Saturday, September 1

What's the real agenda in 'national emergency' land rights reform?

Back on July 1, I posted an opinion that one could praise the urgent intervention of Prime Minister John Howard and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough to prevent child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, although I believed they also saw it as a way to score off Labor.

Now, despite my efforts to be fair and balanced, I cannot see what the five-year expropriation of Aboriginal land, the abolition of permits to enter that land, the closing of the Community Development Employment Program and the seizure of control of Aboriginal businesses and assets – all major parts of the Federal Government's intervention – have to do with preventing sexual abuse of children.

Two months after the Federal Government charged into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory to halt sexual abuse of children, Prime Minister John Howard has spelled out his aims for indigenous people.

Essentially, it's assimilation. But if you believe the PM, it's not the old “breed-them-out” proposal we used to hear 50 or more years ago. Instead, his plan would respect indigenous culture.

Here are his words this week when he visited the Ntaria community, at the old Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg. They make it clear the Federal Government has aims which go well beyond protection of children:

Whilst respecting the special place of indigenous people in the history and life of this country, their future can only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community. Unless they can get a share of the bounty of this great and prosperous country, their future will be bleak.

At a community lunch beside Hermannsburg's Lutheran church, he said:

We come here in goodwill. I want to assure you that we haven't come here to take anybody's land or to push anybody around.

If you take the PM at his word, the aim, that Aboriginal people should share in the bounty of this prosperous nation, is commendable. We only need to discuss the best way to achieve this aim. But should we accept the PM's implied assurance that his is not a Mixmaster-style assimilation?

Should we be reassured by the PM's claim that his government won't push anybody around?

Surely that's what happened when the Federal Government sent in the troops after almost no consultation with communities. When it rammed the enabling legislation through parliament without giving anyone time to study or debate it. And when it announced compulsory physical examination of children for indications of sexual abuse, before doctors baulked and said it would be illegal and unethical in the way originally proposed.

Not take anybody's land? Technically, perhaps not, but taking control of it for five years, setting rigid rules on how it is to be used – without consultation with the Aboriginal owners – and perhaps charging Aboriginal individuals or communities to rent it back? Doesn't that seem very, very close to taking their land?

The Australian Constitution gives the Commonwealth Parliament (effectively, the Federal Government of the day) power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth, and to acquire property “on just terms from any State or person for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has power to make laws”.

One could argue the Federal Government's five-year takeover of control of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory is expropriation – in moral, if not legal terms – but no doubt the government's lawyers have advised that the five-year takeover is not acquiring the land and thus will not trigger the constitutional requirement that it can happen only on “just terms”.

Imagine the compensation bill if the High Court disagrees with the Federal Government!

It is difficult to see how some of the Federal Government's measures – such as abolishing the permit system for entry to Aboriginal land, or abolishing the Community Development Employment Program – help prevent child sexual abuse.

It does seem reasonable to argue that the Prime Minister has a wider agenda. He's never concealed his dislike for the concept of Aboriginal land ownership, and like most right-wing conservatives he believes the High Court got it wrong on native title. You will recall that in 1997 he launched a 10-point plan to wind back the Wik decision – a plan which promised, in the words of Tim Fischer, "buckets of extinguishment".

His actions come as Australia's well-funded right-wing propaganda organisations (they'd rather be called “think tanks”) step up their criticism of Aboriginal land title.

So yes, it's reasonable to suggest the PM did see the need to act urgently to halt an unacceptable and undeniable abuse of children as also presenting an opportunity to destroy the essence of land rights in a way which does not trigger the Constitution's requirement for just compensation.

In fairness, we should not deny Howard's abhorrence of the abuse of children, but we can also note that the authors of the Children Are Sacred report – which triggered the urgent response – reject Howard's measures and say none of their recommendations has been acted on.

And it's not unreasonable to suggest that Howard is desperately looking for ways to wedge Labor – to force its factions to split, or for Kevin Rudd to adopt a principled position which would make him a target for the Coalition spin doctors (“See, he doesn't care about child abuse”). By supporting the enabling legislation, Rudd dodged that trap.

