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Mad Macklin follows Mal Brough

By John Tomlinson - posted Tuesday, 28 October 2008


"Father forgive her she know not what she’s doing."

Contrary to recommendations made by her own Review, Minister Jenny Macklin has decided to continue, for at least another year, with compulsorily quarantining half of the Centrelink payments paid to Aboriginal people living on 73 Northern Territory communities. Minister Macklin says she is maintaining quarantining because some women from the communities have asked her to continue it. She intends persevering with this paternalistic intervention in the lives of Aboriginal people despite the fact that since the arrival of missionaries into the NT paternalism has done little for Aboriginal people.

Most Aboriginal people are capable of sorting out their own lives if given the goods and services which other Australians take for granted. Yes, Aboriginal people need decent water supplies, sanitation, nutrition, shelter, health services, education, community services and police stations. They need jobs, socially useful activities, encouragement and hope - just like other Australians.

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Yes, grog can be a problem in some areas of the Northern Territory. Community education and community development programs supported by detoxification/sobering up facilities and ultimately by police and night watch patrols is the best way to help build better and more sober communities. Prohibition is at best a short term fix, it does not work in the long run and exacerbates other problems like petrol sniffing and drug taking.

People everywhere need to be able to exercise their autonomy with dignity if they are going to build communities in which it is worth living. Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are no different. Paternalism erodes autonomy at every turn. People don’t learn to be self sufficient when their lives are controlled by others (no matter how well intentioned those others might be).

If a government really wanted to improve the health and safety of Aboriginal women and children then it can’t ignore Aboriginal men - the fathers, sons, grandfather, uncles and nephews because they are part of the Aboriginal community. The government, if it was serious about helping to protect the vulnerable, would help build security and dignity for all by recognising that the Aboriginal community itself has to liberate itself. Governments need to understand that imposed external paternalism is one of the most potent obstacles to autonomy, self help and liberation in any community.

If the government was intent on building a workable relationship with Aboriginal Australia then it might start by signing the United Nations Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That would at least establish that non-Indigenous Australia was prepared to treat Indigenous Australians as people with rights and entitlements.

Quarantining of half their social services turns Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory into supplicants. They are accorded by the very intervention (meant to be their salvation) fewer rights than other Australians in equivalent situations. It is little wonder that many Aboriginal people on these communities consider that their dignity has been attacked.

If a government wanted Aboriginal women and children to be free from violence then it has to work with the communities to build internal defence structures so that the community members themselves are the first line of social control. Police are usually only needed when community control is nonexistent or has become weakened.

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The Review headed by Peter Yu recommended that people who wanted to have half of their Centrelink payments set aside for food and clothing could continue to do so. The Review also recommended that where a parent or parents demonstrated they were incapable of spending the social security in the children’s interests that their money could be compulsorily acquired and spent on their behalf in a manner not dissimilar to that which is occurring on four communities on Cape York in Queensland. The Review strongly objected to the blanket quarantining of people’s social security simply because they happened to live on one of the 73 communities.

Minister Macklin claims that many women have told her that if the quarantining wasn’t compulsory for everyone then they would be humbugged for money by violent husbands or relatives. This is a problem for some women in many parts of Australia. But imposing paternalistic quarantining for another year just prolongs the problem: it does not solve it. If there was a real intent to solve the problem, then the government would engage in a community development program to work with the community to fully discuss the issues and come to solutions which would prevent such humbugging. Such programs have succeeded previously in the Territory.

But liberating programs can’t be done on the cheap. And this, I fear, is the real stumbling block. Governments don’t mind flying in some overpaid, under skilled Canberra boffin (who knows little or nothing about Aboriginal people) to impose his or her will on a remote community. But governments invariably recoil in horror at the suggestion that Aboriginal people should be paid proper wages for their work when recent history shows they can be conscripted to work for less money under the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) or a work for the dole scheme.

Governments wonder why when 20 or more people are living in one house there are frequent disputes, it’s hard to get kids to go to school, people are often sick and houses don’t last long. At least Macklin says she is going to build a substantial number of new houses and upgrade many others. But the housing backlog in the Territory and elsewhere in Indigenous Australia is in the order of $3 billion so sorting out that necessary piece of social infrastructure will take at least a decade.

I expect that all the usual mistakes will be made again. There will be a failure to involve local Aboriginal people in the building and maintenance of the houses. Aboriginal people will not be as assisted by the new houses as they could be if they were employed to construct them. There will just be the usual gravy train of shoddy fly-in and fly-out contractors who see Aboriginal community members as little more than a meal ticket.

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Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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