July 2007 to October 2007 on Floating Life

1. 17 July 2007

Hot issue 2: Indigenous Australia

Last night’s Four Corners was masterly. There is no doubting the complexity of the whole business and I can totally understand and respect, indeed value, Jim Belshaw’s long post on the subject: Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia’s Aborigines.  Jim and I do have a different take on the whole "sorry" business: I am all for the symbolic course the Howard government turned away from. Indeed I would go so far as to say we have a duty to revive that course as part of a foundation that would remove some of the imputations of racism that surface these days. We must distance ourselves utterly from memories of Pauline Hanson’s views on Aboriginal society and from the pedantry of Quadrant and Windschuttle and others whose influence on Howard has been especially strong. At the same time I have always valued Noel Pearson, and one could not fail to be impressed by him in last night’s program, or indeed (whatever else is on the government agenda, and I suspect much is and has been) by Mal Brough.

MATTHEW CARNEY: Three weeks later, on the morning the housing agreement is to be signed there’s a setback. The traditional owners of Hope Vale who approached us earlier with their concerns are now threatening to boycott the deal.

CLARENCE BOWEN, HOPE VALE TRADITIONAL OWNER: They came through the back door without even consulting.

MATTHEW CARNEY (to Clarence Bowen): Who came through the backdoor?


MATTHEW CARNEY (to Clarence Bowen): So you were never consulted?

CLARENCE BOWEN, HOPE VALE TRADITIONAL OWNER: We were never consulted that they were going to purchase this because there is a lot of sacred sites in that area.

MATTHEW CARNEY (to Tim McGreen): So why have you got the banner? Tell me what the problem is.

TIM MCGREEN: This is for our rights. you see because the traditional owners of Hope Vale didn’t have any recognition. We want to get our rights back now.

NOEL PEARSON (speaking to the public in Hope Vale, outdoors): With today’s agreement that has the potential to solve the housing problem for the people of Hope Vale. We’ve got to have home ownership …

MATTHEW CARNEY: For Noel Pearson it’s the day to confront his community with some hard truths and to take on those who oppose his plans.

NOEL PEARSON, DIRECTOR, CAPE YORK INSTITUTE (speaking to the public in Hope Vale, outdoors): Everybody knows the seething undercurrent. Why do you think the Government is taking 80 children per month to the Child Safety Department, across Cape York Peninsula, including from this community?

And you think I am going to sit back? Sorry, I am not yielding to anybody, because this is as much my home as yours. I am not going to allow my grandfather’s and godfather’s achievements to just be washed down the toilet. There’s got to be some leadership. There’s got to be community leadership. We can’t be all gutless. We can’t all agree that there are these problems, but not have the courage to deal with them …

MATTHEW CARNEY: Pearson says the $15 million deal is not going to be a handout – people will have to change.

NOEL PEARSON (speaking to the public in Hope Vale, outdoors): But I can tell you that you have within your reach here in this community the potential to be great again, the potential to live up to the achievement of your grandfathers, because at the moment we are an embarrassment to their heritage. We are a pale moral shadow of their original achievement. We are a pale shadow of their achievement.

They didn’t have two cents to their name but they never neglected their children. They never have 10 cents to rub together and they brought up their children and sent them to school.

MATTHEW CARNEY: This speech is a turning point for Noel Pearson and his community. It’s potentially a new start for the people here. Later, the traditional owners sign up to the deal.

MATTHEW CARNEY (to Tim McGreen): Tell me why your happier now.

TIM MCGREEN: After Noel’s speech he made it clear what it was all about you know. Finally we get over it and get on with life you know.

MATTHEW CARNEY: By the day’s end at least a dozen families sign on to the plan including the Bowens.

ESTELLE BOWEN: We’ll get to solve a lot of our problems if we have got homes for our young people so they can live by themselves.

