Beyond Politics


Australia has known about the appalling living conditions faced by Northern Territory Indigenous communities for years. It can be traced, at the very least, back to 1978 when Malcolm Fraser visited the Northern Territory and reported on the poor housing, poor hygiene and lack of clean water in the communities.

According to South Australian organisation Child and Youth Health, poverty, isolation, stress from lack of child care and poor housing are all factors that foster child abuse.

In 2007, at the 11th hour of the election after 11 years on the throne, the Howard Government decided it wanted to do something about child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities. And at the minute before midnight, it announced its plan to hold a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution as the first Australians. As policies are made on the run in time for 24 November, Mal Brough has the nerve to claim the Northern Territory Intervention is ‘above politics.’

This seems to be the catch cry of a Labor Party also punting for power. In a recent interview on ABC’s Lateline, Kevin Rudd, decked in his bipartisan best, said: ‘When it comes to the challenge of child abuse, we should be taking the party politics right out of it.’

Despite these claims, the issues of abuse and recognising Indigenous people in the constitution have made it on the Federal election agenda, and were discussed in the Howard-Rudd debate two weeks ago.

Child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities has been an intermittent media staple in recent years. ABC’s Lateline, for example, has run numerous stories about sexual abuse, citing cases that go back over five years. One notable interview was with Crown Prosecutor Dr Nanette Rogers, who exposed child sexual abuse in Central Australia.

The issue became a political football when the Howard Government declared the situation in the Northern Territory an emergency on 21 June. Surprisingly, the ALP showed bipartisan support for the proposed Intervention, which included quarantining welfare payments, alcohol and pornography bans and the compulsory acquisition of land for five-year ‘leases.’

The ALP didn’t, however, agree that the permit system, which allowed landowners to decide who could and couldn’t set foot on their land, should be scrapped, nor did it agree with the Coalition abolishing Community Development and Employment Programs (CDEP), a Government-funded program for unemployed Indigenous people in remote areas. CDEP provided activities and skill training to assist with employment. Originally an idea of Indigenous elders, it has proven successful in the Northern Territory. The Coalition argues that CDEP shouldn’t exist and that Indigenous people should be encouraged to get ‘real jobs.’ The ALP say they will reinstate CDEP should they be elected this November.

While the ALP may have been expected to oppose any new policies of the Coalition, they have been rather quiet on the issue. Perhaps they fear being wedged before the election as they were, debatably, with Howard’s Tampa debacle.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation Jenny Macklin says, ‘Labor’s position is clear we are committed to the Intervention and to achieving results for Indigenous children in partnership with Indigenous people.’

One party that has not caved in to polling and Federal Government pressures is the Greens. Western Australian Senator Rachel Siewert says: ‘I was extremely disappointed with the ALP’s approach. They didn’t do any careful analysis or look at the negatives. It was only about an hour after the announcement was made that they came out and said me too.  They just wanted to make themselves a small target. I don’t think that was an appropriate response and I was not supportive of that.’

The Federal Government says the Intervention was its response to The Little Children are Sacred report. Ironically, the Government has not followed one of the recommendations made by the inquiry co-chairs Rex Wild and Pat Anderson. Given that the report is based on child sexual abuse, it’s difficult to understand why the Government is focusing on land permits and leases.

In a recent community forum in Redfern, Pat Turner, who has worked in the public service for 21 years for both major political Parties, said, ‘They have used the Trojan horse of child abuse to do much more than they say they want to do.’

The legislation to allow the Intervention, which included five bills, was rushed through Parliament, essentially leaving Senators with a one-day hearing to understand the complex package. The Bills were tabled and the legislation was passed through Parliament within a week, as Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough had wanted due to the ’emergency’ status of the situation.

‘It wasn’t an emergency,’ says Senator Siewert. ‘Those communities have been in a crisis for a long time and the Government could have actually been putting in the resources in it before the legislation ran through. There were lots of things they could have been doing.’

Turner agrees that the decision to intervene was more about the upcoming election than Indigenous people. She said, ‘I’ve never seen the Federal Government act on an Aboriginal report so quickly and I have never witness such bad public policy in all my life.’

Although former president of the ALP Warren Mundine has been criticised for siding with the Liberals on the Intervention, he says, ‘There’s no doubt [the Intervention]is political. For anything a politician does there’s always a political spin to it. The issue for me is that finally we have something happening. We’re hoping that through this process they’ll identify the problems in the communities and do something about it.’

Tired of the lack of consultation with Indigenous people about Indigenous issues, the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory has been one of the strongest critics of the Intervention. It has made a 62-page recommendation adopting all the recommendations made in The Little Children are Sacred report. Olga Havnen, member of the CAO, has condemned the Government for creating 700 jobs for bureaucrats rather than Indigenous people, for spending $88 million on administration to quarantine 20,000 people’s incomes, for compulsorily acquiring land, scrapping the permit system and for abolishing CDEP. ‘It’s reminiscent of Nazi Germany,’ she said.

She and Turner also criticise the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act to carry out the Intervention. Mundine agrees. ‘Working in Native Title, I’m not so happy about it. I believe if you are doing the right thing and you are moving forward then those acts will validate your approach. Trying to twist around those rules I think doesn’t validate it and opens things up to abuse.’

Siewert of the Greens does not support the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and it seems that even the ALP wouldn’t keep the act suspended if elected. Macklin says, ‘Labor moved amendments to the Northern Territory Intervention legislation that would have removed the blanket exemption of the Racial Discrimination Act.’

The Liberals may be able to convince some that Indigenous issues belong in a worl
d ‘above politics,’ as Brough said, but now they face the challenge of convincing the High Court that their actions are inside the law.

An Aboriginal group in Arnhem Land, Maningrida, is challenging the Federal Government’s compulsory acquisition of land. The constitution says the Government can only do this on ‘just terms,’ which is perhaps a very subjective and problematic term. The group wants to see their land returned to their control and the permit system reinstated.

According to the Land Acquisition Act, the landowners whose land has been acquired are ‘entitled to be paid compensation… by the authority of the State which acquired the land.’

However, in the case of any anomaly, the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act could allow the Government to compulsorily acquire land and not pay any compensation to landowners. In August, Brough said that rent, improvements and infrastructure could be counted as compensation instead of money.

Indigenous issues are the political football which makes the goal of self-determination even more desirable. Mundine says, ‘Our history for the last 30 years is that we’ve become totally reliant on the Government. As a group of people we look too much to Governments to resolve our problems. We need to break away from that. That’s starting to happen with Aboriginals engaging with the wider community.’

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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.