Modia Minotaur

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

The `Aboriginal Problem'

There can be no doubt that Mal Brough has now taken his new portfolio of Indigenous Affairs in hand since it was handed over by the accident prone Amanda Vanstone. You can barely turn on the TV without seeing the gruff Mr Brough talking about yet another grim incident witnessed in an isolated Aboriginal community.

A few observations. Firstly - and this is in no way to trivialise the very real problems that Brough is calling attention to - it should also be remembered that Brough is also the Minister in charge of childcare, a notable thorn in the government's side at the moment, thanks to increasingly dissident Liberal backbencher Jackie Kelly, who has gone from implicitly to explicitly endorsing Labor's childcare policy over the Government's. Childcare's often viewed as a soft issue, but I still believe - and it seems, the political establishment, are starting to realise - that it is emerging as one of the great sleeper issues, touching not only on the social but the economic. There's a grave disconnect in the rhetoric of `one for the country', forcing parents into work once their children reach a certain age, and not providing adequate childcare.

Putting one Minister in charge of both of these issues was justified as part of the Howard Government's attempt to mainstream Aboriginal welfare rather than designate it a special case. Surely all of the discussions that have taken place this week demonstrates exactly why Aboriginal welfare is always a special case. Even I am not so cynical - and, I hope, nor is the government - to suggest Aboriginal welfare has suddenly been rushed to the top of the agenda to take the internal stoush over childcare out of the headlines - but I wonder at the wisdom of having one Minister in charge of both these important issues.

As I noted in an earlier post, the blame for much of the trouble in isolated Aboriginal communities is being placed on what are seen as (here comes my favourite phrase), a `bleeding heart' attitude to Aboriginal welfare. I think it's important to remember that the `bleeding hearts' were in fact the ones that gave them their first official voice, in the form of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), formed by the Whitlam Government in 1973. Unlike the current government's hand-picked consultation committee (formed since the dissolution of ATSIC), NACC was elected by Indigenous Australians, 28,000 of whom voted in the first NACC elections. There was a genuine process of consulation rather than top-down paternalism. I am yet to hear much from the Prime Minister's current consultative committee on anything, much less the situation in the Northern Territory.

This does not change the fact that the situation in the Northern Territory is grave - but this is not something that has happened overnight, and nor will it be changed by government strongarming. Only by genuine empowerment - by quite literally, being given a reason to live, being taken seriously, and being genuinely consulted rather than being debated over - will problems in Aboriginal Australia even start to be addressed. If there are problems with a disjunction between customary and Western law, they should be discussed and resolved, not papered over. The reconciliation process that has taken place between the colonial and indigenous people of New Zealand and Canada make it all the more embarrassing that our Prime Minister still can't say sorry.

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