Joanne Knight

June 27, 2010

Spirits Rise Up

The lunchtime crowd surged past intent on its own business. In the shadows, a small but determined group took its positions at the portal. Many were crossing over. It was a hard structure where humanity dragged its desperation to plead for the continuation of the pittance provided, before the grim-faced bureaucrats of the government department responsible for compassion, the Department of Family, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. A lone didgeridoo player took up his elaborately-painted instrument and played a dirge for the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. Smoke from cigarettes wafted through the air, like the lost souls who struggled with their prams up the resistant steps, which seemed determined to make their journey more difficult.

I attended the picket at FaCSIA organised by the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective on Friday 18 June 2010 to mark the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of the NT Emergency Intervention. It was a great event supported by unions and indigenous groups. A large banner was placed across the front entrance of the building and a community picket was announced. This is a traditional union method of protest to stop scabs taking union jobs. No one can cross the picket line. Security at the building helped greatly by redirecting people around to the back entrance and then lurked in the entrance hallway peering anxiously out the front windows. The building was effectively closed. Later the group marched around the building and then all entrances to the building were closed. It was a noisy and effective protest. A replica of the Basic Card was burned to cheers and condemnation as a violation of the human rights of indigenous peoples. The Basic Card requires Indigenous people to spend half their income on food, clothing and medicine. It is an insult to assume that indigenous people cannot choose what things they need to buy. It violates their right to self-determination and to be treated with dignity.

The chaos of the NT Intervention reflects the government’s ridiculous approach to welfare across the board in Australia. Welfare recipients and all marginalised groups are punished for being unable or unwilling to participate in neoliberal society. The only worthwhile contribution in our society is to accumulate wealth and if you cannot be part of this then you will be punished. The welfare sector is applying an approach of discipline and control on those who wish to live by a different set of values than the morals espoused by neoliberal economists. Neoliberal standards have now become second nature to most people (including welfare workers) and they agree that if people need to be coerced then that’s what should happen.

Recently the government applied a legal slight of hand to nullify the effect of the RDA in relation to the Intervention without honouring its spirit. By applying the income management provisions to everyone in Australia receiving a Centrelink benefit and removing specific references to the Northern Territory, the government has applied the principle of non-discrimination that a person should not be treated differently on the basis of race. However they have introduced measures to target ‘vulnerable welfare payment recipients’. Vulnerable welfare payment recipients are defined as such by the Secretary of the relevant Department with provisions for making new determinations and dealing with requests for reconsideration. Certain groups can be targeted through this section of the Act.

Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC, former Chief Justice of the Family Court, concludes that
‘What is quite clear is that the legislation gives unprecedented power to the Minister and the Secretary in respect of welfare recipients throughout Australia. However, what is also clear is that this is little more than a ruse to overcome the provisions of the RDA and that the real targets of the income management scheme are likely to be Aboriginal people including Aboriginal people living beyond the NT. It is little more than a clumsily disguised and cynical attempt to perpetuate racial discrimination against them.’
The Australian Human Rights Commission has condemned income management as racist, in a report released on November 13 2009. The report condemned the suspension of the RDA in the first place, saying income management could not be regarded as a “special measure” to advance the rights of Indigenous people. But income management was not such a measure, the report said. Any such measures would require prior informed consent before implementation. The Federal Government’s own NTER Review Board reported in October 2008 that income management should be scrapped.

James Anaya, UN human rights envoy, wrote in August 2009, any special measure must be devised and carried out with due regard of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination and to be free from racial discrimination and indignity. In this connection, any special measure that infringes on the basic rights of indigenous peoples must be narrowly tailored, proportional, and necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives being pursued. In his view, the Northern Territory Emergency Response is not. In his opinion, as currently configured and carried out, the Emergency Response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, treaties to which Australia is a party, as well as incompatible with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia has affirmed its support.

Why, after several reports have consistently criticised this measure, recommending it become voluntary, does the Federal Government persist with it and is extending it to all welfare recipients in the NT and across Australia. This approach is consistent with a neoliberal ideology which punishes the poor as unable to participate fully in the market and marginalizes any alternative system of values. Aboriginal values which emphasise the protection of culture and the sacredness of spiritual connection to land above economic gain and profit have no place in neoliberal society. The Rudd government persists in the ideology of the Howard government putting market values above all others. Unless you can sell your culture on the market and exploit your land for profit (no matter what cost to the environment and your sacred traditions) then you have no place here. You will be strong armed into becoming part of the market no matter what the cost to your society.

This is particularly evident in the NT Labor Government’s policy ‘Working Futures – Remote Service Delivery’. On May 20 2009, the NT Labor government released its Working Futures – Remote Service Delivery policy. It is effectively cuts delivery of essential health, education and housing services to some 580 remote communities, while developing 20 “regional economic hubs” or “Territory Growth Towns”. Thousands of Indigenous people will be forced to move to these larger communities to access government services. As The Age editorial of May 23 noted, “The implementation of Working Futures will effectively mean the death of the homelands movement.”

The homelands movement began in the 1970s, when Indigenous communities began to reestablish themselves on their traditional lands. Studies by universities and health authorities show that people in the homelands are in general much healthier than those living in towns, and their communities are stable and cohesive. Being able to keep their language, culture and knowledge of the land alive has given them pride and dignity, and a sense of being in control of their lives.