Visit that Four Corners. I can’t help thinking too that divorcing the Rugby League and Australian Football worlds from their very public love affair with alcohol would be a very positive step not only for Indigenous Australians but for all Australians. Wowserish, but hard to deny the damage this whitefella drug addiction has wrought. It is not only Indigenous Australia that needs to take a long hard look at some cultural dysfunction. However, alcoholism and drug abuse and all that follows are not specifically Indigenous issues and the ills go deeper to the very fact of dispossession, a process that merely began in 1788 and goes on to this day. The real problem — sorry, a real problem — has also been the vacuum in which so many Indigenous Australians have found themselves in the past twenty years and more. If some good comes of the current focus on these questions then that is a plus, whatever reservations one may have. I hope a Labor government — which I also hope we get — will come back to all this with renewed vision and a willingness to go back to basics, not to turn the clock back to pre 1996 but to revive what has indeed been lost since 1996. But things can never be the same; thank God, in some ways…

Update 18 July

Visit tonight’s Australia Talks on Radio National. There will soon be a podcast there. Various knowledgeable voices explored "Government intervention in Indigenous communities".

An update on the federal government’s response to the child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory … with the Western Australian government also requesting help. But is the need to upgrade the permit system and wanting to reclaim Aboriginal land a step too far?

19 July: Why am I interested?

If you look at my last substantial comment on this post you will find plenty of indication of that… I really wish it was only about saving children, not that I have anything against that in itself. In fact the disgrace is that we have waited so long on that score. But I really do worry about what is getting in under the radar here. So do others, by no means mad lefties all of them either. My ex-Army Aboriginal nephew in Queensland has no doubt at all that this is what is happening, and he is all for Indigenous entrepreneurship — he’s into it himself and deeply involved in promoting it — and he’s all for the hand-up rather than the handout, but he has real doubts about what is happening right now. And he has seen communities close-up, Palm Island not least…

Concern, whatever form it takes, comes with being Australian. It’s our inescapable problem and destiny, and we have to know it and own it as best we can… Funnily enough some of my earliest intimations of this were when bushwalking in the valleys of the Woronora, Georges and Hacking Rivers — such things were possible — and finding traces — of whom? the Dharug? the Eora? the Dharawal? — in rock overhangs, and spear-sharpening grooves, and such. And some of those traces were very close to home. Not a lot, and I put it aside for many years… As we Australians have tended to do. But also half-knew these were my own ancestral traces too…

Jim Belshaw too has indicated in many posts his own fascination and desire to know more about what this place really is, and what and who has been here this past 40,000 years or more, long before the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, or the legendary tales of Genesis, long before the time we once believed — and some Americans and others still do, not all of them Christians either — was the time of creation. It’s mind-boggling really.

But that past flows on to us today, doesn’t it? Indigenous Australia in all its variety — and by no means are the issues we tend to focus on now the whole picture — is still here, something many in the 19th and early 20th centuries could not imagine. "The Last of His Tribe" was still the most powerful image of Aboriginality in my childhood, that and the funny, strange, and sometimes rather sexual, cartoons of Eric Jolliffe. Who else remembers him? They were once deep in our popular culture… Burke Shire does, apparently.

2. July 20, 2007

A story in today’s Australian, but not prominently displayed, goes to the heart of the current crisis in remote communities: ‘Crisis’ in welfare of children.

FORMER Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley has told an international forum that the poor health and welfare of Aboriginal children represents a "domestic humanitarian crisis".

… Professor Stanley told The Australian that the military intervention in Northern Territory communities and a proposal for a similar move in Western Australia arose from a substantial and growing gap between sections of Australia’s population.

"That’s exactly what we’re seeing: the extreme end of inequality in opportunity, education, welfare and crime," Professor Stanley said.

She called for trained Aboriginal health workers to be mobilised to work in troubled communities as part of the healing process.

"There are a huge number of Aboriginal people with health training but they have no career path," she said.

"They deliver a service that’s trusted and they are often swamped because they are so successful. But often the plug is pulled because they are employed in pilot programs."

While strongly endorsing moves to protect children from abuse, she warned against repeating past policies that separated Aboriginal children from their families.

