Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 2

This post continues the analysis begun in my first post in this series. I will summarise that post in a moment. But first an update.

My thanks to Aboriginal Art & Culture: An American Eye for suggesting that my post offered the best outline as to what was proposed. I had not seen this blog before, and I have bookmarked it because it fills a gap.

Now turn to the coverage in the Australian. Please read it not from the viewpoint as to whether you agree or not, but look at it as an analyst or commentator. What does it tell you about the Australian view? Look at the reported views of Peter Shergold. As head of the Prime Minister's Department, Mr Shergold is the PM's official adviser.

As I write, SBS news is showing Australian troops joining planes to be on ground tomorrow to support the civil authorities. Models developed by Australia in intervention in Timor or the Solomon Islands are now being applied on Australian soil.

Opposition leader Rudd has backed the PM's plan. Three states are reported as having already committed 30 police, doubling existing police numbers in the communities in question. The Australian Federal Police have begun to deploy.

It's all very dramatic. In the words of the Prime Minister:

"We have gone along with the idea that these are state and territory responsibilities, which technically they are," he said.
"We'd persevered with that, we'd worked the old paradigm but we just came to the conclusion that wasn't going to work and we've decided, in effect, to put aside the old approach and to adopt in the short-term a highly interventionist approach."
But will it work and what does it all mean?

Summary of my Previous Post

I began my previous post by outlining the Commonwealth Government's proposed actions. These centred on restoration of law and order, grog control, health and schooling.

I then briefly outlined the history, pointing to the way in which past policy failures and current policy and political frustrations and especially those of Minister Brough had combined to trigger the move.

In simple terms, and as indicated by the PM's words quoted above, the Commonwealth Government has put aside past policies and approaches and done so in a dramatic and emotionally charged way that sidelines past ideas.

As an example, Michael Mansell, the director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, condemned the plans for singling out Aborigines, saying:
"It would be different if his social behaviour strategy applied to everyone in Australia, but it doesn't, making his policies racist," he said.
"This is a racist attack on the weak and an immoral abuse of power, amounting to nothing more than political vote scoring."
The difficulty for Mr Mansell and for others such as Green Leader Bob Brown is that their views are no longer relevant. The intervention is there and has to be dealt with.

Returning to my post, I continued by suggesting that the Federal Government's actions had changed Australia forever and that to understand this we needed to look at two dimensions, the indigenous context and then the broader Australian scene.

The Indigenous Context

I began my discussion of the indigenous context by looking at Aboriginal demography, making the point that changes that will affect all Australians were being driven by problems associated with a population equivalent to a reasonable size regional city.

I went on to make the point that the problems experienced by certain of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal communities, while replicated elsewhere, were not typical of the total Aboriginal experience. This links to a point I have made many times, that we cannot and should not talk of the "Aborigines" as though they are a single group, instead recognising the nature and extent of regional and local variation.

A similar point was made by tiwidownlands in a thoughtful comment on that first post. Talking in a Northern Territory context, tiwidownlands wrote:

The NT always has problems with the aboriginal problem because political viability depends on a cluster of Darwin and Alice Seats – which would not reward good work done for the indigenous.
And to talk about the population of indigenous in NT needs to be split up because the education, health and social profile of the traditional community is vastly different from the non-traditional.
So in considering the Howard Government's response, we need to recognise that we are dealing with a slice (traditional NT aborigines) of a slice (Northern Territory Aborigines) of a slice (Australia's indigenous people) of a whole (Australian population).

If we focus just on those directly affected, will all this work? And what do we mean by work anyway?
In past comments on indigenous issues I have been very careful about commenting on things that I do not properly understand. I have never visited a remote NT Aboriginal community, so have not commented on the detail of discussions couched in local terms or dealing with specific local problems. Instead, I have tried to focus on the areas where I am strong and especially questions raised by my public policy experience.

Looking at the on-ground impacts through this prism, there are some things that we can point to.

I have no doubt that the short term logistic issues, the problems that many are pointing too, will be worked out. Australians are good at this. However, these are the least of the issues.

