A national disaster we choose to ignore

Bev Maton ABC 'The Drum' 10th February 2010

This week, the nation awoke to images of our Prime Minister sobbing in Parliament as she struggled to describe the tragedy of the Queensland floods.

To emphasise her point, she brandished a battered Australian flag, its Union Jack in tatters... a symbol of "nationhood".

It had the desired effect. It was a huge media success.

Yesterday, I couldn't help but wonder where the tears were for my people, as the Prime Minister unveiled the third annual Close the Gap report card, a speech meant to be delivered on the first sitting of parliament, but a speech which has never been given that importance.

As the Prime Minister danced around the realities of more government failure, I was reminded that Aboriginal people have endured hardship on scale most Australians could only dream of.

Monday to Sunday is life and death for Aboriginal people in Australia.

I was also reminded that the last prime minister to cry for the plight of my people was Bob Hawke, and only then as he hung the Barunga Statement in the Great Hall and wept over the failures of his government, and those before.

Prime minister Hawke and now Prime Minister Gillard - who apparently models herself on the Silver Bodgie - have at least that in common. Failure.

I was also reminded yesterday of Prime Minister Gillard's shared history with the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

Both were shadow Indigenous affairs ministers, and both were known for being less than enthused about their roles.

Abbott infamously let slip that he wished for a position "closer to the main action", while Julia Gillard's six month stint in 2003 was characterised by her complete failure to do anything of note (which has meant her experience in the portfolio has been largely confined to the dust bin of history).

But while the Opposition Leader has had his fair share of controversies in Indigenous affairs, he has at least put on a good show. He has visited several Aboriginal communities, even living in one while in Cape York for a short period of time.

Julia Gillard is another story.

Despite taking over the prime ministerial office in June last year, she has not made the effort to visit a single Aboriginal community while in the top job. Her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, managed a visit just two months after winning the 2007 election.

Regardless of what you think of him, Rudd will leave a legacy heavily focused on his approach to Aboriginal affairs. I fear Gillard will not.

So it is with heavy cynicism that I greet the third annual Closing the Gap report.

Rudd made the promise to deliver a statement on the government's progress on closing the gap shortly after he won the election. The first two statements, both belated and both short of substance were a disappointment.

But Gillard's latest delivery is even more of a let-down, and a continuation of the failures of Rudd's unfinished business.

While she touches on "improvements" in many of the six targets federal Labor has set for eliminating Indigenous disadvantage - without providing a shred of evidence to back her claims - a key part of her statement was a call for "individual responsibility".

"Closing the Gap means change in people's lives. And Indigenous people know that when the child starts attending school… when the drinker stops abusing alcohol… when the adult takes the job that is there… then change begins," she said.

"And Indigenous people know these decisions are not made by governments. They are made by people. The job of government, of communities is to support decisions."

This is an old cliché. A dangerous and outrageous cliché, made even more dangerous and outrageous by the fact it was uttered by our nation's leader.

It does not reflect the barriers that have been placed on generations upon generations of Indigenous people and undermines the willpower of thousands of Aboriginal Australians who battle against these barriers.

It also does not reflect the reality of life for many Aboriginal people.

The child will start attending school, when the school is built. And when the lessons are relevant, and delivered in a language they understand.

The drinkers will always abuse alcohol, just like white drinkers do. They'll stop the drinking when they have the support in place to do so, and for the record, Aboriginal people are more likely to be tee-totallers than non Aboriginal people.

And Aboriginal people will take jobs when there are jobs to take. Prime Minister Gillard might like to explain to the nation how her party destroyed the economies of many communities when they pulled apart CDEP.

These barriers - and more - are wholly government-constructed.

A key example of this is the blanket coverage of income management on Aboriginal residents living in prescribed areas under the Northern Territory intervention.

There is scant evidence that this compulsory form of welfare quarantining is working. In fact, there is a growing body of research showing the precise opposite - that it is undermining the Government's attempts to close the gap. It is having an adverse effect on nutrition and demonises Aboriginal people who largely spend their money wisely.

