Looks more like Iraq than Tampa

Saturday, 23 June 2007 

There has been some speculation that Howard is doing another Tampa with his intervention in the Northern Territory.

This seems to be based on the idea that Howard is engaged in ‘dog whistle’ politics that is tying into underlying racism in the electorate. However, while there were some racist tones to the Tampa reaction, it was not the primary driver. Even those proposing this would concede that another boatload of refuges entering Australian waters now would be unlikely to generate the same response, presumably not because the level of racism has changed since 2001. The Tampa reaction was primarily a response to a drift in international relations at the time, that in Australia’s case, was particularly a problem with Indonesia who was no longer stopping refugee boats passing through its waters. It was the same problem in Washington that led them to seize upon the events of 11 September later that year as a foundation for a new global order.

However, if there is one similarity to Tampa it is the spurious way that children are being used. One of the assumptions of the current debate is that the NT report that kicked this off had conclusive evidence of widespread child abuse. It did not. In fact, it was not the report’s purpose, as it noted in the introduction: 

In the time available, the Inquiry has preferred to concentrate on what is perceived to be the real task – prevention of sexual abuse, rather than a historical cataloguing and statistical analysis of precise incidents (p27).

That the enquiry did not feel the need to establish conclusive data on the level of child abuse was not because they already had it, for as the report noted; “Accurate statistics about the incidence of child abuse and other family violence in Aboriginal communities are scarce”. Indeed where the data was available, it showed the incidence of sexual abuse was low, which, incredibly, the enquiry found concerning:

It is interesting (and concerning) to note that the present number of substantiated [TPS: indigenous and non-indigenous] cases labelled as “sexual abuse” in the Territory has consistently been below 50 cases since 1997-98 – despite increased interest and awareness of the issues.
The low proportion of substantiated cases may be due to:
• a generally low prevalence of sexual abuse in Australian communities (which this Inquiry and other sources would dispute)
• a reluctance to report
• difficulties in obtaining concrete evidence of sexual abuse which limits the number of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous cases that are able to be substantiated. (p242)

This report was more about focussing on Aboriginal behaviour than the gathering of actual evidence of child abuse. The lack of evidence it preferred to put down to lack of reporting rather than the possibility it might not be actually occurring. How the report was so confident that child abuse was endemic in the Aboriginal community without conclusive evidence, other than largely unsubstantiated testimony from those it found the time to interview, comes from some distorted social worker logic so well explained by Pat Anderson, one of the report’s co-authors, on The 7.30 Report:

Where those conditions prevail, we know from the literature and certainly from our findings, where there’s unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, drug-taking, over-crowding, unemployment, you can guarantee that those children at some point are going to be severely at risk and eventually going to be sexually abused or abused in some way. The end of the final degradation of course, is sexual abuse of children. [TPS emphasis]

This has all the classic hallmarks of a child abuse panic that we have seen elsewhere in the western world, with the two essential ingredients: 1) the lack of conclusive evidence, which to some only confirms that the issue is being covered up or under-reported, 2) the focus on living conditions that do not meet the approval of social workers (such as the sight of Aboriginal women playing cards) that will apparently inevitably lead to child abuse, and which curiously enough seems to find child abuse especially prevalent in working class areas. Probably the only difference here is the degree to which moralising about how Aboriginal communities conduct themselves in the intolerable conditions they are forced into, has overwhelmed any interest in finding any child abusers.

Does an intervention based on dubious evidence sound familiar? There are other similarities to Iraq. The lack of any idea on the part of the military alliance of what to do once they entered Iraq is starting to find parallels already in Australia. There is such an agreement across left and right that of course Aboriginal parents are so degraded that they are incapable of preventing their children from being sexually abused that Howard’s attempt to find much of a wedge in the Labor party will be difficult. It will just be left to the isolated Aboriginal communities to protest about the shameful assumptions behind this intervention.

Where the disagreements are coming from, however, is on the effectiveness of any intervention. That is why the splits in the ALP are less on political lines than on the role they play in the state apparatus i.e. the state governments are more reluctant than a federal opposition that does not have to consider the dangers of such an action. For there is one big difference to Iraq. Whereas the allies in Iraq can partially get away with blaming the chaos arising from their incoherence to the mysterious workings of Al Qaeda operatives, at home it will be much more difficult to cover up any failure.

Howard has set on a highly risky strategy here. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the change in Australia’s racial segregation policy from a formal one around denial of citizen rights to an informal one using the language of culture and land ‘rights’. Whatever form the segregation has been conducted, the results for the Aboriginal communities have been the same, they continue to live in squalor. But at least the government was not seen to be directly responsible for it, rather the blame ended up on the Aboriginal people themselves. The NT report takes this to the extreme conclusion where even an allegation of child abuse by a white miner can be viewed in the context of Aboriginal conduct. By attempting to over-ride that strategy and taking a more overt responsibility for the conditions of the Aboriginal communities, Howard is attempting to turn back the clock. But we are not back in the 1950s. Just as the major powers are finding in Iraq that they do not have the authority for direct rule that they did in days of Empire, so Howard might find the same return to direct rule is far more complicated than in the days of the White Australia Policy. The last post’s views that a failure of Aboriginal policy has never lost votes still stands, but as seen in Iraq, a failure of the political class may do more electoral damage.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 23 June 2007.

Filed under Key posts, The Australian state

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