Tuesday, July 24

It may seem like keystone cops, but the Haneef affair should disturb us all

The following post expands observations I placed on What, Me Grumpy? last Thursday.

This isn't some convicted, proven ruffian. This photo (published on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, July 19) is believed to be the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef being driven from the Brisbane watchhouse in a police vehicle. We should all find it deeply disturbing.

Haneef may or may not have given support, or had some prior knowledge, of the attempted terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow. A Brisbane magistrate found the case against him so weak she granted him bail, despite our anti-terrorism laws' removal of the presumption of innocence.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews immediately ordered his detention under his powers to lock up and deport undesirables.

Andrews said, and Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty backed him up, that he'd been shown secret files which justified his action action.

Why weren't they put before the magistrate, even in chambers? Is it because magistrate Jacqui Payne is Aboriginal and has a reputation for requiring even the Queensland police to comply with the law? Perhaps the Feds thought they couldn't trust her – "not one of us."

As I keep saying, I may be a bit to the left, but I try to be fair. Reluctantly, I accept the need for some civil rights to be weakened as we protect ourselves against fanatics with murderous intent.
But when the authorities feel the need to detain or put on control orders those people who worry them, if they haven't been convicted let's accept a limited presumption of innocence. If we have to take them to detention, let's hire a limo to do it. Let's detain them in comfortable accommodation. A four-star hotel might be about right. And let them keep their shoes on.
Read the SMH's report here.

That was my original post, and I was going to leave it there. But then the story blew up, as anyone who's seen, heard or read the news in the past five days must know.

First, someone on the government or federal police side leaked so-called facts to The Australian to justify Kevin Andrews's action.

Then Haneef's barrister Stephen Keim, SC, leaked – and openly admitted it – the material supplied by the Feds to the Haneef legal team, and it didn't take long before a close reading created significant doubts about the Feds' competence or honesty.

As The Australian said in last Friday's editorial: “Mr Keim has removed the ability of investigators or public officials to cherry-pick and distort the evidence to manipulate perceptions to suit their purpose.”

Reading on, one feels The Australian says:

This is not to suggest that the federal Government and its law enforcement agencies have attempted to use Dr Haneef's plight for political gain. It does, however, recognise the fact that the Government has already spent a great deal of public goodwill and trust when it comes to fighting the war on terror.

It is difficult not to conclude that there has been a striking hypocrisy on the part of authorities in criticising Mr Keim for supposedly compromising his client's position when, by the admission of
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, Dr Haneef has been the subject of extensive leaks by both the prosecution and defence.

By releasing the transcript of interview, Mr Keim has shown that the principal distortions have been to the disadvantage of his client.

One of life's pleasures would be to see a custard pie hit Kevin Andrews in the face. He projects the smug, self-satisfied visage of a man who knows God votes conservative. My anticipation of his discomfiture rose further with weekend disclosures that even John Howard had been concerned by the relish with which he drew up WorkChoices legislation which would leave workers worse off.

But was Andrews worried? Not at all. He had secret information, too vital to our security to be told even to the judiciary, or, unthinkably, the public.

Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, under a P1 banner headline “Haneef case turns to farce”, quoted Andrews that none of the revelations would affect his decision to cancel Haneef's visas and keep him in detention.

The same day, The Australian had a perceptive feature (and a good pun) in “Trial by leak in the age of error”, a roundup of the case written by Cameron Stewart (who should know – he appears to have been the recipient of some of the leaks from the Feds).

The Oz introduced the feature with these words: "The Haneef case exposes the underbelly of national security in which spin and counterspin are used to influence public opinion." And these: "The case highlights the bankruptcy of trust in the government."

The whole episode is disturbing, but the most disturbing aspect is the erosion of trust.

It was unfortunate for the Howard government that the affair coincided with the Fairfax newspapers – The Age and the SMH – publishing excerpts from John Winston Howard: The Biography (which goes on sale today, July 24).