"The removal of children in the Stolen Generation explains almost everything about the problems we’re seeing today," she said.

"We need to go back to the Stolen Generation report and implement every aspect of its recommendations."

The child health survey, which collected information from 2000 families and interviewed 11,500 family members, found 41 per cent of indigenous children were living in households that had experienced the forced separation of at least one parent, primary carer or grandparent.

Stephen Zubrick, the survey’s chief investigator, said the present focus on remote communities ignored identical or worse problems plaguing Aboriginal families in metropolitan Perth and southwest towns.

"There’s a fascination with looking at the remote communities, but there are only 2800 children under 18 living outside the metro area," he said.

"Some 60 per cent of all Aboriginal people in this state live in metropolitan settings."

The survey’s figures indicated that the health of Aboriginal children in urban areas was worse on some indicators, such as the incidence of asthma, he said.

"It would suggest the remote kids are actually doing better than city kids in one or two areas."

Some of the blame, if you want to go down that track, squarely sits in John Howard’s corner then, as the demolition of the Stolen Generations Report comes under his watch.

3. July 22, 2007

Even his greatest fans would admit that Phillip Adams varies in quality in his columns in The Australian but yesterday he excelled himself: Countless children in danger.

A 13-year-old girl dies in a wretched motel where her teenage pimp had forced her to service one more of many clients, a man in his 50s.

She dies in agony, having injected herself with heroin laced with battery acid.

A few miles away a 14-year-old girl is hanging out with her friends. To deal with their anger and boredom they go to a park where, unconsciously echoing a scene in A Clockwork Orange, they start "bashing a derro". Screaming in terror, he falls to the ground, where she joins in kicking him. Until she recognises his bloodied face. It’s her father.

These scenes did not take place in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. They happened in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. This column has reported many similar stories – concerning kids known to John Embling and Heather Pilcher in their work with the Families in Distress Foundation [of which Adams is a director], which was funded by readers for decades. Horrors like that, combined with worsening health, forced my heroic friends to retire. Like the thousands of children they helped, John and Heather were old beyond their years.

When the kids knew their fathers, they were in and out of prison. The father of one of the boys we took in was a criminal who became a celebrity, much admired by middle-class voyeurs who should be ashamed of themselves. The young mothers were almost invariably on drugs.

The kids were chronic truants. Why go to school? Even if they made that effort their job prospects were next to zero. Their future lay in criminality, in the black economy of Australia’s underclass.

John described their destinies in his book, Fragmented Lives. Here were boys "on their way to homicide or suicide", girls on their way to that motel room.

Sexual abuse is just part of the problem. Violence, addiction and psychological abuse is just as bad. And the scale of these problems in white society is staggering. This month I talked with a prosecutor working in the NSW courts. "There’d be more kids suffering like this in the PM’s electorate of Bennelong than in the entire Northern Territory," he said.

Asia has its child labor, Africa its child soldiers. Australia has countless children, in every suburb and ethnic group, living in danger – but not necessarily in squalor. A while back the mother of a young boy phoned me seeking help. Her son, grieving for his dead father, was being targeted by a middle-aged man with kids of his own. Forcing him to come to my office, I threatened to destroy his career. He was and remains a respected Melbourne barrister.

This sort of abuse is happening in your suburb, perhaps in your street. Visit your local court on what’s called "ladies day", when the women queue for AVOs – apprehended violence orders. The scenes played out in NT’s remote communities may be being played out behind the blinds in the house next door. And remember that 99 per cent of sexual abuse takes place within the family…

I feel that restores a necessary sense of proportion, even if the Embling book is now quite old and Adams is writing — or dictating, as apparently he composes orally — off the top of his head as usual. However, I found the following on The Book of Sand:

"Imagine a dream in which you are lost. All familiar landmarks are strange and terrifying. The faces of people you love are evil. There is no shelter for you anywhere. You are thirteen. You cannot wake up. The dream is true."

