After the Howard disaster: Indigenous leaders look to the future

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Many Australians were jubilant to see former Prime Minister John Howard lose his own

seat of Bennelong at the 24 November federal election. But for the Indigenous rights

activists holding a sovereignty vigil outside the old Victorian Aboriginal Health Service

building in Fitzroy on election night, the news that Mal Brough — architect of the hated

Northern Territory (NT) intervention and Howard’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs —

had also lost his seat brought whoops of joy.

Brough had been scathing of respected Aboriginal leaders who travelled to Canberra to

make last-minute appeals against the hurried passage of the NT intervention, dismissively

stating he did not regard them “as real Indigenous leaders.” Brough claimed that

“grassroots people loved the plan,” which includes sending troops, a land grab, the

abolition of the permit system and quarantining of welfare payments — all under the

guise of fighting child abuse. So confident was the Coalition that Adam Gilies — an

Indigenous man and the Country Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Lingiari, which

covers the whole of the NT except Darwin — said the federal election was a referendum

on the intervention. And Aboriginal people in 70 remote territories across the NT spoke.

In all but one, the ALP candidate, Warren Snowden, won in a landslide with winning

margins of up to 98% of the vote!

“Uncle Toms,” such as John Howard’s favourite Aboriginal “leader,” Noel Pearson,

were also shown to have little real support. The vote for the ALP was 75% in Hopevale,

Pearson’s community, with a 21% swing against the Coalition. In Yirrikala, the home of

Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a late convert to the NT intervention, the Coalition scored just

two votes out of a possible 266!

The verdict from Aboriginal Australia was unambiguous. John Howard’s 11 years

in office were a disaster for Indigenous Australians and, says Michael Mansell, legal

director for the Tasmanian Legal Centre and a spokesperson for the National Aboriginal

Alliance, “Aboriginal people across Australia are relieved to see the back of Howard and

Brough.”

Howard’s legacy. Prior to the election, the National Indigenous Times published

an editorial in which it said, “it is impossible to get past the fact that for Aboriginal

Australia, John Howard has been the most divisive and destructive prime minister in

living memory.”

Few Indigenous people would disagree. Commenting on the Howard era, Ray Jackson,

president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, told the Freedom Socialist

Bulletin: “Howard came in with a plan and spent a lot of time and money fighting

Aboriginal interests to implement it. His aim was to expand profits by opening land up to

mining and other interests. One of his first targets was the Racial Discrimination Act. At

first he couldn’t overturn it. It was only with the NT intervention that he was finally able

to do this. Then the Coalition attacked land rights — they unleashed the Wik 10 Point

Plan, which amended the Native Title Act to provide certainty to big business. Howard

opposed the claims of the Stolen Generations and refused to say ‘sorry.’ The attacks were

constant. The last big one, the invasion of the NT, was again multi-layered. While there

was resistance, Howard just rolled on like a juggernaut”

Troy Austin, former Victorian Zone Commissioner for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait

Islander Commission, spoke with the Freedom Socialist Bulletin and slammed Howard

for “totally ignoring the issues affecting a majority of the Aboriginal people who live

in capital cities and towns throughout Australia.” Howard gutted the Abstudy program.

Under his prime ministership, the number of Indigenous people enrolled in university

declined and employment of Indigenous people in the public service plummeted to an

all-time low. Despite Howard’s claims to stand for practical measures, nothing was done

to close the scandalous gap in Indigenous health funding, despite the resources clearly

being available to do so. Since 2002, the federal government has delivered sufficient

budget surpluses to eliminate the Indigenous health funding gap, according to Australian

Medical Association estimates, at least 168 times!

Another legacy of John Howard was the abolition of the elected Indigenous leadership

body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). While the

Coalition claimed ATSIC failed to deliver, its replacement methods of funding

Indigenous affairs were a disaster. While Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Amanda Vanstone

promised “a quiet revolution” in Indigenous funding and introduced a trial based on

centralising service delivery for each community in the hands of a single government

department. The scheme was a miserable failure strangled in red tape. In the remote

community of Wadeye, the trial delivered a total of five new houses, while 15 became

uninhabitable. And, at its conclusion, there was still no high school, and the primary

school was able to house only half the school-aged population.

