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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

goodbye to all that? « Previous | |Next »
June 23, 2007

It is true that state politicians have ignored the plight of Aborigines. The most recent example was NSW Premier Morris Iemma, who allowed last year's comprehensive Breaking the Silence report to vanish into a bureaucratic limbo of government inaction. In the NT, Chief Minister Clare Martin, seems so paralysed as to how to solve indigenous problems that we have a Commonwealth takeover in the Northern territory; one that pushes the rights of adult Indigenous people to one side in the name of a national emergency to protect the children.

Bill Leak

The absence of consultation with indigenous people, the NT Government, the medical community, the states and the police indicates that the changes appear to have been sprung on all of them. That is causing unease and qualification leading to a questioning.

Has there been a change in the mode of governing indigenous communities? My response is here at

The judgement of Nicolas Rothwell, writing in The Australian, is that there has been a fundamental change in the mode of governance: self-determination has been dumped:

Let there be no mistake: yesterday's declaration of a national emergency by John Howard ranks with the referendum of 1967, or the passage of land rights in the Northern Territory, as a turning point in Australian history: in what direction remains to be seen. In sweeping measures, so astonishing to political veterans that their scope and feasibility were still being weighed up last night, Canberra tore up the long-established political compact in remote Australia: the unspoken deal whereby indigenous communities have broad freedom, a tithe of welfare, and substandard social services, almost imposed by their sheer remoteness from mainstream society. Now, in the wake of Howard's highly charged announcement of a 'national emergency', all is changed. The last vestiges of the rhetoric of self-determination have been tossed away.

The compulsory Commonwealth acquisition of Aboriginal townships and the compulsory transfer of them to five-year leases, (with compensation paid) is what was rejected by one indigenous community recently. It said it was concerned this was an attempt to remove people's right to land, something hugely important to traditional indigenous people. Now, it's happening by force.

However, few commentators are arguing that indigenous cultural self-determination is a reason to reject this level of intervention in indigenous communities.

Update: 26 June
Peter Balint writing in the Canberra Times highlights the ethical conflict between the two modes of governing.

Children are not viewed as fully formed autonomous citizens and therefore, unlike their adult parents, we see little problem with a paternalistic approach to children and their welfare.The Federal Government is morally justified in intervening in cases of child abuse. Indeed, it has a moral duty to do so the welfare of children, indigenous or otherwise, is their responsibility. But it is also their duty to not trample on the rights of adult citizens. The proposed intervention in NT Aboriginal communities highlights a clash of these duties..While the Federal Government must intervene to uphold the welfare of all Australian children, it must also do so with the minimal amount of paternalism towards its adult citizens.

Balint says that all acts of paternalism must be strictly necessary to protect the welfare of indigenous children.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:19 PM | | Comments (16)


The new way of governing is what Tony Abbott, the Minister of Health, around a year ago, called the "new paternalism." You can find his speech here. In it the Minister says:

Australians’ sense of guilt about the past and naïve idealisation of communal life may now be the biggest single obstacle to the betterment of Aboriginal people. Having rejected the paternalism of the past, we now insist on forms of self-management for Aboriginal people that would be totally unworkable even in places where people are much more used to them. Because it was wrong to treat Aboriginal people like wayward children, it isn’t necessarily right to expect Aboriginal people to thrive through endless management committee meetings.

Self-determination means expecting small, remote communities to organise their own water supply, sanitation, home maintenance, road construction and retail services and laments that self-determination has required Aboriginal people to master skills that are a “cross between a hippie and an accountant”.

However, as Abbott points out Indigenous townships can rarely produce the kind of local leadership necessary for modern service delivery needs. Abbott says that that the rhetoric of self-determination has enabled officialdom to parade its concerns while evading its responsibilities.

instead of talking about different ways of governing Glenn Milne in The Australian talks in terms of the Howard haters who are wrong in criticising Howard's approach. The defective Howard haters are saying that Howard's internvention paternalistic knee-jerk reaction is designed to capitalise on an election only three months away.

What Milne sees is the "remote communities being scourged with alcohol and now scarified by cross-generational sexual abuse." He shows no understanding of the health or education issues. He has no interest in this or employment as a way out of poverty--- he is only in taking down the Howard haters for whom "Howard is simply no good. Never has been, never will be,a moral vacuum who became Prime Minister by default. For these people Howard is a historic mistake."