From Fragmented lives, by J. Embling

More on reconciliation

There is an interview in — of all apparently unlikely places — a newsletter for the Portland (Oregon) area Didjeridu player in March 2000 with "an educator in Australia who is very aware of the social, political and ecological importance of reconciliation in his home country." See Reconciliation, an Interview with Geoff Eagar.

[Ed] What exactly is reconciliation? What does it mean to you and what does it mean as an official policy? And finally, does the popularity world wide of the didjeridu lend any support to the goal of reconciliation in Australia?

[Geoff] Defining Reconciliation is a little like defining the length of a piece of string. It is a very complex and involved issue…certainly too much so for me to be confident and happy to be an authoritative source here. It’s a very appropriate question to ask and for the official line visit this site where you can get a handle on where we’re up to now:

My dictionary defines reconciliation in this way: 1. to render no longer opposed 2. to win over to friendliness…to bring into agreement or harmony. Clearly Reconciliation in this context is a much broader and more complex issue though the definitions above are still true. It means starting by acknowledging that "White Australia has a Black History." A shared history. I think that when we as a nation take this on board there is a way forward. History is about finding the truth of what has happened, squaring up to those truths no matter how awful and then walking on together.

logosm More up-to-date information may be found on Reconciliation Australia; however from the older site Geoff refers to I would like to quote this:


Declaration for Reconciliation

Speaking with one voice, we the people of Australia, of many origins as we are, make a commitment to go on together recognising the gift of one another’s presence.

We value the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original owners and custodians of traditional lands and waters.

We respect and recognise continuing customary laws, beliefs and traditions.

And through the land and its first peoples, we may taste this spirituality and rejoice in its grandeur.

We acknowledge this land was colonised without the consent of the original inhabitants.

Our nation must have the courage to own the truth, to heal the wounds of its past so that we can move on together at peace with ourselves.

And so we take this step: as one part of the nation expresses its sorrow and profoundly regrets the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apology and forgives.

Our new journey then begins. We must learn our shared history, walk together and grow together to enrich our understanding.

We desire a future where all Australians enjoy equal rights and share opportunities and responsibilities according to their aspirations.

And so, we pledge ourselves to stop injustice, address disadvantage and respect the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to determine their own destinies.

Therefore, we stand proud as a united Australia that respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and provides justice and equity for all.

Business unfinished.

4. August 4, 2007

JTV is not exactly for my demographic… However, as I half-watched last night I found myself drawn to an excellent segment on the current intervention in the Northern Territory.

So here I am right now downloading a podcast of last night’s episode, Brough Love. While it confirmed that Mal Brough is one of the most interesting people on the government side of politics, it made more clear than anything I have seen elsewhere the problems with his military cast of mind and with the policy he is implementing, about which he is, I believe, genuinely passionate, if perhaps mistaken. (See also in The Australian Land council fears welfare fallout. Further, the intervention so far has led to just a handful of referrals to child welfare agencies.)

One of the most interesting revelations for me on the jtv presentation was the input of Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University. Its director, Judy Atkinson, has been writing about violence in remote communities for two decades. See A National Crisis: what John Howard Isn’t Doing and REMOTE COMMUNITIES: What I would do. See also an interview with Rachel Kohn in 2006:

…Rachael Kohn: Today, Judy Atkinson is the Director of Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University. She’s speaking to me from Lismore in northern New South Wales. Well Judy, ten years ago you wrote that addressing the legal issues of indigenous women, particularly as victims of violence, was a needed balance to what had been a singular focus on native title. Do you think people expected too much of native title? Sort of like having land would be a panacea?

Judy Atkinson: That’s true. But I think it’s much more complex than that. There was such a deep need within our mob, our people, to have recognised the ownership rights they have to land across millennia, that they thought that this would fix everything. They didn’t realise they were moving into a whole can of worms within the legal system of Australia around Native Title.

The second thing is that people and country are so closely inter-related and from my position, this is what I would say to my own mob at the time, that unless we’re also working on healing people, how can we actually work to heal country? How can country work for us unless we’re there engaged with it? But if we’re unwell, we’re going to be unwell within our country.