Yet this Labor Government has committed to rolling out this dog of a policy across the nation. It will be in NSW soon.

Another example is the disastrous Strategic Indigenous Housing Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), which has blown hundreds of millions of dollars on administration and still continues to waste money while communities cry out for more houses.

Many of these communities are not eligible for SIHIP funding. None of my communities in NSW - many of which are desperate for housing - qualify either.

Last year, I visited the remote communities of Irrultja, east of Alice Springs. Despite the billion-dollar NT intervention, the people of Irrultja still live in tin humpies.

They are strong people. They are courageous people. They are people who are proud in their culture and tied to their homelands.

But the Rudd government didn't commit funds to build houses. Instead, they were given funds for electricity meters, to ensure their humpies are powered. They were denied the opportunity by the government of a first-world nation to lift their conditions from third world.

Should the people of Irrultja take responsibility for the failure of government, like Julia Gillard seems to be suggesting?

And should those affected by income management take responsibility for the failure of an evidence-light policy?

In her Closing the Gap speech, Gillard mentioned a "cycle of blame", and called for a departure from this cycle.

Australian governments have sometimes seemed to say to Indigenous Australia, let us know when you have got your act together.

Indigenous Australia has sometimes seemed to feel, the Australian Government has to invest before our behaviour can begin to change.

Both attitudes are destructive and wrong. Bad behaviour by individuals is never an excuse for government failure.

The failure of government is never an excuse for bad behaviour by individuals."

I would challenge Julia Gillard to make a trip to Irrultja, or Cape York, or the Kimberleys, or any one of my communities in NSW before assigning the problems of Aboriginal Australia to "bad behaviour".

It is not bad behaviour that has condemned Aboriginal people to dying 17 years before their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Bad behaviour does not lead to 22 people living in a house in Wadeye.

Bad behaviour does not lead to the emotional despair of having your children taken away.

Bad behaviour does not lead to the inter-generational poverty inevitable when your wages are stolen by successive governments.

Bad behaviour does not lead to the lack of educational facilities in our communities, or the lack of educational opportunities for our young. Kids sitting in remote communities with access to a classroom, or a chair to sit on, didn't get there because their parents behaved badly.

Trachoma does not result from bad behaviour. Neither does anaemia rates in Aboriginal kids in the Katherine region, rates which saw spike of almost 60 per cent as a direct result of Julia Gillard's Northern Territory intervention.

If Julia Gillard thinks that poor nutrition is a result of "bad behaviour" I challenge her to live on a black wage, income-managed of course, and then buy rotten fruit in a remote community. Then eat it.

Try living in the Torres Straits and paying for fresh food. If she's wondering about the pricing, wander down the hall to the Hansard office in parliament and ask for the recent House of Representatives Committee report on remote food pricing. It makes for sobering reading.

Bad behaviour does not lead to the shocking disparity in employment outcomes between white and black.

In fact, it is bad behaviour by successive governments that has entrenched Indigenous disadvantage.

It is not a blame game. It is the truth. For Gillard not to understand that shows her deep ignorance concerning the complexities of Aboriginal Australia.

This is not a leader who is serious about closing the gap.

This is a leader who wants to lessen her role in the terrible reality Aboriginal people face. This is a leader who won't hesitate to use the old political tool of blaming the victim.

If she really wants to "close the gap" she must put away her patronizing tone, and visit one of our communities.

She must sit, and she must listen. And she must understand that if she truly wants the blame game to end, she has to ensure government does its part as well.

She must have the courage of her convictions. She must stand for something. At the moment, Gillard stands for spin. Nothing more.

Which begs the question, why did Julia Gillard cry in parliament on Tuesday about a natural disaster, then deliver a dry-eyed speech on Wednesday about an enduring human catastrophe?