Last Thursday, the Haneef photo and story above sat next to the SMH's P1 lead: "PM failed as treasurer, says Costello".

Later disclosures revealed that when the government's top legal minds gave advice it would be unlawful to turn away the Tampa, Howard sent it back until he got the advice he wanted.

And just in case you thought Howard's word might have some value, we read that his wife Janette told his biographers, in relation to his dishonoured 1994 deal with Peter Costello, that "you don't go back and honour every single one of those [promises] unless you have made a firm commitment about it, and John wasn't into making firm commitments". Hah! The birth of the non-core promise!

There's one more issue worth examining, and that's the role and in particular the ethics of newspapers in the Haneef affair. At this point we'll hand the mike to Denis Muller, visiting fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne and a former editorial executive on The Age and The SMH.

On Crikey.com yesterday he said an examination of the ethical issues made an irresistable case for publication of the leaked material, and went on:

In a more general sense the public interest has also been served by demonstrating the dangers of what can happen out of public view when the State is able to act in secrecy and without adequate lines of accountability.

Moreover, subsequent analyses by The Australian have shown major inconsistencies in what was presented to the magistrate, justifying the accusation by one of its writers that the police had "verballed" Dr Haneef.

It is now five days since the leaked transcript was published, and everything that has happened since has vindicated the newspaper’s decision.

As recently as yesterday the Australian Federal Police were allowing a false story to run about Dr Haneef’s alleged plot to attack a building on the Gold Coast, until the commissioner, Mick Keelty, was finally dragged into a denial.

Tuesday, July 17

The decade of struggle . . . was it really as bad as our parents said?

Battler: A toiler, one who struggles for a livelihood

G.A. Wilkes, A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, 1978

Battler is an iconic word, fundamental to the way Australians see their national identity. And long-lasting. Professor Wilkes recorded an 1896 example from Henry Lawson: “[ I ] told him never to pretend to me that he was a battler.”

It still resonates, as in the analysis of what a government policy does for “the battlers” , although these days your battlers may well be paying off mortgages on homes so big they would astonish their parents.

In Australia, the word carries a hint of “indomitable”, expressed in the old quip nil carborundum – “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. The battler may be on the losing side, but the spirit is unbroken.

In other countries, losers seem to be just losers. In Dorothea Lange’s photographs of impoverished farmers and field labourers in the US in the Great Depression, one looks in vain for anything other than hopelessness and defeat in their faces.

Australia's respect for the battler may also cause difficulties for our understanding of the Great Depression of the 1930s. How bad was it?

Do we focus on the evictions and rent riots, the men always on the move from town to town, begging for work or just a feed, the children lined up for soup and bread before school, the dirt-poor families subsisting in isolated bush shacks or in shanty towns around the cities?

Or do we focus on the individual grit, the social cohesiveness and the family support which allowed many people to cope with under-employment and poverty​ in the Aussie battler tradition? How do we evaluate the stories of our parents, telling of their happy childhoods full of love, hand-me-down toys and clothing, and bread and dripping?

Do we accept some well-argued academic studies that the Great Depression wasn't as bad as most people believe?

The questions re-emerged as I read the latest entry on the blog of 107-year-old Olive Riley (pictured – image from her blog).

Documentary film maker Mike Rubbo, who talks things over with Olive before posting the material to her blog, mentioned The Myth of the Great Depression, a book by David Potts. He asks Olive:

David has written this provocative book which proposes that the Great Depression of the thirties was not such a bad experience for many people. In fact reading his book, I can’t wait for the next one to hit us.

No, Ollie, seriously no one would wish that! But there were some strange side benefits to being plunged into poverty.

I’m going to go over bits in the book to see if the stories spark memories for you as someone who lived through that period.

As Rubbo reads information from the book, Olive's recollections support the view that many people did suffer distressing poverty, but also faced it with courage and what may be seen as a typical, dry, laconic Aussie humour.