What happened with Native Title, it actually has split and is continuing to split many families and communities apart because we have a false understanding of what Native Title could deliver.

Rachael Kohn: So Native Title continues to be obviously a significant issue for Aboriginal people, but there’s still the problem of family violence, violence within the communities. And that’s become certainly the focus of recent news broadcasts of the extended report on ABC’s Lateline and so forth. Are you encouraged by the focus on those issues?

Judy Atkinson: No, I’m not encouraged by them. We as Aboriginal people, many women and also many men have been working very solidly at a community level to address those issues. I am not seeing a real commitment from the government to work with us, to address those issues, they’re still running with their own agenda. At the same time what I am seeing is fractured, burnt-out community people who’ve been working for a long time with children, with women, with men, fearing that maybe there’s just no hope, that everything they’ve done means nothing…

Seriously worth following up in these days when incomplete and inadequate ideological approaches are driving the government’s agenda, however well-meaning parts of it may be — or not, in some aspects, but possibly the most significant ones in the longer term*.

august07_cover.jpgMore may be found in the latest excellent issue of The Monthly.

  • In “Pearson’s Gamble, Stanner’s Dream”, Robert Manne tracks the history of both government policies on Aboriginal communities and the thinking of key anthropologists – Elkin, Baldwin Spencer and, most significantly, WEH Stanner, who worked with Nugget Coombs – who have influenced these policies. From the early attempts at assimilation through the move to Indigenous self-determination, this far-reaching essay places the government’s recent actions, and in particular the pivotal role played by Noel Pearson, in a historical perspective.
  • In the Monthly Comment, philosopher Raimond Gaita questions the government’s recent intervention into remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Gaita argues that John Howard’s history of disdain for the supposedly empty gesture of reconciliation – most evident in his emphasis on “practical reconciliation” – shows a lack of respect for the people he now claims to be helping. The result, Gaita says, is serious moral and political confusion.

Those two articles are not yet online, but there is some good news about The Monthly: a selection of past articles is now online! This includes the two 2006 essays by Kevin Rudd.

* Later

Hmmm. When someone as eminent as former Australian of the Year Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM smells a rat in the Australian government’s new Aboriginal policy then I tend to think there is a rat — and it’s probably called mining companies, Uranium, and US bases. See Leaders slam ‘sickening’ plan.

The federal government’s intervention in the Northern Territory is sickening, rotten and worrying, says one of the most powerful Aboriginal leaders in the territory.

Speaking at the 2007 Garma Festival, deep in the heart of a stringybark forest in north-east Arnhem Land, former Northern Land Council president, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, called on people to fight the Howard Government’s takeover of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.

"I have got a political agenda to run," he said. "This government is a worrying government, not worried about us but worried about himself (Prime Minister John Howard) and worried about his few rich people and business people that support the coalition that puts them back into government to run amok in the nation."…

Monday: The Sydney Morning Herald reports the rather devastating news (I would have thought) that the authors of the report which triggered the government intervention feel utterly betrayed by what the government has done.

THE authors of the report that prompted the radical federal intervention in the Northern Territory say every one of their recommendations for tackling child sexual abuse in indigenous communities has been ignored by the Howard Government.

One of the authors, Pat Anderson, said yesterday that she and her co-author, Rex Wild, QC, "feel betrayed, disappointed, hurt and angry – pretty pissed off all at the same time" by the federal response.

"When we turned on the television and saw the troops roll into the Northern Territory we were sort of devastated that this could happen," Ms Anderson, a health administrator, said.

5. September 21, 2007

Courtesy of Journeyman Pictures, a wonderful source of documentaries — "London’s leading independent distributor of topical news features, documentaries and footage" — I preface this with David Bradbury’s Jabiluka: The Aboriginal Swindle (1997). You must visit the video here, as embedding is disallowed.