To begin with, we need to recognise the crushing weight on those involved as the full force of the Australian Government comes to bear upon the 50,000 or so people directly affected, as well as those surrounding them who will be affected as well. This is no small matter.

I think that we also need to recognise that the Australian Government has begun what is in fact a major process of social re-engineering. These communities will never be the same again.

Some may say, and this may indeed be correct, that this will be a good thing. But just as current problems are due in significant fashion to past policy failures, so future problems will be created by failures in the new approach. Anybody involved in public policy knows that apparently good policy measures can have unforeseen side effects.

This leads me to some real concerns.

If we look at the language and focus of the Government's intervention, we see first the overwhelming focus on law and order issues. We can also see the use of models associated with our international interventions. Thus the Government talks about first stabilising the situation, staying for five years, then getting out.


I am out of time. I will publish, but continue later.

Continuing - events update

I have not been able to catch all the news during the day, but it seems clear that the continuing debate is zeroing in on some of the issues that I consider to be important from an indigenous perspective.
It is also clear from the Premiers' reactions that some elements of party politics are alive and well in this election year. That was to be expected.

What I do find interesting, however, is that there appears to have been little discussion to this point on what I think are the broader national issues raised by the intervention.

NT Emergency Response Taskforce

During the day (25 June) Mr Brough announced details of the new Taskforce. It is anticipated that the Taskforce will operate for at least 12 months and will be supported by full time administrative and field staff.
The terms of reference for the Taskforce will include providing advice to the Government and oversight of a Taskforce Operational Group effort, including:
    • Community engagement, design of intervention, coordinated delivery of resources
      and activities and data gathering and monitoring;
    • Set up and appointment of community government business managers;
    • Nominate communities in critical situations; and
    • Liaise with the Australian Government, the NT Government and
      other State authorities to provide the best emergency support efforts on the
The members of the Task Force are:
  • Dr Sue Gordon OAM (Chair) - Western Australian Magistrate in the Perth Children's Court, Dr Gordon is also Chair of the National Indigenous Council. Dr Gordon chaired the Inquiry into Response by Government Agencies to Complaints of Family Violence and Child Abuse in Aboriginal Communities, in Western Australia in 2002. In 2003, Dr Gordon received the Centenary Medal for service to the community, particularly the Aboriginal community and in 1993 she was awarded the Order of Australia for commitment to Aboriginal people and community affairs. In 1986 she was appointed as Commissioner for Aboriginal Planning becoming the first Aboriginal person to head a government department in Western Australia.
  • Shane Castles - Career police officer with 32 years experience, including as Assistance Commissioner with the Australian Federal Police. His experience includes international deployment and investigating illicit drugs. He was Police Commissioner of the Solomon Island's until early this year. Mr Castles will be the Operational Commander as well as being a member of the Taskforce.
  • Dr Bill Glasson - A practicing ophthalmologist and former Australian Medical Association President, Dr Glasson has worked in a voluntary capacity in various Indigenous communities. He recently travelled to East Timor as part of a team which treated in excess of 3,000 East Timorese patients. He is a consulting ophthalmologist to the Australian Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
  • John Reeves QC - Practicing barrister, and Chair of Red Cross NT and national board member. 30 years experience in Indigenous issues. Mr Reeves was also the federal ALP Member for the NT and is experienced in local government. In 1998 he completed a review of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act for the Australian Government.
  • Roger Corbett AM - Chairman of CIES Food Business Forum, Member of the board of the Reserve Bank Australia and former Chief Executive Officer and Group Managing Director of Woolworths Ltd. Member in the Order of Australia (AM) in 2003 for service to the retail industry, particularly as a contributor to the development of industry policy and standards, and to the community.
  • Miriam Rose Baumann AM - Principal of St Francis Xavier Catholic School, Daly River, NT and current member of the National Indigenous Council and Chair of the NT Aboriginal Benefit Account Advisory Committee. In 1998, Ms Baumann was awarded an Order of Australia - Australia Medal - for her services to the community of Nauiya Nambiyu as a member of the community council.
  • Dr Peter Shergold - Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet since February 2003.
  • Paul Tyrrell - Chief Executive of the Northern Territory Department of the Chief Minister and head of the Northern Territory Railway unit.
This is clearly a high level and representative group. However, a few points to note.