Here's the blog: http://www.allaboutolive.com.au/

From a film catalogue, here's how Mike Rubbo came to be Olive's storyteller, going on to make a successful ABC documentary, All About Olive:

Mike Rubbo's team found and made friends with this amazing story teller 4 years ago. He was researching a documentary on the centenarian phenomenon. But when he met Olive, all thoughts of an essay on extreme old age went out the window and Olive took over.

Good humour in dire poverty

In 1932, NSW Governor Sir Philip Game, with his wife and their aides-de-camp, visited Happy Valley [the shantytown in the southern Sydney suburb of La Perouse]. Lady Game congratulated the women on the neat and clean interiors of their humpies.

“Why,” she said bravely, “I wouldn’t mind living in one myself.” From the back of the crowd, a voice rang out: “Want to swap?”

Of course, just looking out of the Government House windows may have disturbed Sir Philip and Lady Game – another shanty town sat in Sydney’s inner-city Domain park.

Or this, as a former Happy Valley resident recalls the day some socialite women visited.

Anyhow, four expensively dressed ladies from the committee arrived, and after they had been introduced, each gave a short talk on the importance of contraception. It was very technical and so tactfully described few women understood what they were talking about.

Then one of women opened her bag and produced a white enamel can, together with a notebook and pencil. The woman told them, ‘This is a douche can. It should be hung on a nail in a prominent position somewhere in the camp with the notebook and pencil nearby. When wanting to use it you should sign the book and when returning it should sign the book again.’ And that was that!

As a reminder of their visit, the women in the camp built a small cairn of rocks and stuck the thing on top as a monument to women who meant well but didn’t know how to go about it.

The anecdotes come from Australian Battlers Remember (Random House, 2003) a deceptively simple and non-glossy book crammed with fascinating yarns. Broadcaster and writer Keith Smith, who prepared the book at the age of 88 – wasn’t he the Pied Piper on ABC children’s shows decades ago? – interviewed dozens of elderly people about their recollections of the Great Depression.

Along with tales of people trudging from town to town, offering to chop wood for a feed handed out the kitchen door, the book tells of the shanty townships of unemployed people around the cities.

Former residents give a detailed account of life in Happy Valley, with its rows of huts cobbled together from scavenged building materials and hessian bags. The half-mile trudge to collect water in four-gallon kerosene tins from the tap in the NSW Golf Club, until its silvertail members extended the pipe and put the unemployed out of sight. The long walk into the city to collect dole coupons, with money too precious for tram fares.

But did the luckier ones care?

Perhaps this is a place one could note some darker aspects of Australia’s Great Depression experience. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that most of those Australians who were almost unaffected by the Depression preferred not to know about the lives of the victims.

People who kept their jobs could get by, even if the Arbitration Court cut their award wage or the boss put them on short time, because the prices of most goods and services dropped.
As Keith Smith says, newspapers carried few accounts of Happy Valley, but pages about socialite balls.

In his very readable biography, Riverboats and Rivermen (Rigby, 1976), steamboat skipper William Drage told of a Murray River cruise in 1932. A boat’s mate got four pounds for a week of unlimited hours and thought himself lucky to have a job. Drage (assisted by his co-author, Rigby publishing manager Michael Page) wrote:

But the economic situation did not affect everyone equally, and in March 1932 the Underwriters’ Association chartered the Ruby for a holiday cruise from Morgan to Mildura. Money and grog flowed lavishly, with a roulette wheel, poker and other card games continually on the go … A lot of money changed hands on that trip, and I know definitely that one man was 800 pounds richer when he left the boat on our return to Morgan.

It was a great contrast to the swarms of men and youths, some of them little more than boys, who wandered the riverbanks in search of work. Plenty of them were willing to work for nothing but a square meal and somewhere to sleep, and a good many were close to starving …

Depression battlers often hated the police, many of whom seemed too willing to evict destitute tenants or force the drifters out of town. There were exceptions, of course – a few country sergeants who’d put you in a cell for the night, give you a meal and a clean bunk in return for some chopped firewood, but even they’d want to see you on your way in the morning.