The lure of Uranium has proved irresistible to successive Australian governments and Australia’s Environment Minister has dismissed the Mirrar people’s objections to the Jabiluka mine. This lucrative project could sever the Mirrar people’s spiritual links with the earth and the sights of sacred significance throughout the valley. "I was born in the bush" Yvonne Margarula tells us, "sleeping on the ground with the fire". Twice Academy Award nominated director, David Bradbury, explores the effects of this cultural devastation on the lives of a people and a land inextricably joined.

Rare archive footage shows how Yvonne’s father and his people were bullied into giving their legal consent to a lease over Jabiluka. The traditional landowners were encouraged to consider not just their own wishes but that of Australian progress as a whole. But they thought they were negotiating for a land claim, not another uranium mine. Yvonne’s father Toby was weakened by stress and spent most of the fateful meeting lying down. His sigh "I’m tired now, I can’t fight any more" was taken as all the consent needed for the mine to go ahead. He received a silver plated pen for his trouble…

Ten years on we have had the Howard government’s intervention, which I have treated with a degree of caution and doubt: Some thoughts on the events of June 2007, and recent posts tagged Indigenous Australians on Old Lines from a Floating Life.

In August, for example, I posted Some good things on the Australian government and Indigenous Australians which said… (See above.)

In today’s Australian there is an interesting development: Galarrwuy Yunupingu: The challenge begins which is so important I reproduce it in full:

ONLY when we are empowered to take full responsibility at a local level will change occur.

IN August, I called Aboriginal leaders together at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land to talk about the federal Government’s intervention in the Northern Territory. I sat for three days with many clansmen and leaders including Pat Dodson, who has been my friend for many years. Everyone expressed their concern about the intervention, which had been announced with great haste a few weeks earlier. With my daughter I carved message sticks that were sent to Canberra seeking a halt to proceedings so we could obtain input into the debate, which affects every aspect of our lives.

I was surprised, and pleased, when in response federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough made the decision to visit me at my homeland at Dhanaya on Port Bradshaw. He came and told me that he wanted to protect children and improve lives. I told him that my life had been spent working on such tasks and if this was genuinely what he sought to do then he had my full support. Not only that, but I would join him, as I would join any minister with the same good intentions, and put my shoulder to the wheel.

Brough was confused about why I had criticised the Government when I had addressed thousands of people attending the Garma Festival.

The answer is simple. I told him I was a landowner and leader and he had not spoken to me. He had acquired my land and sought control of my life without talking to me, let alone seeking my consent. Nor had he spoken to the hundreds of people like me throughout the NT who spent their lives coping with Third World conditions, a lack of services and the abject failures of governments. That simple failure to consult, I told him, would eventually undermine his good intentions. The conditions that hurt children and that he was pledging to fix would remain while he sought to impose a solution.

It really is that simple. He could not work for us unless he worked with us.

Today, I have signed a memorandum of understanding that satisfies my concerns about the land-leasing issues and will ensure that the changes to the permit system will be workable and not undermine land rights. I believe this new model will empower traditional owners to control the development of towns and living areas, and to participate fully in all aspects of economic development on their land.

I have also sought and received the minister’s agreement to the establishment of the Mala Elders group.

These elders are those who hold the highest authority in Aboriginal law. The Mala Elders group will take responsibility for the future of our children.

I will ask the Northern Land Council to work with me in the formation of the Mala Elders group. We will not be a construct of government but self-forming and self-funded. The concept, I hope, will translate throughout the NT. I think this is the opening we need to create a new era of empowerment for Aboriginal people.

Governments must stop babysitting us because we are not children. But if treated like children, people will behave like children. It is time for us to be given responsibility in the right way. And let me be clear, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was not the right way.

The Mala Elders group will remind governments that they are not to control our lives but to empower our people. We will remind all politicians with great seriousness that the land is our backbone and that for Aboriginal children land remains central to their identity. This is something that must never be forgotten. Land ownership is the past, the present and the future for each child in Arnhem Land. Without their land they will not be people. That is why I said at the Garma Festival recently that I was worried sick. And I was, worried sick by the prospect of a land grab.

