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A new paternalism for Aboriginal Australia

25 June, 2007

The big news of the moment in Australia is Prime Minister John Howard’s sudden announcement of dramatic new laws to address child abuse in Aboriginal communities. Though not an expert on Aboriginal Australia, I feel compelled to write some thoughts on this issue. Hopefully in the process I will get a clearer sense of what is really at stake here.

Some background. Howard, in reaction to a recently released report about child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory called Little Children are Sacred [pdf], has introduced sweeping measures, including banning alcohol in certain communities for six months, cracking down on pornography (both legal and illegal, it would appear), and introducing a raft of other measures aimed at forcing Aboriginal parents to ensure the welfare of their children. These include tying welfare payments to certain outcomes, such as school attendance or holding payments in reserve to ensure that money is spent on food and other necessities, though I’m not entirely sure how this would be implemented. This Associated Press article outlines many of the measures to be taken.

The couple of responses I’ve seen in the anthropology blogosphere have been largely negative, as you would expect. One such makes the excellent point that the report itself is quite explicit that it is a mistake to assume that the problem does not only lie with Aboriginal men and reproduces an excerpt from the Inquiry’s report:

As would be expected in any community, most of the Aboriginal men the Inquiry spoke with found the idea of child sexual abuse abhorrent and advocated severe, sometimes fatal, physical punishments for offenders. The Inquiry recognises that Aboriginal communities, and Aboriginal men, must be supported to better address the abuse and violence in their communities, but remains concerned that, at times, Aboriginal men have been targeted as if they were the only perpetrators of child sexual abuse in communities. This is inaccurate and has resulted in unfair shaming, and consequent further disempowerment, of Aboriginal men as a whole. [emphasis in original]

This statement raises a number of questions. If the Inquiry’s own report emphasises the need for support, why are the policies being proposed so punitive? And if the report recognises that the problem includes both indigenous and non-indigenous actors, why are the new laws solely directed at Aboriginals?

There is a hearty sense of blame the victim in all this, and very little sociology. Before making policy decisions, shouldn’t the government first develop a sense of the causes of abuse and other problems are, and then work out how to address them? Shouldn’t they ask what are the social causes of the problem? And how should they be dealt with? Even assuming that these blanket policies don’t amount to a form of collective punishment, shouldn’t we be asking, for example, if there is any evidence to suggest that reducing or adding conditions to welfare payments will have a positive influence on the welfare of children in the communities in question? I could imagine them having precisely the opposite effect they end up putting additional strain on already stretched households and social relationships of reciprocity and exchange.

Maybe it would be possible to argue in response that this problem is so urgent that it requires immediate action. Sure, but this doesn’t explain why Howard’s government, over the last 11 years and with multiple reports into the issue, has done so little up till now. In fact, it would appear that the last decade has been a period of chronic underfunding of indigenous programs (but maybe that’s nothing new). Cynics respond that of course Howard is doing this because it’s an election year and he’s looking for the new wedge (and in my experience too much cynicism is barely enough when it comes to Howard). Indeed, there is the salty tang of a Tampa crisis about this: Howard creates a national issue in which he becomes portrayed as a decisive leader, a man of action. The Australian electorate can feel comfortable that they are in good hands, that the man in charge is doing something.

I thought of putting a question mark at the end of the title to this post, but decided against it. Whether you support this policy or not, there’s no denying it’s paternalistic in the extreme. The decision has been taken unilaterally, without consultation with indigenous communities themselves, and makes sweeping assumptions about the inability of Aborigines to make decisions for themselves, or to know what the problem is.

And I seriously wonder about the legacy of this sort of policy. Numerous anthropologists have argued that the paternalisms of earlier eras have contributed to subsequent Aboriginal attitudes towards, for example, the use of alcohol. I.e. policies in earlier times that tried to “protect” Aborigines by denying them rights that other Australians took for granted contributed to present day patterns of consumption. If Aborigines have indeed come to associate the right to drink with empowerment and equality, these new bans imposed by the Howard government are going to send a profound message. I wonder if there’s been any consideration at all of the symbolic dimension of this new policy? We should definitely wonder what the long-term consequences of this new form of paternalism will be.

Well, there’s my two bob. Like I said at the outset, I’m no Aboriginalist, but I do feel disturbed enough about this latest development to share my thoughts. Maybe I’m just another whitefella poking my nose in where it doesn’t belong, but in my opinion this is, and needs to be a mainstream issue. This is not just “about” Aboriginal Australia but concerns the kind of society we imagine for ourselves, and how we imagine the role of the state in relationship to that society.  It concerns the actions of a government elected by the majority of Australians and therefore we all have a right to a say in this.  I’m interested to hear what others think.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 June, 2007 12:16 am

    Jovan, thanks for bringing this new report to our attention and providing a link to the report in its entirety. It’s 320 pages so I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but I did go straight to the report recommendations to see what the compilers of the report thought should be done to deal with the issue of child abuse. Strikingly, the first recommendation calls for the importance of consultation with local communities about how to address the problem: “In the first recommendation, we have specifically referred to the critical importance of governments committing to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities, whether these be in remote, regional or urban settings.” So the Howard government’s response seems to directly ignore what the report filers consider the most important aspect of dealing with the problem, which does seem to lend support to Nursel’s and your suspicions that the measures are being taken for political gain. Making sure that children are in school and finding ways to promote responsible alcohol consumption are also central to the report’s recommendations, among other things — but, of course, nowhere will you find the recommendation that welfare payments be tied to school attendance or that alcohol be banned entirely (rather, the report recommends the development of community drinking clubs, to promote alcohol consumption within communities that can enforce responsible drinking social norms). The recommendations can be read on pp.22-33.

  2. 26 June, 2007 12:56 pm

    Yes, over the last few days Howard has reiterated that he could not have ignored this report and not be condemned by history, but he seems to have been very selective about which sections he deals with. I haven’t read the report yet, either, so thanks for your summary of some of the key recommendations. It’s my hope that some of these will begin to filter through into public debate once the initial craziness settles down a bit.

  3. vicki permalink
    28 June, 2007 8:37 pm

    I am appalled at the conditions these poor people have to live under.What happened here?How could any government in this country have allowed its communities to exist in these conditions .What were they set up with a bit of unmaintained public housing, given a bit of funding and left for dead.Surely a skills base in these communities was necessary for them to be able to help themselves.Remember these people live in isolated communitites in the desert they need among their own communty the things we take for granted eg plumbers, accountants, electricians etc…also a corner store with good quality fruit and vegetables at reasonable prices that will ensure ongoing good health

  4. 2 July, 2007 12:53 am

    Yes, what you say is quite true, Vicki, though it’s hard to see how these sorts of facilities can be provided when communities are so remote and economically depressed. I agree that a lot more money needs to be spent, but it needs to be spent appropriately. Of course the solution can’t be just plonking plumbers, corner stores etc in the communities in question if there isn’t the infrastructure and other economic factors to make them viable.

    I’m not sure what the solutions might be but I’m certain that merely throwing money at the problem is not going to help, and in some cases probably makes matters worse.

  5. 26 April, 2008 11:10 pm

    I am appalled at the conditions these poor people have to live under.


  1. Completely Unnecessary | Family of ‘Rape Girl’ Finally Interviewed
  2. Little Children are Sacred | Savage Minds

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