In Perth after World War II, my father might spit when he heard the name of one very senior police officer. During the Depression, Dad camped near the edge of the desert in WA until he found a blacksmith’s job on a gold mine at Wiluna. Gold mining was an industry which thrived in those hard times.

Before Dad went to Wiluna, the farming family who were to become his in-laws had given him a new blanket. The police, headed by the officer he was to hate for many years, dragged him in several times, demanding he admit having stolen the blanket.

Writing of the Rothbury Riot of 1929, a Cessnock coalfields union official and historian, the late Jim Comerford – who was there as a lad of 16 – said: “Other clashes occurred with police, not all of whom were guilty of the brutality which caused them to be named ‘The Basher Gang’. Most of the local police retained public respect. The few who enjoyed the experience earned the lifetime contempt of the Coalfields people and their fellows.”

In her autobiography, The Missing Heir, Kylie Tennant told how she befriended a young policeman during the Depression, only to be reproached by a colleague. “Once a policeman, never a man,” the president of the Unemployed Workers League assured her gravely. [I've heard the expression well after World War II.]

Kylie Tennant wrote powerful accounts of the Depression. We'll return to her.

Better nutrition with food relief

But let's first swing back to another work which argues the Depression wasn't as bad as most people believe. In A Bad Smash (McPhee Gribble, 1990), economic historian Geoffrey Spenceley contradicts many of what he sees as myths about the Depression.

He shows that the food relief to the unemployed often gave them better nutrition and health than they enjoyed in the good times, and that income support was better than generally understood.

But it's clear, too, that although relief did improve from 1932, it was desperately inadequate from 1929 to 1931. Spenceley does concede:

There is a case to be argued, however, that the main effect of the depression on people's health was to increase stress, as a result of the continuing battle to make ends meet, and the emotional traumas associated with the breakdown of normal daily routine and social relationships. The family was simultaneously the main buffer against the depression and the source of many of its tensions.

One can also agree with this:

The depression in Australia failed to produce its crop of serious-minded social investigators, leaving historians to rely on impressionistic reports.

Kylie Tennant is a good source of those impressionistic reports, and although she later described her politics as to the left of communism, her observations were perceptive and her writing had a blunt honesty.

That honesty showed in a book I take to be semi-autobiographical, Ride On Stranger, much of which is an affectionate satire – is there such a thing? – of the left-wing movements and individuals she encountered before World War II.

In Tennant’s first novel, Tiburon , published in 1935 after The Bulletin ran it as a serial, the Depression forms a backdrop to rather depressing portraits of people going about their lives in a rather depressing country town in New South Wales. Tennant noted: “Tiburon is not an existing town, but a composite of many Australian places.”

Tennant tried to be sympathetic to Tiburon’s characters, even to a bloody-minded police officer giving the unemployed a hard time, although whether she succeeded is a moot point.

Despite her claim that Tiburon is a composite of many Australian places, it's clear from The Missing Heir that it was derived from the NSW towns of Coonabarabran and Canowindra, where her schoolteacher husband Lewis Charles Rodd was posted after they married.

When they moved to Canowindra, Tennant wrote, “I began typing Tiburon which had all in it that I had seen and observed of conditions of the unemployed in Canowindra and Coonabaraban, and on the many walks I had taken through the mid-west.”. The Missing Heir also details her work providing relief and advocacy for the unemployed.

Later, Tennant borrowed a horse and van and went on the road to gather material about the itinerant unemployed for The Battlers, which was made into a film.

Hard times and high times

Trying to find more about Keith Smith, I come across The Palace of Signs, subtitled Memories of Hard Times and High Times in the Great Depression (Pan Macmillan, 1991), in which Smith describes his expulsion from Northcote High School in Victoria at the age of 13 because his parents had refused to pay the two guineas a term fee, and the debt to the Victorian Education Department had grown to 12 guineas.