I am not worried at all by the other aspects of the Government’s plan. In fact I welcome them. I welcome the tight controls being placed on alcohol. I ask the Government to go further and shut the two takeaway outlets in Nhulunbuy, the Walkabout and the Woolworths. And I welcome the abolition of kava. What a ridiculous argument to make that kava is good because it stupefies people. And I urge zero tolerance for other drugs.

We must have real jobs, which community development employment projects have not delivered. Nearly all the real jobs in our communities are taken by non-Aborigines, which is an unacceptable situation. And we must have real schools and we must have real training. On these matters — low levels of education, training and employment, and the crippling of our people by alcohol and drugs — I am in agreement with Noel Pearson of Cape York. He came to meet me and we discussed these matters.

I have seen many challenges in my life. This is the greatest challenge. We must take advantage of the efforts of governments to ensure that benefits flow and that change is lasting. But we must take responsibility for our future. Only when we are empowered to take full responsibility at a local level will change occur. The Government cannot do it for us but it can clear the path, which has never been done before. And this can be done with respect for land, law and culture.

From there on it is up to us.

I think we must take that on board. This is far from endorsing all that the Howard TEAM has done and not done in eleven years in the area of Indigenous Australians. I stand by what I posted in June, and remain cynical about aspects of what has happened. On the other hand, the careful (and, to some, pusillanimous) response of the Labor opposition may have been wise. I do not believe yesterday’s advice by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) deputy chairman Ray Robinson is wise.

Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) deputy chairman Ray Robinson says the major political parties in Australia do not deserve a single vote from Aboriginal people.

Mr Robinson says with a federal election looming, Indigenous people must now consider who to vote for.

He says the Federal Government scrapped ATSIC – the peak body representing Indigenous people – while the Labor Party stood by and let it happen.

Mr Robinson says the major political parties have committed so many violations against Aboriginal people that they do not deserve any support.

"There is no comfort from the Rudd Opposition of what the Federal Government is doing to Aboriginal people, so why vote for them when their policies are exactly the same as the present Government?" he said.

Mr Robinson says Aboriginal people around the country must put aside their differences and unite against the major political parties in the coming election.

Only if you really want to help the Howard government get back, Ray…

Go to National Indigenous Times for further, and perhaps variant, discussion.

6. October 12, 2007

But what a strange day it became. The syllabus itself turned out to be a model of cultural bipartisanship; for every cricket milestone mentioned, there was a nod to multiculturalism or a reference to Patrick White. Mr Howard modestly omitted the election of his own Government from the digest of "interesting things that happened between 1976 and 2000", but included the inception of the multicultural broadcaster SBS.

If all that were not enough, the Prime Minister bobbed up last night with the casual revelation that he was planning a national referendum to include a new acknowledgement of Aboriginal Australia in the constitution.

On hearing this, Mr Howard’s culture warriors might well be forgiven for surreptitiously arranging an assessment by the platoon’s medical officer. In terms of reversals, it’s quite a doozy – imagine Shane Warne confessing a sudden fondness for sushi, or Elton John a distaste for sequins. What next? An honorary Howard chair in surfing at Griffith University? An Order of Australia for John Pilger? Vegetarians in the Lodge?

Today, the cultural battlefield will stand silent with genuine, bipartisan bafflement.

Indeed, Annabel Crabb!

Perhaps John Howard has been to my Indigenous Australians page. 😉

In a speech to the Sydney Institute (PDF), the Prime Minister said he had always "struggled" with symbolism while concentrating solely on what he called practical reconciliation. "My instinct has been to try and improve the conditions for indigenous people within the framework of a united nation and unified Australia citizenship."

He admitted his 1998 election-night promise to achieve reconciliation by 2001 had failed.

Mr Howard, 68, said his age was part of the reason he had underestimated the value of symbolic gestures. "The challenge I have faced around indigenous identity politics is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up. I recognise now that, though emotionally committed to the goal, I was mistaken in believing that it could be achieved in a form I truly believed in."

