The first Howard Government Budget 1996-7 removed $400 million from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. In 2004 he abolished the Commission in its entirety.
Howard claimed he was going to solve the practical problems which prevented Indigenous people taking their place in modern Australia. He claimed he would end “dependence on welfare”. Howard attacked those he accused of promoting a black armband version of history. He refused to say “Sorry” to the stolen generations. He consistently argued that issues of symbolic importance to Indigenous people paled into insignificance when compared with his determination to seek practical solutions to the problems facing the Aboriginal community.
Confronted by the Wik High Court Judgment he launched his 10 Point Plan attack on Native Title legislation in order to give pastoralists and miners “certainty”. He eroded some significant autonomy promoting provisions of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. He has criticised legal recognition being given to customary law and bilingual education.
He, assisted by his Minister Mal Brough, has coerced some Indigenous communities to sign over their communally owned land to 99-year leases. At the United Nations he has opposed efforts to recognise Indigenous self determination. He claims to have set out to mainstream the administration of Indigenous affairs.
In this, his 11th year in office and in the run-up to the next election it is timely to review his progress towards practical reconciliation. This is all the more relevant now as he has just launched his “save the Aboriginal children of the Northern Territory” blitzkrieg. Soldiers and police are being rushed into Indigenous communities as the vanguard to doctors and child protection officials who will follow.
The reality on the ground
Indigenous Australians are dying on average 17 to 20 years earlier than other Australians. And it has been like this during his entire period in office. At every stage of life Aboriginal people experience more illness and injury than other Australians. Indigenous Australians are considerably more likely to live in over crowded housing than other citizens: 15 or more people to a dwelling is the rule in many Aboriginal townships across northern Australia.
Indigenous unemployment is rife throughout most parts of rural and remote Australia. In the Northern Territory, there are 8,000 Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) workers. This is an Indigenous “work for the dole” program. The Howard Government has not had the wit to create sufficient meaningful employment in these communities nor the common sense to realise that without sufficient money to sustain industry and commerce, widespread poverty is the only guaranteed outcome.
There are many jobs which need to be done in these communities. The lack of sufficient housing is a major priority which could be addressed by training local Indigenous people to build and maintain their own housing. When I visited Yarrabah and Hopevale communities in 1963 all the housing had been built by Indigenous workers. They had even processed local timber in their own saw mill. I saw similar examples in many parts of tropical Australia.
These days, much of the housing is built by white contractors without involving local people. Indigenous involvement is not valued and, consequently, houses often have a very sort shelf life.
There are many other important jobs which need doing in Indigenous communities which could be done, and in many places are being done, by local people: care for children and older people, supplying food, running tourist enterprises and community stores, vehicle maintenance, ensuring decent sanitation services, and so forth. The Government has had 11 years to train people if that were necessary - it has not done so. Surely this would have been a good place to start on its alleged path to practical reconciliation.
Instead of attacking the teaching of children in local Aboriginal languages, the Government could work to ensure that people become literate in at least one language: if only because once people become literate in one language, they can more easily learn to read and write in other languages. English is certainly a useful language to learn in Australia but, in many remote communities, English is not the lingua franca.
The Howard Government has not been able to end “dependence on welfare”. It may have been able to impose harsh “mutual obligations” on many social security recipients but to what end? “Mutual obligation” is a self-defeating policy. The Government has denigrated Indigenous people who have sought to build their self-esteem and to pursue issues of symbolic importance to them and their communities.
If the present Government was not so mired in its celebration of western capitalist contractual arrangements, it might realise that people exercising autonomy have a far better chance to gain dignity and cultural success.
Indigenous people may not want to celebrate the arrival of Captain Cook, the achievements of Don Bradman and the Anzac soldiers - they might want to celebrate Land Rights heroes, Elly Bennett, Cathy Freeman and Indigenous service men and women. They might prefer to worship their own language group’s Dream Time ancestors rather than celebrate mass. A truly democratic, multicultural society would welcome such cultural diversity.
The grog and sexual abuse
Australians are being told that the Federal Government has had to take control of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory because of the “rivers of alcohol flowing through Indigenous communities”, the neglect and sexual abuse of children and rampant pornography.
If governments fail to create sufficient meaningful employment while denigrating attempts at self-help in communities and, on top of this, impose “a nice white mutual obligation” regime, it is little wonder that alcoholism is a problem.
Alcoholism won’t be cured by John Howard denouncing Aborigines for failing to meet their “mutual obligations”. The impact of alcoholism could be lessened by providing decent work, proper pay, adequate housing, good health staff and alcohol rehabilitation services (see also Tomlinson, J. (2005) Must be the grog can’t be the Government (PDF 235KB)).
Police and soldiers can’t, on their own, stamp out neglect and sexual abuse of Indigenous children. Only the Indigenous community, working in conjunction with children’s services and health workers (ultimately backed up by police authority), can achieve that and this will only happen when these services are available and the community has come to trust the workers. However, while 15 to 20 people are crowded into one house then domestic disputes, violence and inappropriate sexual behaviour are an ever-present danger.
Howard has not learnt his history lesson
The old quip that John Howard preferred a white blindfold view of history to a Black armband one might not be too wide of the mark. The story of the stolen generations revealed in the Bringing Them Home report showed again and again that at least some of the white families who took the children, removed from their Indigenous mothers, thought they were acting in the best interests of the children. It is a strange view of family which allows people to believe that you have to destroy one generation to save the next.
Throughout Australia, the various pieces of legislation used to control Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were commonly referred to as Protection Acts and the people who administered them were “protectors”.
In Queensland, the Act was originally called the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. By 1939, it had been renamed the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act. The degree of a misnomer such titles bestowed was noted by Professor Charles Rowley who commented in relation to Section 36(3) of this 1939 Protection Act that “An almost incredible provision was that if a person were charged under the Queensland Criminal Code with carnal knowledge of an Aboriginal girl under the statutory age of consent, ‘it is a defence to a charge of any of the offences defined … to prove that such a girl had developed a state of puberty’” (Outcasts in White Australia, Pelican, Harmondsworth).
The Protection legislation in all its various forms remained in place in Queensland until 1975. The “protection” which such legislation afforded Indigenous citizens was not sufficient to ensure the “protectors” or the Department of Native Affairs paid Aboriginal workers the wages which white employers of Indigenous labour, were required to pay to the “protectors” or the Department (See Kidd, R. The Way We Civilise, University of Queensland, St Lucia 1997).
In Queensland, the Beattie Government accepted that this was the case and has made a paltry offer of partial repayment of up to $4,000 (Kidd, R. Stolen Wages - A National Issue (PDF 56KB))
Howard’s failure to address the practical problems confronting Indigenous people is a disgrace. Over the last 11 years the Government he leads has not significantly improved the health, housing, sanitation, employment, nutrition and even access to clean drinking water confronting the majority of Indigenous Australians in most rural and remote areas.
To rub salt into the wound he has denigrated those who have requested he come to terms with the need for symbolic reconciliation. He has refused to say “sorry”. He has demonised those who have sought self-determination for Indigenous Australians.
Now, in the dying days of his government, he is again attempting to stir up a storm of moral panic about the mess that confronts many Indigenous communities in rural and remote areas of this continent. It’s time he admitted that his government’s policies and actions are a substantial part of the practical problems facing Indigenous Australians.