Smith believed his parents refused on principle, but it must have been a factor that it was the early 1930s and his father, the sole breadwinner for a family of four, had been cut back to one week’s work in three in the furnishing department of Buckley and Nunn’s store in Melbourne.

After a time, which included a job in a foundry in horrifying sweatshop conditions – literally and figuratively – before he had turned 14, he found himself working as an office boy and later as an apprentice in a venerable old Melbourne signwriting business, the Palace of Signs.

For a lad with little worldly experience, it was a startling introduction to the adult world. His workmates were skilled signwriters and painters, proud of their craft and paid twice the basic wage, but they were also memorable characters, irreverent, uncouth and often bawdy. Their unceasing practical jokes on one another provide the High Times in the book’s subtitle.

High Times also refers to the tasks Keith Smith found most frightening, painting signs on the sides of buildings three or four storeys above the city streets, sitting or standing on a plank with no guard rails or harnesses. The painters hauled themselves up, pulling on ropes and tying them off on the hooks.

The cover of Australian Battlers Remember says Keith Smith is the author of 27 books but does not list them.

Note: Mike Rubbo has lent me his copy of Myth of the Great Depression, and I'll offer my opinion when I've finished it. So far, it seems convincing in its efforts to balance people's recollections with the historical evidence.

Saturday, July 7

Is a Ballina holiday a better punt than sticking with Wesfarmers and Coles?

There's a lot at stake with the Wesfarmers bid to revive the Coles group. Not just the quoted $22 billion takeover cost, and the further $3 billion Wesfarmers plans to pump into the ailing businesses. A mere bagatelle. What's at stake is my domestic harmony.

Our association with the Wesfarmers conglomerate began after Merry's father passed on. Sorting his papers, we came across a certificate for his membership of the Westralian Farmers Co-Operative – which presumably entitled him to discounts on fertiliser, insurance and the like when he was farming in WA's Great Southern.

Over the years, we've ridden along as the old farmers' co-op morphed into a public company, and then into Australia's most successful corporate conglomerate. For 20 years, it's delivered compound annual growth of 29 per cent. My advice to hang on to the shares made me something of a hero in my household.

Corporate conglomerates were on the nose after so many collapsed in the late 1980s. With a little creative accounting, they made it easy for the spivs then winning acclaim as “entrepreneurs” to shuffle money around, then slide it out from under shareholders' eyes and into their own pockets.

But Wesfarmers was different, and much of the credit goes to chief executive Michael Chaney, who retired two years ago. Some retirement. He's now president of the Business Council of Australia, chairman of the National Bank and chancellor of the University of WA, among many other roles – but his management and accounting structures remain in place.

Chaney is also a man with a strong social conscience who appears to have won John Howard's trust, and may well have helped steer the Prime Minister to a more active role in correcting Aboriginal disadvantage and in accepting the possibility of man-made climate change.

I'm nervous about the Coles buy, and my wife Merry may be more rational wanting to sell to pay for a holiday. But we don't have many shares – the proceeds may have covered petrol to Ballina, plus a week in a caravan park.

And we could not have hoped for the $45.73 quoted as Wesfarmers' last sale price when the takeover deal was thrashed out.

That price came from a late mystery order which allowed Coles and Wesfarmers to agree on a takeover offer said to be worth $17.25 per Coles share, consisting of $4 cash and 0.2843 of a Wesfarmers share, as well as Coles shareholders retaining the next dividend.

If Wesfarmers shares slip, so does the value of the bid. And so does my standing as my wife's financial advisor. Perhaps we should go to Ballina.

The takeover is by no means a done deal. By the close of trading on Friday, July 6, Wesfarmers shares had fallen to $41.05, knocking $1.5 billion off the value of the bid and Coles shares down to $15.10. Either Wesfarmers or Coles can walk if Wesfarmers shares sit below an average $41.16 over any three weeks before the scheduled completion in October.

