Criticism of Behrendt hides political agenda

Basics Caed

Michael Brull Online Opinion 18th April 2011

Aboriginal lawyer and academic Larissa Behrendt has tweeted that Aboriginal leader Bess Price, who appeared on Q&A last Monday night, was more offensive (in her views on the Northern Territory intervention) than a show she'd seen where a man had sex with a horse.

In response, the deeply sensitive souls at Murdoch press have united against Behrendt.

Miranda Devine was undoubtedly deeply outraged that someone would write offensive things on Twitter.

Perhaps the most vicious attack came from Marcia Langton, writing that Behrendt has "a repulsive hatred of everything that Bess stands for: the rights of Aboriginal women in remote communities to be protected from sexual abuse and violence". Similarly, The Australian editorialised that Behrendt and others opposed to the Intervention "are prepared to risk the health, education, physical safety and futures of other Aborigines in the cause of an out-dated, leftist agenda which privileges "rights" above well-being. There is a "let them eat cake" touch about it all."

Get it? Behrendt supports raping women and poverty in Indigenous communities.

Turning to reality, it may be worthwhile to find out just why Behrendt considered Price's comments to be so offensive.

Price is a recipient of the Bennelong Medal. Another medal-winner is Mal Brough - a former Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Tony Abbott and Philip Ruddock - well known for their sensitive views on race and Indigenous issues - have presented these awards. Kevin Andrews also gave an award: yes, the Immigration Minister who slashed our intake of African refugees because they "don't seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life".

To be fair to the Bennelong Society, Pauline Hanson commended Andrews for this bold stand, so it would be dishonest to suggest that there are no people in Australia who would look to the Bennelong Society for guidance on issues of race in Australia. Andrews provided no statistics for his claims about African refugees - but then, who needs evidence when smearing darker communities?

The President of the Bennelong Society is Gary Johns. To get an idea of John's views, he kindly provided us with this stunning claim last week "the two most egregious instances of public racial vilification in Australia in the past two decades were the Aboriginal deaths in custody report (1991) and the report on the separation of Aboriginal children and their families (1997)."

That is, the worst manifestations of racism Johns can think of in the last 20 years are two reports exposing white racism in the criminal justice system, and the stolen generations. Tragically, "white society was publicly vilified for years".

Johns also thinks that Aboriginal children should not be taught their own culture in schools. As Chris Graham noted, "what would you do if your child was told that white Australian culture should be taught at home and not in school? That Shakespeare was essentially a family matter? That the history of Western civilisation should be taught in the car somewhere between the shopping and the soccer? The idea can only be seriously considered by someone who believes Indigenous culture has little intrinsic merit."

That Price's views are considered agreeable to a far-right, virulently anti-Aboriginal organisation is a matter for her and her conscience. But for anyone who knows anything about the nature of the Bennelong Society, the Murdoch press ferociously backing Price over Behrendt should come as no surprise.

What does she have to say?

In December last year she explained her support for the Intervention: "My people don't use money the way white people do. They don't save, they don't budget, they can't say no to relatives even when they are drunks and addicted to gambling and drugs. They need help in spending their money wisely."

They need help from the government: o White Man, please save us. Take away our rights, because we are so backwards.

You see why the Bennelong Society loves her so much?

Usually conservatives say that Aboriginal people and others on welfare need to learn to solve their own problems, rather than look to the government. Here it's the opposite and the right-wing media still loves it. So long as the rationale is functional for right-wing policies, it doesn't matter if it contradicts what they claim to stand for.

It is handy for the Murdoch press and the Bennelong Society to have an Aboriginal person to say how backwards Aboriginal people are. They may be reluctant to openly make such appalling claims themselves.

