Australian history

Indigenous recognition - Part 5: The Intervention

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In a majestic six part series, Dr George Venturini takes an in-depth look at the proposal to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, asking whether it will produce the positive effects on reconciliation hoped for.

[Read Part One by clicking here]
[Read Part Two by clicking here]
[Read Part Three by clicking here]
[Read Part Four by clicking here]

In this fifth part, Dr Venturini brings us up to the current day and looks at the circumstances of the Northern Territory Intervention.

On Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution: a belated homage or yet another swindle (Part 5)

The Intervention

A posing of detached neutrality, of benign tolerance, was by no means the hallmark of the Howard Government attitude to Indigenous Peoples and the ‘white’ Australians problem. The ‘real stuff’ was to come, yet again close to federal election time, with the Northern Territory National Emergency Response — also referred to as ‘the Intervention’. The Response involved the Australian Government seizing direct responsibility for Indigenous affairs in the Territory. It was a package of changes to welfare provision, law enforcement, land tenure and other measures, ostensibly introduced to address claims of rampant sexual abuse and neglect of children in the Northern Territory Indigenous communities. The package was the Federal Government’s response to the Territory government's publication of Little children are sacred, but implemented only two out of ninety-seven of the report's recommendations.

Actually, it should have been called ‘the re-occupation of Indigenous lands’. It was aimed at gathering the votes of red-necks at the then forthcoming election. ‘Naturally’, both the parties of ‘The System’ supported it. Later, Prime Minister Rudd would make minor adjustments to the implementation of the Response. Prime Minister Julia Gillard continues to support it in principle. The Response has been given a new and more fashionable name: Stronger futures policy. Nasty voices whisper Stolen futures.

As from 27 June 2007, the Response was supported by Operation Outreach — an infelicitous name if ever there was one (there is an Operation Outreach in devastated Afghanistan).

Operation Outreach provided support to other Government agencies, including the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Department of Health and Ageing, Centrelink (the Australian Government social security system), the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the Northern Territory Police and the Territory Department of Health and Community Services.

The Operation was conducted with the assistance of 600 personnel of the Australian Defence Force.  They were drawn from the Army, Navy and Air Force, including approximately 400 soldiers from the Army’s North West Mobile Force, a Regional Force Surveillance Unit based in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. The commander was a Major General. The Operation concluded on 21 October 2008.

At the same time as he was ordering the re-occupation of Indigenous Land in 2007, Prime Minister John Howard reiterated his support for recognition of indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

Following its election in November 2007, the Rudd Government maintained a modified Northern Territory Emergency Response and implemented the ‘Closing the gap’ policy.

On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Rudd moved a ‘motion of Apology’ to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples in the Parliament, with specific reference to the ‘Stolen Generations’. The Prime Minister described it as an occasion for “the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence in the future.”

As he said:
“... today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations — this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.”

The ‘Apology’ passed with the usual support of both parties of ‘The System’. There were tears inside and outside Parliament, old and young abused Black People ‘cried their heart out’, yet again, but, as one would expect in tort law — in the case there was no promise of reparation, no consideration, no plan for provision of appropriate restitution to the communities and individuals who have been injured by historical policies. Just stentorian words!

As the old Black man told Professor Stanner some fifty years ago:
“You are very clever people, very hard people, plenty humbug.” 

Once again, the harsh reality is that on 13 February 2008, half a million Indigenous People in Australia were still, mostly, living in ‘Third World’ conditions, and the Aboriginal Genocide – 9,000 Aboriginal excess deaths annually, more than 90,000 Aboriginal excess deaths in the 11 years of the Howard Government – is continuing. Just a few hours after the ‘Sorry’ vote in the Australian Parliament, the ‘Australian Greens’ Leader Bob Brown moved to amend the historic ‘Sorry motion’, by adding a commitment to offer “just compensation to all those who suffered loss.” The amendment was lost by a vote of all the non-Green Australian Senators.

It took 220 years for ‘white’ Australians finally to say ‘Sorry’ — not for the Aboriginal Genocide that they do not acknowledge, or about which they do not talk, but for the ‘collateral’ abuse of Indigenous children. However, it only took them several hours to show the world that they did not actually mean it!

The Australian Labor Party prepared a policy for the 2007 federal election and called it Closing the gap.

This catchy phrase was intended to sum up a strategy aiming to reduce Indigenous disadvantage in life expectancy, child mortality, access to early childhood education, educational achievement and employment.

The plan was endorsed by the Australian Government in March 2008 as a formal commitment developed in response to the call of the Social Justice Report 2005 to achieve Indigenous health equality within 25 years. Then, the Howard Government had remained indifferent to suggestions —perhaps because of moral deafness.

