Apartheid Is Alive and Well
TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 26 Apr 2010
There is a place where indigenous blacks are still being shunted off their land into reservations; where work is rewarded not with wages but with ration cards, to spend in white-owned supermarkets; where public services are lavished on the already wealthy but denied to the poorest unless they agree to hand over their birthright.
Sixteen years after the end of Apartheid, incarceration rates among Australia’s indigenous people bear comparison with the jailing of blacks in minority-ruled South Africa. Aborigines make up just 2.5% of the country’s population, but they account for nearly a quarter of all prisoners. In the Northern Territory, the ‘outback Australia’ made famous in the Crocodile Dundee films of comedian Paul Hogan, the proportion of those held under lock and key who are Aboriginal is a staggering 83%.
The historic subjugation of Australia’s indigenous population began with the arrival of European settlers in 1788. Near where I live in Sydney’s upper North Shore is the last site associated with the so-called ‘first fleet’ to have remained undeveloped. A brass plate in the bush memorialises a reconnaissance party led by Governor Arthur Phillip, which camped here in search of farmland to establish a colony.
By then, of course, Aboriginal people had been successfully feeding themselves, in a land of erratic weather patterns and thin, dry soils, for tens of thousands of years. It only adds to the sense of irony that now, thousands of indigenous Australians are having their income “managed” by descendants of those same settlers and the subsequent waves of incomers; doled out through ration cards, instead of paid in cash, with the stated aim of getting them to spend it on fresh food.
It’s part of the ‘Northern Territory National Emergency Response’ – known to everyone else as ‘the Intervention’ – under which government ‘business managers’ have assumed draconian powers over Aboriginal communities, and acquired compulsory leases over Aboriginal township land. This is supposedly necessary to permit the building of public housing, but, despite a budget of AUD$670 million over two years, the total number of houses the government has so far built is… four. (A figure that does not include the fifty-odd dwellings constructed especially for the business managers themselves).
The Intervention was launched, under the previous government led by the avowedly right-of-centre Liberal-National Coalition, but continued unamended under the present Labor administration that took office in 2007. In the three-year Australian electoral cycle, that means an election is coming up, and ministers have responded to criticisms with a phoney ‘consultation’ exercise, purporting to show all is well, and emendations to bring the Intervention into line with Australia’s Race Discrimination Act (RDA).
This, though, will involve a levelling-down of people’s rights, not a levelling-up: any Northern Territory claimant of state benefits will henceforth be liable to see them snatched away and transformed into an allowance on a ‘Basics Card’ instead. And the new Intervention legislation, due to be debated in Canberra in a few weeks’ time, omits one crucial factor: there is nothing to permit Aboriginal people to use the RDA to challenge any of its provisions, thus stripping the supposed ‘change’ of any meaningful content.
The Intervention was prompted by a report from the NT government on child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities, titled, Little Children Are Sacred. It was not long before the ABC Four Corners program, in a rare example of journalistic initiative on this story, exposed the inconvenient truth: CSA is no more prevalent among Indigenous Australians than among the Australian community at large. The government has funded only 20 child protection workers to cover the whole Territory, and only one is currently employed full time. Not one person has been prosecuted for child sex abuse since the Intervention was rolled out.
The arrival in Aboriginal areas of government officials has been backed by deployment of the military, and there are, indeed, abundant echoes of the propaganda that has accompanied various other “humanitarian interventions” of recent times. Yugoslavia was bombed to protect the Albanian Kosovars: never mind that, by the time of Nato’s onslaught of 1999, the so-called “Operation Allied Force” (OAF), all but a handful of refugees had returned to their homes – before the bombing itself triggered a mass exodus.
Iraq was attacked to rid its people of an abusive dictator, and hundreds of thousands paid with their lives; millions more by being forced to flee their homes, most permanently. Afghanistan was invaded to protect Afghans from the Taliban, thus triggering a war that is certain to continue until the US-led invading troops are finally forced out, exacting a massive human cost in the process – and all on the thinnest of any evidence connecting Afghanistan to the ‘9/11’ attacks, the original pretext.
A phrase attributed to the American field commander, General Stanley McChrystal, during the recent Nato attack on the town of Marjah, is particularly resonant. Once the Taliban were cleared out, he said, there was a “government ready to roll out”, with personnel and resources available to provide the services people craved. Inscribed in this is a variant on the so-called “liberal peace” theory. Liberal democracies seldom if ever go to war with each other, the argument runs, so what conflict-ridden countries need is to have the institutions that characterise liberal democracy implanted into them: at gunpoint, if necessary.
A highly intrusive administrative intervention, backed by troops, has swept away local forms of democracy and economic activity and is attempting to impose, from the top down, ways of being and doing that are, in some important ways, alien to the people concerned. It could be a description of both the National Emergency Response and the war in Afghanistan; a resemblance that is not purely coincidental. David Rieff sees, in the urge to intervene on “humanitarian” grounds, an extension of the self-styled “civilising mission” of Imperialism, aimed at dragging lesser peoples into modernity:
“Contemporary advocates of state humanitarianism share something of the same faith that a combination of high moral intent, military force, the imposition of good government, and benign tutelage (for Kipling’s ‘lesser breeds beyond the law’ read today’s ‘failed states’) could be a force for the betterment of humanity”.
