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Last time John Howard's ship came in, it was a Norwegian freighter, as Max Gillies observed. Today's Crikey has a Special edition: Howard's Aboriginal emergency, which suggests that this time, he's running the Aboriginal flag up the masthead.

Ten years ago when Howard came to power, his new Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Senator John Herron, said that his predecessors had got it all wrong. He wanted Aboriginal 'self-empowerment and said that the Howard government would adopt 'practical, commonsense policies' on health, housing, education, employment and improve Aboriginal people's lives.

That didn't happen.

Last week Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle “Little Children are Sacred”, a long and detailed report on child abuse (Rex Wild and Patricia Anderson), showed just how bad things can be in some communities. Recommendations to cope with this included, among others, recommendations on improving communication between Aborigines and non Aborigines by using translation, interpreters, use of indigenous languages, and improvements to education. I list some that caught my eye at the end of this post.

The Government has focussed on the detail and ignored many of the recommendations of the report. Instead today Howard has seized the opportunity of justifable public outrage at the sexual abuse of children to bundle together some good measures with a whole lot of measures which have nothing to with child abuse or what causes it, but which will give the Government much greater control over Aboriginal land and Aboriginal lives.

I am sure that many members of the Government feel deeply troubled about the lack of improvement in Aboriginal lives since they came to power ten years ago, and that many will see some action as better than none. But I have a bad feeling that, since there's an election around the corner, some politicians are going from children overboard to abused children. This is because so little thought seems to have gone into how these measures would be implemented. They don't address the fact that many of the bad things happen not in the small communities, but in the fringe camps of the big towns. The talk is of "prescribed areas" and "affected areas". I bet Darwin and Alice Springs won't count as affected areas. And so the desire for freedom will suck more people out of the smaller communities to the towns. Where there will be grog.

Here are some of Howard's measures with my off-the-cuff comments - and see Crikey for the responses of others.

1. "We'll ban the sale, the possession, the transportation, the consumption and broader monitoring of takeaway sales across the Northern Territory. " How's that going to play in downtown Darwin, Alice and Katherine? Bloody good drinkers in the Territory.

2. All Indigenous children in the Territory are to undergo a medical check.
A good thing - but will the Government provide the resources to follow up - like the chronic ear and eye problems? Hearing-aids? Will they provide cheap fresh food?

3. "Fifty per cent of welfare payments to parents of children in the affected areas, and the obligation in relation to that will follow the parent wherever that parent may go, so the obligation cannot be avoided, simply by moving to another part of Australia and effectively, the arrangements will be that that 50% can only be used for the purchase of food and other essentials"
Is this really saying that only people in Indigenous communities will be subject to this restriction? Or will it apply in town camps too? And if so how do you distinguish between an Indigenous person on welfare and a non-indigenous person on welfare? And what do you do about places with high rents? How will the food 50% be quarantined? Will they offer food stamps? Vouchers? Or will Indigenous people have to go cap in hand to an overseer?

3. "The Federal Government will take over the running of townships using five-year leases"
What does this mean? NO Aboriginal township is capable of running itself? No Aboriginal township will be allowed to have more than a five year lease?

4. "We will scrap the permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal lands.".
What has this to do with the child sexual abuse? Stopping permits might allow free flow of non-Aboriginal abusers of children and grog-runners to Indigenous communities.

5. "We're going to ban the possession of X-rated pornography in the prescribed areas and we're going to check all publicly funded computers for evidence of the storage of pornography."
I have felt queasy for a long time at the availability of porn, but again - Darwin porn shops won't be impressed.

6. And an increased policing presence.
Good idea - but remember Sergeant Hurley - provide more Indigenous police officers, and especially women - there are some Indigenous women doing brilliant things in the policing area.

There are no easy answers and there needs to be time and thought given to what the measures should be, and how they should be implemented.

And so to some of the Wild and Anderson's report's recommendations that didn't rate for Howard. They lack the can-do razmatazz, but, if implemented, would have far-reaching effects in the long-term. There're lots more - I just put some that are relevant to people interested in language and education.

53. That, notwithstanding that Northern Territory schools have a single curricula framework, DEET is to ensure all teachers in remote schools consult with local communities as to any appropriate modifications, consistent with Recommendations 100, 102, 106, 107 and 108 in the Learning Lessons Report.

54. That DEET urgently implements the outcomes of the Indigenous Languages and Culture Report.

e. engaging in a dialogue with communities to discuss the particular education that might be needed in a specific community and how that education can best occur
f. recognising the appropriateness of messages being in language and delivered through a number of mediums

74. That, having regard to the success of Aboriginal courts in other jurisdictions in Australia, the government commence dialogue with Aboriginal communities aimed at developing language group-specific Aboriginal courts in the Northern Territory.