For those invested in the Intervention, it is important to defend Price's credibility. Langton said that Price "resides in Yuendumu". Barbara Shaw - one of the brave women who actually lives in the "prescribed areas" under the Intervention, and leads the campaign against it - responded by noting that Price "does not live under the Intervention. She lives a comfortable lifestyle in the eastern suburbs of Alice Springs, not in a prescribed area. She does not have a Basics Card and she does not work for the dole. She doesn't have her home raided. She doesn't have her alcohol taken away at the bottle shop."

Similarly, Marlene Hodder - an activist on Indigenous issues in Alice Springs, said that "Many Warlpiri women living in Alice Springs are very unhappy that Bess Price assumes she can speak for them. Last year they sent a strong recorded message to Minister Macklin as she refused to meet with them on more than one occasion. They are tired of not being listened to as they feel the Intervention is an insult to them".

Barbara Shaw, incidentally, was the Greens candidate for Lingiari. Her campaign on an anti-Intervention platform saw Labor's vote drop by a third in remote areas. The ALP member admitted that the swing "does squarely point to the intervention". But there has been little interest in the corporate media of listening to the views of Aboriginal people living under the racially discriminatory laws of the Intervention.

One of the standard ways of deflecting attention from the obvious fact that Aboriginal people hate these laws is to claim (as Macklin does) that they are for the benefit of women and children, who love them. There is no evidence of this, but note the dog-whistle - if only Aboriginal men disapprove of the laws, who cares? They're presumably all rapists and paedophiles anyway.

So, take one of Bess's claims in defence of the Intervention on Q&A: "I've seen progress. I've seen women who now have voices. They can speak for themselves and they are standing up for their rights. Children are being fed and young people more or less know how to manage their lives. That's what's happened since the intervention."

This is outrageous for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, because when someone defends the Northern Territory Intervention, they are advocating in favour of racial discrimination. This is outrageous and offensive, regardless of the fact that Labor and the Coalition both support it.

Secondly, what she said is outrageous because it is flatly untrue. For example, as noted by Behrendt and Irene Fisher, the Sunrise Health Service monitors 112,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory. They found that anaemia rates among Aboriginal children had jumped from 20 per cent before the intervention to 55 per cent within a year and a half. The only serious study we have of changes in consumption caused by compulsory income management, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that it's "not making an impact on tobacco and health food sales in remote community shops in the NT."

There are also government reports on the achievements of the Intervention. Price says there was no need for consultations because "it was an emergency. It was just straight after the Little Children Are Sacred and it was very bad and something needed to happen drastically." After all, "our children were suffering".

There was a 2009 report on the Intervention's various achievements. What did they find about child abuse?

The number of convictions for child sexual assaults committed in the NTER communities in the two years since the introduction of the NTER measures is 22. This compares to 15 convictions in the two years prior to the NTER. In 2005-06 and 2006-07 none of the convictions involved non Indigenous people. However, in the last two years (2007-08 and 2008-09) four non Indigenous people have been convicted for Child Sexual Assault committed in the NTER communities.

So basically, before the Intervention, about seven or eight Aboriginal child sex offenders were caught each year: afterwards, nine were caught each year. Plainly, the Intervention has either been completely ineffective in addressing the alleged emergency, or the problems of child sex abuse in remote Aboriginal communities are not so different to those in non-Indigenous communities.

In October last year, ABC reported that child protection case workers are grossly overworked, and unable to address at least 1000 children at risk (for a range of issues, not just child abuse). This reflects how concerned the government is about Aboriginal children - the government report above notes in half a year, they recruited five new child protection workers. Five workers to cover 73 prescribed communities. Dazzling, no?

What about the "rivers of grog"? "Key elements of the" Alcohol and Other Drug [AOD] "response introduced in 2007-08 were continued in 2008-09 with $2.6 million allocated under the Closing the Gap - NT - Follow Up Care measure." $2.6 million. According to ANTAR $2 billion has already been spent on the Intervention, with the expanded scheme for income management projected to cost perhaps $350 million.

The Australian has stressed the importance of education. School attendance rates have declined slightly to 62.2 per cent.