I mentioned Peter Shergold at the start of this post, with a link through to a newspaper story setting out his views. Mr Shergold will be the key link through to the PM.

International readers may not read between the lines in the appointment of Mr Castle as Operational Commander. I mentioned before that this intervention appeared to be modeled on our international experience.\
As head of the Solomon Island's police, Mr Castle was directly involved in RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands, the multinational force put together to restore order in that country.\

Bill Glasson is the only member of the Task Force that I know personally from the time that I was CEO of the Royal Australian (now Australian and New Zealand) college of Ophthalmologists. Bill has a long track record of working with remote communities in the eye care area.

The Premiers

Before talking about the Premiers, back to the demographic facts. Again using 2001 census data, indigenous populations by state follow Remember as I said in my last post that the latest census figures will show significant changes, although the broad pattern is likely to remain the same. The figures are:
  • NSW 134,888
  • Queensland 112,777
  • WA 58,496
  • NT 50,790
  • Victoria 25,090
  • SA 23,410
  • Tasmania 15,780
I suspect that few Australians realise that NSW has in fact the largest indigenous population in the country. Why, then, is the NT the focus? Why are the Premiers of Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland especially sensitive? It all comes back to a point I have made before, the great variety in the indigenous experience.

As one measure, take home ownership, a key traditional measure of social progress in Australia.
  • Tasmania 59 per cent
  • Victoria 42 per cent
  • NSW 36 per cent
  • SA 29 per cent
  • Queensland 28 per cent
  • WA 27 per cent
  • NT 14 per cent
Now all these figures are below the average in the mainstream Australian community, reflecting the fact that our indigenous people have been clawing their way out of disadvantage. But there is a clear gap between the top three and the bottom four, with the Northern Territory clearly at the bottom by a very long way.

These things link to another measure, the proportion of the indigenous population in each state or territory living in remote areas. Absolute numbers follow with the percentage of the total state or territory indigenous population in the brackets.
  • NT 41,204 (81.1%)
  • Queensland 26,397 (23.4%)
  • WA 26,210 (44.8%)
  • NSW 7,311 (5.4%)
  • SA 5,172 (22.1%)
  • Tasmania 537 (3.4%)
  • Victoria 57 (o.23%).
If you look at these numbers, you will see that after the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia have the greatest proportion of remote area indigenous people. Further, these are the states where the indigenous people came most recently in touch with European settlement.

I make this point because it is then perhaps not surprising that it is the Premiers of Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia that have expressed the greatest reservations about the Commonwealth's new plans.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that they are simply defending their own patches, although this may be a factor. Five minutes listening to South Australian Premier Mike Rann talk about problems in South Australia is enough to show that he both knows a lot and is quite passionate about the problems faced by the State's remote Aboriginal communities. I am suggesting, however, that they face the greatest difficulties in adjusting to the new approach.

I am going to finish this post here and continue the story in a new post.


Legal Eagle said...

Great posts Jim! (am taking a short break from marking)

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE.Look forward to your return from the marking salt mine!

Jane said...

Thank you for pointing us to Shergold's remarks "Dr Shergold foreshadowed the need for a commonwealth takeover that first restored order to remote communities.....
"No health, housing, education or training program will work if the community lives in fear of periodic gang warfare, and night-in, night-out is subjected to alcohol-inspired violence."

It suggests that Shergold doesn't know that most dry communities (and most Aboriginal communities in the NT are dry) do not have regular nightly fights fuelled by grog. Occasional fights, yes. Habitual grog violence is more common in the town camps of the towns in the NT. That's one reason why people live in the dry communities rather than in the towns.

But the towns won't be subject to this new regime. By placing communities under greater surveillance by outsiders and by quarantining their welfare payments, the Federal Government will make it more attractive for people to move into the fringe camps of the towns. So the grog/abuse problem won't be solved - just shifted and probably worsened.

