After practicing in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands, Nauru, and East Timor, the Australian Government is invading and occupying outback Aboriginal communities with soldiers and police.
Conservative Prime Minister John Howard declared a “national emergency” on June 21 over sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. The trigger was said to be a report on the problem. But, far from recommending a coercive military and police operation, the report actually concluded that
It is critical that both [the Northern Territory and Australian] governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.
Protests in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra by Aborigines and other opponents of this assault soon followed its announcement. Further nationwide protests took place on July 14. A special sitting of parliament in the first week of August has been suggested to put the Government’s plans into law, which may invite more demonstrations.
In June 2006, Health Minister Tony Abbott gave the Howard Government’s approach to Aboriginal affairs a revealing name: “new paternalism.” This was rather too accurate, so the Government quickly distanced itself from the phrase. Nevertheless, it is now clear to everyone: the measures that the Australian Government has taken in a moral panic about child sexual abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities are indeed paternalism . . . with a vengeance.
The Government has sent in the army and police specifically to reduce the control Aboriginal people have over their own lives. Administrators, rather than the communities themselves, will now control the Aboriginal land on which they live, through compulsory leases. This terminates local self-government in favour of decisions by hastily recruited, trained, and despatched public servants from Canberra. Unlike other landowners, Aborigines will no longer be able to decide who enters their land.
The Government, not Aboriginal people themselves, has decided that their children must undergo medical checks. Pornography and alcohol will be forbidden in their communities. The Government will restrict what they can buy with their already small incomes if they receive social security payments or work for the dole. This will apply to all Aboriginal people in the designated areas, including the majority of Aboriginal parents who do a good job looking after their kids with very limited resources. Payments to parents whose kids miss a few days of school will be cut.
Its record of throwing children into refugee detention centres suggests that the Government’s concern about the wellbeing of young people in general is very recent, though. Besides, over more than a decade in office, it has not seriously tackled poor Aboriginal health, unemployment, and housing. Aboriginal life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians’.
The Howard Government has not even funded effective programs that Aboriginal people have themselves set up to deal with problems of violence, like those in Sydney’s Redfern and Cherbourg in Queensland. Through its own programs, the federal Government spends less per capita on Aboriginal health than on other people.
The Prime Minister’s “national emergency” over abuse of Aboriginal children is nothing but an act of opportunism in the run-up to this year’s federal election, as sixty percent of those surveyed in a recent poll recognised. Even though Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd gave this manoeuvre a chance to succeed by endorsing Mr Howard’s actions, it seems to have backfired all the same. That John Howard is not decisive but only cynical is all too obvious.
Instead of driving a wedge between Labor and those genuinely concerned about the welfare of Aboriginal children, he has wedged himself. Hardened racists, to whom the stereotyping of all Aborigines as child abusers might appeal, are probably wondering why the Government is spending more money, even if on police and troops, to help black people in the outback.
The Government’s actions are consistent with long-standing views of prominent members of the Liberal and National Parties, which make up the ruling conservative Coalition. Mining industry and Liberal Party figure Hugh Morgan pioneered public campaigns against the rights of Aboriginal people, especially to their land rights, in the mid 1980s. These intensified, funded by the Mining Industry Council and extended by the Liberal and National Parties, during the 1990s.
One of the Coalition’s main themes in the 1996 election campaign was bashing the “Aboriginal industry.” On taking office, one of its first priorities was to undermine the elected national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission, through which many Aboriginal-controlled programs were financed. It “mainstreamed” publicly-funded services for Aboriginal people into government departments, ending Aboriginal control over them. ATSIC and its Regional Councils, also elected bodies, were abolished in 2005.
The same disdain for democracy is also manifest in other aspects of this Government. Take, for instance, the Government’s hostility to university students’ elected representatives, whose traditional source of funds it blocked. In foreign policy, it similarly prefers to achieve its ends by using Australian troops and police rather than running the risk that ordinary people in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Solomons, East Timor, Nauru, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea might directly implement social change.
John Howard probably does genuinely believe that greater freedom of action for corporations, especially mining companies, in industrial relations and gaining access to Aboriginal land can increase the prosperity of all Australians. The correctness of this belief is another matter entirely. Underlying problems like child abuse in Aboriginal and, for that matter, other communities is a lack of resources and power. So far, the government has only eroded resources available to Aborigines, while attacking their capacity to control their own lives.
The “new paternalism” looks a lot like the old paternalism, when indigenous people were pushed around by “Protectors of Aborigines,” local bureaucrats, and church-appointed administrators on reserves or mission stations. A priority of yesterday’s paternalists was often to provide low-paid Aboriginal workers for domestic labour and pastoral and agricultural industries. The new paternalists are taking steps to provide cheap and uncomplicated access to that recently reinstated Aboriginal asset — land — for other industries, notably mining and nuclear waste storage.
The Government calculated that widespread prejudices against Indigenous Australians could be mobilised and reinforced to justify controlling their lives in ways that would be unacceptable for anyone else, at least until this precedent was set (it has decided to extend to some non-Indigenous welfare recipients the limits on what they can spend their benefits).
Collective decision-making by Aboriginal communities about the use of their land that does not always put profit maximisation above all other considerations is an affront to not only the material interests that the Government promotes but also the Coalition’s individualist rhetoric. (There is only one category of individual to which the Government is committed. Not flesh and blood human beings, but the ideal personalities fixated on profit-making that are created by companies’ legislation.) Such practices can create delays and costs for corporations and even prevent them from gaining access to resources they want.
The Government’s latest Aboriginal affairs policies are motivated by opportunism as well as convictions and the pursuit of particular material interests. How far will its opportunism go? The explosive mix of public concern about terrorism and anti-Muslim racism is one of the few weapons the Government has not used to rebuild its support this year. Howard will find it hard to resist detonating it in a couple of months, around the time of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, with George Bush present, in Sydney.
Rick Kuhn is the author of Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism (University of Illinois Press, 2007) and editor of Class and Struggle in Australia (Pearson Australia, 2005). He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Stop the Attacks Coalition which is organising protests in Canberra against the Australian Governments Aboriginal affairs policies. A reader in political science at the Australian National University, he can be contacted at Rick.Kuhn@anu.edu.au.