So ideologically driven was the Howard government in its hatred of Indigenous people

— especially radicals — that it railed against “symbolic reconciliation” and “rights-based

legislation,” dismantled the Tent Embassy on the lawns of Old Parliament House and

ensured that Australia was one of only four countries to vote against the UN Declaration

on the Rights of Indigenous People. Little wonder the Coalition had barely a friend

among Indigenous Australians.

The Rudd blueprint. But what of the new Rudd ALP government? Indigenous leaders

in the NT have welcomed the opportunity to sit down and talk with Rudd and the new

minister, Jenny Macklin. The language has certainly changed and consultation, it seems,

is back on the agenda. In an interview with Koori Mail, Macklin used the need to

“consult” as a convenient way to avoid answering all the tricky questions!

Ray Jackson says that, “While Macklin and Rudd are being very choosy about who they

consult, they are being forced to listen to elders from the communities who have opposed

the intervention. As long as they are talking with genuine community leaders, that is a

good start.”

But Jackson believes that, “when it comes to national issues, they will not talk with

radicals; they will not talk with people who want sovereignty and a treaty. That is not on

the Rudd agenda at all.”

Rudd has announced that he will set up some kind of representative body. Troy Austin,

who had the experience of being part of ATSIC, believes that such a structure must “put

Indigenous leaders in a position to influence the agenda on Indigenous issues” and must

be “an independent Indigenous structure that establishes an economic base for Indigenous

Australians.” He insists that “such a structure should not be reliant on recurrent

government funding.”

The NT intervention, which Rudd supported before the election, will stay with no review

of controversial elements, such as the patronising welfare quarantine measures, until the

second half of 2008. The new government will not, however, dismantle the Community

Development Employment Scheme (CDEP.) This scheme, where Indigenous people

work for a payment 25% more than welfare, was criticised by the Howard government as

“too generous.” While the scheme has strong support in remote Aboriginal communities,

the vital work done by workers on the CDEP program should be properly funded and

paid for at award wages.

After initially promising not to extend the NT measures to other parts of Australia,

the prime minister announced that he supports a plan to extend welfare quarantining

measures to Cape York communities in Queensland. Les Malezer, from the Foundation

of Aboriginal and Islander Research Action, accused the ALP of “abusing the support it

got from Aboriginal people.”

Malezer is not the only leader concerned about what a Rudd government might

bring. Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Law and Indigenous Studies at the University

of Technology in Sydney, criticised Rudd for running a “me too” campaign. She is

concerned that the ALP “has indicated that they are happy to embrace the mantra of

mutual obligation.” Behrendt says much Indigenous scepticism results from the ALP’s

poor record on Indigenous issues while in opposition: “There is its failure to take issue

with the harshest and most insidious aspects of the intervention. Many still remember

how the ALP allowed its incoming president, Warren Mundine, to sit on the National

Indigenous Council and to set the Howard government’s agenda on the privatisation

of communal land. Nor has the memory dimmed about the role played by past prime

ministerial aspirant and ALP leader, Mark Latham, in agreeing to the abolition of

ATSIC.”

Ray Jackson is also pessimistic about what a Rudd government will deliver unless it

is forced to do so. “I don’t believe his government will change much. We will get an

apology to the Stolen Generation, but there will be no compensation.” He supports the

call raised by Michael Mansell for a billion dollar compensation fund for the Stolen

Generations. Jackson argues there’s a surplus and says the compensation “could come

from one of the multi-billion dollar future funds.”

Putting sovereignty and treaty on the agenda. Jackson also sees the fight to end the NT

invasion as a key priority. “Rudd has already stated that the NT invasion will continue for

at least 12 months. Then he will decide if it will be widened. We are going to converge

on Canberra on 11 February to argue forcefully and loudly that we do not accept the

continuation of the invasion. We — the Left, both Black and white — need to keep

pressure on the Rudd government and demand justice. We need united pressure from

everyone who wants to join the movement. We do not want the wishy-washy, mealy-
mouthed social justice that they want to give us. We will not be grateful or satisfied with

measures, simply because they are not as bad as Howard’s.”

Jackson points out that Rudd “is not interested in talking sovereignty and treaty. But,” he

argues, “these issues are the fundamental bottom line. Just as we had to educate previous

governments, the Rudd government will be forced to learn from a mobilised mass

movement that lobbies, pickets, marches and campaigns. The argument for sovereignty,

treaty and social justice remains as strong as ever. As the more radical movement leaders

have pointed out — these demands, fundamental to the struggles of Indigenous people —

can’t be bought off. They are not going away!”

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