Archive for the ‘Indigenous’ Category

Howard’s ministries: social welfare at the “very limits of acceptable conduct”


Australia’a poorest people have been pursued in an unprecedented and aggressive legal campaign over welfare payments – and the workplace relations department is under fire for running up lawyers’ bills chasing small amounts of money or cases so weak they never reach court.

The number of cases pushed through the courts by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has soared almost 20-fold over three years in one court alone, as pension payments are challenged and moves made to recover amounts as low $1300.

The aggressive pursuit of welfare recipients dates from 2004, when the Howard government handed the department control of a $20 billion social security budget. As secretary, Dr Boxall oversaw a significant culture change, with the number of appeals by the department to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal soaring from just 17 in 2004-05 to 202 the following year, and to 321 last year.

A lawyer who has worked closely with the department said it had pursued social security recipients to the “nth degree” – whatever the legal merits of the case. The department was “ruthless in the pursuit of any and every case” where a social security recipient may have received a small overpayment – even when it had been given wrong and misleading advice by Centrelink.

“In my experience, [the department] operated at the very, very limit of acceptable conduct,” he said.

Actually, Australia’s poorest people have nothing like that sort of thing to contend with. Our poorest people have to deal with this sort of thing:

An international student assessment reveals there’s been little improvement in Indigenous performance over the last six years.

The results of the OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development international student test shows a big gap between Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Australia’s northern Aboriginal communities will bear the brunt of climate change, with increases in water-borne diseases and loss of traditional food sources, an international report says.

In the Torres Strait Islands, at least 8000 people will lose their homes if sea levels rise by 1m.

… more than 100,000 people in remote Aboriginal communities across northern Australia face serious health risks from malaria, dengue fever and heat stress, as well as loss of food sources from floods, drought and more intense bushfires.

In the remote areas of the Northern Territory, where high unemployment is rampant, the government’s main jobs program has been abolished, forcing thousands more onto welfare. Welfare payments for all Aborigines living on Aboriginal land are now controlled by government bureaucrats. Federally appointed administrators with wide powers have been imposed. The permit system, by which Aboriginal communities in the Territory controlled entry onto their land and settlements, has been abolished.

Olga Havnen, a leader of the National Aboriginal Alliance, said in a message to the protesters in Sydney that the “only visible change in most communities has been the construction of housing for government business managers.”

Doctors from across Australia have launched a high-profile attack on the Northern Territory intervention, saying it is failing indigenous people.

Writing in The Medical Journal of Australia today, the doctors criticise the intervention as disrespectful and badly thought through.

Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders will not achieve equal health outcomes with non-Indigenous Australians until all governments properly fund and resource accessible health services and programs, and their economic, educational and social disadvantages have been eliminated.

Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have the poorest health of any group living in this country.

Indigenous standardised mortality ratios are more than three times the expected rate, and death rates between 25-54 years of age are 5-8 times that seen in non-Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous infant mortality rates are three times higher than for non-Indigenous infants.

The 17-year gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the rest of the Australian population must be closed. It is not acceptable in 2007 for any Australian to have a 1920s’ life expectancy. The gap in life expectancy must be closed within 25 years.

I’m just saying Prime Minister Rudd has a lot of work to do. A lot can be left behind in 11 years of government by a neo-colonialist tit like John Howard.


Conspicuous compassion and wicked problems

Boyd Hunter, Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University (and, full disclosure, former employer of me as an RA), has put together a great article concerning the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill. This is the scam discussed here, previously – but it happens to be Boyd’s area of expertise.

He discusses the idea of the ‘wicked’ problem – one with multiple dimensions, incomplete and contradictory requirements and, ultimately, rarely a solution – or rarely one that does not generate another wicked problem of its own.


Indigenous policy is one of most complex areas facing governments, as it involves many issues that do not exist for other Australians: a dynamic cultural life; a need to change social norms; unique forms of property rights, such as native title; and the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, sometimes arising from problematic historical government interventions (such as, the stolen generation).

Indigenous policy is easily characterised as a wicked problem. Obviously, mainstream Australian society has a different perspective on the problem from Indigenous stakeholders, who are more likely to emphasise land rights, cultural difference and injustice. One of the main debates for the NT intervention is whether the trade-off between Indigenous rights and socioeconomic status is being taken into account. The existence of this trade-off means Indigenous Australians must own both the problem and solution (Henry 2007).

If behavioural and attitudinal change is required, then an adequate process of consultation with Indigenous people is obviously crucial to securing their cooperation. Imposing solutions from above is both profoundly illiberal and unlikely to produce real solutions at all.

“Issues that do not exist for other Australians” is some kind of understatement. I could learn a thing or two of politeness from Boyd.

