Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The white man's burden: Howard's attack on Aboriginal self-determination

Howard's 'new paternalism' is one of the most far-reaching attacks on Aboriginal self-determination in recent years.

One of the most fundamentally troubling things about the Howard government's emergency intervention to tackle child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory is that it attacks and undermines Aboriginal self-determination.

There have been many indications that John Howard finds Aboriginal self-determination and cultural sovereignty antithetical to his values and political worldview. His recent attacks on Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory have been part of his overall desire to dismantle the institutions, supports, features and principles of Aboriginal self-determination.
Now, with the declaration of a national emergency to deal with child abuse in the communities, Howard's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, has handed him the means to further undermine Aboriginal self-determination. Unfortunately, the result will be to undermine NT Aboriginal communities' capacity to effectively deal with family violence and the abuse of children in their communities – the inverse of what Howard claims his plan will achieve.

The Howard-Brough plan clearly attacks self-determination through such moves as seizing control of 70 Aboriginal controlled communities and townships in Northern Territory and forcing Aboriginal parents to meet stringent conditions in return for their welfare and family support payments. All this on top of the ‘law and order’ approach of sending in extra police and military to spearhead the ‘campaign’.
This is the ‘shock and awe’ aspect of the Howard-Brough plan, (the overtly militaristic tone in the government spin is no accident).

The most insidious aspect, though, is the giant lie Howard is perpetrating on the Australian public that Indigenous leaders have had 20 or 30 years to tackle these problems ‘their’ way – the 'old' way – and failed, and so now is the time for the government’s, i.e. Howard’s, way – Howard’s ‘new paternalism’.

Apparently, Howard is referring to the twenty to thirty years that Indigenous communities have had various means of self-determination implemented since the Whitlam era. The lie is that Indigenous people’s way – the self-determined way – have had all the time, resources, means and people to address the problems plaguing their communities, but have squandered them and failed and so engendered this crisis in the first place.

By effectively saying 'your way failed, now make way for our way – we will do what is needed to protect children,’ Howard is simultaneously trying to wash his hands of over a decade of neglect, chronic under-funding (and in many cases de-funding), and destabilisation of organisations, initiatives, resources and basic services for Indigenous people by his government, and blame the problem on Indigenous people and their leaders to justify his jackboot actions.

It also allows him the grandiose (or rather grotesque) gesture of taking up the white man's burden and inviting the rest of Australia to join him.

Through the declaration of a national emergency and showy, dramatic moves that emphasize a sense of crisis and urgency, Howard has garnered a great deal of public support for appearing decisive and proactive – to show that finally, 'something is being done to help the children'. And he has pulled a classic ‘Pauline Hanson’ – just as so many Australians bought her lie that a river of money was being soaked-up by Indigenous people rolling in their special privileges, unfortunately so are many members of the public today, by many accounts, buying Howard’s lie that Indigenous people tried but failed to tackle alcohol, family violence, abuse, and dysfunction.

The truth is, there have been many great successes by Indigenous people in tackling child abuse, family violence, and stopping alcohol abuse. The truth is that there are a great many Indigenous leaders who have for many years been identifying the problems – and the solutions – to the Howard government (and governments before his) and calling for national action and funding to tackle the problem effectively and in concert with Indigenous communities and their organisations – to no avail.

Only, if Howard were to admit that Indigenous communities have been offering the solutions all this time, then he would also have to admit that he had failed to support them in ways that counted – that he, in fact, had failed to help prevent child abuse in Aboriginal communities. And that just wouldn’t do for Iron John, would it? Oh, no. Not during an election year. Besides, it’s far more convenient to blame Indigenous people and their self-determination.

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Running for the hills

When Howard announced that the feds were sending in police and the army into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities to 'restore' law and order, as part of their response to child abuse crisis there, many people anticipated a high level of fear and panic in the communities because of the lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities and their not being involved in what was being planned.

Reports have trickled in of women taking their children to hide in the bush because of their fears that the police will come to remove their children:
An elder of the Mutitjulu community in central Australia says many Aboriginal mothers are taking their children into the sandhills because of fears the government will take them away.
Many anticipated the disquiet, but perhaps not the fear. After all, these are Aboriginal people who would either remember being hidden by their parents from 'the welfare', or being removed themselves, or know of this happening to their own parents, such as in this story recounted to the Inquiry
into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (the evidence recounts practices in WA, but are indicative of those in NT as well):
The welfare just grabbed you where they found you. They'd take them in threes and fours, whatever. The Native Welfare blokes used to come to every station and see where our half caste kids were. They used to drive right down to Port Hedland. Our people would hide us, paint us with charcoal. I was taken to Moola Bulla. The Welfare bloke ... sent his son ... to pick up me and Colin Swift. We were about 5-6 years old, and my mother was allowed to come with us in the manager's car and then he took her away.
– Quoted by Kimberley Land Council in their submission to the Stolen Generations Inquiry, published in Bringing Them Home Report.
Howard actually insisted that people in the communities would start to feel safer once the police were on the ground in their communities and keeping the 'hard men' or 'big men' in check, thus freeing people up to approach services for help and support. I think it is tragic, but ultimately instructive, that even 10 years after the Inquiry, Howard just doesn't get it.