Even if the deal goes through, sticking with Wesfarmers seems a bit of a punt. Wesfarmers points to the success of its Bunnings hardware chain – but will experience in “category-killer” hardware stores be repeated in Coles' key businesses of supermarkets, discount stores and liquor retailing?

Supermarket retailing requires a special flair they don't teach in MBA courses. It's the sort of knowledge Woolies executives absorbed every day as they walked through Woolies' Town Hall store to their Sydney offices.

It's the knowledge Coles executives may have bypassed as they worked in their ivory tower headquarters, the "Battlestar Galactica" in Melbourne.

(In fairness, that was a culture Coles chief executive John Fletcher tried to change, and in time we will acknowledge his successes, and not just note where he failed.)

During the years it would take Wesfarmers to turn Coles around, will shareholders be rewarded with a rising share price? Even if the punt succeeds, the payout may be years away.

Perhaps I'll get on the net and check out a few holiday destinations.

Sunday, July 1

National emergency response: Concern for Aboriginal kids, or a clever political ploy?

“National emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the NT” That was the heading on the June 21 media release from Mal Brough, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs. June 21 was Federal Parliament's last sitting day before the politicians fled Canberra's cold for a six-week break.

At 12.54pm – according to the Sydney Morning Herald's acerbic commentator Alan Ramsey – Prime Minister John Howard's office called journalists to a joint press conference by Howard and Brough at 1.15pm. It was only 45 minutes before the House of Reps resumed for its last question time until August 7. Not much time for thoughtful questioning.

[This comment has been modified since its original posting.]

July 1, and Grumpy Old Journo finally comments. The delay may have surprised those who know that I'm a member of a local reconciliation group – and, by now, that I'm not an admirer of John Howard. Why not speak out earlier?

One risk was that a quick response would be ill-considered. It would have joined those who said Howard had found himself another Tampa or a “black children overboard”, a gut-wrenching issue – in this case, the sexual abuse of children in dysfunctional, remote Aboriginal communities – which he could exploit to get re-elected.

Could not have Howard's action been honourable, a statesmanlike response to a genuine national emergency?

But the day after these comments first went up, the Murdoch tabloid papers
reported a Galaxy poll result that just 25 per cent of voters thought Howard acted because of concern for the problem, while 58 per cent said his action was to boost his support in the looming election.

What if the truth is somewhere in the middle? The Galaxy question didn't offer the chance to reply, "Well, a bit of each, actually", so its result may have been unfair. No-one doubts Brough's sincerity, and it's possible he did persuade Howard that urgent action was needed to impose troops, police, doctors and “managers of all government business” on prescribed Aboriginal communities, and to ban alcohol and porn. All without consultation, it seemed initially.

But Howard is a consummate politician and it's difficult to believe he failed to see electoral advantage in his stance.

As it happens, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd didn't take any risks. He offered Howard full support.

But surely it was possible to applaud the Federal Government for taking decisive action -- even if one still had reservations about the way in which Howard said he would go about it.

Largely, it was left to non-politicians to express misgivings. Fortunately, there were many voices doing so – including many with expertise in Aboriginal communities and in child abuse cases.

Medical experts pointed out that compulsory mass screening of children for sexual abuse, involving physical examinations , would almost certainly be illegal as well as a breach of medical ethics.

Of course, one could call the Howard-Brough move paternalistic They were going to tell the Aboriginal people what would happen to them, and initially they implied there would be no consultation. As Howard said, the time for talk was over.

Some could argue paternalism was justified in the circumstances. But there was always an alternative – sit down and talk to the Aboriginal people.

And of course, the Howard-Brough move, as initially stated, was racist. There was little suggestion of a crackdown on booze and porn in the wider, white community, nor of compulsory mass screening of white children for sexual abuse. But perhaps there too, one could argue the need for this "profiling".