The article’s discussion of the context of the intervention (such as rates of child abuse not actually exceeding non-indigenous rates) is very enlightening (for those affiliated; I’m not suggesting international readers are so wonk-ish as to care, greatly), as is the critique of the rhetoric surrounding the policy.

While the analogy of war provides good copy for the media, and hence has utility for politicians, it is a singularly inappropriate term for constructing a positive and informed debate about complex social issues. If Indigenous child abuse and community dysfunction are wicked problems, then the oversimplification of the issues diminishes our capacity to construct effective policy options.

If one is serious about Indigenous policy, one needs to attempt to build a long-term consensus rather than construct a heroic-style conflict between competing policies where one policy is invariably portrayed as a failure and the other as the solution.

As well as a great criticism of the absence of any sort of structure for evaluation of the programme, going in (deliberate?):

One of the most disappointing aspects of the NT intervention is that there was virtually no lead time to prepare or think about an evaluation framework. Some ex ante planning with Indigenous leaders and relevant bureaucracies would have both lessened the public resistance and facilitated evaluation. It will now be very difficult to evaluate the outcomes of the intervention because no groundwork was laid to establish credible benchmarks for what existed before the policy shift.

The paper is forthcoming in Agenda, the quarterly journal of the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at The Australian National University.

And now here’s something John Howard hopes you’ll really like

Speaking of last acts of desperate men:

A contrite John Howard has reversed a decade of opposing symbolic gestures towards Aborigines by promising constitutional change to begin what he calls “new reconciliation”.

In an important shift, he promised last night that if re-elected he would hold a referendum within 18 months to incorporate a “statement of reconciliation” into the preamble of the constitution.

It would recognise the history of indigenous people as the land’s first inhabitants, their culture and heritage, and “their special, though not separate, place within a reconciled, indivisible nation”.

“We are not a federation of tribes,” he said. “We are one great tribe; one Australia.”

A) “Contrite” – my genocidal Aunt Fanny.

B) How about that apology, that “sorry”, for which Australia’s Indigenous have been waiting, patiently?

There would be no formal apology.

So, one great tribe – part of whom spent a century or so attempting cultural and actual genocide on other parts. How about, then, an apology for sending the troops into Aboriginal communities, only a few months ago (rather than, say, hospitals, schools, etc.)? I’m going to guess, also no.

To think that the attempt to win over his wedge’d politic crowd only a couple of months ago with the nasty electioneering attacks on Indigenous communities. And who sits idly by while the new black, new Lebanese, Sudanese immigrants/refugees are booted around the political landscape.

The special place of Indigenous people in the history and the life of this country

John Howard visited the Aboriginal town of Ntaria (Hermannsburg) Tuesday this week.

“We have a simple aim,” he told the locals, “and that is whilst respecting a special place of Indigenous people in the history and the life of this country, their future can only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community.

“But unless they can get a share of the bounty of this great and prosperous country, their future will be bleak.”

On this point, the Prime Minister is quite correct. They will only progress as part of the mainstream: because people like John Howard see to it that government policies punish them completely if they attempt anything different. In this instance, the Prime Minister displayed a remarkably idiosyncractic defition of “sharing bounty”:

In moves seemingly impossible to reconcile with the protection of Aboriginal children on remote towns and communities in the Northern Territory, a document has come into the hands of Crikey that presages a federal government takeover of millions of dollars worth of assets owned by Aboriginal organisations.

Organisational assets above the value of $400,000 are to be compulsorily acquired by Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and transferred to a new entity, the Indigenous Economic Development Trust (IEDT), and then rented back at commercial rates to the same organisations from which the asset has been taken from.

In some cases this will make those organisations commercially unviable, leading to financial collapse and loss of Aboriginal jobs. Every reason for Aboriginal organisations for acquiring property as part of engaging with capitalism has been thrown out in favour of a centrally controlled government bureaucracy.

The article contains details of the supposed policy. I’m sure there must be more to this than appears – even by the disgusting standards of the Howard government this is something else. We shall see.

My brown-skin baby they take him away, re-visited

For some reason, lately, people are looking for Bob Randall’s masterpiece, My Brown-skin baby (they take him away), and finding this previous post, containing that song and a few others, including some poetry.

If this is you, please feel free to email me for the song – it’s no longer sitting at the other end of that link, but I’m happy to share it with you.

Circumstances meeting our prejudice = proof, in politics. Or, Kevin Rudd does what unions tell him to do

John Howard is spending billions on finally doing something about infrastructure, social and otherwise, in Australia’s Indigenous communities. From my perspective it is for all the wrong reasons – claming there is a national emergency out there, etc. Indigenous Australians have suffered a national emergency ever since we landed more than 200 years ago.

