During the election, a number of groups including the AMA noted the inattention paid by both political parties to urgent issues about the living standards, economic outcomes and health of Indigenous Australians. After the abolition of ATSIC earlier in the year (supported by Labor as well), the government seemed to go silent. A little like the abortion ‘debate’, a radical agenda for Indigenous issues has reared its head shortly after the election.
The ‘Third Way’ concept of mutual obligation was in fact pioneered in the 70s in Indigenous communities – through the CDEP scheme – effectively ‘work for the dole’ for Indigenous welfare recipients. In the wake of the grog bans in Queensland, and the critique of ‘welfare dependency’ by Noel Pearson, the rights vs. ‘practical reconciliation’ argument has taken an unexpected turn.
The government is now said to be working on – with the support of some Indigenous leaders and the fierce hostility of others – a range of plans to reshape Indigenous communities.
Included in the proposals are a massive expansion in the scope of mutual obligation:
Cabinet briefing documents prepared for the re-elected Howard Government reveal plans for Aborigines to be required to take action in exchange for welfare, including ensuring children attend school and having regular health checks.
There are also proposals to use payment cards that can store information and set electronic limits on what indigenous people can buy using government payments.
The documents show that over the next 12 months the Remote Area Exemption and other arrangements that exempt remote Aboriginal areas from mutual obligation rules will be scrapped. Proposals include the “no school, no pool” system to reward school attendance by stopping children from visiting the community swimming pool if they do not attend classes.
During the election, Mark Latham was criticised (rightly I think) by John Howard and Tony Abbott as a social engineer and a “behavioural policeman” – his floating of policy proposals which would have restricted payments to mothers who did not “read to their children” deserved condemnation for their interference in people’s lives. However, it seems in the Howardians’ mind, there’s one rule for the Whites and one for the Blacks.
Let’s not forget that until a few decades ago, Indigenous Australians could not vote, were subjected to limitations on their right to move around freely or marry without consent, had their children stolen from them, had large percentages of their wages held back “for their own good”.
Although alcoholism is a scourge in Indigenous communities, it is also a scourge in “mainstream” Australia. Is the solution a “smart card” which will prevent Indigenous welfare recipients from spending money on alcohol? We never seem to worry too much about what respectable middle-class citizens spend their swollen credit card debts on… In fact, moves to remove ATMs from pubs and casinos have been resisted strongly by rent-seeking industry lobbies and State governments living off sin taxes have passively acquiesced.
Pat Dodson says:
“This is not mutual obligation — nothing like it,” he said. “It’s fascism gone mad. It’s crazy stuff. Two hundred years of enlightenment and this is the best they’ve been able to deliver.
“This is not reform — this is social engineering at its worst.”
I eagerly await the vociferous condemnation of conservatives and libertarian Liberals of this unprecedented expansion of the reach of Government into some citizens’ lives – some citizens who are the Indigenous people of this country but not others. But I’m not holding my breath.