If Noel Pearson is a man of integrity (and I think he is), he will be appalled by John Howard’s just announced “plan” for Northern Territory indigenous Australians. Certainly, Pearson’s plans also involve breaking the cycle of welfare dependency in Cape York by tying receipt of welfare benefits to children’s school attendance, maintaining their houses and the like. But it does so in the context of a carefully developed, comprehensive plan for basic health care, education, vocational skills training and enterprise development. Contrary to Mark Bahnisch’s view, I think Pearson’s proposals have a great deal of merit.
But there is no sign of any of those careful, considered elements in the “plan” John Howard announced today. Like Howard’s $10 billion water “plan”, it appears to have been hastily cobbled together on the back of an envelope aiming solely at electoral advantage by playing to the “Howard battlers” and wedging the ALP. It appears to be little more than a cynical, desperate, Textor focus group-driven grab for redneck votes, by targetting the poorest , most vulnerable Australians. Sadly it may well work, judging by the supine response of Kevin Rudd and other Labor leaders to date.
What difference to child sexual abuse, availability of drugs, alcohol and pornography will 10 additional AFP officers (or even 10 from each State, assuming all State Premiers agree that the NT’s needs are greater than their own) make across more than 60 remote Aboriginal communities?
How will taking federal control of 40 community town areas for 5 years make any difference at all to housing standards? The Howard government sent military forces into a few Territory indigenous communities during its early years in office, and it made scarcely a dent in the housing backlog. In many remote communities, people live 15 or 20 to each house. The cost of clearing the indigenous housing backlog in the Territory alone is generally estimated at more than one billion dollars. The current Commonwealth-NT Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Agreement commits a total of well under $100 million per year, scarcely enough to keep pace with existing maintenance and repairs let alone make a hole in the backlog. There is no mention of any additional funding in Howard’s announcement today, without which it’s merely empty tokenism.
What effect will banning alcohol from all remote remote Aboriginal communities have? I can tell you immediately, from 24 years living in the NT. All the drinkers would immediately move into town in Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek, where there is no way they could be stopped from drinking without restriction. The electoral effects of this urban social chaos would certainly be fatal for Dave Tollner, the incumbent CLP federal member for the Darwin-based marginal seat of Solomon. At least some Liberal advisers (notably Territory born and bred senior Howard adviser and policeman’s son Mark Textor) would be well aware of the practical effects of such a policy, which is why you can guarantee it won’t actually be introduced before the election and will be quietly shelved thereafter whoever wins.
What will happen if, as announced, all Aboriginal parents living in remote communities have 50% of their welfare benefits withheld to ensure that their children are fed? Well, apart from the repugnant unfairness of treating all Aboriginal people indiscriminately as irresponsible children when the majority are responsible parents and only a minority of them drink at all (albeit that those who do are disproportionately serious alcoholics), how could any such policy practically be enforced across 70 or more very remote communities, without employing a large army of additional bureaucrats to dispense the withheld proportion and ensure that it is spent on food? And what would happen if they did somehow find an effective way to enforce such a policy? Again, lots of people (especially the drinkers) would simply vote with their feet and move to the major towns, abandoning their children with extended family members. Any such policy would simply worsen existing social dysfunction.
Today is a day of shame in Australian politics. Everyone deplores the appalling incidence of violence and child sexual abuse in indigenous communities. But there simply isn’t any quick, magical solution. The policy Howard has just announced is worse, more racist and more wildly impractical and misconceived than anything Pauline Hanson ever spouted. Kevin Rudd’s meek, kneejerk endorsement of it is almost as disgusting, and marks him unfit to lead Australia. At least Howard has the guts to announce policies of his own, however repugnant and ill-considered.
Further thoughts – I should also comment on Howard’s announced cancellation of the permit system for entry to Aboriginal townships. Not only does this abolish one of the most central attributes of private property (and therefore take a major step towards what one suspects is a covert ideological aim of abolishing land rights), but it has nothing whatever to do with Howard’s professed objective of tackling child sexual abuse in indigenous communities. In fact it is likely to prove counter-productive in that regard. The recent Wild/Anderson report highlighted the incidence of sexual predation on young Aboriginal girls by white miners and others. Removing permit restrictions will create open slather for these predators to enter indigenous communities without restriction, not to mention others trying to peddle alcohol, illicit drugs pornography and so on. Removing the permit system will make it much harder for the handful of additional police Howard is supplying to enforce the new restrictions he professes to wish to impose.
Howard’s plans also involve a proposal to deliver school breakfasts/lunches to Aboriginal children, at parents’ expense. In fact, such schemes already exist in many indigenous schools, but are currelty delivered free of charge. Far from assisting Aboriginal families in need, this proposal is actually reducing existing programs and imposing a “user pays” system on the kids Howard professes to want to help.
His announced taking of control of Aboriginal townships also apparently involves a commitment to charge “market rents” for housing. That too will cause drastic financial hardship among the very people Howard professes to be trying to help. Most indigenous housing associations charge their tenants concessional rents, because not only are many of those tenants unemployed, but the cost of food, transport and just about all other necessities of life is vastly higher than in major towns and cities. While a significant hard core minority certainly squander welfare money on drugs and alcohol, increasing the cost of living indiscriminately to the poorest Australians hardly seems a sensible way to address that problem.