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.
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