Outsider police and soldiers who can't speak the local languages will find it hard to create a climate which encourages victims to come and discuss their problems. They will probably end up with not much to do other than pick up rubbish and tell people to pick up rubbish.

It would be more effective to spend the money on training local indigenous police officers and sexual abuse counsellors and alcohol rehabilitation workers, employing more women police officers, and providing meaningful work.

As for health checks - these only make sense if there is money for follow-up - for hearing aids, for new houses, for washing machines, for plumbing repairs and for fresh food at affordable prices. But that seems unlikely.

As for taking over Aboriginal land - it hasn't been explained why this is necessary. Nor has it been explained why abolishing permits is necessary. Permits actually help communities stop known non-Aboriginal grog-traffickers and abusers from coming in. Trespass is much too cumbersome and expensive a mechanism for communities to use.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for your throughtful comment, Jane.

I think that your point about the town camps is well taken,and points to the difficulty of containing flow ons.

On a factual matter, my impression is that the Alice Spring town camps will be caught since they were in fact one of the triggers for all this in their refusal to agree to Mr Brough's earlier housing plans.

On the physical infrastructure question, I have no doubt that there will be some improvement here. If you look at the earlier report I did on the PwC review of the CHIP program - - and the report itself, you will see some of the problems that have been driving Mr Brough. So I think that there will be action here.

Whether this will be sufficient is another issue. Back in 98 or 99 the Taylor Report into Aboriginal eye care made a similar point to you, that without simple things like proper housing and clean water you were not going to get health improvements.

Now track forward to today and the CHIP report and one can see that things have not improved. In fact, according to the President of the NT Police Association who was responding to comments on policing, conditions have been deteriorating since the late sixties. His plaint was that it was the police who had to try to pick up the pieces.

It is very hard for someone like me, a distant if interested observer, to understand real conditions on the ground. However,and your overall points bring this out, I do know enough to know that there is great variety in local conditions, vaiety that has to be taken into account.

I will pick up some of your points in a later post. Once again, thanks.

Daniel said...

This hastily cobbled together pre-election stunt will backfire on Howard I believe. No Tampa here!

Anonymous said...

Pure gold again, Jim. Thanks too for that "Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye" link.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I've just discovered your blog. I'm afraid I'm pressed for time and so haven't had a chance to have a proper look at all of it. In fact, I've just skimmed the section on the 'intervention' posted in June of last year.

I wish I had more time to comment on some of your commentary. Sadly, I don't.

I would however be interested in your views on the indivisibility of human rights as it relates to self determination and the 'intervention'. I'm particularly interested in you views on whether this principal is being upheld. If so, how? If not, why not?

Jim Belshaw said...

Anon, thank you for the comment. I struggle a bit to comment on the "indivisibility of human rights as it relates to self determination and the 'intervention'." My difficulty is that I do not know what it means!

I suspect that you are referring to either a philosophical or legan concept. Care to amplify?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Oh dear, this is my first blogging experience and I suspect this is how you get drawn into many blogging hours (a luxury I don't have, as interesting as it might be).

Anyhow, I should explain what is meant by indivisibility. Of course, this won't do the principal any justice at all and should be seen as nothing more than cursory, but it will give you a sense of what I'm talking about by indivisibility.

Along with universality (or inalienability) and inter-dependence, indivisibility is a guiding human rights principal.

It holds that all human rights are inherent to human dignity and consequently all have equal status, cannot be ranked or prioritised in a hierarchical manner. In short, it means that you can't privilege one human right at the expense, or over, another. UNHCR should be able to do the concept more justice.

I'm interested in that principal as it relates to the intervention, especially, but not exclusively, with regards to self determination.

Jim Belshaw said...

Anon, do you know what the real addiction of blogging is? For me, it is the fact that someone who is by nature serious can find people to talk too.

This addition should not be underestimated. Once found, it is very hard to give up!

I am running wokshops at the moment. It amy be the weekend before I come back.

Jim Belshaw said...

