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John and Mal's excellent emergency

By Rod Benson - posted Monday, 27 August 2007

On June 21 Prime Minister John Howard, along with the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, announced that Australia was in the grip of a "national emergency" on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.

The crisis was brought to light by the release on 15 June of a report (PDF 6.35MB), Little Children Are Sacred, arising from a Northern Territory government inquiry headed by two eminent Australians, Rex Wild and Pat Anderson. This is the latest in a series of reports documenting horrific and sickening violence and abuse in Australian Indigenous communities.

Responding to the present crisis, Mr Howard announced that his government would introduce a raft of strong measures aimed at addressing violence and abuse in NT Indigenous communities.


"The duty of care to the young of this country is paramount," he said, "and nobody who has any acquaintance with that report could be other than appalled by ... the cumulative neglect of many over a long period of time and frustrated in the extreme of the inability of governments to come to terms with an effective response to deal with this problem ... Without urgent action to restore social order, the nightmare will go on - more grog, more violence, more pornography and more sexual abuse - as the generation we are supposed to save sinks further into the abyss."

Strong words indeed. And strong legislative measures were to follow. Opponents have accused Howard of racism, paternalism and political opportunism. On the charge of racism, the government's heavy-handed approach to welfare reforms, scrapping of the permit system, and compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal lands do suggest a racially (or ethnically) directed reform program. Introducing similar measures to suburban Australia is unimaginable. But one could argue that to do nothing also smacks of racism.

On the matter of paternalism, the ideological tide appears to have turned in favour of drastic and draconian policy solutions, and an embrace of blatantly utilitarian ethics. As Noel Pearson movingly said on ABC radio in June, "Ask the terrified kid huddling in the corner, when there's a binge-drinking party going on down the hall, ask them if they want a bit of paternalism." And as The Australian editorialised at the time, "Those who oppose the supposedly paternalistic intervention of outsiders are condemning many Aboriginal children to a living hell".

More recently, Mal Brough has worn the paternalism label, and the charge of utilitarianism, as a badge of honour. Asked in a Lateline interview if his government was instituting "a new paternalism", Brough claimed it was outcomes that mattered, and he had no qualms about being labelled paternalistic. This suggests that paternalistic Indigenous policies seeking to deliver "positive" outcomes in remote communities are likely to receive widespread support among white Australian voters. There are parallels with last year's stem cell debate, where "therapeutic" outcomes were all that mattered. The expert knows best. The end justifies the means. End of debate.

As for political opportunism, that is the nature of professional politics. Mr Howard has made an art of it during his 11 years as Prime Minister, although as Hugh Mackay pointed out recently, a case can be made that he is resorting to increasingly desperate measures in a bid to keep ahead of his political rivals.

We are now at the pointy end of the government's emergency response. Earlier this month the House of Representatives passed five bills which the Senate will rubber-stamp. These included measures for alcohol restriction; computer auditing to detect prohibited pornographic material; better management of community stores to deliver healthier and more affordable food; five-year leases on some communities to enable better management of investments and improved living conditions; land tenure changes for town camps; and removal of customary law as a relevant mitigating factor for bail and sentencing conditions.


Passage through Parliament of such wide-ranging legislation is a significant achievement. No wonder Mal Brough said at the time that it was the most important moment of his political life. All he needs to do now is put it all in place, and come away with positive outcomes.

What have the churches been saying about the "national emergency"? There has been cautious support but also strong criticism from leaders of the mainstream churches (for example, here and here (PDF 58KB) and here (PDF 88KB)). A large group of Australians, among them various Christian leaders, including myself, signed an open letter to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs on June 26, welcoming the government's commitment to tackling violence and abuse in Indigenous communities, but indicating areas of grave concern with the substance and process of the planned reforms.

The letter emphasised the need for sustainable solutions and long-term planning, the importance of developing programs that will strengthen families and communities and empower them to confront problems (rather than an over-reliance on top-down and punitive measures), and the need for adequate consultation with Indigenous communities and the NT Government.

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First published in Soundings No. 59 on August 16, 2007.

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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