No Apology

Monday, 26 June 2017 

Mutitjulu. Ground zero. Photo: Kia Mistilis

Ten years ago this month the then Northern Territory Labor government published a report Little Children Are Sacred that claimed widespread sexual abuse of children by NT indigenous communities.

This followed a Lateline report a year earlier, somewhat luridly titled ‘Sexual slavery reported in Indigenous community’, that claimed much the same thing in a small NT town called Mutitjulu. Based on testimony from a “former youth worker” (actually an advisor to then Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough) the ABC report claimed that young girls in Mutitjulu were being traded between indigenous communities as “sex slaves”. Subsequent investigation by the police found no evidence to back the claims and residents of Mutitjulu lodged a formal complaint to the ABC.

Now we find out that after ten years, there was no data to back the claims in the Little Children Are Sacred report either. This should not surprise.

As was clear to anyone bothering to read the report at the time, including this blogger, no proof for the claims was given.

Yet despite the extraordinary nature of the claims, and the lack of evidence to support them, there was little challenge – either from the major parties that suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to implement a race-based response, the faux libertarian right, the mostly posturing “anti-racist” left, nor even many of the self-appointed “representatives” of indigenous communities. While there was plenty of argument over the Howard government’s response to the report’s claims, there was pretty well none to the claims themselves.

So why was the lack of proof in the report ignored by politicos across the spectrum? It could only be because either 1) they can’t read, 2) they were so racist as to think the claims were believeable enough to require no proof or 3) any doubts were swept beside by broader political considerations. This being a charitable blog, it believes the latter reason is the most likely one.

When the report was made public in June 2007, Australian politics was undergoing significant change. The catalysts at the time were the declining impact of the War on Terror that was to see the Howard Coalition government return to the malaise it had pre-9/11, and the rise of Kevin Rudd, who pitched himself against the “old politics”, especially in his own party. Yet while they were catalysts, they only brought to the surface more fundamental changes that had happened years before, most notably the end of factors that had underpinned the political polarities of much of the 20th century, the collapse of the Soviet Union internationally and the declining influence of unions at home.

The impact of the decline of unions on the day to day life in Australia tends to get wildly exaggerated, especially by nostalgics on the left. But where changes were most pronounced was less in society itself, but in society’s relationship to government.

From its birth during the depression of the 1890s, an instrumental part of the unions’ political project through Labor was for the state to address the failings of the market; through nationalisation, welfare and public works. In the closing years of the 20th century the role of government started to be rearticulated to addressing less the failings of the market but instead the failings of individuals and communities.

This “New Thinking” paralleled the Third Way of Blair and Clinton, but in Australia, with the left having a more successful 1980s under a relatively traditional old-style Labor government of Hawke and Keating, it was to occur later. Yet in some ways it was to go further and be more explicit in Australia, especially on account of the role of race.

This reformulation can be seen in the writings of Latham but is probably most succinctly articulated by Gillard in her super portfolio under Rudd of Social Exclusion, Industrial Relations and Education, which encompassed that change.

In a seminal speech entitled “The Economics of Social Exclusion” made to the Sydney Institute a few weeks after the intervention, Gillard set out how, with the economy ticking along nicely, communities and individuals that were left behind required a shift of attention to measures that were more aimed at them rather than broader economic failings. Such social engineering thinking was also happening in the right under Howard, led by those such as Brough and Abbott. The right was already focussed on indigenous communities and experiments such as Pearson’s in Cape York and the latest thought bubbles by mining magnates such as Forrest and hangers-on like Langton.

So when a report emerged claiming widespread dysfunction and depravity on a mass scale across indigenous communities, it was seized upon not only by Howard as a pre-election ploy, as it was narrowly seen at the time, but across the political spectrum as a laboratory experiment on a grand scale for more far-reaching changes in welfare.

The results are seen everywhere now. Most clearly of course with the Basics Card, initially imposed on racial grounds, and requiring the suspension of the RDA, but still predominately racially applied. There has been little practical success to its introduction, but this has been ignored by both sides of politics in favour of the profound symbolic shift it presents: from welfare payments meant to plug the gap of an imperfect market system, to now managing the supposed flaws of the recipients. And of course, there are more banal examples of this change in welfare. The daily nightmare of Centrelink is a result of a cost-cutting program carried out on the basis that the onus of proof for benefits should now rest on the claimant than the Department.

This represents a profound change in the relationship between individuals and government, and it was one that pivoted and relied on the unproven claims in that 2007 report. So it is why no apology for such a slur is likely any time soon. But there is also another reason.

Earlier it was noted that racism in the body politic is unlikely to be the reason the claims were so widely accepted. Almost universally, racism is regarded as a Bad Thing and commitment to anti-racism is genuine and widespread across mainstream politics. It is particularly pertinent here because the claims did not come from some right-wing fringe – the Claire Martin government, the ABC, and indeed the report’s authors, some of whom were indigenous, would surely be on the side of politics most attuned to anti-racism.

So that leaves the question, what sort of anti-racism is this that allowed such an unfounded racial slur to be so widely believed? It does suggest a flaw in anti-racism as it exists today.

There have always been two, contradictory strands to anti-racism in Australia. On one hand there is the emancipatory removal of racial barriers to equality and opportunity of access to society. On the other hand, there has been the celebration of difference and acceptance of cultural “essence”.

As has been noted, as far as indigenous politics has gone, much of the initial push towards equality around at the time of the 1967 referendum has waned in recent years, and the celebration of difference and essence has taken over, such as seen in current regressive discussions about cultural appropriation. But the very fact that even in 1967, a push for equality was taking place during a referendum to extend racially-based laws to indigenous people shows how confusing it has always been.