The far north of Australia has always been the playground of the mining industry. The Land Rights movement in Australia began because a mining company refused to listen to Aboriginal people living in Nullumbuy. The Gove Land Rights case is seminal in the history of the land rights movement in Australia. Australia’s history views Aboriginal people as pests to be killed or removed from the land, or as a source of cheap labour to be exploited at bare survival levels. Australia has its own history of what amount to slavery (or at least indentured labour) in the far North. Most people don’t know this history. I didn’t learn about it until I began studying land rights law in my law degree in my early 30s.

According to J.C. Altman at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, the core neoliberal ideology of assimilation is behind the NT Intervention. Intervention measures seek to discipline Indigenous labour, through grog bans, bans on pornography, requirements for people to work for the dole on community cleanups, and controlled tenancy arrangements that restrict modes of living. Some measures seek to dilute land rights or expand their potential for commercial development, through abolishing the permit system and the compulsory acquisition of township leases leading to the dispossession of traditional owners of their land. In June 2009, the Federal government compulsorily and permanently acquired the town camps of Alice Springs, sidelining the Tangentyere Council, an umbrella organisation representing 15 of the 18 town camps.

Other procedures depoliticise democratic Indigenous organisations and impose external control over townships. These measures include stripping Indigenous-controlled Community Development Employment Programmes (CDEP) of their assets and abolishing the programs, appointing government business managers with legal rights to attend the meeting of any democratically-elected organisation and with absolute powers in townships that probably exceed those of the settlement superintendent of earlier policy eras.

However even the supposed intention of encouraging all Aboriginal people to work in civilized jobs has not carried through. The NT Intervention promised Aboriginal people real jobs. Instead, according to the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective, thousands of CDEP positions have been lost. Under the new CDEP scheme, some Aboriginal people are being forced to work providing vital services such as rubbish collection, school bus runs, sewerage maintenance and aged care in exchange for quarantined Centrelink payments. There are cases of people working between 25-40 hours a week for the base rate of approximately $85 cash and $85 on the Basics Card. Centrelink is threatening to cut off payment entirely if people do not participate in CDEP.

One worker who drives the school bus has had her payments reduced if children are late or she misses a shift. She’s not entitled to be sick, for the bus to break down or simply to be running late. She is traveling on poorly- constructed outback roads, in an old bus which is not regularly serviced. At times she has driven the bus when it has been unregistered and it’s not clear who pays the fine if she gets caught.
NTER Review Board criticised the CDEP program for failing to provide basic training for Aboriginal communities, even literacy and numeracy, and has failed to improve non-CDEP employment opportunities. They have failed at mentoring, case management and workplace assessment and to coordinate activities between education and training providers and Job Network Providers.
The imposition of the NT Intervention followed a fundamental shift in Indigenous policy in 2004. With the abolition of ATSIC, the central concepts of Indigenous policy were changed from a paradigm loosely termed ‘self determination’ to a cluster of terms centred on ‘mutual obligation’, ‘shared responsibility’, ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘normalisation’, a language borrowed from international social policy developments in other neoliberal states. At the same time we have witnessed the abandonment of consultation with Indigenous people, diminishing use of available statistical and research evidence and increased marginalisation of the experts, especially if their views diverge from national leadership. The Rudd Government continues this policy, placing a cynical veneer of legal compliance over measures which fundamentally disenfranchise Indigenous people.

James Anya, UN Human Rights Evnoy, wrote that a number of Government partnerships with local initiatives appeared to be succeeding, but there were many accounts of Government programmes failing to take into account existing local programmes already in place, hampering their ultimate success. Any initiatives that duplicate or replace the programmes of Aboriginals and Torres Straight Islanders already in place, or that undermine local decision-making through indigenous peoples’ own institutions violate human rights norms. The United Nations Declaration guarantees the right of indigenous peoples to participate fully at all levels of decision-making in matters which may affect their rights, lives and destinies, as well as to maintain and develop their own decision-making institutions and programmes. Further, adequate options and alternatives for socio-economic development and violence prevention programmes should be developed in full consultation with affected indigenous communities and organisations. These policies fundamentally breach the human rights of Aboriginal people.

Any hopes of using internal legal avenues to address the excesses of government intervention were crushed in February 2009 in the High Court of Australia, when the court refused to award ‘just terms’ compensation to traditional owners from Maningrida, NT. The Federal Government had compulsorily acquired their land rights and converted them into a five year lease. Indigenous owners held a noisy protest outside the court that day and people expressed their frustration and anger at the decision. The High Court has an uneven history of sympathy to Indigenous issues. In Kruger v The Commonwealth [1997] HCA 27, in which the plaintiffs sought compensation from the government for being removed from their family as a young child, the High Court held that there was no right to freedom from genocide in Australia. The Mabo and Wik cases seem to have been extraordinary exceptions, the decisions of a historically unique bench.

With the appointment of a new Prime Minister, it would be nice to think that things will change but I won’t be holding my breath. If neoliberalism can escape a global economic meltdown essentially unscathed, well it’s hard to see what will change in the near future. Aboriginal people will keep fighting, except for the few notable exceptions, and some members of the non-Aboriginal community will be there to support them. All we can hope for is the emergence of a new paradigm to galvanise the masses and help them to see that slavery to the market is not the only truth of life.

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