From the Prime Minister’s perspective it is for all the right reasons: squeezing indigenous community groups, undoing decades of progress on Indigenous land rights and, of course, the election. Fortunately most people can see through that one. At last, 11 years in, the dirty tricks of John Howard have become punches well-enough telegraphed for the general public to understand.

In other arenas, though, there is still game to be had. Specifically, the old canard that Labor belongs to the unions. I liked the SMH’s take on the ‘story’ (“Another leak casts Rudd as a puppet”), although the Australian’s was also good (“We’ll tame Rudd, union vows”). Get it? The unions are so confident that they can run the Labor party that they say so to their members.

Here are my headlines:

Labor policies keep unions onboard

Unions will never support Howard, Robertson says

Fire Howard, work with Rudd, union boss says

See, the theme of my headline is the theme of what union chief John Robertson told his bloody members: that whatever Labor is doing, either to position themselves for the election or because Rudd actually means it, they’re better off with Labor in charge than the Liberals. So for now they’re better off not rising to the bait of Labor’s electioneering, focussing instead on the harm done by Howard’s governing. It was rather a good rallying of troops, I thought, and rather a good playing of cards, because Robertson is right. There may or may not be former bosses of the ACTU on Labor front benches anymore, but it doesn’t matter. Labor is still the better party for the interests of the worker, and Robertson’s constituents need to remember that, for their own self-interest.

But then the story would be “Nothing has changed” – hardly as much fun as leaked tapes, weak leaders, parties in bed with unions, and so forth. Howard will be desperate for it to stick, though, because his Indigenous Emergency is no Children Overboard or Interest Rates. It didn’t work well and it’s already backfiring.

If marching the army in and victimising Indigenous Australians the last 3 inches they have left in this country is the best he had up his sleeve, Costello will be waiting even longer to become Prime Minister.

I don’t like Tony Abbott

I just figured I should start with that, so that my prejudices are known. As are, to be fair, his. His reaction to the government’s response to the national emergency of Indigenous communities?

“We need to get the police in and the booze out.”

“You aren’t going to stamp out the child abuse and violence without a strong police presence in these communities.”

“That’s how it starts, and that’s why the most significant aspect of the prime minister’s announcement is getting the police into these communities on the ground as soon as possible.”

Yes, police. Because when Indigenous people are 11 times more likely to be imprisoned, in the Northern Territory with its mandatory sentencing, after we’ve stepped in and started telling grown adults what they can and cannot consume, with the welfare upon which we’ve made them dependent, and of substances upon which we’ve made them dependent (we can debate this another time), more police are going to really smooth those tensions over.

Unless what the Minister for Health meant to say was that the police ought to be boosted there to enforce this daft idea – preventing the sale of alcohol to Indigenous people all over the Territory, and following everyone else home to make sure they drink it themselves. Surveilling indigenous communities to make sure they aren’t getting it or making it some other way and drinking it on the sly, or drinking anything else they think will blow their brains out for an evening. Will his police be able to do something about mere neglect, or only substantiated child abuse? And why does he suspect more police will help a problem whose existence is not due to under-policing in the first place?

Every time one of the government opens their mouth, policy moves ever farther away from the Inquiry’s very intelligent recommendations concerning community empowerment – let alone community enrichment or development.

Meanwhile, Indigenous life expectancy is still 17 years less than White Australia, Indigenous mortality rates are still around triple that of White Australia. Perhaps our Minister for Health could concern himself with those statistics.

Someone in the city/Gets a piece of paper/Someone in the bush/Holds the law in their hands

Hello, new readers who followed Crikey’s blogwatch. I’m sorry you came for Kevin Rudd vs. John Howard and mostly found a tonne of stuff about mining, Peak Oil and Merrill Lynch last night.

I also discovered one of my posts (Dr. Price, if you’re there) re-posted in full at some blog called With no attribution (really, even politeness dictates a link, something). It got back to me only because I linked myself in the same post (which is not why I do it. Self-refernece is pure ego). I confess to feeling somewhat put out by such behaviour.

But onwards. I’ve noticed there’s a pattern to my posting, and it begins with Australian stories (I always start with Australian media, and their news cycle ticks over just after I’ve gone to sleep, so it’s usually on in the morning that I find anything). So now as ever. Speaking of Crikey, I hadn’t bothered pointing to them over their wonderful dissection of the report Little Children Are Sacred, because I didn’t have much to say, let alone add.

There has been a big to-do (not that there shouldn’t be, but bear with me) over the findings concerning child abuse in Indigenous communities in the north. Our gaily bedight Prime Minister declared

“This is a national emergency,” Howard told Australian parliament. “We are dealing with a group of young Australians for whom the concept of childhood innocence has never been present. That is a sad and tragic event.

“Exceptional measures are required to deal with an exceptionally tragic situation.”

