A crime without criminals

Monday, 23 June 2008 

To mark the first anniversary of the NT intervention in Parliament, Rudd set out its achievements for the indigenous children of the Northern Territory;

Over 11,000 child health checks have identified kids who require surgery. This is a very important finding. Follow-up treatment, including surgery, is underway. Audiology services have been provided to 669 children, non-surgical dental services to 350 children, 46 children have undergone ear, nose and throat surgery and 40 kids have undergone dental surgery. In addition to that, 200 additional teachers are being recruited over the next five years to educate 2,000 young people previously not enrolled, and that again is an important measure, though that is very much a measure in progress.

Isn’t there something missing?

Over the last year there has been a subtle, and rather unpleasant, re-writing of what the intervention is about. The easiest way to grasp it is to look at the shift over one of the issues that divided the response to Howard’s move last year; the role of the military. For those who opposed the intervention, like the authors of the Wild report, “All Children are Sacred”, they thought it was an over-the-top response to their findings. From the other side of the debate, Brough just shrugged when asked about it the other day, and said it was probably because of his military background that he called them in.

Let’s cut the crap on both sides and remind ourselves exactly why the army was called in a year ago. The Wild Report had just made the gravest allegation about the NT indigenous communities; that they were at best negligent, and at worst implicated, in the systematic sexual abuse of children. The extent and severity of those allegations went beyond just a police operation but required a law and order action on whole communities. It was the criminal nature of the claims that made it an ‘emergency’ as opposed to the ritual reports of the squalid health conditions of indigenous people that routinely get ignored.

The severity of that claim was why Howard immediately called for compulsory medical checks to find out who was at risk and to catch the perpetrators. This was made necessary because, as the report admitted, it had not gathered the evidential proof of widespread sexual abuse, just collated testimonies. Howard’s insistence on it being compulsory reinforced the report’s view that the parents could even be involved.

Yet quite quickly the government backed away from this insistence, for two reasons. The first was that the hue and cry over compulsory tests showed that it hadn’t the political authority to impose action on the parents. This was not least because it hadn’t worked out the right response to the last time Australian governments took action using the excuse of protecting indigenous children from their parents.

Secondly, it was because he didn’t need to. One of the sickening aspects of the response to the Wild Report was how readily the most horrific claims that could possibly be made about indigenous parents and communities were so readily accepted across the political spectrum without demanding proof, not least from those on the left who pose as their supporters.

It was the lack of any insistence on proof that let Howard off the hook, despite starting something that he did not have the political capacity to follow through. Instead both sides assumed the allegations were true but just differed on the way to deal with it. Howard wanted the land rights system swept away while the left wanted the old system kept in place, without understanding that by accepting the allegations they undermined the credibility of a system that had allowed it to happen. Pat Anderson, one of the report’s authors, summed up the confusion on Lateline, waffling on about ‘empowering’ the same communities she had just claimed were guilty of one of the most basic crimes, abusing its children

What both sides agreed on was that the behaviour of indigenous parents was the problem. For the right, it was a matter of personal responsibility. For the left, it was a problem of lack of funding for housing and education. The fact that they thought overcrowding would excuse that sort of behaviour clearly showed the different standards they applied to indigenous communities than would be acceptable elsewhere in Australia.

This is now an appalling state of affairs. In any normal circumstances if a couple of parents had been accused of something like this, everyone would insist that proof was found to either take action to deal with the parents or to clear their name of such a grave charge. Indigenous communities have had no such courtesy. As Virginia Trioli reminded Brough on Lateline, after a year, the intervention has resulted in no increase in the number of referrals to child protection authorities and still no charges having been laid.

As Rudd showed by the fact he didn’t need to even address this failure when talking about its achievements shows how the terms of the intervention have changed. It has become almost like a health and education funding program. However, the unproven charge still hangs over the communities like a poisonous cloud and it remains an essential, if now implicit, part of the intervention. For if we haven’t had the evidence, or the arrests, or the trial, we have still had the sentence. Parental behaviour has had to be constrained and unsurprisingly, given the assumptions right across the political spectrum, the basis of it is racial. This was why the anti-discrimination laws had to be overturned to place restrictions on how indigenous parents spend their money.

Howard reached a limit on how he could far he could take the intervention because he was still restricted by the old framework of indigenous politics. It was one of the reasons for the broader re-think in the last months of his government. However, to break with the failed indigenous policies of the past it was necessary to break with the political traditions of the past. It needed the robust anti-politics campaigner, Rudd, someone not associated with the political traditions of either side, to do what past Labor and Liberal governments could not; excoriate the political class in his speech of 13 February.

The speech is usually referred to as an apology but bear in mind it went hand in hand with the grossest characterisation of the indigenous communities it was supposed to be apologising to, something Nelson made the mistake of reminding everyone on the day. This unproven charge lays the basis for the political bipartisanship today. If the political class is going to beat itself up it seems to need to take the reputation of the indigenous communities down with them. The last year has shown indigenous affairs remains intimately linked with the fate of the Australian political class – to the continuing misfortune of the indigenous people of this country.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 23 June 2008.

Filed under The Australian state

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