami, no earthquake.

Remote Australia was not suddenly rent asunder by an act of the Almighty which could not have been foreseen. If the Prime Minister is seeking a simile from the natural world for the decline of some remote Indigenous communities into a nightmare world of violence, alcohol and abuse, he should speak rather of erosion. For this demise has been gradual, observable and entirely predictable.

Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, co-authors of the Little Children Are Sacred Report, made this clear in the very document the Prime Minister has contrived as a justification for his ill-considered intervention.

‘There is nothing new or extraordinary in the allegations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal Children in the Northern Territory,’ is the unambiguous opening to the Report.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

‘Put simply, the cumulative affects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children,’ Anderson and Wild conclude, in a damning indictment of the 11 years of Howard’s watch which preceded the recent extraordinary announcements.

The Sacred Children Report offers 97 well-considered recommendations, which highlight the urgent need to dam the ‘rivers of grog’ flowing into Aboriginal communities, and the crucial importance of improving the quality of formal education in remote Australia.

Importantly, the Report also identifies the need for governments to support community-based and community-owned programs to address the horrors that beset these communities. Indeed, the Report’s first recommendation states that it is ‘critical that governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.’

There can be no doubt that the Prime Minister and his Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, mean well. Brough was genuinely horrified by the tour of duty he undertook across remote Australia shortly after his elevation to the portfolio, and his determination to address this sad situation is commendable. The Prime Minister, too, clearly wants to see the living standards of Indigenous Australians raised to an acceptable level. But they refuse to work with Indigenous Australians to help them become the architects of their own destiny.

So the solution is imposed from above without the slightest hint of consultation by an ex-military man who effortlessly employs words such as ‘stabilisation,’ ‘normalisation’ and ‘exit.’

Whether the plan might at some point envisage a ‘pre-dawn vertical insertion to secure selected targets’ is unknown. But the Minister’s use of the vocabulary of invasion is a pointer to the Howard Government’s deeply flawed ‘command and control’ strategy for the recovery of Indigenous Australia. Remote Australia is littered with the rusting remains of ‘rescue vehicles’ designed and built by well-meaning Whitefellas who saw no reason to involve Aboriginal people in their planning.

It is saddening that the troubled community of Mutitjulu, nestled in the shadow of Uluru, was first visited not by doctors and social workers who might help the put their community back together, but by uniformed troops and police: ‘Uluru residents fear military takeover’ screamed the front page of Alice Springs Centralian Advocate.

It is abundantly clear that many Aboriginal people are concerned at the high-profile involvement of the military, regardless of the fact that a substantial proportion of the Norforce troops are themselves Indigenous. The spectre of the Stolen Generation looms large for these people. They are certainly not about to allow their children to undergo ‘compulsory medical examinations’ without the Government being much more forthcoming about the nature of these checks and the reasons they are necessary.

Cape York Institute director Noel Pearson is one of the key advocates of the application of ‘tough love’ in dealing with dysfunctional Aboriginal communities. However, Pearson also states explicitly that these interventions must be accompanied by ‘a strategy for building Indigenous social and cultural ownership.’ While Pearson is supportive of the quarantining of social security benefits to demonstrably negligent parents, his model envisages a key role for local community elders in making these decisions. This involvement of local people in the decisions which govern their lives is noticeably absent from the Howard/Brough plan.

Late last week, the Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, demurred at a suggestion from the Prime Minister that his Government may not necessarily return all of the ‘acquired’ townships to their Indigenous owners after the five-year period stipulated in Minister Brough’s initial press release. This represents the first crack in the ‘me-too-ism’ which has characterised the ALP’s response to the intervention up to now. The Opposition Leader and his Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, have appeared distinctly unwilling to critically analyse some of the more draconian aspects of the Government’s approach.

Aside from the odd salvo delivered by the Member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon a seasoned campaigner who lives in Alice Springs and has an intimate knowledge of the circumstances of these remote communities the country’s great Party of the downtrodden hasn’t fired a single shot. Once again it has been left to the valorous minnows of the Greens and Democrats unencumbered by ministerial ambitions to hold the line in the face of the Prime Minister’s populist power-play.

‘Less focus groups and more backbone’ must become the mantra of the Party that brought us the ‘small-target strategy.’ The clarion call of social justice goes unheeded, as the backroom boys and girls indulge in the kind of too-clever-by-half strategies which have seen them lose four Federal elections on the trot. But the sins of the ALP’s inaction pale into insignificance when contrasted with the threat presented by the Government’s ham-fisted intervention.

Indigenous Australia is never in greater danger than when it is confronted with the unbridled attentions of well-meaning Whitefellas. The Go
vernment’s attitude, implicit in this intervention ‘we are smarter than you, and we have come to save you’ is both condescending and doomed to failure. Engagement entered into without respect, understanding or the imagination to appreciate the comprehensive disempowerment of the oldest living culture on the planet, simply won’t work.

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.