Monday, 1 August 2016
When Howard announced the intervention into Northern Territory indigenous communities in the run up to the 2007 election, it was widely seen as a political masterstroke, comparable to the storming of the Tampa that was supposed to have won the 2001 election (so mis-reading both elections).
At the time this blog suggested that the invasion of Iraq might be a better comparison.
First because there was as little evidence of widespread sexual abuse of children as there was of WMDs (although just as widely believed). Secondly, because an intervention driven largely by domestic political considerations could destabilise its intended target.
That destabilisation has happened in two, related, ways. Firstly on indigenous politics. The intervention became a catalyst for what was already building up as a decisive shift in how the grotesque gap between the social conditions of indigenous communities and those of the rest of Australia is viewed.
Traditionally the right tended to put more emphasis on individual responsibility whereas the left tended to emphasise social factors and look to social solutions. The report that triggered the intervention Little Children Are Sacred was very much in the latter tradition seeing the possibility of child sexual abuse being a call for more funding and resources.
But the report’s authors seemed oblivious to not only the claim of sexual child abuse being qualitatively different to poor health or education, and so could hardly be treated as just another call for resources, but how much the ground had shifted away from their approach. The intervention saw a fundamental realignment with the right’s focus on personal responsibility being picked up by not only by Labor under Rudd and Gillard, but also increasingly by prominent indigenous spokespeople such as Pearson and Langton.
This realignment was taken up by the Coalition as well, especially Abbott, who saw it as an opportunity to reshape the debate around indigenous affairs with an interest that received little critical examination, being just part of the unthinking oscillation between outrage and “that’s nice” that indigenous affairs usually receives. With Abbott recognising, unlike Howard, that Rudd’s apology cleared the decks, he saw the intervention gave an opportunity to realign a key part of the Whitlam Settlement that the Coalition have never been completely comfortable with.
Part of that realignment was updating and gaining a new consensus on the Constitution’s race powers – powers to make laws based on the colour of a person’s skin that should be swept away but cannot without undermining the entire edifice of land rights and native title. Dressing it up has been the role of the Panel of Constitutional Recognition which recommended in its report to split the powers up between a provision to make laws to the advantage of any specific group, and then to highlight the special place of indigenous people as a group through recognition in the Preamble to the Constitution.
In effect indigenous recognition in the Preamble, while a nice idea, is the cherry on the cowpat of maintaining the race powers. However, posing the Preamble as an end in itself has led to it being seen by some indigenous critics as tokenism and opening up the question of a Treaty. Since a Treaty is officially unacceptable, we now have the current bogus exercise in democracy by the Referendum Council to manage dissent by “gauging indigenous community concerns” that they didn’t before preparing the report. Nor is there even any consensus on what “laws to the advantage” of indigenous people actually are, with both Pearson and Langton on the Expert Panel, for example, supporting the intervention and its race-based restrictions on welfare.
This lack of resolution to indigenous politics thrown up into the air by the 2007 intervention has also had a destabilising effect on the politics of the Northern Territory.
Race had traditionally played a key part in Territory politics since self-government in 1978. The federal government set up land rights in the NT and self-government within a couple of years of each other, and the Country Liberal Party quickly used opposition to land rights claims “imposed” by the federal government to maintain a grip of government for the next 23 years. CLP support was entrenched in the suburbs of Darwin while Labor was stronger with the indigenous vote. Labor’s first win under Clare Martin in 2001 was a sign that polarity was starting to break down as it made inroads into Darwin’s suburbs, consolidated with a sweeping win in 2005.
The intervention of the military and the federal government into the running of indigenous communities was a hammer blow to the authority of the Northern Territory government, especially the Labor administration that initiated the original report on child abuse. Clare Martin resigned a few months after the intervention, after increasing tension between her and several of Labor’s indigenous MPs, and the government just scraped back to power in 2008.
When the CLP returned to power in 2012 it was a different political environment than a decade before. The party included several indigenous members, with Labor retaining a hold in Darwin while the CLP made inroads in the south, and even providing the country’s first indigenous head of government under Adam Giles who took over in an underhanded coup in 2013.
It was also far more unstable. The CLP government has been nothing short of chaotic in the last few years, especially with its relations to its indigenous members, with several members leaving then joining and swapping parties, descending to the farce in February last year of Giles being ousted from the leadership but refusing to step down – with no one knowing who was heading the government before Giles had clawed back support.
The chaotic political situation is leading to increasing concerns about the viability of the heavily subsidised state itself. As Peter Martin highlights, much of that subsidy has been ostensibly marked for supporting disadvantaged indigenous communities but without being necessarily tied to doing so.
Ironically just when the political situation is so unstable, the government has intervened more heavily into indigenous communities. If the spending is not getting through, more forcible intervention is. Across Australia, the apology for the last stolen generation has been swiftly followed by a new one with the number of indigenous children forcibly taken from their parents soaring over the last decade, with a staggering 10% of NSW indigenous children taken from their parents. In the NT, detention rates of youth, predominantly indigenous, have also soared under both the previous Labor government and the current CLP administration.
Of course the NT government is not the only one in a bit of bother at the moment, and in Canberra a weak Prime Minister has leapt on the reports from a television program to instigate a Royal Commission into events that have been well recorded and known by government for months.
There has been an attempt to make the appalling scenes shown on Four Corners to be simply about race – but it is not so clear cut. Not so much because those incarcerated are not overwhelmingly indigenous, they are, but because the response by indigenous politicians has not been straightforward. When the measures against incarcerated youth, including the introduction of the infamous restraining chair, were debated in the NT Assembly in May, four out of the six indigenous members supported it. Bess Price, a vocal supporter of the intervention, and who voted for the amendment, has been equally vocal in the past over the virtues of the incarceration of indigenous male youth. It seems some of those complaining about the lack of indigenous input have taken little notice to what some have already been saying that may not agree with their own views.
A weak Prime Minister’s intervention into the Northern Territory could be just as destabilising as that of a beleaguered Prime Minster nearly a decade ago. It is perhaps to minimise this that Turnbull has appointed a former NT chief justice to head the inquiry – but then this raises not only questions about investigating a system he was intimately bound up with, but about some of the decisions while he was.
The broader political situation is also unstable as both the CLP and Labor NT governments bear responsibility for the events shown on Four Corners. It suggests that the discussion could quickly turn it into a discrediting of the political class as a whole and only resolved outside the normal political process, as implied by the NT News headline.
Similarly, any attempt to turn this into a simple race morality tale doesn’t fit how race politics has been in upheaval since the NT intervention. Such an attempt mirrors the lack of critical interest in where the race issue has gone since that intervention, typified by the largely uncritical response to the Recognition campaign. As usual in Australia, race remains too central to the state to expect any sort of political clarity on it.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 1 August 2016.Filed under The Australian state