Certainly the concept of difference might explain why the outrageous claims of the Little Children are Sacred report were so readily believed on the basis that “different standards apply” to claims that would perhaps have seemed incredible if made about a Sydney suburb. No wonder on the back of such an extreme social breakdown as was painted, only a body above society, like the state, could possibly intervene.

This is not the first time of course. The stolen generation was on the back of different standards applying to indigenous communities in the past that required the state to intervene for the children’s “good” on much the same basis as a new generation of children are being taken away since the intervention. It took more than thirty years from when taking children from their parents was stopped before an apology came, because those who had to make the apology were too close to those responsible. This time again, no apology is likely in at least the foreseeable future. We are simply still too much in the thick of it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 26 June 2017.

Filed under The Australian state

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6 responses to “No Apology”

  1. Cavitation on 26th June 2017 1:15 pm

    Valid points. But I think that few people, other than avowed racists, took the reports too seriously. Most people read between the lines, and saw a response being tried towards specific communities that disregard the welfare of their children. Namely aboriginal and substance abuse groups, which overlap too much unhappily.

    Physical abuse and sexual abuse occur most commonly in groups who misuse alcohol or other addictive mood and behaviour altering drugs. While many aboriginal settlements are alcohol free, the fact that this is even a thing, is a sign that it is a real issue. No-one generally expects sexual abuse of children to even be possible unless the factor of drug misuse is involved.

    Disregarding children’s welfare involves more than physical mistreatment. Most white Australians would know that school attendance in remote aboriginal communities is a problem. Yet not sending your children to school is unheard of in mainstream Australian society. Except of course with drug abusing parents.

    You have to have sympathy for aboriginal parents trying to get their kids to attend school. If white Australians had to send their kids to schools that taught in the Chinese language, say, then their school attendance score would we woeful too. White Australians seem to overlook the difficulty of schooling kids in a foreign language, or they seem to assume that Aboriginals should all become bi-lingual. (Particularly monolingual white Australians who failed French at high school. And of course, swapping or sharing native languages for another imposed one works so well and is so simple; just ask any Quebec, Belgian, Maori or Hong Kong person, for example).

    We could blame our economic system. But constructing a well educated, wealthy and well functioning society from Aboriginal groups with unique languages shared by a few hundred people, who have been dispossessed of their original land and cultural wealth, is always going to be difficult. Assimilation was tried and did not work. Its alternative approaches are being explored, but their limitations are apparent. Self-determination is probably the best bet for progress, so the fact that the ‘intervention’ was triggered by Aboriginal people or their partisans has be given some weight for that reason.

    In Australia, the fact that Aborigines are a different race is of less significance than that they are of a different culture. Economics can be racially blind, but it is much, much harder for it to be culturally blind. Culture operates through individuals and communities, much less so through the market, so tackling cultural problems may be best done using means that work through individuals. Improving school attendance rates has not worked well by withholding welfare payments, but is working by convincing parents and communities face to face to get involved. The intervention has demonstrated that at least.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 26th June 2017 3:41 pm

    Two things are being mixed up here, which is precisely what happened with the opposition at the time.

    Neglect, lack of school attendance etc. could at least partly be addressed by resources etc. which was undoubtedly the intention of the report’s authors.

    But sexual abuse is a different order. It is primarily a behavioral problem, not one of resources. This led to the decisive shift in welfare from compensating for environmental and social problems, to addressing the individual’s behaviour, as in the Basics Card.

    While the government grasped the distinction, the opposition to it did not. This had two consequences.

    First the government faced no real opposition to the introduction of the Basics card and the broader shift in welfare described above.

    Second it left the impression that “reading between the lines”, the charges of sexual abuse were true as a result of neglect, drugs etc.

    But the data showed it wasn’t true. In fact, rates of sexual abuse were found to be higher with non-indigenous children than indigenous ones.

    So we are left with a pretty clear demonstration of not only how the government got away with it, but why the report’s charges were believed.

  3. Vinny on 27th June 2017 11:35 am

    At the time the Howard Govt was trying to reduce/wind back land rights for Indigenous groups. It was weakening Aboriginal land protections and reducing Aboriginal organisations; like NT Land Councils.
    Also there was cutting of Aboriginal funding despite its exaggerated level and benefits.
    The right ideologues with some crazy neo liberal evangelists were attacking the idea of communal land ownership (in NPG also).
    It was revenge for the period of ALP initiatives (which failed – like a treaty). So demonising and horrifying white Australians fitted their anger and needs.
    It was Keating that started the cutbacks though. After 1993 Aboriginal support was reduced as budgets cutbacks began. Aboriginal funding is always the first to go.
    Just a note:
    It annoys me that the figures on expenditure on Aboriginal people is exaggerated. Most of the expenditure is what they get as Australian citizens – a citizen entitlement like pensions, basic health, education, local govt etc. The amount specific to Aboriginal persons is small.
    For instance; If 70% of the prison population is Aboriginal then 70% of the cost of running prisons is counted as a service to Aboriginal people. State govts provide these statistics every year.
    Opposing Aboriginal land claims has also been counted as a service to Aboriginal people.

  4. Mercurial on 27th June 2017 1:52 pm

    I think you’ll find more people than you believe of the ‘mostly posturing anti-racist left’ were aware there was no evidence to back up the reports – including this blogger.

    There was a series of reports in New Matilda at the time that exposed Howard’s and Brough’s lies.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 27th June 2017 3:50 pm

    I said “mostly”. There was some good work done by Chris Graham and Pilger at the time. But I can tell you it was the exception rather than the rule. And remains so.

    It wasn’t Howard and Brough who made the claim. It came from the left side of politics.

  6. Mercurial on 28th June 2017 10:24 am

    I didn’t say Howard and Brough made the claims, but they sure lied through their teeth when they introduced the NTER.

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