What about housing, that other issue so dear to the heart of The Australian?

In 2009, PM Kevin Rudd condemned the "legacy" of "government failure", as shown by "unacceptable delays" in SIHIP. According to Rudd, his officials took "unprecedented action to get the program on track", and finally delivered results. He announced that "the keys to the first two houses [were] handed over to tenants this week."

Two houses in two years. Rudd declared that "we remain on target" to build 750 new houses. As I noted at the time, at that rate of "unprecedented action", we could expect the remaining 748 houses to be finished in 2758.Adam Giles (from the Liberals) noted, the Little Children are Sacred report revealed "more than 400 houses will be needed each year for 20 years".

Government self-satisfaction obviously defies this record of achievement. It is worth noting that according to FaHCSIA, 73 per cent of children under 12 months old were at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) due to bed sharing. Plainly, this is a crisis, but the housing program to address it has been a complete debacle.

As Giles noted three years after the Intervention was launched, "11 houses have been built and 160 repaired in two years for more than $200m. But at the government's valuation of $450,000 for a new house (no land costs) and $75,000 for a refurbishment, the sum spent should be only $16.85m. The location of the missing $183m is not known." We later found out that half of the money went to administration costs.

The government also scaled back its plans: it has plans between now and 2013 for only 480 dwellings... They are not building houses any more but dwellings, including one-bedroom units and pensioners' apartments; only half will be as big as three bedrooms. Although there are hundreds of indigenous communities, only six to 15 will get new dwellings. Many will get no housing services at all. Most communities in the Territory will not have any semblance of a housing solution for the protection of children.

The amazing thing is - leaked documents show Macklin was warned this "shoddy" approach wouldn't work. But she went ahead with it anyway.

We should not forget the panel Macklin hand-picked to review the Intervention. For some reason, the "damning indictment" was sanitised just before it was released. It described the Intervention as "an experience of violence itself". Its quote that "The intervention is telling the rest of Australia and the world that all blackfellas are pedophiles" was also removed.

Comments blaming "dysfunctional government service delivery" and "the chronic failure by all levels of government to provide basic civic services" to Aborigines were removed, along with the suggestion these were the "key determinants" of all that was wrong with Aboriginal communities....Claiming that Aborigines felt the intervention was akin to a return to "ration days", the draft report stated: "These words describe real things. These are expressions of the deep emotional and psychological impacts of the NTER. The long-term effects of such impacts can be as potentially damaging as the experience of violence itself." These words, too, were deleted.

The draft claims that "the negative impacts of the NTER actually further damaged the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal communities"...

A final point should be made. Price claimed that the Intervention gave Indigenous people a voice. In fact, the government held completely fraudulent "consultations" with Indigenous communities in prescribed communities, so that it could pretend that these measures had Indigenous support. Behrendt, and her team of academics at Jumbunna did more than anyone to expose what Indigenous people from prescribed communities were really saying about the Intervention, in their report Will they be heard?

Jumbunna also supported the research of Paddy Gibson into Aboriginal communities living under the Intervention. His powerful paper includes dozens of interviews with people living under the Intervention.

The Intervention, imposed on Aboriginal communities without consultations, let alone consent, effectively silenced Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory. Behrendt has probably done more than anyone to help us hear their voices.

The mountain of evidence of the failures of the NT Intervention defies summary here. Suffice to say, there is literally no evidence, even in government reports, that it has helped improve the socio-economic conditions Intervention supporters claim to be concerned about. Its supporters are simply backing racist policies because they believe racism is the best way to deal with Indigenous communities.

That is far more revealing about them than it is about Behrendt.

Michael BrullMichael Brull is a Sydney writer. Follow him on twitter @mikeb476.

Brull has a featured blog at Independent Australian Jewish Voices, and is involved in Stop The Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS). He has written for Overland, the National Times,, Mutiny, and ZNet.

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