Cross-cultural practice
91. That compulsory cross-cultural training for all government personnel be introduced, with more intensive cross-cultural capability training for those officers who are involved in service delivery and policy development in respect of Aboriginal people. Specifically, government to introduce:
a. a comprehensive Aboriginal culture induction program for all new teachers to the Territory and for existing teachers about to take up positions in remote schools (it is recommended this program run for three weeks full time)
b. training in Aboriginal language concepts for those teachers already teaching in or about to commence at remote schools to promote an understanding of the nuances of Aboriginal society.

Implementation of the Report
93. That the Chief Minister to release forthwith for public scrutiny and consideration this Report in its
entirety, subject only to the time taken for its printing and publication, and that the Overview section be translated into the nine main Aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory, published in an appropriate format and distributed to communities throughout the Territory.


This is an excellent post Jane. I was wondering what this election's Tampa would be, and like last time, those being used are among society's most vulnerable.

The government's recommendations have been unconditionally adopted by the 'opposition' it seems, but I suspect it's mainly to diffuse the issue as an election-tipper; Rudd couldn't possibly rationalise being critical of the Howard's plan, especially when it's been so enthusiastically subsumed by the mainstream media.

Here though, you've highlighted those aspects of the government's plan that will be detrimental in the long-run. I'm particularly concerned about the scrapping of permits. They tried (unsuccessfully?) to do this earlier this year and of course, Brough's conditional housing funds for Tangentyere are along the same lines; repatriation of crown land. And simply 'banning' grog looks good if you take a binary grog, bad! view of the matter, when in reality, as you point out, people will simply move out of communities to Darwin or Alice Springs.

There are already in place workable alcohol-limiting conditions in a lot of communities, I understand, whereby, if you live in the community or are a long-term visitor (more than two weeks) of the community, you are heavily restricted as to how many beers you can purchase a day. In Pine Creek, the figure is 6 cans of light per day Monday through Thursday, and 6 cans of full-strength Friday and Saturday.

It isn't perfect; some of the younger blokes have even coerced tourists to buy them a slab, sometimes with threats, but according to the main publican in town, it's an awful lot better than it was before such restrictions were in place. As a result, the community is generally very disdainful of men who drink. I remember driving with my speakers from the community into town, there was one bloke on the dirt road asking for a lift. "No," said LL, "he's a bloody drunk, leave him there". Due to this, and to the restrictions, alcohol is very much not a problem.

If it's fully banned though, I think many of the younger blokes will go to live in Katherine, where currently they can get a drink no worries. And that won't solve anything.

(by the way Jane, you've left an italics tag open at the end of the post and it's making the sidebar and everything else go italic)

excellent work Jane, I am of course fully supportive of doing something about sexual abuse of all types in society including aboriginal society. One analysis seems to be missing in the quick to support the PM camp, including the federal ALP and opposition leader and that is a proper human rights assessment of some of these proposals put forward by Howard and Brough. The governnment's proposals include, enforced labour, coercive medical examination, arbitrary appropriation of property, breach of rights to social security, breach of childrens' rights and many others. It seems that no Australian international human rights treaty obligation is to be spared from violation. Finally most of what is proposed by the government has nothing to do with sexual abuse but are more about the 'niceties' of conservative ideologies and philosophies, Australian racism and getting re-elected

Wonderful blog, Jane. Howard does nothing positive for eleven years, then trots out this indigenous Tampa, these scattergun shots from the hip, just before the election. No planning, no consultation, no budget, no long-term thinking, no addressing of the real reasons for domestic violence. What's next? Photo-ops of him waving good-bye to the men in uniform at the airport? Sickening, the whole thing.

Thanks Jane. John Howard makes me feel scared, I feel sure that whatever he does it will NOT be in the best interests of the people that are effected. It really looks like some of these things are a backwards step, which is ironic, as it would look like it is hard to go any further backwards... Has anyone talked to any Aboriginal community members that they know about this, (Wamut?). It would be good to hear some dialogue from the people that will be most effected. Perhaps we should start our own consulting group and get a few of those recommendations happening in some other ways(!).

What worries me most about this is the governent's presupposition that a quick fix is available. This manifestly isn't the case: any real solution will take a long-term investment of will and resources. There are also serious implications for the rights which Aboriginal people should enjoy. The government's incredible proposals are appropriate to a subjugated population, not to the free citizens of an open democracy. Respect and cooperation, not coercion or paternalism, form the only basis on which the grave dysfunction of Aboriginal communities will be repaired.

It's obvious to everyone that major action is needed to repair the pitiful conditions in which Aboriginal people live. But the solution is long-term investment: in community, social and health workers, in infrastructure, in education and in welfare services – exactly the same investments that would be called for in any other Australian community with comparable problems.