It's the way of governing that is the core issue. It's the issues raised by Tony Abbott in the speech you linked to. The Minister says:

"It seems the fundamental problem is not lack of spending (although it could always be higher) but the culture of directionlessness in which so many Aboriginal people live....Poor Indigenous health has as much to do with social factors as inadequate facilities. There are no magic bullets here. It’s easy to spend money but hard to make a difference improving services to deprived people in depressed places...Normally, dysfunctional local government would mean sacking the particular council concerned and imposing an administrator to sort out the mess. Vesting authority in an administrator makes sense but only when combined with the power to take decisions and make them stick. Someone has to be in charge."

Milne has little idea that the public debate is about a long-term strategy concentrating on several main issues. He is too caught up in The Australian's 'Howard hater's' meme.

Sad. Too much booze perhaps.

It is my understanding that the managers of the communities to some point control the money that is paid to residents of these communities and they as needed sign it out to them. Well this is the way it used to be. So if there is none left to feed the children it is the managers fault.

I agree. What Milne doesn't appreciate is that a section of the Australian population (ie., Australian citizens) will be prevented from exercising their legal rights in the places where they live and rarely leave.

Conservatives mock this right discourse when they talk in terms of the right to get drunk, the right to abuse wife and children; the right to get welfare and then to waste it on booze all the while forgetting to feed kids; the right to not bother whether kid goes to school or not. etc etc.

In doing so they are mocking the liberties of individual Indigenous citizens upon which liberal democracy is based whilst ensuring their own rights of liberty. Sounds suss to me.

conservatives seem to have an obsession with what they call ""Aboriginal exceptionalism". Thus the Australian:

The declaration of a national emergency in Aboriginal Australia puts an end to the great experiment of exceptionalism that glorified indigenous culture but was blinded to the modern-day scourges of welfare dependency, substance abuse and boredom. After a decade spent shouting in the wilderness, Aboriginal advocate Noel Pearson has finally been heard. His message is that free money and access to grog has polluted many Aboriginal communities to a point beyond the capacity for a negotiated retreat to the accepted norms of social behaviour. The release of a report into physical and sexual abuse of children in the Northern Territory was the final straw for the Howard Government.

"Exceptionalism" has been replaced with law and order (the police and the army) that uses the military re Aboriginal Australia.

"Exceptionalism"? Instead of a separationist agenda I thought that it was the universal welfarism of social democracy that was the issue.

The Australian continues:

Having forged a new course, the Howard Government has a great responsibility to make sure the emergency effort is both properly resourced and sustained. The new way is obviously paternalistic and focused on the welfare of children. But it is not a return to the old paternalistic ways of the mission days. Rather, it seeks to reinforce equality of rights and responsibilities. The new prescription outflanks those who favour symbolic gestures rooted in the trifecta of land rights and the reports into black deaths in custody and the stolen generation. A soft approach to law enforcement has resulted in unchecked domestic and sexual violence. The refusal of well-meaning authorities to remove children from harm's way has spawned a generation who have kept their parents but had their innocence stolen. And the land rights that were supposed to restore pride and dignity have instead enslaved indigenous people in poverty through communal ownership.

Reinforce reinforce equality of rights? Aren't the rights of just the Indigenous Australians in the NT being overridden by paternalism? How is that an equality of rights?

So the troubled Aboriginal communities will get back on their feet by having key decision-making powers over their own lives taken away from them? This is the best way to deal with the effects of colonialism?

If America of the 1930s is any indication, then the cops will be running the illegal market in booze.

I think the big problem is there is a lack of good numbers of aboriginal leaders on the ground.
Solve this and we will have a very different situation.

I agree. That is what Noel Pearson's Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership addresses.

Peter Balint in the op-ed that I linked to in the Update makes an important ethical distinction. He says:

Adults have the right to self-determination in their affairs, children do not. Moreover, no child should be hostage to their parents' circumstances. Ultimately, children are the responsibility of the state, and while parents may do what they like to themselves, they may not do what they like with their children.

It's a distinction that is being lost in the current debate.

Pearson is right. Indigenous people have to start taking responsibility for their destructive conduct that harms the children. If they do not have that ethical capability, then they must be taught it in terms of internalising social norms.