If you knew Howard's hard men were on their way (but weren't sure why), wouldn't you pack up your kids and run?

[Image is from HREOC's online version of the
Bringing Them Home Report on the Stolen Generation]

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Howard’s ‘jackboot’ paternalism – so full of holes

I was left almost breathless once again at Howard’s brazen, whirl-wind moves to set back Indigenous rights and reconciliation twenty years in the name of saving Aboriginal children from abuse in remote communities in Northern Territory. Howard, with his Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, have declared an emergency to deal with the crisis of child abuse in remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, as identified in the NT Inquiry report released last week.

A lot has already been said about it all over the news and blogosphere (in particular see Barista's take on it, Cast Iron Balcony's, and Ken's at Club Troppo).

But in a nutshell: the Howard-Brough plan involves the federal government seizing control of 70 Aboriginal controlled communities and townships in Northern Territory; suspending the coverage of the permit system over access roads, airstrips and other 'common areas'; and banning alcohol in affected Aboriginal communities for six months or more are. At the forefront of are steps to send in extra police, under the leadership of the Australian Federal Police and with army logistical backing, to impose 'law and order' in the communities.

The government will also force Aboriginal parents to meet various requirements to keep receiving their welfare payments, such as send their children to school and clean up their homes and streets, and will remove Aboriginal parents' control over half of what they receive in family support and welfare payments by channeling the payments directly to schools, issuing food vouchers and other restrictions aimed at streamlining welfare payments into expenses for children.

What is clear is that Howard's approach doesn't understand, let alone address, the reality that alcohol and other substance abuse, family violence and child abuse, and the myriad other problems the communities face, arise from the underlying dispossession, poverty, disempowerment and dysfunction Aboriginal communities experience – caused by 200 years of white colonisation in the first place.

Howard assures us that all this has the express purpose of protecting Aboriginal children from child abuse. That is why I find it stunning that in the reports of Howard’s plan, there has been very little identified that is directly about children. Other than forcing all Aboriginal children under 16 to undergo health checks (that may include checks for signs of abuse), and forcing parents to send their kids to school – even though there may not be enough tables, chairs, teachers, books or money in the schools, very little is actually outlined that directly assists children – especially those who have suffered the trauma of abuse.

Strong concerns have been raised that there aren’t sufficient culturally appropriate welfare services or therapeutic treatment services to support Indigenous children who have been found to be abused when the government’s heavy handed medical testing and investigation regime kicks in. (For more on this, see this interview by ABC Radion Melbourne's Jon Faine with National Indigenous children's services leader Muriel Bamblett last Friday. An mp3 is available of the conversation, with her in the last half of the hour.)

It is clear from this, and the many more problems with the plan identified by community organisations and experts, such as the shortage of alcohol abuse treatment and rehabilitation services to cope with those affected by suddenly cutting off the supply, that Howard and Brough’s plan has been rushed and poorly thought through for implementation. This suggests to me that it was adopted for the quick fix it offers them to grab control over Aboriginal communities and land.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

A reflection on bravery and heroes

Melbourne is still reeling from the news of Monday morning's events where a man was shot dead when he went to help a woman being attacked by another man. A number of city buildings were 'locked down' as police made an intensive search of surrounding city blocks for the attacker. The news has been full of the details of the incident, as well as the background of most of the people involved, but I thought it worth while to repeat the reported details of what happened to set the context for this post and for the benefit of non-Melbourne readers.

Brendan Keilar, a 43-year-old city solicitor, was shot dead when he and another man (a 25-year-old Dutch backpacker) tried to intervene when they saw the woman being being dragged by her hair by a young man at the busy city intersection of William Street and Flinders Lane. It was about 8.20 am, pretty much peak hour traffic in the city.

According to reports, when the two men approached the man allegedly attacking the woman, he pulled out a gun and shot all three of them – point-blank. Brendan Keilar died at the scene – though paramedics tried to save his life, (as this eyewitness blog account attests). The 24-year-old woman, who was shot in the abdomen, is in hospital in a 'serious but stable condition', while the young man had been shot in the upper body and has apparently regained consciousness after being in a 'critical' condition.