You wrote: "It holds that all human rights are inherent to human dignity and consequently all have equal status, cannot be ranked or prioritised in a hierarchical manner. In short, it means that you can't privilege one human right at the expense, or over, another."

Anon, I struggle with a concept like indivisibility. I also struggle with it in the context of the intervention.

The intervention centred on child protection, but involved restrictions on adult freedom. So we have the rights of children to be protected vs limits on adult rights.

The intervention focused on Aboriginal communities with a particular set of problems. The fact that they were identifiably Aboriginal communities raised human rights issues in people's minds and required legislative change - there would not have been the same response had the intervention targeted a geographic area with identical problems with a non-Aboriginal population.

We can actually see this last in operation all the time at local, state and national level. We live in a command and control society that believes that Government can and should solve problems by direct action regardless of its impact on individual freedoms. These actions always have differential effects in that they target problem groups but then affect all.

Anonymous said...

A belated response, but a response nonetheless.

I'll address your four main points one by one. That is:

1. Your struggle with the concept of indivisibility of human rights, particularly in the context of the intervention

2. That the intervention centred on protecting children

3. That this wouldn't have been a human rights issue if it weren't one related to Aboriginal people

4. the simplistic, generalist assertion that we live in 'a society that believes that Government can and should solve problems by direct action'

1. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which the concept of indivisibility can be traced was unprecedented, not only for content, but for the fact that not a single country of the 56 present voted against it. I'm not sure on what basis you struggle with the concept. No doubt you're aware of the difficulty in garnering political support just within nations on any significant decisions. It's worth considering why there wasn't a single vote against the most significant international document of the 20th century.In terms of you having a particular struggle in terms of the intervention, I would ask you to consider what groups are likely to have the most need of human rights protections - I would argue the vulnerable, disempowered and impoverished.

2. Regarding the intervention centering on protecting children i would like to make a few points. The intervention was posited as a response to the circumstances of children living in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory as investigated, and reported on by the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. The resulting Little Children are Sacred Report found there to be “...sufficient anecdotal and forensic and clinical information available to establish that there is a significant problem in Northern Territory communities in relation to sexual abuse of children”. A truly abhorrent situation. One would expect the government response to be closely aligned to the report if it were to be responding to the issue. However, the parliamentary digest to explain the bill to parliamentarians stated that there is “very little overlap between the 97 recommendations of the Anderson/Wild report and the measures which the Federal Government announced” (check the Department of Parliamentary Services for the digest). Further, the co-chair of the Inquiry has consistently said that the response does not accord with the findings and recommendations of the report. So I ask, why doesn't the governement 'response' to the awful situation outlined in the report bear any resemblance to the recommendations in the report? Could it be that it had little to do with the protection of children and more to do with a looming election or the desire to undermine collective land ownership?

3. This requires less explanation. Human rights abuses are challenged regularly and in relation to a wide range of ethnic, religious, cultural and other groups. A quick search of any human rights related websites will tell you that. It is worth keeping in mind that a considerable body of research points to HR abuses as consistently (but not exclusively) occuring against vulnerable groups.

4. Does society think as one? Even if it did would we always want government to solve problems by direct action? This wipes out the whole of civil society as having any role in addressing issues. What of charitable/non-government organisations? Should government have no responsibilities to work with communities? Probably the best exponents of government solving perceived problems by direct action without engaging with anyone are dictatorships.

Jim, I'm afraid that many well-meaning people were swept up by the Howard government's so called emergency response largely because of the terrible findings in the little children are sacred report. No right thinking person could feel anything but abhorrence for the situation exposed in the report. However, we must always take a critical lense to governement policy, particularly that formulated on the run (one former senior bureaurcrat has said the response was developed in two days by Brough, Howard and 2 bureaucrats).

We also must remain vigilant to human rights not being respected. We cannot horse-trade them nor decide which we'll decide to recognise.

Let's hope the federal government learns the mistakes of the past and get's rid of this appalling policy.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Anon. I am flying out this afternoon for two days of workshops. I will respond when I get back.