To monitor change, the Council of Australian Governments set measurable targets to improve the health and wellbeing of the Indigenous population. These targets focus on health, housing, early childhood, education, economic participation, and remote service delivery. The achievement of substantial improvements in the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples would depend largely on the effective implementation of these targets as they reflect some of the substantial disadvantages experienced by Indigenous Peoples.

The timeframes for the Closing the gap targets recognise the enormity of the challenge facing a serious government and a willing nation in that effective, integrated, comprehensive strategies and policies will need to be sustained for a long time — improvements to the extent set in the various targets will not occur in the short-term.

After the ousting of Prime Minister Rudd, the new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, released the third report in February 2011 and the fourth in February 2012.

Between the elections, both in 2007 and 2010, the panorama of acronyms and formulae increased with the kind of propensity that bureaucrats display.

Prime Minister Gillard must be held accountable – and not the intended beneficiaries who were hardly meaningfully consulted on the plan – if only for what the last two reports say. This is not the place to develop a detailed critique, but so much should be said: the reports are getting longer every year; the first report in 2009 was only 33 pages, while the 2012 report was 127 pages — admittedly with many more flashy pictures.

It is in these reports that one is confronted with the new, magic expressions of “the Government determination”:  of course, one is met with the inevitable Summit – time on Indigenous Health – and for a “holistic view of health, addressing many of the underlying social determinants that influence and affect health”.

Then there are the earnest ‘Statement of Intent’, National Indigenous reform agreement  and National partnership agreements, articulated into ‘targets’, ‘building blocks ... interconnected and [to] address several targets’; following ‘enabling transition pathways’, and all to be met in ‘specific timeframe[s]’, with the usual respect for the ‘many financial, structural and social incentives’.

Only bureaucrats would like to have their work expressed and measured that way: more pictures = more activity = more progress in Closing the gap.  But what are the achievements?

What few data are presented seem to fall back on the 2011 Closing the gap report.

But there is no indication that the planners have met in any way the very strong and unfavourable comments by Amnesty International to the 2011 report.

Very damaging is Amnesty International’s statement that the federal and territorial governments policy ignores the connection Indigenous Peoples have to their land.

Painting by Kathleen Ngal

Internationally acclaimed Indigenous artist, Anmatyerr elder Kathleen Ngal, 78, was quoted as saying that if Utopia residents are forced to move to “hub towns” they will become “third-class, non-existent human beings.” She explained: “My paintings are maps of our country ... through my art I am educating the world about my country and my culture.” adding: “I cannot paint when I'm not on my land.” [Emphasis added]

“Country owns you or holds you, not you holding the country and becoming master of the land," she said, and she added that the federal government’s Northern Territory Intervention had been a “traumatising” land grab.

During the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, the Federal Government had taken over homelands under a five-year lease, which is due to expire this year.

Amnesty International said that the focus on “hub towns” also went against medical research which said that there were health benefits to living on homelands. And there was limited access to alcohol in the Utopia region, A.I.’s report said.

A Medical Journal of Australia study from 2008 had indicated that despite increasing levels of obesity and diabetes among Indigenous Peoples nationally, Utopian residents were healthier.

The Northern Territory Government placed a moratorium on money for homeland housing in 2006, creating a backlog of under-investment, Amnesty International said.

“Growth towns”, with about 24 per cent of the Northern Territory Indigenous population, are receiving $772 million for new housing and maintenance in 2010-11.

That was 100 times more than remote homeland communities, which have 35 per cent of the Territory Indigenous population, but only receive $7.1 million for maintenance, the report said.

Amnesty International found that there is severe housing overcrowding in Utopia homelands with about 85 to 100 people living in makeshift shelters, known as “humpies”, without power, running water or sanitation.

Where there are houses, as many as 15 to 18 people sleep in some two-bedroom homes each night.

Houses in Utopia communities have become dilapidated because of “decades of neglect” and low levels of maintenance funding. Most have dodgy electrical wiring, no insulation, no fans or air coolers, limited kitchen facilities and malfunctioning toilets and sewerage systems.  “There are incidents of raw sewage leaking from inadequate systems.”

Amnesty International recommended ending the Closing the gap policy’s discrimination of homeland people.  It said funding should be distributed equitably to include homelands and rectify the backlog of under-investment in housing.