Aboriginal communities need all these things, not land seizure, police and compulsory medical examinations. The proposed measures are deeply detrimental to the rights which Aboriginal people should enjoy in our society, and represent an unwarranted and alarming development. Which other groups in the community risk being deprived of fundamental freedoms in the name of a social emergency which the government has chosen to ignore until now?

Great post Jane, and thanks for summarising Howard's plan - I haven't been able to find the detailed proposal online (it's not in his press releases, for example).

Sophie, I was in Alice Springs when this came out and the Indigenous kids (year 5 and 7, approx) in the family I was staying with were pretty unimpressed about the health checks. It was yet another "tax" on being Indigenous, another negative consequence.

I saw in the paper this morning that some residents of Mutitjuḻu had gone to live in the sandhills because they thought the army was coming to take their kids from them (I'm assuming that none of this policy has been translated into Pitjantjatjara).

The sketchiness of information about the proposals for Aboriginal communities is terrifying. As several commentators have noted, it's like the "shock and awe" in Iraq. We weren't told what the follow-up plans were, and were horrified to learn that there weren't any. And then, inexorably, the lack of decent follow-up planning led to the current appalling situation in Iraq and the alienation of many Iraqis who had supported the intervention in the first place.

The similar sketchiness of plans for Aboriginal communities after the police have rolled in has led to fear and speculation. However, last night's announcement on
Phase 1 suggests that they will start by talking to communities in the south of the NT.

"It is important that these small teams, many of whom have NT understanding and experience, have the opportunity to sit down and have a meaningful engagement with communities."

"These initial visits this week will include scoping existing facilities in communities and establishing future needs as part of the reform package."

One would like to think that "NT experience" also includes "ability to interpret in relevant languages". Sadly this is unlikely to be the case. And the lack of detail from the start will have created a bad atmosphere for talking and listening.

Maybe communities will seize the opportunity to tell the government what they want, and ask for better services - more Indigenous police officers, better school facilities, swimming pools, dialysis machines etc. But they'll have to watch out that they don't have to trade their land for this. The Government is talking about compensation for compulsory acquisition. Communities had better negotiate hard and jointly.

Hi Jane.

Thank you for your postings on the proposed takeover of indigenous communities by the Howard government. And may I say that the disastrously high level of ignorance regarding indigenous issues on the part of the Australian people, many of whom rely for their information on the ‘disinfotainment’ churned out by the corporate media in lieu of critical, socially responsible, independent journalism, could be remedied to some extent if they were only to read "The Transient" each week.

Your original posting rightly points out that the Howard government’s proposed intervention ignores many of the recommendations contained in the Wild/Anderson Report, and that on the other hand, it invents measures which do not appear in the report. If anything, measures such as the taking over of the running of communities using five-year leases; the scrapping of the existing permit system; the sending in of police with no experience of indigenous culture; and the imposition of compulsory medical examinations, promise only to intensify the sense of disempowerment and alienation which nurtures the kind of pathological behaviour the measures purport to address.

However, although the federal government’s response makes very little sense if we take at face value its stated objective, i.e., the stamping out of child sexual abuse in remote indigenous communities, it makes perfect sense if we make an alternative assumption, supported by ample publicly available evidence from the Howard government’s track record, that its true objectives are in fact the weakening of indigenous autonomy, the assimilation of indigenous culture into the mainstream, and the facilitation of ‘development’ by transnational corporations and others on indigenously controlled land.

The Howard proposals are based on the paternalistic pretence that indigenous Australians are incapable of managing their own affairs, and that the declaration of a “national emergency” followed by a ‘benign’ military-style intervention by the army and the Federal Police is the only option remaining on the table. The intended intervention is far from benign, however, and is based on a lie.

The principal lie underlying the measures is that indigenous communities as a whole are places where alcohol and pornography are fuelling child sexual abuse. The truth is that child sexual abuse is a problem in Australian society as a whole, including some, but not all, remote indigenous communities. Predictably, however, the principal of universality, which would require that the measures be applied across the board rather than to a particular ethnic group, is ignored. Alcohol bans, compulsory medical examinations, and takeovers of local governments, are considered appropriate measures when applied to indigenous communities, but there is no suggestion that the same measures could ever seriously be applied to the non-indigenous population, even though the same problems exist there.

The Howard government, aided by the corporate media, and unhindered by the Labour opposition, who clearly represent the same set of interests, have been preparing the ground for this for some time, the opportunistic winding up of ATSIC being one previous move in the game. Essentially, the release of this report provides an opportunity to advance an agenda which has not as its aim any improvement in the living conditions of indigenous Australians. On the contrary, its intended outcome is the end of meaningful cultural difference, and the smoothing of the way for the exploitation of resource-rich country currently under the hard won control of indigenous groups.

