Style Over Substance In A Black Year


Only weeks after his electoral triumph in November last year, Kevin Rudd descended on Darwin for a meeting with key Indigenous leaders from the Top End and the Central Desert. It was skilful politics to be seen leaving Canberra to consult the chieftains on their own turf. The meeting took a benign form, with all present allocated a precious few minutes to introduce themselves to the new leader, and touch on some key issues. This constricted format allowed little opportunity for argy-bargy on issues of substance.

After the meeting, the PM smiled for the photographers and undertook to return for further consultations with the "Darwin group". He hasn’t of course. At the following meeting, his Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, was left to carry the can, and mumble apologies abut the Prime Minister’s pressing schedule.  While subsequent meetings have not been without value, they have lacked the allure and authority of the prime ministerial imprimatur.

In February, the Prime Minister snared himself a piece of history by making a long overdue apology to the members of the Stolen Generations. Members of the Stolen Generations shed tears at the moving ceremony, attended by all living Prime Ministers — except for one John Winston Howard. Goodwill abounded, and there was a real feeling that the nation could recover some ground in its relationship with Indigenous Australians.

However, even as the Prime Minister made his apology, he ruled out the possibility of a compensation scheme. The importance of "reparation" had been emphasised in Sir Ronald Wilson’s landmark 1997 Bringing Them Home report, but the Government found this a bullet too hard to bite.

These two disparate events were to signal the flavour of the new Government’s relationship with Indigenous Australians. Style would triumph over substance. The Darwin meeting was a fine display of respect on the part of the Prime Minister, but it yielded little in the way of practical gain for Indigenous Australia. The apology to the Stolen Generations was a stylishly orchestrated event conducted with appropriate gravitas, but those who suffered so grievously were not to be compensated.

In June 2007, the Howard government had announced the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), a confused grab-bag of ideologically driven measures bound up — inexplicably and inextricably — with the delivery of much needed and widely requested services. When the lions of Labor took up their seats, it became clear that the substance of Howard’s "Intervention" would not change. In October, Macklin was confronted with the NTER Review Board report, which she had commissioned. She largely ignored its findings.

Peter Yu’s review team dismembered the more draconian aspects of the Intervention, making unequivocal recommendations that the Racial Discrimination Act be restored, blanket welfare quarantining be scrapped, and the permit system be reinstated. The Minister has since made it clear that she has no intention of budging on welfare quarantining. She will eventually introduce legislation to restore the Racial Discrimination Act, but in a manner which will comply with the specifics, rather than the spirit, of the Act. A Government-sponsored move to restore the permit system was voted down in the Senate last month.

Parliamentary politics aside, the cutting edge of relationships between black and white Australia will remain in the vexed arena of criminal justice, most particularly in the relationships between Aboriginal people and police. In October, Lex Wotton, a 40-year-old plumber from Palm Island was found guilty in the Brisbane District Court of one count of "rioting with destruction". Wotton was sentenced to six years jail with a fixed parole date of July 2010 for his role in the disturbance on Palm Island after the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in police custody in November 2004. An intoxicated Mulrunji had been arrested on a charge of "public nuisance" by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, an arrest that Coroner Christine Clements would later describe as "not an appropriate exercise of police discretion".

An autopsy revealed that Mulrunji had four broken ribs and that his liver was "almost cleaved in two". Coroner Clements delivered an unambiguous report: "I find that Senior Sergeant Hurley hit Mulrunji while he was on the floor a number of times. I conclude that these actions of Senior Sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries." Queensland’s Director of Public Prosecutions announced initially that Hurley would face no charges, but public outrage saw him eventually charged with one count of manslaughter and one count of assault. It would take a jury less than four hours to acquit Hurley on both counts. The incongruity of the outcomes of these two court cases is not lost on Indigenous Australians.

On the other side of the country, the glacial progress of native title was thrown into relief in April when the full bench of the Federal Court upheld an appeal against the Noongar native title claim over traditional country around Perth. Almost two years earlier, Justice Murray Wilcox had ruled that native title may still exist over some remnant areas of crown land in that city. But before the ink was dry on the judgment, the Carpenter ALP government in WA joined the Howard government in a precipitate rush to appeal the decision.

In February, the Federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, told a Brisbane native title forum that the burying of native title in "unnecessary complexity" was an affront to the heritage of Indigenous Australians. However the yawning chasm between the ministerial rhetoric of "preferring negotiation to litigation" and the actual course of action embarked upon by governments on the ground has never been deeper.

The preamble to the Native Title Act, which speaks movingly of "ensuring that Aboriginal people receive the full recognition and status within the Australian nation to which history, their prior rights and interests, and their rich and diverse cultures fully enable them to aspire" must now be taken with a truckload of salt. The heady days when Mabo and Wik appeared to herald a new era of land justice have receded into the far distance.

In the field of Indigenous affairs, the Rudd Government has played a cunning game of scoring points without kicking goals: a high profile "Darwin group" meeting produces a low-expectation outcome. A noble apology to the Stolen Generations also serves to put the kybosh on compensation. And an Intervention review which spared no blushes would be honoured only in the breach.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal people remain the perennial losers in the justice game, and are again shattered by the mirage of native title.

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.