Rudd's apology: one year on, a sorry record

"Rudd is dangling the carrot of hope before us and it is a lie", said Les Coe at the Aboriginal convergence in Canberra on February 3, at which 500 people protested the continuation of racist Howard-era policies by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The convergence coincided with the first day of parliament and called for the abolition of racist policies, in particular for the abolition of the Northern Territory intervention — a policy that, among other discriminatory practises, "quarantines" 50% of Aboriginal people's welfare payments in "prescribed" communities in the NT.

Such "quarantined" payments can only be spent on food, clothing or medical supplies through a special "basics" card.

Welfare quarantining has been condemned by Aboriginal rights activists as paternalistic and racist. "[The government] say it's not racist, but look at us. Look at the colour of us", said Barbara Shaw from the Alice Springs-based Intervention Rollback Action Group and the Prescribed Area People's Alliance (PAPA), at a meeting of 400 people in Canberra the night before the convergence.

"We Aboriginal people from remote communities, outstations and town camps, we are suffering more than the rest of Australia."

In October, the federal ALP government conducted an independent review into the intervention, which recommended large-scale changes to the legislation.

It proposed that welfare quarantining — currently applied to everyone in a prescribed community — become either voluntary or applied to individuals and families in extreme cases of proven child abuse or neglect.

The government ignored these recommendations and continued the policy largely unchanged.

Human rights lawyer George Newhouse told the meeting that the government's reluctance to change the intervention policy had closed Aboriginal people's avenues of change within Australia.

"They have no other alternative in this country for taking recourse against the government and their last port of call is the United Nations."

The complaint was taken to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on February 3. Newhouse is part of a legal team representing PAPA.

Rudd's failure to abolish welfare quarantining is only one of the many disappointments felt by Aboriginal people in the 15 months since he was elected.

Rudd's first act as PM was to apologise to the Stolen Generations.

The apology was long overdue and beautifully crafted, but Rudd made it clear at the time that he would not propose or support legislation for compensation for those who suffered as a result of the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their family and culture.

In fact, the South Australian ALP government is pursuing a case against the surviving partner of Bruce Trevorrow — the only Aboriginal person ever to successfully sue for compensation from the time he was forcibly removed from his parents — so that his case does not become a precedent.

The government can't bring the case against Trevorrow, because he died not long after receiving compensation.

Despite it being ALP policy, Rudd also explicitly ruled out changing the date of Australia Day to a day that doesn't coincide with white colonisation of the country.

Australian of the year, Mick Dodson, raised the concept on January 26, but Rudd stated: "to our Indigenous leaders, and those who call for a change to our national day, let me say a simple, respectful but straightforward no."

On the jobs front, Labor promised, in a press conference in August 2008, to provide 50,000 jobs for Aboriginal people through a partnership between business and government.

No further details have emerged since then, except that in October Rudd promised that the uncosted, undetailed policy would proceed despite the financial crisis.

While nothing more has been said on that plan, what has gone ahead is the widespread winding back of Community Development and Employment Projects.

CDEP accounts for approximately a third of Aboriginal employment.

While the program has problems, in that the work is underpaid and often offers few pathways to real employment, without the government actually producing a real plan to replace it, CDEP's abolition could simply mean the loss of up to 40,000 jobs.

This amounts to a doubling of Aboriginal unemployment, according to John Altman, from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.

Nita Scott is a CDEP worker in a regional NSW community who spoke at the Canberra convergence. The program she worked in provides six towns with recycling services — a real community service.

Her program has been told to wind up over the next couple of months — an indication of the importance that the government places on Aboriginal employment.

An election promise that the ALP has explicitly broken is its promise to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It supported signing the declaration in opposition, but now that it has continued the policies of the former National-Liberal Coalition government.

It has chosen not to ratify the declaration — possibly because many of its policies would be incompatible with the declaration's principles.

The Rudd government's failures and disappointments are made the worse by the lack of a national Aboriginal representative body.

Since the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was abolished by the Howard government in 2005, Labor and Liberal governments have hand-picked Aboriginal representatives to support their views and, in the process, disenfranchised Aboriginal involvement in the policies that effect their lives.

According to AAP on February 5, the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land gave their support to the convergence in a statement delivered on the day.

"We cannot agree that the continuation of the intervention is the best way to move forward", the statement said. "The whole of government approach will be littered with failures unless the ghosts of the past are laid to rest."

The statement also said it was essential that "closing the gap" did not become "another word for assimilation".

"We agree that there is nothing dignified about existing in housing with 30 families members. There is nothing dignified about substance abuse and family violence. But there is nothing dignified about losing your rights as a human being, based on being an Aboriginal citizen."