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NT Intervention on the ABC

19 October, 2007

On Thursday the ABC program Difference of Opinion addressed the topic of the Northern Territory intervention.  Entitled A New Deal for Indigenous Australians?, the program featured a panel of Indigenous leaders debated the merits of the Intervention in front of an audience.

The panel was made up of Sue Gordon, Chair of the NT Task Force; Tom Calma, Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner; Olga Havnene, CEO of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the NT (and Women for Wik organiser); and Lowitja O’Donaghue, Inaugural Chairperson of ATSIC.

The context of the debate was both the NT Intervention and the recent surprise announcement by John Howard that he had suddenly become interested in reconciliation after 11 years of doing everything in his power to undermine any form progressive policies in relationship to Indigenous Australia.

While announcing his change of heart on reconciliation and his willingness to hold a referendum on putting a mention of Indigenous Australians into the preamble of the Constitution (but not into the body mind you). Howard claimed that he had recently discovered the value of “symbolic” gestures, as if a decade of refusing to apologise to the Stolen Generation isn’t a symbolic gesture. 

Actually, I think the move was a symbolic gesture, but more towards the Australian electorate than towards Indigenous Australia. A week before he announced the election it was pretty clear he was trying to demonstrate to the electorate that although he was an old dog he still has some new tricks to play.

Back to Difference, the opinions expressed by the panel were varied, which helped to illustrate that there is certainly no consensus even within Indigenous Australia about the merits, or lack thereof of the Intervention.  As would be expected, Sue Gordon was a lot more upbeat about the Intervention and claimed that people in many remote communities were very happy to have part of their income quarantined.  This was hotly disputed by the other panelists, who emphasised the confusion and lack of information in these communities which has bred a lot of uncertainty and fear about what the government would be doing.  I was particularly impressed by Olga Havnene, who made the point that although the Intervention is ostensibly addressed at protecting children from abuse, there is no mention of children in the new legislation and it is very hard to see how many of the policies are supposed to contribute to child protection. 

A couple of the panelists also pointed out that the real tragedy of this process is that there has been virtually no consultation with Indigenous Australians at large, and specifically with the remote communities being targeted.  Thus even if some of the policies might have some objective benefits for some members of the communities, they don’t contribute to any sense of empowerment or control within the communities themselves.

In any case, there is a strong contrast between Howard’s proposal for “reconciliation” as an essentially abstract notion and the concrete reality of the policies that are impacting on actual Aboriginal communities.  Good ethnographic studies done in these communities would, I think, help to illuminate discrepancies of this kind.

The show’s website is worth a visit.  It includes video from the program, the transcript, online forum and a poll about the Intervention. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gregdowney permalink
    21 October, 2007 11:10 am

    Jovan, I’m also struck by the fact that Howard wants to put to a referendum whether or not to include a reference to Aboriginal Australians as the first Australians in the Preamble to the Constitution, not that he wants to campaign for a reference to Aboriginal Australians in the Preamble. To me, what is important is not simply that the reference is in the largely symbolic Preamble (the Chaser actually had a pretty spot-on critique of this), but also that he is ostensibly going to throw the matter to the public, a public that he has been relentlessly bombarding with misleading, anti-recognition statements for more than a decade. He has persistently conflated the idea of apologies or recognition with a host of inflamatory issues in order to justify his long-term recalcitrance; I’ve had Australians tell me, for example, that if the Prime Minister every says ‘sorry,’ the resulting lawsuits from Aboriginal Australians will bankrupt the government, that Aboriginal Australians already get more money spent on them than other Australians, etc. Howard has implied that acknowledging the treatment of Australians is tantamount to saying that individuals alive today are somehow directly responsible for historical treatment, or other illogical and intentionally divisive statements about black armbands and ‘special rights’ and related topics. (Please note, I’m a recent immigrant who has been reading on the subject, but there are likely people, including Jovan, who know this stuff WAAAAY better than I do and might see it differently.)

    A recent televsion call-in poll found that Australians were not very sympathetic to the idea (if I remember what I saw in passing while eating breakfast before work one day). So Howard can say that he is putting it to the Australian people, and, if his propaganda campaign has successfully swayed enough people, the Australian people will likely reject the change to the Preamble.

    Perhaps this is what galls me (and not just on this issue). When it comes to something like Work Choices, or the Iraq War in the US, democratically elected conservative leaders are happy to say that public opinion will eventually come around to their way of seeing things. And yet, when it comes to genuinely humanistic concerns — like bigotry or Aboriginal rights or the like — they will refuse to lead at all. On the contrary, they will pander to and exaggerate the worst tendencies in public opinion in order to carry the policy that they want. Howard could easily be *leading* on this issue, getting out in front of public consciousness and helping the public to understand the need for these issues. Instead, he’s going to put the vote to the vote when he’s worked so hard to poison the well of public opinion.

    And so the Australian public may be given a chance to vote after a longterm misinformation and scare campaign; I worry that the vote will be one of those events where an opportunity will be lost and both sides will be set back ten years in the process. If the vote is no, not only will it hurt the Aboriginal communities and their supporters, but it will also llikely mean that consservatives will have to dig in their heals again in the future to justify an immense symbolic act of injustice and refusal to acknowledge history.

  2. 22 October, 2007 10:03 am

    I can’t find much to disagree with you there, Greg. I’ve also updated the link to The Chaser sketch, which is, as you say, pretty spot on.

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