If an election campaign is going badly, probably best to suspend it.

The old issues may still be talked about but they have been drained of meaning because now in the middle of it is the issue that cannot be political – the NT intervention. Not since the US and UK invaded Iraq to stop WMDs have so many people been running around telling everyone else to shut up – this is not a time for politics. But there is little political debate actually happening, the states are falling in line, the federal opposition is barely going by that name and the consensus that there is an epidemic of child abuse is even stronger than that very strong consensus (remember?) at the time of the Blix report that WMDs existed. Any dispute remains purely at the level of logistics.

One reason why Howard has created such a strong consensus on the key points is that he has driven a truck through the contradictions of indigenous politics – typified by the deeply flawed report that kicked all of this off. Not only did it propose remedial actions to a problem before providing conclusive evidence that it existed to the extent claimed, but the remedial actions themselves did not fit the problem they claimed was there.

If there really was clear evidence of child sexual abuse then surely the first priority would be to immediately remove the children from harm’s way and arrest the offenders. The sort of broader long-term social engineering the report proposes would surely have to happen only after the immediate safety of the child has been secured. This is the flaw in the report that has enabled Howard to dismiss its recommendations (to the complaints of its authors) and make his dramatic action.

In reality the report is typical of the tactics used by indigenous politics generally, the child abuse claims were a way of attracting attention to the real agenda, an upping of social worker intervention and funding into the indigenous communities. It was why substantiating the claims was secondary for the report. Howard has instead started off with the child abuse claims and swept the report’s real agenda away.

The same is happening to indigenous politics generally. There is some truth that a ‘land grab’ is underway on native titles. Not because the government wants the land, that is just silly, but Howard is sweeping away the political basis of land rights. Those who are trying to defend it are on a losing game. Firstly Howard has now shown what a sham land ‘rights’ were through the very act of so easily taking over control. More importantly, by agreeing to the premise of the intervention, land rights activists have fatally compromised their position. After all, how is it possible to support a system that has allowed such systematic widespread child abuse as the government claims? Like the report’s authors, land rights activists have used the abuse claims as a form of special pleading to their cause, but they have taken the politics of victimhood too far. They have still not woken up to the implications of what they are now arguing. A memo for next time: don’t campaign for self-determination on the politics of victimhood.

Someone who appears to be moving clear of this at the moment is Noel Pearson but he has the same problem as the others. However, he is shouting both sides so loudly, preaching indigenous self responsibility and support for an intervention that assumes indigenous people are incapable of being responsible enough to protect their children, that such contradictory rubbish looks in line with this state of transition.

There is another reason why Pearson is on the telly a lot. He is bashing the political class. This leads to another point that is suspending political debate – Howard has dragged to the centre of the election the biggest policy failure of the Australian political class, from both sides of the fence. To make such an issue out of such a historical failure is unprecedented. Even when Keating made reconciliation part of his agenda, the point was to settle down the problems caused by Mabo back to the old order. Howard’s action has now made that impossible and it is what he means when he says they cannot go back to the past. It has meant that no-one in the political class has a record or a position with any credibility from which to comment. Even Fraser, who has been rehabilitating himself by carrying on as though he’s seen Jesus since he left office, was unable to pull off criticising Howard and expecting everyone to forget his own record. Rudd has been wise enough to admit that it is not possible to return to the past but to pick his first fight on defending the land rights regime seems not very astute.

There is one final reason why the NT intervention has suspended debate. What is Howard’s alternative? Justifying the intervention on child abuse may have enabled Howard to sweep away the existing order and renounce the past, but past failures also undermine the authority to do anything new. He seems to be proposing direct rule but does not have the authority to take children under threat into care, for obvious historical reasons, as would normally happen. The government doesn’t even have the confidence to impose compulsory medical checks let alone the sort that would be needed to ascertain abuse. When people say that Howard is making policy on the run, what they mean is that he is retreating, but having got rid of the past, he has nowhere to go to. The result is what looks increasingly like an uncertain authority operating in a policy vacuum. Now where have we seen that before?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 1 July 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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