We assume, no doubt, the worst (that is, the worst of Aborigines). Except that, as this article states later and Crikey discussed at greater length still,

Myth: Aboriginal men are the only offenders …It is the Inquiry’s experience that the s-xual abuse of Aboriginal children is being committed by a range of non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal offenders …The Inquiry…remains concerned that, at times, Aboriginal men have been targeted as if they were the only perpetrators of child s-xual abuse in communities. This is inaccurate and has resulted in unfair shaming, and consequent further disempowerment, of Aboriginal men as a whole. (Report, p. 59)

I wake this morning to find Australia’s soft paternalism has hardened, somewhat. From the Guardian:

Pornography and alcohol will be banned for Aborigines in Australia’s Northern Territory, the country’s prime minister, John Howard, announced today, after a report found that “rivers of grog” were leading to rampant child abuse.

“This is a national emergency,” Mr Howard told parliament. “We’re dealing with a group of young Australians for whom the concept of childhood innocence has never been present.”

The sale, possession and transportation of alcohol would be banned for six months on Aboriginal-owned land in the Northern Territory, Mr Howard said, and sales would be reviewed after that.

It’s a national emergency now?! I will remind our non-Australian readers that John Howard has been Prime Minster since 1996.

Alcohol is an important part of the Inquiry’s recommendations, but only a part. The report also mentions

a number of individual non-Aboriginal “p-edophiles” had been infiltrating Aboriginal communities and offending against children …As is often the case, these offenders appeared to have offended against many victims. However, they…often held positions of influence or trust in a community rather than being a “stranger”. (Report, p. 63)

I wonder how restricting the availability of alcohol, something we’ve spent 2 centuries of neglect and cultivated welfare-dependency getting indigenous communities addicted to, will affect this? I wonder what such circumstances will do to the influence and trust non-Indigenous people will gain when they can brink alcohol in to communities without decent amenities, and who’ve managed to interest the government only enough to have them ban alcohol, rather than provide schools, expanded horizons and the same opportunities that the rest of us have?

The report also made a bundle of recommendations concerning education and community empowerment. I wonder how long before the Prime Minister notices that ‘state of emergency’?

Real research into indigenous communities can be found at places like CAEPR. I will leave you with Crikey’s original commentary. Squalor pornography indeed.

Aborigines are in the same predicament. So are people in East European cities like Kishinev, Moldova, where the 12-year-old crack whores will pester you all the way from the station to your hotels. Or half a hundred other places across the globe.

Bad enough this is happening, worse that people are pretending it can be solved quickly, or that the report’s release will make any major difference. Thus Nicholas Rothwell, whose work veers between good sense and received wisdom:

“A LINE has been drawn in troubled sand. A taboo, long and artfully maintained, stands broken. From this day on, no one can say they do not know how deep the nightmare is in remote Aboriginal Australia, or how urgent the need.”

Empty pointless rhetoric. Most people will never hear about it and few will care for more than the space of a news bulletin. Aborigines are 3% of the population, most living far from the Californian hyperspace of white/Asian Australian suburbia. For the latter, anything happening north and west of Broken Hill is another country, and nothing that happens there to people white or black is of much concern, no matter how many bridges are walked over.

What we will get is more squalor pornography — thousands of words poured forth detailing this rape that beating at this camp this settlement, jaded playwrights and novelists making flying visits to cart away a bit of homegrown horror. The ostensible purpose will be to expose terrible conditions for which we are all etc, the real effect is to make people reading the Saturday papers feel good about their own lives. Catharsis sells, as does an implicit sense of racial superiority.

My Brown-skin baby they take him away

Apropos of nothing – possibly the government’s policy/attitudes toward indigenous people being – rightly – labelled assimilationist by former Family Court chief justice Elizabeth Evatt.

I give* you Bob Randall‘s masterpiece, My Brown-skin Baby.

UPDATE: the .mp3 file is gone, now. Email me if you want it (my email address can be found on my staff page, here)

Also Ted Egan – master songwriter, poet and storyteller, and whose work you really ought to support – and a poem by Bruce Simpson, Assimilation.

Finally, a very fine (and, by me, very favoured) poem by actress, writer, teacher, artist and campaigner for Aboriginal rights, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, My People:

No more woomera, no more boomerang,
No more playabout, no more the old ways.
Children of nature we were then,
No clocks hurrying crowds to toil.
Now I am civilized and work in the white way,
Now I have dress, now I have shoes:
‘Isn’t she lucky to have a good job!’
Better when I had only a dillybag.
Better when I had nothing but happiness.

You can find more of Oodgeroo’s poetry here and here.

*”give” not actually defined according to the meaning of give. You can keep this on your harddrive for 30 days, then you must delete it, buy 100 copies of the album and send the RIAA a cheque for a hundred gazillion golden dubloons.