Still, that didn't prevent this remarkable statement by Howard at Hermannsburg, a statement so illogical it may say more about the PM's desperation than it does about Rudd:

I think it's fair to say that if Labor had been in power, they would never have intervened. The only reason they have gone along with this intervention is that they have made the judgment that it is something that's needed and has support in the community.

Howard's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, describing the progress of his "reforms", did not miss the opportunity to attack Labor when he said (as reported in the Weekend Australian of September 1):

There are some very serious questions here on behalf of the Labor party as to where they really stand. I am absolutely positive that the tough decisions we've taken, that are going to take a lot of
continued courage and effort to see through, will be undermined, watered down and will become a failure if Rudd gets into government.

Your blogger is aware of some readers' criticism that he's a Howard hater. What can I say? If you break the wording down to "against Howard", based on my disagreement with some of his policies and a distrust of many of his words, I'll cop the charge.

Admitting that, I accept a responsibility to back up my views by referring more fully to the evidence on which they are based.

Here's The Australian's report on Howard's statements at Hermannsburg. this week ran another disturbing report from "Darwin insider Henri Ivrey", in which he wrote:

In moves seemingly impossible to reconcile with the protection of Aboriginal children on remote towns and communities in the Northern Territory, a document has come into the hands of Crikey that presages a federal government takeover of millions of dollars worth of assets owned by Aboriginal organisations.

Organisational assets above the value of $400,000 are to be compulsorily acquired by Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and transferred to a new entity, the Indigenous Economic Development Trust (IEDT), and then rented back at commercial rates to the same organisations from which the asset has been taken.

In some cases this will make those organisations commercially unviable, leading to financial collapse and loss of Aboriginal jobs. Every reason for Aboriginal organisations for acquiring property as part of engaging with capitalism has been thrown out in favour of a centrally controlled government bureaucracy.

This is not about Aboriginal land in places like Arnhem Land: assets will be compulsorily stripped from Aboriginal organisations owning land and property up and down the Stuart Highway — Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs — no matter how well run, no matter what the level of services provided, no matter what those assets are being used for.

The early targets appear to be urban-based Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP).

The same Crikey report relates this to Howard's words at Hermannsburg, and says:

One can only assume the "special place of Indigenous people in the history and the life of this country" is something to do with continuously re-enacting those bits where land and property are stolen from them. Hard to work out where the "share of the bounty" comes in.

You may be interested in other material posted on Crikey, this and this, which lead one to question the aims of the "national emergency" response. I've kept an eye on Crikey, but have seen no attempt to deny the reports.

You may also like to read a briefing paper prepared for Oxfam Australia by Professor Jon Altman, of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, in which he says there's compellling evidence that the Federal government's changes to land rights have no connection with the incidence of child sexual abuse.

If you'd like to read what the Federal government says, you may download a set of "fact sheets" .

As I type these words (early, September 1), I hear an ABC report that Howard plans to expand the intervention over time.

I too believe Aboriginal people must share in the prosperity of this nation, and I am dismayed when I see images of squalid conditions in dysfunctional communities. I despair when I think of what the future holds for their young people. But before we whitefellas send in the troops, or expropriate the remainder of Aboriginal land, let's remind ourselves that there are many successful Aboriginal people and communities able to show us the way forward. Let's sit down and talk to them.

And a footnote: You'll find a fascinating account of Hermannsburg's mission days in Barry Hill's outstanding book Broken Song (Random House, 2002). It's the story of T.G.H. Strehlow, son of Pastor Carl Strehlow, the missionary who at one time was reprimanded by his Lutheran paymasters in Europe as he developed a sympathy with Aboriginal culture and spirituality.

1 comment:

  1. Tom Sallet5:38 pm

    You're right about the lack of any response to the stories about the so-called "Intervention" in Crikey. It seems that by ignoring them, any criticism will just whither on the vine. The stories from writers on Crikey such as Anna Lamboys are an indictment of the "Intervention", and should be either responded to - or corrected.