Aboriginal policies: Rudd's hollow words

September 27, 2008

On September 24, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert tabled legislation that would establish a fund to compensate members and families of the Stolen Generations, but the Rudd Labor government is unlikely to support it.

PM Kevin Rudd, on behalf of the federal government, apologised to members of the Stolen Generations on February 13. The practice of taking Aboriginal children from their families and communities had a devastating effect on the lives of those involved and on the continuity of Aboriginal culture, and this single policy has been linked to the much higher incidence of mental illness among Aboriginal people.

For many, there was hope that Rudd's apology would be the first step in abandoning the policy of the previous government, which was to deny all complicity in the removal of Aboriginal children, refuse all calls for compensation and refuse to say sorry.

Saying sorry was one of many demands that Aboriginal rights activists had placed on the government as a way of beginning to undo some of the damage that was done as a result of removing the children.

Another major demand was for financial compensation to the Stolen Generations. In February, the Greens moved an amendment to the apology that would include compensation but this was not accepted by the government.

The apology included no promise of compensation, but made reference to the need to make amends. While Rudd's words led many to hope the Howard-era racism was being done-away with, the ALP's time in government has done little to suggest this to be the case.

The government tabled legislation on September 1 to restore the permits system in targeted communities in the Northen Territory. The permit system requires all people who aren't police, medical or Department of Community Services (DoCS) employees, to be granted a permit to enter lands that have been claimed under the NT Land Rights Act.

The permit system recognises the community nature of these lands and, to some extent, gives Indigenous people in the NT an — albeit very limited — amount of sovereignty, by giving communities control over who can and cannot enter their land, with some exceptions.

The permit system was supposedly revoked as part of the NT intervention legislation, passed by the Howard government in August 2007 and supported by the then ALP opposition. The Howard government claimed that the permit system was hiding instances of child abuse and neglect.

That the permit system explicitly does not apply to government workers — such as police and child protection staff — was difficult to hear over the roar of moralism coming from the Howard government.

To its credit, the ALP opposed the removal of the permit system, but in the end supported the legislation that removed it. That it has now introduced legislation to reinstate the system, is also to the new Labor government's credit.

However, the new legislation grants journalists the same rights to enter Aboriginal-owned lands as police, medical personnel and DoCS workers and therefore further weakens the control communities had under the original laws.

What's more, it will accomplish little if passed — it is yet to be voted on in the Senate. Sources from the NT, who wish not to be named, have told Green Left Weekly that the legislation introduced by the Howard government was poorly phrased and that access roads and landing strips had failed to be included under the legislation. In practice, therefore, people still had to apply for permits to access Aboriginal communities.

In other words, the legislation was never properly enforced in the first place. While removing it will be further support to the argument that there is no link between Aboriginal land rights and child abuse, it will only be a symbolic act.

And we've had a lot of symbolism from the Rudd government. Symbolism can be powerful, but without substance it becomes hollow, a stage show.

On September 30 the NT intervention review board will release its findings into whether this inherently racist policy should continue.

While the government has tabled legislation to remove one aspect of the intervention, the bulk of it continues. Aboriginal people's dignity, human rights and income have all been savaged by this policy. They, more than anyone, know that the policy doesn't need to be reviewed, it needs to be repealed. Immediately.

Rudd has dragged his feet in other areas of Aboriginal policy, such as employment. In an attempt to subdue demands for action, we get continual press conferences in which grand-sounding but vague announcements promise things will be better, but are not fixing Aboriginal disadvantage.

The longer we wait for the committees to come up with the plans and review the policies, the worse things are becoming.

The tragedy of Bruce Trevorrow is one of many compelling reasons for the government to begin to take meaningful steps forward in Aboriginal affairs. Trevorrow was the first member of the Stolen Generations to win a court case for compensation.

Trevorrow suffered all his life as a result of his removal from his mother, against whom there was no evidence of neglect or abuse. After 10 years of court cases, the South Australian government was ordered to pay him $525,000 compensation with interest in August, 2007.

Trevorrow died on June 20. Despite his death, the state government has said it will appeal the court finding so that it doesn't become a precedent for others hoping for compensation. In order to appeal, the government will make Trevorrow's partner, Veronica Trevorrow, the claimant in the case.

Rudd has said repeatedly that he doesn't support a national compensation scheme and has refused to comment on his South Australian ALP colleagues' attempts to ensure that there is no state scheme, forcing those who want justice to fight through the courts. Trevorrow died waiting for justice; how much longer must others wait?

Until Rudd's symbolic gestures are followed up with concrete policy that really improves Aboriginal people's lives, those who hoped the apology signalled a new era in Aboriginal affairs will continue to be disappointed, and much work will remain to be done.

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