The fact is, you can't predict, or even avoid, a natural disaster. But the plight of your First Peoples is something you can confront, and must confront, honestly.

It's just that as a nation we continue to choose not to.

Bev Manton is the chairwoman of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.


Closing the Gap

Joseph Toscano - Anarchist Age Weekly Review - February 2011

The Prime Minister's "closing the gap" report highlights that apologies and money cannot close the gap between indigenous and non indigenous Australians. On every available indicator from incarceration rates, to every weekly wages, life expectancy, infant and perinatal mortality, education and housing indigenous Australians continue to be at the pointy end of the statistics. What is painted as a "complex" issue that will take generations to overcome is at heart an issue of justice, not charity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to lag behind other Australians including recently arrived refuges is at heart a matter of putting measures in place to resolve the unfinished business that exists between indigenous and non indigenous Australians.

No serious attempt has ever been made to enter into a treaty between indigenous and non indigenous Australians that recognises their initial occupation of this land, their dispossession, the problems associated with the colonisation process and the implementation of measures that compensates them for their loss. Compensation is not just a matter of money, it includes rights to land and sea. A treaty would result in the establishment of indigenous seats in the Federal Parliament, royalties from mining ventures and a percentage of gross national product being set aside to close the gap.

Indigenous "disadvantage" is not disadvantage it is first and foremost a consequence of dispossession and all the problems associated with that dispossession. Closing the gap between indigenous and non indigenous Australians will be accelerated by an acknowledgment of the past and the Federal government entering into treaty negotiations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations. These negotiations would help address the wrongs of the past and would help to put into place mechanisms that would close the chasm which still exists between indigenous and non indigenous Australians 223 years after a colonisation process began that made indigenous Australians strangers in the land they had continuously occupied for over 40,000 years.

Prime Minister, let's talk

Source: snaicc.asn.au 10th February 2011

Prime Minister The Hon. Julia Gillard MP speech to the House of Representatives, Wednesday 9 February 2011

SNAICC Chair, Steve Larkins, has written to PM Julia Gillard making a formal complaint about the tone of her speech to Parliament on Closing the Gap (9 February). The letter reads:

The Hon Julia Gillard MP
Prime Minister of Australia
By way of email: Julia.Gillard.MP@aph.gov.au
cc: jmacklin.mp@aph.gov.au

10 February 2011

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing as Chair of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) to reiterate the formal complaint made to your office yesterday about your speech on the Close the Gap. A complaint was also made to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

I am greatly distressed by the disrespectful and insensitive tone of the speech, particularly the paragraphs implying that the onus is on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to ‘close the gap’ through behavioural change. These statements and the underlying assumptions of the speech portray Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as helpless and lacking the capacity to direct their own lives. They perpetuate a stereotype of a people disabled by disadvantage and, worse, actively contributing to the situation of inequality. This may not have been your intent, but it is certainly the story that is being run in the media this morning.

The tone of your speech is counter to the Government language of partnership and respect over the past three years. We have appreciated the Government’s openness to working closely with us on initiatives such as the National Framework for the Protection of Australia’s Children and the National Indigenous Reform Agenda. However, I am concerned that such a public statement, which characterises us as somehow deficient and needing to change behaviour, signals a shift in the Government’s attitude to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If this is the case, the Government should be aware of the serious implications this would have for its relationship with our sector.

Further, making such statements gives licence to more extreme views about Aboriginal people. If a Prime Minister can portray Aboriginal people in such a way, others could go even further in demoralising and eroding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s human rights and jeopardise the progress made in such areas as active participation in child protection and cultural care plans

I seek an urgent meeting with you and Minister Macklin to discuss SNAICC’s concerns. We are keen to continue to work with the Government in a way that builds on the strengths of all parties to promote the rights, needs and aspirations of Aboriginal children and families.

Yours faithfully,

Steve Larkins
SNAICC Chairperson

SNAICC - Secretariat of National Aboriginal & Islander Child Care Inc.
SNAICC Website

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