Howard's racist land grab

July 18, 2007

PM John Howard's new "intervention" policy in the Northern Territory has begun with federal and state police storming into Indigenous communities.

A total of 73 communities are slated for intervention as part of a plan to attack child abuse that includes widespread bans on alcohol, punitive restrictions on access to welfare payments, possible compulsory health checks for children and the removal of some of the rights of indigenous people to control access to their lands.

The June 25 Sydney Morning Herald reported that some people from the Mutitjulu area had "run to the sand dunes" with their children, fearing that the government was coming to take them away, as had happened before. The July 3 ABC News reported that women from the Little Sisters camp in the NT were taking legal action against several police officers involved in the action. According to the women, police used excessive force when apprehending a suspect in the camp. They claim that a woman tried to stop them from taking someone away and the police responded by using pepper spray in her eyes and kicking her in the ribs.

Members of the government's hand-picked Indigenous Advisory Council have supported the plan. Noel Pearson, head of the Cape York Institute, issued a pre-emptive strike against critics on ABC Radio's AM program on June 27 by saying "people who are nay saying any kind of intervention are people whose children, like my own, sleep safely at night. And I think that's a terrible indulgence."

The socioeconomic conditions of Indigenous people have been in relative decline under Howard, and his policies have contributed to the long-term social causes of the current "crisis".

The Howard government's initial statements on Indigenous policy in 1996 declared an end to the so-called "symbolic reconciliation" of the previous ALP government — which was apparently focused on (limited) land rights, apologising for the Stolen Generations and other "symbolic" gestures — and a turn toward what Howard termed "practical reconciliation". Practical reconciliation was supposed to mean there would be an actual improvement in the living conditions of Indigenous people. What it really meant was that the government did what it thought was practical and then called it reconciliation.

Australian National University academic Jon Altman released a report in 2003 comparing the first five years of the Howard government to the last five years under Labor. He found that under Howard, Indigenous Australians were worse off in comparison to non-Indigenous Australians than they were under the previous government. "Practical reconciliation" had not delivered practical results such as growth in access to education, participation in the work force and income. Rather, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people grew.

The report noted that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) were two institutions that went against this tendency because they were able to provide advocacy and employment in ways that also uphold Indigenous identity. They went some way to undoing the damage to Indigenous culture caused by 200 years of European colonisation.

However the Howard government began to reduce funding to ATSIC, and then blame it for failing to provide better services. It was claimed that ATSIC was mismanaged, despite independent reports claiming that the overwhelming majority of ATSIC-funded projects were well-managed and effective. ATSIC was finally abolished in 2005 and a handpicked Indigenous Advisory Council now advises the government, made up entirely of people who agree with the Howard government's policies. CDEP will be abolished from July 2008.

This strategy of reducing funding, which reduces results, which then justifies the abolition of Indigenous organisations, is also true for communities in the NT. The Mutitjulu community near Uluru was under federal government control for more than a year until June when the High Court ruled that it return to local Indigenous control. Under federal government control, the community's health and policing services declined and many programs established by the locals, such as counselling for alcoholics, were begging for proper funding. Now that conditions have deteriorated, this is used as an excuse to remove these communities' self-determination.

It is no accident that this intervention comes at a time when mining companies are pushing for increased access to Indigenous land. Under the guise of protecting children, Howard is undermining one of the most important victories of the Indigenous rights movement, that of Native Title. This will allow greater access for companies wishing to explore Indigenous land for mining resources.

It's no accident that this intervention is planned in the lead-up to an election. The message that Howard is sending is clear and consistent with his racist Indigenous policy to date. "Practical reconciliation" means rejecting the independent rights that Indigenous people have campaigned for, removing Indigenous people from their land and breaking up Indigenous communities.

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