If Indigenous Australians hoped to see a significant change with the election of the Rudd Labor government at the end of 2007, they’ll surely be as disappointed with the new government as trade unionists are.
The Rudd government is not so crude in its racism as the former Howard administration. It abolished Howard’s puppet National Indigenous Council (NIC) and endorsed the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous people. In February 2008, the nation stood still as Rudd delivered an eloquent and long- overdue apology to the Stolen Generations. But, there’s still no representative Aboriginal body to replace the NIC and no funding for one in the current budget. The government has made it clear that, while signing the UN declaration, it is certainly not bound by it! And while we cannot underestimate the importance of the State having finally said “sorry” to generations of Indigenous people stolen from their communities, not a cent of compensation has been paid, despite this being one of the central recommendations in the Bringing Them Home report.
Broken promises. In opposition, the ALP said it would sign a treaty, move Australia Day to a more inclusive date and boost funding for Aboriginal legal aid. In government, it has broken all three commitments. In opposition, the ALP pledged to “protect, preserve and revitalise Indigenous languages.” In government, it supports the Northern Territory (NT) scrapping of bilingual education, despite Australia losing Indigenous languages at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. It’s even failed to employ more Indigenous Australians – under Rudd the number of Aboriginal workers in the public service has declined.
Land – the missing link.
Indigenous oppression is based on domination over a series of small, but interconnected, nations by a capitalist settler state. This makes land rights central to any plan to improve life for Indigenous people. The ALP has a fundamental contradiction. It can’t govern in the interests both of mining and agribusiness companies and Aboriginal Australia.
ALP actions, while cloaked in fine sounding rhetoric about “closing the gap,” are in reality little more than an assimilationist land grab. The Northern Territory provides the clearest example. It’s in the spotlight, in part, because Aboriginal people have more control over land in the Territory than in many other parts of the country.
In his final months in office, Howard launched the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or “Intervention,” suspending the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to impose racist restrictions on residents of remote Aboriginal communities. Among them was compulsory income management – replacing half of all welfare payments with a ration card! In opposition, the ALP supported the Intervention but promised to review it.
In government, the ALP conducted its review. Its experts recommended that the RDA be restored and income management be made voluntary – the findings of the review were ignored!
The Rudd government grandly claims that, unlike its predecessor, it would adopt “an evidence-based approach,” vowing to replace ideology with evidence. But when it comes to the Intervention, clearly it’s not looking at the facts.
The Intervention was rationalised on the basis of protecting children. Government figures released in May show that of the 7,433 Aboriginal children examined by doctors, 39 were referred to authorities for suspected abuse and of these, a maximum of four possible cases of abuse were identified. While any abuse is abhorrent, these figures are little different from those of any other community.
Deadly paternalism. In its submission to the review, the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association provided evidence of starvation – a result of welfare quarantining. This is confirmed by the Sunrise Health Service, east of Katherine, which delivers primary healthcare to communities subject to the full impact of the Intervention. In children under five, the rate of anaemia, an indicator of poor nutrition, has almost trebled since the Intervention. Fifty-five percent of children now show signs of the disease. Low birth weight, another indicator of poor nutrition, had doubled from 9% to 18% since the Intervention.
There is absolutely no evidence that compulsory income management provides any benefits to those subject to it. But there is plenty of evidence that Aboriginal people in remote communities are forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to get to a large supermarket chain that can accept their so-called Basics Card. Many are then stranded in town, unable to afford the cost of transport back to their community.
There’s also plenty of evidence that this system is grossly inefficient. The Rudd government can claim to have allocated the largest amount to Indigenous Affairs in a single budget. But the biggest ticket item in this budget is $106 million for the administration of income management – that’s more than $7,000 per person per year to manage income not even double that! Meanwhile people starve!
Naked land grab.
To cap this off, Jenny Macklin, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, launched Reconciliation Week, announcing a plan to compulsorily acquire the Alice Springs Town Camps, managed by the local Tangentyere Council. Tangentyere was formed in 1970 with the expressed goal of establishing security of tenure for the Indigenous residents, who were previously fringe dwellers with no rights. The land is owned communally. Now, Macklin has made it a condition of funding for basic services that Tangentyere Council sign 40-year leases and hand control of the Town Camps to the NT government.
When Howard tried to impose a similar plan, Macklin said: “we do not want land tenure reform being made a condition of funding for basic services.” In government, she has instructed every state and territory housing minister that Commonwealth funds must not be spent on public housing on Aboriginal land unless a minimum 40-year lease on the land is obtained first!
The 40-year period is designed for one thing – to ensure that the current generation of landowners dies and that the next generation is prevented from regaining title under the restrictive Native Title Act. It’s a despicable policy of administrative genocide.
Move out or die out.
In May, the territory government announced another genocidal policy, designed to force people off their land. Called “A Working Future,” it is a cynical attack on Aboriginal land, culture and self-determination. Twenty Aboriginal communities have been selected to become “regional hubs,” receiving $160 million in infrastructure funding if they agree to hand over their land. The remaining 580 communities get just $36 million. This is an attack on the Aboriginal outstation movement, despite clear evidence that residents of these communities have stronger cultural connections and better health than those in regional centres.
The policy was the final straw for former Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour, who has quit the ALP, accusing the party of lying to Aboriginal people. She now sits as an independent. Her seat of Arafura, which covers Western Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands, has more than 40 outstations. Her principled stance has brought a barrage of sexist abuse from the NT media, which labelled her unstable and emotional. It has also brought widespread applause from Aboriginal people around the country, including the Full Council of the Northern Land Council. These 80 traditional owners voted unanimously to back Scrymgour and condemn the homelands policy, which is a barely recycled copy of the racist bantustan strategy of the apartheid regime tossed out by South Africa’s black majority nearly 20 years ago.
Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs.
Last year the government said “sorry” for the terrible consequences of assimilationist policies imposed by a string of institutions that thought they knew what was best for Aboriginal people.
But real change would offend their corporate sponsors. So it’s back to the genocidal policies of the last two centuries, masked by bureaucratic weasel words. The policy of the Rudd government is to remove people from their land, to destroy their culture and to finally resolve what colonial governments called the Native Question.
This is a struggle about fundamental rights such as the freedom of movement, freedom to control of one’s own life and to the services that every citizen of a wealthy country demands, and freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race. The fight for justice for Aboriginal Australians is an integral battle for all whose interests are opposed to capitalism.