By Sam Ryan.
Almost 70 years ago Albert Camus wrote that “goodwill can cause almost as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened” – a sentiment it seems that could well apply to the Australian government’s approach to Indigenous affairs.
Reading A Decision to Discriminate: Aboriginal Disempowerment in the Northern Territory, published by Concerned Australians, leaves you with the troubling impression that the Gillard Government’s Stronger Futures legislation – which followed on from the Howard Government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) and drifted quietly through Parliament in early 2012 – was at worst a continuation of arrogant and destructive disempowerment, and at best an act of wilful naivety in what is deemed by government and media to be an issue of minimal importance.
… there were more than 450 submissions to the Senate Inquiry, most of which opposed to legislation.
A Decision to Discriminate gives voice to many of those who fronted the Senate Inquiry committee hearings, held in the ‘prescribed communities’ of Ntaria (130 kilometres west of Alice Springs) and Arnhem Land’s Maningrida (over 500 kilometres east of Darwin), as well as Alice Springs, Darwin and Canberra. According to the book, there were more than 450 submissions to the Senate Inquiry, most of which opposed the legislation.
The publication is essentially a collection of quotes from accounts given at the hearings by a range of community residents, leaders and non-government organisation representatives. Yet it brings them together under the key issues discussed – self-determination, the ‘Intervention’, alcohol management, food security, land reform, customary law, income management, school attendance and the consultation process itself – to form a coherent and compelling narrative.
In a passionate forward to the book, Former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson calls the publication “an attempt to give all those Aboriginal people who have not been heard or listened to in this process an opportunity to have their views made public in an atmosphere where they have been suppressed by Government and mainstream media.”
While it is difficult to describe A Decision to Discriminate as impartial, it does serve an important purpose and push home a powerful point, giving rise to a sense of apathy of both major parties towards engagement with Indigenous communities and, therefore, committing themselves to disengaged decision-making.
Indeed, if a picture says a thousand words then the image of an empty House of Representatives during debate on the legislation says much about the goodwill of our policy makers towards the Aboriginal communities whose voices they have systematically ignored. At the time many, as well as the press, were seemingly more concerned with leadership challenges.
… it is difficult to feel as though they were anything more than an exercise in appeasement, and that decisions to impose law from thousands of kilometres away had already been made.
The government passed the legislation just in time to avoid scrutiny from the newly formed Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which all new legislation is now subjected to, and without waiting for the Senate Committee’s report.
Reading accounts of the poorly managed consultations, it is difficult to feel as though they were anything more than an exercise in appeasement, and that decisions to impose law from thousands of kilometres away had already been made.
Luke Morrish, CEO of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation commented that “The discussion paper on Stronger Futures was actually handed to members of the community minutes – literally minutes – before the minister arrived for that consultation.”
The overwhelming and disheartening sense the book portrays is one of a voiceless, disconnected and increasingly disempowered people in a nation that considers itself progressive. The failures of the process were even acknowledged by members of the Senate Hearings Committee, such as Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion – a member of the Howard Government which introduced the NTER (commonly known as the ‘intervention’) – who is quoted as saying:
“When we get to most communities any observer would say that Aboriginal people more generally hate the intervention. They do not like it, it invades their rights and they feel discriminated against.”
The primary purpose of the book is to examine the consultation process undertaken by the government, via the Senate Hearings Committee in 2011, though, through its collection of accounts it canvasses a range of issues facing Aboriginal communities and the effect of recent government legislation. Much of it is disconcerting, though there are several examples of success, used as evidence against the draconian nature of the intervention, where self-determination and policies of empowerment, mostly at a local level, have brought desired results.
Although Nicholson insists in his forward that anyone who dismisses the book “as selective and partisan would be wrong,” there is little acknowledgement of views that do exist in support of some of these measures; although that may not even be the point. Effective legislation or not, A Decision to Discriminate offers a clear picture of failure, perhaps unwillingness, to engage with communities who are already marginalised and disadvantaged.
“We need treatment and a rehabilitation centre for dealing with alcohol and substance abuse – not imprisonment.”
To rattle off just some of the issues raised, they include: a pervading sense of worthlessness; lack of partnership and engagement; a dismissive attitude from government towards local knowledge and expertise; human rights violations; the arbitrary use of one size fits all measures; the impact of freight costs and store licensing on food prices and healthy eating; large amounts of money spent on school attendance plans that could otherwise fund incentive programs and better quality schooling; and the impact of tougher alcohol management plans (already in place in some communities), which could in some communities lead to overcrowded jails while ignoring potentially more harmful significant issues like illicit drug running.
There are far too many relevant, powerful, troubling and poignant quotes from the book to squeeze into this review, yet it seems appropriate to canvass just a few.
On the emphasis on punitive measure, Raelene Silverton of Ntaria told the committee: “We need treatment and a rehabilitation centre for dealing with alcohol and substance abuse – not imprisonment.”
Speaking to the larger issue of self-determination, Dorothy Fox, Chairperson North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, said:
“The Stronger Futures package does not recognise the role of Aboriginal people and organisations in addressing disadvantage. It remains focused on mechanisms for the Australian government to make decisions about Aboriginal people’s lives.”
On income management, Cyril Oliver, CEO of Malabam Health Board, claimed that “Income management does not really teach people to budget; it just takes half their money away.”
One of the most pointed quotes from the book is that of John Falzen, CEO of St Vincent de Paul:
“I urge this Senate committee to have the courage to recommend that this legislation be scrapped. How many people need to come here to tell you that this is the deepening and broadening of a wound that a future Prime Minister will need to apologise for?”
There are many more. Every one of them seems all the more important because they are voices we almost never hear in the mainstream media. A Decision to Discriminate is an important publication. It is not a difficult read, but is unsettling for anyone who had faith that the government sought to make informed, not merely well-intentioned, decisions in Aboriginal communities.