Legislating racism

As the federal government's Northern Territory intervention grinds on with an escalating price-tag and concomitant obfuscation from politicians and bureaucrats about its actual implementation, we are beginning to see media reports — especially from the rampantly pro-intervention Rupert Murdoch stable — of support for the measures from the affected communities. While most of these refer to "whitefella" bureaucrats or store managers, the most cherished, obviously, have been apparent endorsements from Indigenous people as each new phase is rolled out. Most recently, we've seen the same pattern as welfare quarantining has started to come into effect in some communities.

When the intervention was first announced — hiding behind the masquerade of protecting children — there was a proposal to quarantine part of the welfare payments of parents whose children repeatedly failed to attend school. This very quickly transformed into a blanket withholding of 50% of all welfare payments to all Aboriginal people in the target communities. Under this scheme, the quarantined portion of a person's income can only be used to obtain food and sanctioned products from the community stores.

Why would anybody support such an attack on their personal freedom?

The impacts of colonialism, forced assimilation, and dispossession — dislocation and cultural fragmentation — have left many remote communities struggling to cope with problems of extensive substance abuse among some young people. The damage of long-term alcohol abuse, petrol sniffing and chroming leaves communities with people who are prone to aggression and irrational rages. In these circumstances, the old women are often forced — through threats or kinship obligation — to hand over their welfare payments.

Added to this is the price and availability of fresh food in remote Indigenous communities across the country. What would buy you a kilo of fruit in any rural or regional town might only pay for a single piece from a community store. An orange might cost up to $3 to take into account increased transportation costs as petrol prices rise. And to call it "fresh" is an exaggeration given the weekly or fortnightly deliveries which may be six days old when they arrive. Families can regularly face days without food. In many Western Desert communities mai wiya (no food) days have shifted from being a seasonal to a fortnightly occurrence: the last few days of the pension cycle, families may live on sweet black tea, supplemented with meat if they have the means to go hunting.

A very real problem of access and availability of food and goods exists. In this climate, it is totally understandable that some people would welcome a system that seems to guarantee that they'll be able to reliably feed their families.

So should we oppose the intervention if elements of it draw support from Indigenous people or appear to be having a (short term) positive impact? We must look at the truth of the motivation behind any action or program. A person being relentlessly tortured would surely rapturously welcome a regimen of less torture. That limited relief to an individual would not sway us, though, to an endorsement of limited torture as a good thing.

A case might be able to be made for quarantining in a context of community consultation and participation; of determination to resolve the true issues. In fact there are some examples of elderly Indigenous people in remote areas who — whether due to lack of literacy and numeracy or to escape family pressure — have asked that some of their pension money be credited directly to the store as "book up". But the current quarantining system has been imposed on a people with very limited political power by a government marked by racism, headed by a man who will not acknowledge the history of murder and dispossession that so much of the wealth of this nation is built upon. By any stretch of the imagination, this is at best a band-aid response, and the motivation has little to do with making sure children are fed.

From very early on, it was apparent the intervention was unfolding along lines advocated by a right-wing think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies. The CIS, which acts as a defacto policy development unit for the Howard government, has long advocated the removal of welfare support to Indigenous communities, and the market-assisted dismantling of land rights and communal structures and decision making. It is an approach in alignment with PM John Howard's ideological and moral compass.

As was the case with the US-led war on Iraq, the Howard government had a plan of invasion, theft, and subjugation ready to go — they were just looking for an excuse to pull the trigger. The fact that the excuse came in the run-up to an election, where they thought they could spin their new attacks on Aboriginal people to electoral gain, was icing on the cake. Howard has had good cause over the course of his political career to believe there's nothing like a spot of racism to get the polls pumping.

The fact that the only determining factor for whether or not someone is subject to welfare quarantining is that of being Aboriginal shows the stark, racist heart of this legislation. No torturing of language can possibly define it otherwise. Racism — pure, clear, profitable.

If for nothing else, that is reason enough to oppose the intervention. Just as support for the war on Iraq meant support for the murder of Iraqi civilians, to support the intervention measures under Howard's framework is to support the reintroduction of legalised racism in Australia and the attempt to destroy the history and legacy of Aboriginal people.