Howard's racist NT measures rushed into law

Issue 

The Howard government's legislation for its "emergency" military-police intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory was rushed through the House of Representatives on August 7. MHRs were given less than 24 hours to read the 500-odd pages of legislation before being asked to vote on it.

The government allowed a one-day Senate inquiry into the legislation on August 14. Only through dedicated action by opposition senators was the inquiry's time extended to three days. While the ALP moved some amendments, it committed itself to vote for the legislation if these were rejected by the government.

The legislation was passed by the Senate on August 17, with ALP senators voting in favour. The Greens and the Democrats opposed the legislation outright, denouncing it as racist. Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told journalist on August 7 that the legislation exempted the government's intervention measures from the Racial Discrimination Act.

"Basically this is racist legislation, the government knows it is and they're exempting themselves from the act", she said, adding: "We do not believe that the measures contained in this legislation are for the advancement of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. It clearly takes their rights away, it takes away their right to make decisions over their land."

The August 7 National Indigenous Times dedicated much of its research work to analysing the legislation. It concluded that the aim of the legislation is a bureaucratic takeover of all aspects of NT Indigenous people's lives that will do little to curb child abuse — the alleged purpose of the government's emergency intervention.

Under the legislation, all adults living in the 73 targeted Indigenous communities will have 50% of their welfare payments placed under control of federal government bureaucrats, who will replace these welfare payments with ration cards that can only be used in certain areas and to purchase certain goods — regardless of their children's frequency of school attendance.

Non-drinkers organising their own local neighbourhood watch will face the same restrictions on their personal spending as those convicted of child abuse or suffering from alcohol dependency.

When initially announced by the government, the welfare payment sequestration plan was supposed to target only those whose children had poor school attendance or those who had been convicted of alcohol-related offences.

Alcohol consumption and transport is now banned within all the targeted communities, except for those who own fishing boats and tourist vessels. This exemption was no doubt included to placate the Coalition parties' NT business supporters. Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett commented in the
August 14 Senate inquiry that the government is "trying to stop the rivers of grog, while still allowing grog on the rivers".

Massive alterations have been made to the permit system in the NT. This allowed residents of remote Indigenous communities to control who could access their land. Under the new legislation, this right will be removed for all communities with a major road or airstrip. The permit system has been used to restrict exploration by mining companies on Indigenous land.

In addition, all these targetted Aboriginal townships
will have their land compulsorily leased by the federal government for the next five years.

Citing collective land tenure as the cause of Indigenous people's impoverishment, federal Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough said on August 16 "We need to actually recognise that communism didn't work, collectivism didn't work".

He called for the replacement of Indigenous communities' communal land holdings with private home ownership and "entrepreneurship". "If we get that balance right, people will flourish", Brough claimed.

On August 15, Brough told the National Press Club in Canberra that he believed the High Court's Mabo and Wik decisions, which delivered land rights to Indigenous people, were "very important. But what got lost in the debate was people thought it was the holy grail, that releasing land would free people and empower people. It's done just the opposite. It's actually impoverished them."

He remarks confirmed what many have suspected — that ending Aboriginal land rights, rather than child abuse, is the real aim behind the "emergency intervention".

The legislation also includes some provisions to improve public housing in the targeted communities, but these will be controlled by government authorities and not Indigenous bodies.

At the moment, Indigenous public housing is controlled by the Indigenous housing corporation, which has limited responsibility for residents who damage property. This is in recognition of the endemic overcrowding in Indigenous townships — there is an average of 15 people per household — and the lack of housing in general.

Brough's legislation converts the Indigenous housing arrangements into the equivalent of private leases, where residents will lose their right to housing if the leases are broken.

In his initial announcement of the emergency intervention, Brough had criticised journalists who asked whether its combined cost would be hundreds of millions of dollars. "It would be tens of millions at most", he said. The cost of the intervention has now been revealed as $582 million.

When the intervention was first announced, the government cited the Little Children are Sacred report by Rex Wild QC and Pat Anderson as the impetus for its action. Both have now stated categorically that the government is failing to implement any of the recommendations in their report and is actively making things worse by ignoring all the work that Indigenous communities have been engaged in already to combat the problems of alcohol addiction and child abuse.

The report called for strengthening and funding the community organisations that were tackling these problems, as well as the problems of housing and unemployment. Brough revealed what he actually thought of these proposals on August 14 when he said of the report: "It was more of the same, and would do nothing."

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