So, in Afghanistan, home-grown traditions of consensual decision-making, embodied in jirgas and shuras, have been trumped by the imposition, from outside, of an all-powerful president as a ‘partner’ for western donors. The resulting government has proved corrupt and ineffectual, and Afghans who have experienced both are just as likely to prefer the Taliban being in charge. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Kabul bureau chief for National Public Radio, reported:
“Some of the residents are leery. They complain that the last time the government was in charge in Marjah two years ago, corrupt police officers terrorised residents. A tractor driver named Faqir Mohammad said the Taliban brought peace to Marjah and generally didn’t interfere in people’s business. He added that residents were happy with them. By comparison, he said, police officers in Marjah stole people’s motorcycles and cash, and were involved in kidnapping”.
And the contractors who are doing the work of “rolling out” General McChrystal’s portable government have, according to a report this weekend in my old paper, the Independent, “been forced to retreat even further behind blast walls and heavily armed security perimeters. The security drives up costs, making interaction with regular Afghans harder and slowing reconstruction projects”.
In the Northern Territory, meanwhile, the Intervention meant the abolition of the Community Employment Development Program, which provided jobs and prospects for local Aboriginal people. Patrick Dodson, an Aboriginal leader not from the NT but from the Yawuru people in Broome, Western Australia, complained, when accepting the Sydney Peace Prize in 2008, that initiatives from Canberra habitually bypassed – and therefore undermined – local Indigenous leaders, denying them the authority to implement necessary changes.
A strong and creative resistance movement against the Intervention is now well underway. Led by Aboriginal non-compliance – so-called “walk-offs” – it has already produced a community house, built in just two weeks at Ampilatwatja with help from the dockers’ union, the MUA. And a civil society movement, the Stop the Intervention Collective, is rapidly growing. Recently it organised a public meeting in Sydney addressed by John Pilger, the distinguished journalist and film-maker who last year succeeded Dodson as the Sydney Peace Prize laureate.
Pilger drew attention to the Northern Territory government plan, set out in a report titled Working Futures, to cut off public services to hundreds of homeland Aboriginal communities deemed not to be “economically viable”, in favour of moving their inhabitants to “hubs” where they will have the opportunity to live “mainstream lives”. This is a blueprint for social breakdown: places earmarked as “hubs” have some of the worst social indicators in Australia. The agenda, Pilger averred, was a familiar one: “moving blackfellas off their lands” to make way for lucrative mineral exploitation.
This is just the most overt statement of assumptions that still run through government policies, imposed from Territory and federal authorities alike, as the wording through a stick of rock: that Aboriginal people need to be assimilated into the way of life, and forms of political organization, brought by westerners. Professor Larissa Behrendt, the eminent Aboriginal legal scholar who spoke at the same meeting, noted that the NT had surreptitiously changed the basis of allocating school funding, from the number of enrolled students to the number in attendance: a way of speeding up cycles of decline in schools relied on by Aboriginal communities and one of a myriad of similar ploys.
The Four Corners team aside, most mainstream media responses to the Intervention – as to Australia’s role in the Afghan war – have been almost comically supine. When the United Nations sent a rapporteur to look into complaints that the RDA had been suspended, and Indigenous leaders sidelined, his criticisms were reported along with indignant denials from Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and her Howard-era predecessor, Mal Brough. One or two nationally known Aboriginal leaders were quoted, but there was no investigation, based on sources on the ground, to enable readers and audiences to assess his criticisms for themselves.
The ABC, the public broadcaster, generally shows the deep imprint of years of political interference and intimidation: a well-timed “exclusive” on the nightly Lateline program had served up sensational claims of a child sexual abuse “ring” in Aboriginal communities – just when the Intervention was first proposed. Its source, an unnamed “youth worker”, was subsequently discredited, Pilger noted, by both the NT government and the police. When a documentary strand on the ABC2 channel proposed to run a simple film showcasing a range of responses to the Intervention, by Aboriginal people in their own words, it caused an almighty row and the program team was forced to broadcast a misleading statement to “balance” it.
It’s worth revisiting the verdict of Professor James Anaya, the special rapporteur on Indigenous rights sent in by the UN. “These measures overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples”, he declared. “They infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatise already stigmatised communities”. Significantly, he identified them as a breach of legally binding undertakings Australia has given to the international community: “The emergency response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination”.
This makes the Intervention into everybody’s business. Australia needs to be shown that it cannot engage with the outside world on any other subject, until this is satisfactorily resolved, and the present policies replaced with a consultative and supportive approach to Aboriginal communities, based on social justice. Inform yourself further at www.stoptheintervention.org and write to your local Australian High Commission. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, veteran of the anti-Apartheid struggle, quoted at the meeting: to be silent in the face of oppression is not to remain neutral, but to side with the oppressor.
Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Apr 2010.
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