End of an era: Indigenous affairs

Wednesday, 19 December 2007 

Here’s a question.

Why is it that five months after a child abuse scare in the Northern Territory that created such concern and led to a clampdown on the behaviour of indigenous communities, has there been so little interest in the result? Especially since after nearly a thousand medical checks there has not been a single arrest relating to child abuse.

Here’s another. How did a clear stuff up by a Queensland judge and a prosecutor, which led to the latter being stood down, so quickly turn into a discussion once again on the behaviour of indigenous parents with calls for the NT intervention to be extended and social workers to be more ready to take children from their indigenous parents?

And here’s a final one. Why is an apology for the stolen generation now on the agenda thirty years after the practice was considered unacceptable and stopped?

The trouble with indigenous affairs is that they are never really about what they are supposed to be. That is why apologies are made whether it is timely or not. It is why child abuse cases stray off from catching the perpetrators and end up on discussions about the behavioural problems of indigenous parents, permit systems and welfare programs.

Indigenous affairs are inevitably loaded because they always go to the heart of the Australian project, which is never quite sure whether it started at federation, colonisation or 50,000 years earlier with the arrival of the first indigenous population. It is a political mess and indigenous people are caught up in the middle of it.

For nearly forty years, indigenous affairs have been managed through an effective ‘two nations’ strategy organised around the concept of land rights. Its status has always wandered between being formal and informal over the years, but the ‘two nations’ and the racial thinking behind it are infused through nearly every area of Australian political and legal life. It is not just in the differential provision of services, which makes this description of funding for an indigenous community to bring it up to the normal standards of an Australian city sound like generous foreign aid. Or in the results of the federal election, which twenty years after voting was made compulsory irrespective of race still produces a turnout in Lingiari (NT) 13pts below the national average because authorities turn a blind eye to indigenous people not voting. To see it argued in the legal sphere look at the tortured logic in a submission made in January by the judge in the Aurukun case who argued for a racially different treatment to offenders.

However, the furore over the putting into practice a racially based approach to justice in the Aurukun case (that was presumably acceptable when Judge Bradley submitted it earlier in the year) shows that this compromise is now starting to unravel.

The event that has undermined this compromise was, of course, Howard’s NT intervention. But Howard could only do it because the ground was laid, ironically, by those who wanted to defend the compromise, specifically through the Wild Report that sparked the NT intervention. It is hard for this blogger to see a report that didn’t bother establishing proof of the extent of child abuse but spent the bulk of it outlining a myriad of social worker and funding initiatives, as really about little more than using child abuse cases as a tool for lobbying.

Unfortunately it went wrong. What those who tried to defend the old system in 2007 never seemed to realise was that by claiming something so horrific was happening, it undermined a system that allowed it to happen. That is why that once such claims were accepted, it made it easy for Howard to begin to dismantle the entire basis by which indigenous affairs had been conducted for the last forty years. This dismantling has been helped by the assessment, from any objective criteria, that the old regime has done little for the progress of indigenous people over that time.

Like the other regime-change project that Howard was involved in during his tenure, he found it easier to knock over a rotten regime than replace it with something more lasting. The vacuum left behind was why another example of this race-based ‘two nation’ approach in the Queensland legal system’s treatment of a rape case in Aurukun has now also provoked a wholesale review of indigenous affairs in that state.

It is not yet apparent what Rudd will do about this unstable state of affairs, but on past performance he will probably try and depoliticise it. That is why he has drafted in stalwarts from the other side of the Australian political class, such as Malcolm Fraser, to help draft an apology that Fraser failed to get around to doing in the eight years he governed the country. As Malcolm will probably admit, there is a time and place for everything.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 19 December 2007.

Filed under The Australian state

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