A better-thought-out approach could have avoided the Sydney Morning Herald's
big front-page headline on June 27, “Families Flee in Panic”, and under it, “Brough blames liars for spreading hysteria”. Under it, the intro read:

Panic about the Howard Government's crackdown on child sexual abuse has spread widely throughout remote Aboriginal communities, where parents fear their children will be taken away in a repeat of the stolen generation.

But even the most reasonable people with misgivings about the Howard-Brough approach could draw abuse like this extraordinarily vituperative piece by Miranda Devine in the SMH. (By the third par, Ms Devine has also quoted approvingly from a new book by Helen Hughes of the right-wing “think tank”, the Centre for Independent Studies, attacking land rights as apartheid.)

After a week, Howard and Brough appear to have softened their rhetoric and to have accepted they need the co-operation of Aboriginal communities to ensure the success of their “national emergency response”.

But for Howard, at least, credibility would be improved if he had previously shown concern about the well-documented problems of Aboriginal communities, including child sexual abuse, detailed by Alan Ramsey in
a piece as vituperative as Ms Devine's. For other evidence that Howard shrugged off these problems for the past decade or so, The Australian has provided many examples, including this.

If only Howard had been prepared, all those years ago, to say sorry. If he had not shut down the stolen generation inquiry when it was set to substantiate its findings. If he had confronted the racial bigotry of Pauline Hanson's supporters. If he had offered more support for land rights and for the Mabo and Wik judgments, his credibility would have been strong.

Without that credibility, it's understandable that many of us remain wary.

After first posting these thoughts on Sunday, I walked down to the waterfront at Woy Woy, where Aboriginal people had a major function. In a big marquee, I watched children performing traditional dances, seemingly oblivious to the icy wind, heard some heart-breaking personal stories of the stolen generation (and yes, I believe them to be true), and tried some bush tucker.

The growing pride and determination of Aboriginal people can be seen clearly at such an event. The activism of decent whitefellas has helped, but the big advances have come from the dedicated work of many respected Aboriginal leaders and mentors.

Howard and Brough appear to be modifying their initial, hard-line approach. It appears the medical checks on children will be carried out more sensitively, and will address wider health issues, rather than just probe for signs of sexual abuse. After days of prevarication, the Federal Government seems to be promising it not plan an assault on land rights.

But issues remain. Is a move to private home ownership sought by Aboriginal people in the remote communities?

There is a good chance Howard and Brough will make a worthwhile difference -- if they go beyond a short-term "shock and awe" attack, and provide more resources for the longer term. Brough has conceded the NT needs more help with providing police and police stations, but he has refused help with teachers and schools.

But most of all, nothing will work if Aboriginal people are denied a say in their own future.

Meanwhile, read this with anger

The SMH's P1 lead shows another broken promise by the NSW Labor government, or more accurately, its failure to provide funding so that its promise to combat sexual abuse of Aboriginal children can become more than empty words. The SMH story begins:

OUTBACK NSW is plagued by a shocking lack of resources to tackle indigenous child abuse which has led to a permanent queue of 40 cases needing investigation and another 30 waiting to be heard by the courts.

More than a year after a State Government report revealed Aboriginal children in NSW are four times more likely to be abused than non-indigenous children, a senior child sexual assault specialist has painted a devastating picture of dwindling funding and shortages of expert counsellors and
investigators in NSW's west . . .

In some communities, child sex had become so normalised that children as young as six had been observed performing oral sex on each other. "They say they're just playing, without having any sense that it's wrong."

When the Federal Government announced its crackdown on indigenous child abuse last week – to be focused on the Northern Territory – it accused NSW of sitting on its own report, revealing
a similar crisis, for nine months.

NSW's Breaking the Silence report followed interviews with more than 300 Aborigines in 29 communities and found that not one could name a family unaffected by the scourge of child sexual assault.

You'll find these claims backed up on the website of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation. And if you want to raise your voice in protest at the Federal or State government failures, ANTaR's site provides links where you can sign online petitions.