Prime Minister Julia Gillard anointed former NSW premier Bob Carr as Australia's foreign minister on March 2. His appointment awaits the approval of a joint sitting of NSW parliament, but for all intents and purposes, Carr has just been catapulted to the third-highest political post in the land after being out of politics since 2005.
Much of the mainstream media have described Carr as an intellectual, which, as far as I can tell, means he knows when to quit politics. In his case, this meant quitting just before three big scandals came to light that almost brought down the NSW government.
But how has he shown his great intellect lately?
Green Left Weekly decided to check Carr’s moral and intellectual calibre by checking out his blog. We found a stand-out post from January 27. Here, Carr commented on the protest against opposition leader Tony Abbott and Gillard on January 26 by members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Carr said: “I agree with Tony Abbott and think his remarks entirely sensible. The Tent Embassy in Canberra says nothing to anyone and should have been quietly packed up years ago.
"The 'activists' who run it would be better off investing time in youth programs in indigenous communities. Every government in Australia is aware of its responsibilities to Aboriginal Australians. The debate is how you narrow the gap not whether you should and the debate is as serious within the Aboriginal community as between it and the white.”
It would be useful to look at how current strategies to “narrow the gap” were going and whether the current policy direction was working. A big part of the protest Carr said should be "quietly packed up" was saying that the NT intervention -- the current government policy framework for “narrowing the gap” -- was driving living standards backwards and damaging Aboriginal participation in society by depriving them of certain rights.
If you want to say a protest “says nothing to anyone” you might try to analyse what they were saying with some degree of depth. Carr dismisses the many issues that the Tent Embassy protesters have raised by saying: “Suddenly we are presented with a demand for 'Aboriginal sovereignty' -- which can only mean separatism –- which nobody has defined and which, on principle, 99% of Australians would oppose and a majority of Aborigines oppose.”
But Aboriginal sovereignty has been debated and defined for some time, if you care to look. For example, Tasmanian Aboriginal lawyer and activist Michael Mansell has recently explored just this issue.
It’s quite a detailed piece that sums up some of the thinking behind calls for sovereignty.
I’ll summarise it further for intellectuals like Carr:
1. Aboriginal people have had their laws and culture taken away from them.
2. They want what was taken from them back or, at least, protection against their rights as citizens being stripped away by government .
3. It would be great if that could be codified in the Australian constitution.
Sovereignty becomes important when governments decide that Aboriginal languages cannot be taught in classrooms except at the very end of the day, as has taken place in the Northern Territory. Or that Aboriginal communities can have their lands forcibly leased by the government at rates far below market value. Or that Aboriginal communities can be subject to police powers that mean people can be arrested for maintaining their right to silence.
All of these things are current policy under the NT intervention, which has the full support of the ALP. On March 13, the Senate will begin to debate legislation to entrench the NT intervention laws for the next 10 years. This was something that the Tent Embassy protest was trying to stop. This seems like a good motivation for protest to me, but then I’m no intellectual.
Carr also said: “Aboriginal right to land –- which is what the embassy was established to promote –- has been recognised in several different forms. The real debate is why this recognition has failed to have any effect on outcomes in remote Australia.”
However, this form of recognition was limited by the Mabo decision in the first case, then watered-down by the Paul Keating ALP government and further weakened by amendments made by the John Howard government in 1998. Even Keating admitted in June last year that Aboriginal landholders had less rights than squatters and required a more onerous burden of proof to access land.
Of course, this is something that many in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy have pointed out for a long time, but I guess we can’t expect an intellectual like Carr to be aware of such comments, whether made by a former PM or an Aboriginal elder.
Carr also said: “The block-headed demonstration sets back reconciliation and would seal the defeat for Aboriginal recognition in the constitution if a referendum were pending.”
The best bit about being a Labor Party intellectual must be having the gall to tell an impoverished, oppressed minority -- whose rate of imprisonment exceeds that of the imprisonment of Blacks under South African Apartheid -- that they are drawing too much attention to their cause. That takes some chutzpah.
He added an addendum to his post where he quoted author Peter Sutton arguing against the existence of the category “Aboriginal” in any government policy whatsoever.
In the context of discrimination of the kind his party supports with the NT intervention, and in the context of the vast gulf in living conditions and incarceration rates between black and white, such a policy would gut any attempt at “narrowing the gap”. It would, in reality, be a policy of assimilation. Aboriginal disadvantage would become simply “disadvantage” -- inexplicable, unsolvable, but most of all, no one’s fault.
Carr (bravely, Sir Humphrey Appleby might say) started his post with “I agree with Tony Abbott”. Maybe he should have just left it there.