Mr Howard’s speech, designed in part to lend him an aura of freshness, could be his last big announcement before the election, which senior ministers expect to be called in the next three days…

The degree of cynicism at the end of that report is inevitable, no doubt. I suspect electorally it will not do all that much for Howard, but I do think it would be churlish not to welcome this degree of progress. Perhaps Noel Pearson and Jackie Huggins, among others, have had a positive influence after all. Patrick Dodson gave the PM’s move a cautious welcome on Radio National this morning.

Meanwhile, let’s review one of the greatest political speeches ever made in this country:

It’s time. Whatever Howard’s motives, whatever you think of this, it is an opportunity.



Go to ABC Radio National’s The Australian landscape: a cultural history.


There were some interesting reflections on Howard’s shift in this area on PM last night: Howard plans constitutional recognition of Aborigines.

MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister, in an unusually self-reflective, self-questioning mood, I think, Gillian Bradford.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Yes, he says he’s the first to admit that this area of reconciliation is one he has struggled with during the entire time he’s been prime minister. His instinct has been to try to improve the conditions for Indigenous people. He’s never felt comfortable with old fashioned ways of doing things, but he honestly believed that he was through his time pushing what was the best thing for Indigenous Australians.

MARK COLVIN: And he’s always been accused of being stuck in the 50s when it comes to Aboriginal politics. He really takes that on quite directly, doesn’t he?

GILLIAN BRADFORD: He does, but he also says here that some will no doubt want to portray his remarks tonight as some form of Damascus road conversion. But he says in reality they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn Liberal conservative ideas. And he says their roots lie in a Burkean respect for custom, cultural tradition, and the hidden chains of obligation that binds a community together.

MARK COLVIN: Burke, Disraeli, and Michael Oakeshott, a series of conservative politicians and philosophers, which will send journalists scurrying for the philosophy books, no doubt.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Indeed, me among them, and what this will do also for journalists is, as I said before, break everybody out of the cycle of sitting and waiting for an election to call. This is not something anybody expected. I can’t emphasise that strongly enough. There was speculation earlier in the day that in fact the Prime Minister might be calling the election tonight. But he has set the agenda here. He is trying to prove that he does have ideas for the future, that he can fight Kevin Rudd on an agenda for the future, and probably hit him where he least expected.

MARK COLVIN: Interesting to see what the Opposition leader has to say in response this time.

Even later

This is what I heard on ABC National this morning:

In Albury-Wodonga, Aboriginal elder Sandy Atkinson spoke with ABC Local Radio. "I think that was the very good speech from our PM. This is a very difficult issue and nobody knows how to fix some of these things," he said.

The man regarded as the "father of reconciliation", Pat Dodson, told ABC Radio National he is pleased the issue is back on the agenda and says its bigger than any politician. "The nation needs to certainly heal these wounds and we certainly need substantive negotiations about how any reconciliatory resolution to the unfinished business and the apology is part of the unfinished business," he said.

But New South Wales magistrate Pat O’Shane is urging people not to suspend their disbelief. "Maintain your cynicism, sit back and wait to hear further details if there are any to be forthcoming," she said.

You may see more reaction in many places; for example Howard urged to say ‘sorry’. There you see this: Mr Howard has said Labor could not achieve as much support as the Coalition for the referendum he has proposed. And there, I’m afraid, we see it is still the same old snake, even if he has shed a skin. Such a shame that, as the element of calculation, given the timing, emerges rather too obviously from that clumsy bit of packaging; I am sure we will hear it again. It is, needless to say, utter bullshit.

Nonetheless, I would still argue we have been given an opportunity to get it right.

See also Malcolm Fraser, Fred Chaney and Julianne Schultz, the latter arguing that Noel Pearson has had real influence in winning the PM to rethink symbolic issues, all on ABC’s Unleashed.

Go to Galarrwuy Yunipingu’s speech of 26 October 2007.


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