Police now allege that the man who attacked the woman and shot all three, and had seriously attacked another woman some minutes earlier, is a 29-year-old member of the Hells Angel bikie gang. Both women were known to the man. Police hunted for him until he reportedly surrendered himself to police yesterday afternoon. He has been remanded in custody.

Much media attention has gone to the person who allegedly did the shootings. Some attention has gone to what kind of man Brendan Keilar was, that he should have gone to the help of someone and put his life at risk. It is the later that has really got me thinking the last three days.

The media pretty immediately hailed Keilar as a hero, with Melbourne's daily tabloid now inviting its readers to send their 'messages of support' to the heroes – and presumably Keilar's family.

I have no desire to be disrespectful to Brendan Keilar or his family, who are going through a deep, deep grief. Three children have lost their father and a woman her husband. I am wondering though – and this is pure speculation on my part – that for however much it may be comforting to think that their father/husband lost his life as a hero, that they may, deep inside, wish that he hadn't been one, that he hadn't gone to help that woman, that he had just dialled '000' from a safe distance, for he is now lost to them forever.

Why? Why did Brendan Keilar risk so much, risk ever seeing his children again, to go to the aid of a total stranger? Of course, one comment that kept emerging when the news broke – especially from bystanders – was that when people woke up that Monday morning and went to work, they certainly didn't expect to face this situation. There was that overwhelming, harrowing sense of pure chance – who would have expected such a thing to happen in Melbourne, of all places, and for it to end that way?

If this were New York, Los Angeles, Baghdad, Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro, I believe people's responses to such an incident would be markedly different – locals of those cities would probably immediately assume that an attacker would have a gun in the first place. Not so Melbourne.

Many, many people do brave things – some of them stupid things. Many take calculated risks in their responses to situations that call on them to act altruistically. They assess situations well beforehand, understand the risks involved, train to deal with them or avoid them, and go into situations with a clear sense of purpose. Foremost in my mind are the volunteer firefighters (CFA) who bravely fought Victoria's raging bush fires last summer – for no remuneration. Others include metro firefighters, paramedics, rescue workers, emergency and relief workers, the police and military.

In my mind, the CFA volunteers are truly heroic because while they understand the risks, they also know what's at stake if they don't act. Many of them probably wouldn't agree they're 'heroes', and think they're just doing the right thing.

I wonder if Keilar thought very much about what he was getting himself into before he stepped forward to intervene. Perhaps, if his background were criminal law, he thought he had enough understanding of and experience dealing with violent people to be able to defuse the situation until help arrived – an approach many others may share. Perhaps he was spurred by a strong sense of injustice to see a young woman being attacked – after all, for the last two generations men have been asked to not look away from other men's violence against women. Refusing to be silent is now expected of any commonly decent person.

Maybe Keilar did exactly what he would want any other man to do if they saw his own daughters, son, or wife being hurt. That can be a very strong driver for action.

Sometimes, doing the decent thing may not have been the best thing to do at the time. I'm not even sure that it is the right thing to do. But it is a compelling motivation for many people.

Some people don't think about it too much when they act bravely. Perhaps it seemed the natural thing to do. I've heard a man who rushed into a burning house to save children trapped in it tell reporters, on his being awarded a bravery medal, that he didn't think about it. He just did it because he was there. And that he would do it again if necessary. Perhaps not knowing everything that could go wrong helps that.

On the radio this morning I heard that a media outlet's poll of its readers, asking whether they would go to the aid of strangers after what happened on Monday, showed that over 70% of the few hundred or so respondents said they would. Many people want to do the decent thing, and hope that other people will act decently.

But I think many of us really wonder, when we hear of such incidents as Monday's, whether we would act the same way: step up to the plate and do what's necessary. It is something that we really want to believe about ourselves, but when we start thinking about it too much we wonder if we would. Or could.

I think that's why people like Brendan Keilar are our heroes. Because they could. And did.

So, with respect, I think Tina Turner is wrong after all.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

To publish online or not?

The huge public stoush over Melbourne based literary magazine Meanjin's future has prompted some debate over the viability of small literary publications. Barista's report of the board's sacking by Melbourne University over very the public mess has generated some interesting discussion of the possibilities – or otherwise – of literary magazines like Meanjin shedding their print formats and going online – exclusively.

I contributed my two bits to the discussion in the comments, so instead of reproducing them here, I thought I'd just redirect you to the discussion there.

