Prime Minister John Howard announced on June 21 a plan to take control of some 60 Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, supposedly to tackle a child sex abuse crisis in those communities. It is a plan that severely limits and in some instances eradicates the democratic and land rights of all Aboriginal people in remote NT communities.
The government plan includes: extensive alcohol bans on Aboriginal land; the banning of X-rated pornography and audits of computers to identify illegal material; and the "quarantining" of 50% of welfare payments so that they can be spent only on food and other "necessities".
It also: enforces school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land; requires compulsory health checks of all Aboriginal children; increases the number of police in the communities; and scraps the permit system for common areas, road corridors and airstrips on Aboriginal land (currently, police must obtain permission to enter Indigenous communities in the NT, an important defence against racist police harassment and intimidation).
Most significantly, the plan shifts the overall control of communities away from Aboriginal land councils to the federal government, which will be given five-year leases of the townships.
Howard's announcement comes hot on the heels of a report by Noel Pearson, the main Indigenous proponent of a "tough love" approach to Aboriginal communities, that canvasses slightly less draconian forms of Howard's new policy.
Pearson proposed changes to the welfare system that he said would enable "an end to welfare dependency", including the creation of a new Aboriginal authority with the power to remove welfare payments from people who had allegedly abused them and transfer them to people who would use them more "effectively". Pearson also proposed harsher penalties for welfare recipients whose children missed school and a shift in native title away from collective, Aboriginal community control of land to private and tradable land that would promote "Aboriginal entrepreneurs".
The main difference between Pearson's and Howard's plans is that Pearson argues that local communities should be consulted and agree to any changes before they are implemented. Howard's plan has no such restrictions.
Pearson's report, produced under the auspices of the Cape York Institute, has been strongly criticised by Indigenous activists and academics.
Socialist Alliance Indigenous rights spokesperson Sam Watson told Green Left Weekly: "The two most hated and reviled people in Australia would have to be John Winston Howard by a long chalk and the next in line would be his little jackie-jackie Noel Pearson. Noel Pearson is not an Aboriginal leader … and he is certainly charting a very dangerous course, not only for Aboriginal people but for the entire Australian nation.
"Pearson is spruiking genocidal claptrap that white protectors were spruiking when they forcibly removed Aboriginal children, when they forcibly broke down Aboriginal communities and tried to extinguish all forms of Aboriginal cultural practice, ritual and ceremony. So, while Aboriginal people certainly despise John Howard, they fear Noel Pearson because he would
be the greatest and most deadly threat to our continued existence as a race and as a culture."
Michael Mansell, the legal director at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, said in a June 19 media release: "The federal government gave Noel Pearson $3 million to come up with a report that, if adopted nationally, would cut the federal welfare bill by many tens of millions of dollars. Pearson was always eager to please and the report proves it … Taking people's individual income from them, or giving the money on conditions for its being spent, is creating dependency, not avoiding it."
Nicole Watson, senior research fellow at Junbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney, agrees. She told GLW: "[The report] canvasses the taking away of human rights, which should never be bargained, sold or traded. It envisages the establishment of a body that would essentially be a return to protectionism. The impact of protectionist policies on Indigenous people has been devastating. I cannot believe that an Indigenous man would promote such an idea."
The timing of Howard's announcement is no accident. The June 20 acquittal of senior sergeant Chris Hurley, who faced charges of the manslaughter and assault of Mulrunji Doomadgee in the Palm Island watch-house in November 2004, outraged Indigenous communities and supporters of justice for Indigenous people (see article on page 5).
That Howard chose the next day to announce his draconian plan for NT communities says less about his desire to stop child abuse and more about his style of wedge politics. Howard is preparing for a race-based election and, using Pearson's report as cover, is taking the opportunity to undermine every aspect of Indigenous self-governance in the Northern Territory, while calling for the NSW, Queensland and WA state governments to implement similar policies.
Sydney Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council chairperson Rob Welsh argues the measures would take native title back 40 years. A June 21 Sydney Morning Herald report quoted him as saying: "It's total control of Aboriginal destinies. They've been trying to do it with housing right across Australia. That land has cultural significance because there are things that connect people to the land over centuries. As soon as we start giving it back it's going to be mined and have waste dumped on it."
Nicole Watson told GLW: "The extreme measures are not only racially discriminatory, they also smack of hypocrisy. The Commonwealth has consistently refused to address the $450 million deficit in Indigenous health funding, yet it has suddenly found the money to introduce compulsory health checks for all Indigenous children. This suggests that for the Howard government Indigenous health has only ever been a political football."
She added: "The government is attempting to force Indigenous people to assimilate by transforming our communities into institutions, where families are subject to constant surveillance and punitive sanctions that would never be tolerated in the broader community. It is unimaginable that families in [Sydney's] North Shore would ever be subject to blanket medical examinations or the quarantining of private monies. So why are such intrusive and humiliating measures being imposed upon Indigenous people? These Orwellian measures diminish all Australians."