Yes Peter Balint makes sense as does Pearson.

One point in relation to Grog being turned off. It does make it easier for the team to get in and do what they have to do. Sober people are a lot easier to manage. Drunks can be unpredictable.

Like you Pearson accepts that there is a direct connection between the epidemic of grog and drug abuse and the neglect and abuse of children. He says:

We have always known grog is a problem for our people. But to know that grog is a problem is not enough. Because we have plenty of problems. We have plenty of explanations for our problems. We have plenty of proposed solutions. The question is: what emphasis, what strategic priority, what urgency, what focus do we give to grog?If you acknowledge that grog is a problem but you don’t give it emphasis, priority or focus, then it is likely you will do nothing about it.

Pearson's reform strategy makes good sense. First you stop the abuse, then you prevent it.Then you introduce the social norms to take responsibility for one's actions. As Pearson says:
Howard and Brough need to understand the challenge is this: we must restore Aboriginal law in these communities. We must restore Aboriginal values and Aboriginal morality in our communities. Aboriginal law, properly understood, is not the problem, it is the solution. When I say Aboriginal law, I just do not mean the laws that prevailed in our pre-colonial classical culture, I mean our contemporary values and expectations about behaviour. The old law did not deal with grog, drugs, gambling, money and private property... We need to develop an Aboriginal law that deals effectively with these new challenges: grog, drugs, gambling, money and private property.

There is still some opposition that I see with some groups in the area. It must be difficult for them. This whole thing really will showcase what a lousy job they have done.
Still this is the way to go to go forward.
Aboriginals image is very low with white Australia and I expect it will go lower before it gets better.
I worry for the future. It is clear with the numbers of younger to older ratio that at some point in the future old age pensions will be gone and everybody will need to be self funded retirees. But aboriginals will still have to be payed welfare. This I am afraid will cause much angst.

The shaymus comment was made by me...Sorry wrote the wrong name

Tim Colebatch in the Sydney Morning Herald informs us that Grant Commission figures show us that under the grants equalization scheme in 2007-08 around:

$1.72 billion, will go to the Northern Territory — on the grounds that it is very expensive to give outback Aboriginal communities services equal to those in Melbourne and Sydney.Victoria will get $2177 a head from Canberra. The NT will get $10,553 a head.

As no law requires the Martin Government in the NT to spend that money providing Aboriginal communities with services equal to Melbourne and Sydney — so it doesn't.Instead it has used those billions to make Darwin a pleasant, lightly taxed place to live. Consequently,
Commission figures show that, on average, the NT spends only a third as much per head on its Aboriginal communities as Queensland or WA spend on theirs, a quarter as much as NSW, and a sixth as much as South Australia. Relative to need, the NT also provides the poorest family and child services, preventive and community health services, services to the homeless, and police.

If the white majority is to give up its cushy subsidies from abusing the grant equalization scheme, then Aboriginal people need to realize that there is no economic logic or purpose to isolated communities living off welfare cheques.

Colebatch makes sense.

Yes some interesting figures there Public.
I have seen some figures that put keeping prisoners in gaol at $70,000 per year and given that a very large percentage of aboriginals are incarcerated or will be or have been.
I wonder if it would be possible to say view the aboriginal race as a business and look at the Input to Output. Input being money earned from work. Output being total cost to government.
If we were to establish a percentage figure on this it would be a good way to gauge whether changes are working.

Firstly, thanks to Gary for fingering "exeptionalism".
Never cease to be amazed at the alibiing of ideologists and it's good to know the name of this particular beastie.
Secondly, the writer supposes most of you watched the discussion between Bruff and O'Brien on 7.30 Report tonight?
Toward the end of the interview O'Brien raised the presumably forgotten matter of $half a billion trimmed from Aboriginal Affairs budgets over four years in the late 'nineties.
Had the same input percentile that the ALP had inputed inadequate though this amount probably was, also, do readers think the situation today would have required the same psychodramatic "emergency" response?
How dare these people continue to profer themselves forward as Caped Crusaders for the Little Children with such a track record.
BTW, any one catch the delightful Spooner cartoon, with Howard in a dinghy out in the swamps lifting a little child clear of the wicked "crocodiles" of alcoholism, pornography, etc?
At least he seemed, to be lifting the poor little mite clear...