By Margaret Allum
On the evening of his election win in 1999, PM John Howard announced his support for "true reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia by the centenary of federation". With only 10 months to go to the centenary celebration of our supposedly proud nationhood, it's worth examining Howard's record, to judge just how well his rhetoric lives up to reality.
True reconciliation must surely involve a coming together after the wrongs of the past have been not only righted, but also fully compensated for. Even a brief examination of the policies and actions of the Howard government shows no such attempt.
Of course, Howard's Coalition government has not been the only one guilty of extreme racism in almost every portfolio. Racism has been just as much a feature of previous Liberal and also Labor governments since federation — and state governments cannot be let off the hook either.
But with the rhetoric of reconciliation set to increase in the lead-up to January 2001, the full record of the present government much be understood.
Equality and reconciliation
- Even Howard's lip-service to "reconciliation" has been weak, including an in-passing reference to indigenous people in his proposed, and mercifully rejected, preamble to the Australian constitution, and a patronising "Living in harmony" anti-racism campaign, neither of which made any reference to Aboriginal ownership of the land.
- The funding for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was reduced by 40% in the 1997 federal budget, one-third (60) of the staff were sacked, and specialist commissioners were abolished by combining the Race and the Social Justice (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) commissioners, and also the Human Rights and the Disability commissioners. The number of human rights staff in the attorney general's department has been cut from 21 to five.
- Howard's coalition partners, the Nationals, have called for a referendum to repeal anti-racial discrimination legislation altogether.
- A proposal for a monument to Aborigines killed in conflict with European settlers was summarily rejected. "I wouldn't think that would be appropriate because I don't see that in the context of people who died in wars between Australia and foreigners", Howard said.
- Anti-racist sentiments have been criticised as being examples of "political correctness". A week after Pauline Hanson gave her openly racist inaugural speech in parliament, Howard gave the green light to racists by saying that, under his government, people "can talk about certain things without living in fear of being branded as a bigot or as a racist".
- Speaking to shock-jock John Laws on radio, Howard said, "I sympathise fundamentally with Australians who are insulted when they are told that we have a racist, bigoted past".
- His government called for a change in the wording of a United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people. Cabinet moved to oppose a clause calling for "self-determination" for indigenous people, preferring the more restrictive terms "self-empowerment" or "self-management".
- Australian Federal Police officers have violently attacked the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, desecrating a ceremonial fire at the site.
- Genocide charges against the government have been thrown out of court on the basis that the federal government has not enacted legislation to make genocide illegal in Australia.
- The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has had its funding cut by $400 million. After focussing a great deal of attention on alleged "financial mismanagement" by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and other Aboriginal organisations, the government has enforced changes which mean that ATSIC will have less autonomy and less accountability to grassroots Aboriginal organisations, and will become even more of a government instrumentality.
- Howard has persistently refused to apologise to members of the "stolen generations". By refusing to acknowledge that governments, not just racist individuals, carried out past injustices, the Howard government hopes to avoid responsibility (and therefore compensation obligations) for those injustices.
- The "statement of regret" that was issued by Howard acknowledges that indigenous people suffered injustices in the past, but pointedly refuses to acknowledge that federal and state governments were responsible for perpetrating those injustices, or that injustices towards Aborigines continue today. John Herron, federal Aboriginal affairs minister, even stated that many Aboriginal children benefited from forcible separation from their families.
- The federal government then mounted a legal challenge to a stolen children test case (Cubillo and Gunner v the Commonwealth) in the Northern Territory.
- The Native Title Act, enacted by the Paul Keating Labor government, had already reduced the right of Aborigines to veto developments on their land and had forced them to negotiate with mining companies, but Howard's 1998 amendments to the act went further. They virtually extinguished native title, and left the door wide open for further anti-Aboriginal legislation by the states.
- The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has found that the Australian government was in breach of its obligations under the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Convention. Its recommendation that the Australian government suspend the implementation of the 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act have been ignored.
- From July 1, the government will allow expenditures incurred by mining companies to prevent native title claims from succeeding to be tax-deductible.
- The federal government introduced legislation to enable the building of the Hindmarsh Island bridge, overriding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act and giving the go-ahead to the destruction of Aboriginal women's sacred sites on Hindmarsh Island (Kumarangk). In order to do this, the government argued in the High Court that parliament had the right to pass racist laws.
- The government instituted a review of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, the strongest legislation on land rights in the country. The review's recommendations will restructure the land councils to weaken the position of Aboriginal claimants to land.
- Cabinet has given the green light to more uranium mines, most in areas of significance to Aboriginal people.
- It has doggedly fought domestic and international opposition to the Jabiluka uranium mine in Kakadu National Park and ignored all scientific advice about the mine's likely devastating impact.
- The government plans to build a radioactive waste dump on Aboriginal land in South Australia, at Billa Kalina. There are four Aboriginal groups with native title claims pending in that region.
- Howard's government has announced that, after 30 years of protest and a royal commission in the mid-1980s, its clean-up operation at Maralinga, the 1950s nuclear testing site situated on Aboriginal land in South Australia, is "aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination", not at improving the health of local people.
Health, welfare and education
- The government has proposed a new welfare policy for Aboriginal people, called "Beyond welfare", which is designed to cut welfare benefits under the guise of ending "dependency".
- Abstudy, the government grant to Aboriginal students, was massively cut and then abolished, reducing government spending on indigenous education by more than $18 million this year. This was euphemistically called a "benefit realignment". Indigenous students will no longer receive any benefits not available to other students, yet statistics on Aboriginal education reveal that only 29% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students complete year 12, compared to the national average of 70%.
- Despite massive inequalities in the relative health of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, Howard refuses to introduce policies to improve indigenous health, especially in remote areas.
- The government's overall policy has been to "mainstream" government services to Aborigines; that is, to close or otherwise restrict targeted services which recognise the special disadvantages faced by Aborigines. Instead, it has sought to roll Aboriginal services into general government schemes, to the detriment of the quality of services given to Aboriginal people.
Incarceration of Aboriginal people
- The government has completely failed to implement any of the major recommendations of the 1988 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Deaths are still occurring at an alarming rate, and indigenous people are still incarcerated at a rate approximately 14 times that of non-indigenous Australians.
- The Aboriginal Legal Services, which are funded by ATSIC, have had to cut their services due to funding shortages.
In addition to specific racist policies enacted or implemented by the Howard government, many of its general policy decisions have also had a disproportionate impact on the poorer sections of society, particularly Aborigines. Cuts to education, health and welfare programs, restrictions on union activity and the sale of government utilities to private industry will all hit Aborigines hardest of all.
So, the next time you hear the Prime Minister speak of "reconciliation" or "celebrating our nationhood", know that another racist policy or law is probably sitting on his desk waiting to be signed.