Wow, this comment thread really opened up since I've been away.

Very well said, Bruce, I think we've been generally careful in tiptoeing around the idea that this is basically neo-assimilation, but it does make perfect, logical sense.

Wamut drew attention to the very first of the report's recommedations; that "It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities." The precise opposite is the case as communities' voices are being cast completely aside in the rush to do something fast (before the election).

From Kybrook, the situation is a bit more complicated. Housing is appaling and there hasn't been any funding for housing improvements for decades, and many other problems are derivative from this, overcrowding being the most detrimental. Moreover, the community coucil is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the government is telling them to get tough with people and fix problems while offering no support to do so, and on the other hand, the people in town who cause most of these problems, drinking, drugs, domestic violence and neglect of their children, just turn around and issue a complaint whenever the community tries to do something. Basically they're expected to operate with absolutely no carrot and all stick.

Excellent blog, Jane. This morning's Health Report on Radio National was a fine-grained
analysis of what's needed for health checks and beyond:

Little children are sacred. What's an evidence-based response?

“In this program we try to clear away the emotion, the hype surrounding the Australian Government's emergency response to child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. What does the evidence actually say about this problem? What can doctors who may be inexperienced in sexual abuse usefully do and what solutions are known to work?”

Rather than jumping on the band wagon and agreeing with the comments made on where howard has gone wrong there are a few issues I would like to have answered
1/ When it is proposed that the government take over the running of the townships havent the aboriginals been given years and millions of dollars to run there affairs and where are they today ???? the simple answer is they cant run there own affairs we can all see that , this cant be hidden. .

The offer of free medical consultation has no negatives but the point is made that they will be forced into it . housing is another issue I have , what is the point of pouring millions of doolars into these projects only to find they are destroyed ... Values start at home governments cant teach that the familys and communities need to take some responsiblitiy .... Carry on blaming the White australians all you like it wont solve a thing " You cant help those that cant help themselves ...

I was hoping that this discussion would help people realise that Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities are not all the same. Some communities are well-managed, happy places, and some are not. The problem with the previous government's intervention is that it did not recognise this. It treated communities which were functioning well exactly the same as those which are not good. In just the same way the income quarantining applied to poor parents and to retired war veterans, to young men on the dole and to elderly widows, to the blind and to single mothers. But young white neglectful parents, young white men on the dole, white alcoholics, aren't subject to this income quarantining. Everyone can see this. When you punish one group, effectively distinguishing them by race, you set in train generations of bitterness. Anything sensible you say is then easily discounted, because you have shown that you discriminate on the basis of race, and not on the basis of bad things like neglecting kids and alcoholism. Bad idea.

Yes, Governments have spent lots of money on Aboriginal communities, and much of it has been ripped off or used ineffectively or just outright wasted - but often not by Aborigines but by non-Aboriginal managers, bureaucrats, shop-keepers, and often by people employed by the Government. There is no guarantee that bringing the Government in to run communities will lead to more effective use of money in all communities. It'll reduce corruption in some places, but the power and lack of accountability of the Government managers will lead in other places to other idiotic ways to spend money, and, worse still, will demoralise people living in places which were functioning reasonably well. The same goes for lots of small town councils and shires in Australia. Many of them are inefficient and waste money dreadfully. (And could you trust the previous federal government which bought Super Hornet fighters - widely recognised as lemons - to use money wisely? Could you trust them when their initial public estimate of the Intervention's costs was "tens of millions", revised up & up over the following weeks as they actually started to calculate the cost of 750 bureaucrats to run the communities. )

Yes maintenance of property - houses and community assets - is important. People need training in it, they need help in stopping kids from wrecking things, and they need more houses - 18 people in a house is a recipe for disaster. And they need HONEST plumbers, electricians and builders to help repair the communities. You wouldn't believe the shoddy workmanship that some contractors get away with.

On the subject of free medical consultation. Yes more medical help is good - but communities have been crying out for more doctors, nurses and health workers, more public health for years and years. Medical checkups are only as good as the follow-ups - and as we've seen 6 months on from the intervention they are only just getting around to try to get the specialists to visit the kids who were identified with problems. One of the most disgraceful things about the Intervention was that it now turns out that Mal Brough and his department had no plan for follow-through. Lots of people had volunteered to help, thinking they'd be doing something useful, and their goodwill was just pissed up against the wall.

The simple answer is [Aboriginal people] cant [sic] run there [sic] own affairs we can all see that.

No matter how much you run with this line, the bare fact is that self-determination has never been tried as an approach to indigenous affairs in this country.

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