There's obviously lots to say and think about on this topic, so it may inspire a separate blog post here yet.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Too long a silence to write about

If you're wondering why I've been silent in this blog for over a week, it's because I've been very busy at work and I've had some other writing deadlines to pursue at home – amidst the hustle and bustle of the life with two kids.

while I haven't had time to write about them this past week, I've been meaning to blog about a lot of things such as:

1) my attending the Dalai Lama's public talk in Melbourne last Saturday (very insightful talk offering us a lot to learn);

Update: I had hoped to add one of the photos I took of the Dalai Lama at his public lecture in Melbourne, but they didn't turn out very well at all (the perils of sitting a little too far away and not having a telephoto lens!). I didn't think readers would enjoy my shaky pics of him on the big-screen, so I searched flickr for a Creative Commons licensed photo of the Dalai Lama in Melbourne and found this beauty by Jason Argo (CC). By the way, I highly recommend the Creative Commons
search engine – I use the tool-bar add-on for Firefox, but I can't find it on the Firefox site anymore. Pity! [Updated and photo added 5.05 pm, 20 June 2007]

2) the sizzling debate heating up over The Australian trying to heavy Clive Hamilton and the
publishers of his book on the Australian politics of climate change, Scorcher, into fudging Hamilton's strong criticism of that newspaper's role in climate change denialism here in Australia (great piece by Hamilton in;

3) the news that the heavens opened up over and flooded the Newcastle area of New South Wales earlier this week – with tragic consequences;

4) the news from of their success lobbying the G8+5 Summit in Germany to seriously tackle climate change.

5) Sarsaparilla had an interesting discussion on writers and blogging, initiated by Sophie's post on Writers and blogging.

The last one got me really thinking – am I a writer or a blogger? phft! I'm both, of course. Blogging has always been a part and parcel of my 'practice' as a writer, and writing is central to my blogging, of course! But does it mean that when I'm busy blogging, that I'm not giving enough time to my 'writing'? Or, if I'm too busy with my 'creative' writing to blog, that I'm finally being a 'real' writer?

I think that these stem from pretty vague and shaky demarcations between 'writing' and blogging – usually preferred by writers who view their writing as their 'profession' and blogging as something that 'amateurs' do (in the implied sense of being a dabbler or not proficient at something rather than being unpaid).

I think it also stems from the hierarchy imagined by many writers between fiction (and hence 'artistic' or 'creative') writing and non-fiction writing. I am primarily a non-fiction writer who dabbles in short creative fiction in order to home my skills and practice as a creative non-fiction writer (confused? you're not the only one). That does not make me any less a serious writer. I just don't get paid lots to do it. If anything.

It just really, really pisses me off when people's comments suggest that if you're not writing a novel, then you're not being a real writer.

Don't worry. There isn't a 'novel in me waiting to come out'. I don't have that conceited constipation at this time in my life.

by Jason Argo (CC)]

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Push comes to shove

I got this email from's Ricken Patel, reporting on the progress of their campaign to secure global agreement on greenhouse gas emission targets at this week's G8 summit. It makes for exciting news, as it shows that other countries are serious about climate change, even if Australia's government isn't, or Bush's US administration is playing spoiler. They surpassed their target of 250 thousand signatures, and are aiming for 333,000! He reports:
Our campaign against global warming is on fire! World leaders meet at the G8+5 summit this week--and they're listening to us. Friday morning, we banged boxes of 265,000 names down on the top German negotiator's table in Berlin. Taken aback, he promised to bring our voice into the negotiations, and said he'd track how fast our petition grows. On Saturday, with another 10,000 signatures overnight, we marched at the head of the climate march in Rostock, with tens of thousands peacefully demanding urgent action. Now we're in touch with top officials from France, the UK and Brazil, all following our campaign as they decide on a strong stand.

Let's turn the heat up even higher. Can you help us get to 333,333 voices for change--the biggest global climate petition ever--before the summit decision? One last push, together, to avert a planetary catastrophe. …

The energy here in Germany is electric. Every few hours, new reports come in as governments manoeuvre. Amidst the politics, our campaign draws a clear line: a swift global agreement with binding emissions targets.

When we met with Chancellor Angela Merkel's top representative who chairs the talks, he promised us Germany wouldn't compromise-- then on Sunday Merkel came through for us, the Brits followed suit, and now Brazil and China have joined the call for a global UN-led process. Bush has started to move but his proposals would be a step back, the US people and Congress are already way ahead of him.

The summit leaders can tell a global movement is brewing. Our petition, this simple list of names from every corner of the globe, is a sign politicians can see and touch. These talks always come down to the wire-- so it's crucial for world leaders to know how much the global public wants them to stop the climate crisis.

The summit opens Wednesday, ends Friday. This is crunch time. So just for a moment, put aside whatever you're doing and help us get to a third of a million signatures-- urge your friends and family to sign the petition here:

We know leaders are watching. Let's make their jaws drop.

If you haven't already signed the petition, please do. And tell your friends, family – and readers – to do so.

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