Government 'clueless' on Aboriginal issues

On February 26, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave his first "report card" on the progress made on ending Aboriginal disadvantage, meeting a delayed election promise to do so every year at the opening of parliament. Rudd's report, however, has been meet with criticism from Aboriginal activists and supporters.

"Some say little has happened in the year since the apology, but that is not the case", Rudd said in his speech to parliament. He made much of his government's progress in improving housing conditions in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory — identified as a key contributor to disadvantage and poor health.

"Progress has been made, houses are being built. Since the end of 2007, 80 houses have been completed or [are] just nearing completion in remote Northern Territory communities."

Greens senator Rachel Siewart, however, argued that no new Aboriginal housing had been established in the NT for the past two years.

"This approach is a continuation of the Howard government's approach to Aboriginal issues. The prime minister's emphasis on personal responsibility, income management, false promises of more housing and tenure reform shows that yet again, the government is clueless", she said on February 26.

"The government's commitment to 4200 new homes, and upgrades to 4800 existing homes is hollow given that no new houses are reported to have been built in the NT since the announcement of a coordinated effort to close the gap", Siewart continued.

"Decent housing, sanitation and education are basic human rights that lead directly to improvements in other health-related areas, and should be key priorities in disadvantaged communities."

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Tom Calma told ABC Online on February 27 that no progress could be made while the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended. "It's just not acceptable that we have differential treatment", he said.

"We still have one of our basic human rights protection mechanisms suspended."

The Racial Discrimination Act was suspended by the then-Coalition government in August 2007, to allow the passage of legislation to begin the NT intervention. The NT intervention enacted widespread bans on alcohol and pornography in selected remote Aboriginal communities, as well as compulsorily "quarantining" 50% of recipients' welfare in those communities so that those funds could only be spent on food and clothing.

The Intervention Rollback Action Group (IRAG), based in Alice Springs, was deeply critical of the report card. On February 27, it claimed that Rudd relied on the same stock phrases and cherry-picked data to make the government look as though it was making advances in the area of Aboriginal equality, when very little progress had actually been made.

"The gap is widening, not closing", said IRAG's Barbara Shaw from Mount Nancy town camp.

"Life is harder now for me and many others living under the Northern Territory Intervention. Rudd is using information being fed to him by [Indigenous affairs minister] Jenny Macklin, and her evidence about what is working is flawed."

"Rudd hasn't a clue what is happening on the ground and he's trusting Macklin's false information. Why won't he come and talk to us here in the Northern Territory, like he promised to do?", Shaw asked.

IRAG called on the Rudd government to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act and end the policy of welfare quarantining in remote Aboriginal communities.

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