In relation to life expectancy, the 2011 Closing the Gap report confirmed that the life expectancy in 2005 for an Indigenous man was 67.2 years and 72.9 years for an Indigenous woman. The gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons in Australia was estimated at 11.5 years for men and 9.7 years for women. Understandably, the gap has narrowed only slightly in comparison in one year, but this is not quantified or mentioned. However, available data suggest that the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons in Australia is larger than in other countries where Indigenous Peoples suffered a similar history of relatively recent English invasion. For instance, in Canada, in 2011, there were gaps of between 5 and 14 years for ‘native’ people and all Canadians. In 2005-07, in Aotearoa-New Zealand, the life expectancy gap between Maori and non-Maori closed slightly from 9.1 years (in 1996-97) to 8.2 years. By now similar data should be available for Australia.  They are not — or not presented.

In other words, one has the feeling of being offered some kind of glossy spin. More: one would be at a loss in searching for an up-date of information on what was already reported by the Productivity Commission – the Australian Government's principal review and advisory body on microeconomic policy and regulation – on data available for the period 2005-09, when the mortality rate for Indigenous persons in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, combined, was twice the rate for non-Indigenous persons.

To remain with solid figures: in relation to infant mortality, although there has been a progressive decrease since 1998, the Productivity Commission reported that the mortality rate for Indigenous infants is still 1.8 to 3.8 times higher than that of non-Indigenous infants.

In relation to the basic education tools of reading, writing and numeracy, the Productivity Commission reported that a substantially lower proportion of Indigenous students achieved the year 3, 5, 7 and 9 national minimum standards for reading, writing and numeracy in 2010 compared to non-Indigenous students. In relation to year 12 attainment, the Productivity Commission reported that the proportion of Indigenous young people who received a year 12 certificate increased from 20.2 per cent in 2001 to 25.8 per cent in 2008, while the non-Indigenous rate remained constant at around 56.1 per cent.

All this should be viewed in a broad picture of what education – as opposed to indoctrination – has become during the last, say, 50/60 years — that is since the advent of the television as ‘surrogate parent’. By international standards of education, one should regard the ‘educational system’ in Australia as a sequence of minding centres at primary school, bad jokes at secondary stage, and solemn farce at tertiary level.

Result?  By importing the ‘standards’ of the rarefied-air of southern California through trashy television infotainment, Australia is being re-colonised by modern barbarians.

Still, the federal government ‘banks’ on that type of education as the ‘third export industry’.  Such is the language of the federal budgets and that of an enfeebled ‘academia’.

Of course, those families that can afford it, move their children to private schooling, where the uniform – most of the time the ‘cadet uniform’  – and the amenities draw a distinction with public so-called education. The tie and some farcical hat are the external signs of a class distinction which preserves or opens the way to employment.

And so grow the sequential illogical steps: ‘education’ for employment — not for real life.

As to employment, the Productivity Commission’s data showed a small increase in the employment to population ratio for both Indigenous (50.7 per cent to 53.8 per cent) and non-Indigenous (74.2 per cent to 76 per cent). But overall, there was no significant change in the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment.

Beyond the Closing the gap targets, the headline indicators of social and economic outcomes demonstrates the profound gulf that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons in Australia in the areas of imprisonment and juvenile detention, post-secondary education, disability and chronic disease, household and individual income, substantiated child abuse and neglect, and family and community violence.

The hiatus is even wider in certain states, Queensland and Western Australia, where the abuse of Indigenous Peoples has been more savage in the past and continues to be tolerated by the ‘white’ community, practiced by its institutions, and enforced by its tools of enforcement of ‘law-and-order’.  ‘Law-and-order’ was not the sole prerogative of the eleven years of the Howard Government.  Here is an example: some time ago, in 2010, and not long after he delivered the ‘Apology’ to the Indigenous People, Prime Minister Rudd referred to the ‘people smugglers’ – those who assist the asylum seekers into Australia on rickety boats and at enormous physical risk – with these words:
People smugglers are the vilest form of human life, they trade on the tragedy of others, and that is why they should rot in jail and, in my own view, rot in hell.”

The poor, minor Indonesians, who simply serve on those boats are now rotting in Her Royal Majesty’s Australian gaols — forever, if the Rudd and Gillard governments have their way, because that savagery keeps governments in favour with red-necks in ‘good Christians’, ‘compassionate’ Australia; and damn the ‘International Bill of Human Rights’!

At the time of writing the Stronger futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 has not been passed.

It has encountered strong opposition from individuals and institutions. Eight Yolngu nations in Arnhem Land have called for the rejection of the ‘new intervention’.  The main objection is that the Act, if enacted as proposed, would once again disregard the right to self-determination and only continue the discriminatory practices which began under the Howard Government’s Northern Territory Intervention legislation. It seems that, despite its feel-good name, the Bill is about extending the Northern Territory Intervention, not only throughout the Northern Territory, but beyond.

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