Howard’s Wedge

Or, as Kim has named it, Tampa 2007.

Prime Minister John Howard has announced a sweeping authoritarian plan of managing indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, with the stated purpose of combatting the horrifying rates of child sexual abuse amongst the indigenous population. Unlike the total beat-up of Tampa, there is a genuine problem to be addressed with respect to sexual abuse, but Howard’s announced plans reek of the Something Approach:

Something Must Be Done.
This is Something We Could Do.
Let’s Do That Thing Then.

Certainly, Mr Howard’s plan is Doing Something. But is it the most effective solution to the problem?

Here’s the list publicly announced so far:

* bans on alcohol
* bans on X rated pornography
* all public computers checked for and cleared of pornography
* welfare payments tied to child’s school attendance
* half of family welfare payments will be “quarantined” to be used for children’s expenses

Two extremely disturbing (to me) aspects:

  • All indigenous children in the NT under 16 will undergo a medical examination for the express purpose of testing for Sexually Transmitted Diseases, with the tests and any subsequent required medical treatment to be funded by the commonwealth. There is no word as to whether the children, whose healthcare generally has been poor thus far, will receive a full medical examination for possible other problems at the same time. The authoritarian compulsion sits poorly on me as well.
  • A move that looks suspiciously susceptible to abuse with respect to indigenous claims on land:

    The Federal Government would take control of Aboriginal townships through five-year leases to improve property and public housing, Mr Howard said, adding that compensation would be forthcoming if required. Mr Howard said the reforms would include scrapping the permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal lands, and marshalling work-for-the-dole participants to clean up Aboriginal communities.

Obviously serious systemic intervention is needed to protect indigenous children, but are authoritarian controls placed on their movements and the movements of their parents actually a sufficiently effective systemic intervention, or just a few bandaids and barricades that look good when spun by the media?

In particular, the reports which shocked the nation regarding the sexual abuse of indigenous minors hardly pointed the finger only at indigenous adults as the sexual predators. The children are made extremely vulnerable by their poverty and the addiction problems of the adults in their communities, and non-indigenous adults abuse the children as well. How do any of the measures above work on making the children less vulnerable to non-indigenous abusers? In fact, don’t the measures above actually make it easier for a non-indigenous abuser to buy access to children using these banned items as currency?

There’s so much here to cater to the former One Nationites and other social conservatives who think that our indigenous people have just been mollycoddled too much and need a short sharp shock (presumably Tony Abbott will want those schools well supplied with canes). At least part of the push to restrict indigenous people comes from a belief that they have received “more than their share” of federal funding over the years without improving their conditions, so Something Must Be Done (and the more punitive the better). A commentor “HAL9000” at Larvatus Prodeo, in discussion of the plans for indigenous welfare reform being pushed by Noel Pearson, wrote:

One of the myths requiring some examination in this debate is the “you can’t solve indigenous issues by throwing money at them’ one. Mythologically, zillions have been poured down the drain, and indigenous Australians have been given all these taxpayer-funded privileges not available to other Australians. In fact, on any calculation of government expenditure per head, indigenous Australians have received less – in the past a great deal less, now just considerably less – on health, education, infrastructure etc. No taxpayer-funded privileges are available to indigenous Australians. The myth serves to exculpate governments from their obligations and helps fuel the Pauline Hanson agenda. Sadly, Pearson’s reported remarks help support the myths although I doubt this is his intention.

The causes of immiseration are much the same for indignous and non-indigeous folk, and it is not “left wing touchy feely’ to say so. People are primarily dependant on welfare because they have few other options. Lack of education helps the intergenerational transfer of poverty. What was true in industrial revolution England is equally true in Hope Vale or Woorabinda.

One of the few aspects I like about the PM’s plan is the aspect which concentrates on education, as in the long run it is the only way out of the immiseration of intergenerational poverty and the degradation of abuse. But the authoritarian and punitive nature of the rest of the plan makes me wonder just how much emphasis on education there actually will be. And if this was what needed doing, why didn’t Howard introduce such plans when he first gained office ten years ago?

Also, the plan isn’t going to stop with our indigenous citizens.

I should also indicate to you that Mr Brough is bringing to Cabinet at its next meeting some proposals to further extend the conditionality of welfare payments to all Australians receiving income support to ensure that these payments are used for the benefit of their children.

I seriously question the efficacy of any such top-down imposed authoritarianism. But it will play well with the conservative base and possible swing voters.

All beautifully timed as Parliament goes into a recess and Rudd was dealing with the Joe McDonald crisis. Rudd’s response so far has been a squib – weak support with no hard questions asked. Howard did have a rabbit in his hat after all.

Updated to add other posts around the ozblogs (will continue updating as they come in – Kim’s post linked above is updating links as well):

Cam at Polemica has published the full list of 97 recommendations from the NT’s Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, as well as an excellent summation of the issues. Just goes to show that Howard’s plan fails to address more than 2 issues out of the 97 recommendations.

Ken Parish at Club Troppo makes some excellent points, The Dead Roo team fisk the government’s media kit release, Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy calls for a rise above partisan politics to examine what could be measurably effective solutions.

And from A View From Elsewhere, living right there in Centralia.

Malcolm Fraser and Lowitja O’Donoghue, co-patrons of the Stolen Generation Alliance, respond on Crikey.

Senator Andrew Bartlett:

The Prime Minister has rightly called this situation an emergency, and has relied on the statement within the first recommendation in the report that “Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance.”

However, there has not been much mention about another part of that same recommendation – “It is critical that governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.”

Mr Lefty looks at which points of the plan he thinks are useful and which are not.

Categories: culture wars, indigenous, law & order, Politics, social justice, violence

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

44 replies

  1. I just keep reading this over and over. I have a pile of questions, (not for you, tigtog, but in general), starting with “what the fuck were they thinking?”, but on from there:
    – Is there any precedent for this sort of plan anywhere else in the world? How did it work out there?
    – A lot of this “plan” is very clearly targeted at women; specifically, single mothers. And, obviously, targeted on the basis of race. What does the HREOC have to say?
    – What sort of “medical examinations”? Virginity checks? STD screens? Full STD checks, as STD clinics do (vaginal and cervical swabs or penile swabs, urine samples, blood tests, throat swabs, rectal swabs)? Full sexual histories? Will they be shoving speculums into virgin girls?
    – What if both child and parent/guardian give informed refusal for medical examination?
    – What expertise will the examiners have in child sexual abuse detection and management?
    – How will the checks be arranged to avoid an assembly-line atmosphere? Cursory attention to rapport and history before a genital examination is horrible for non-abused kids, and orders of magnitude more horrible for traumatised children. What provisions will be made for privacy? Clinics in disadvantaged communities are often in a one or two room demountable or similar building, with paper-thin walls and no way to even separate waiting rooms by gender or any other factor.
    – What attention will be paid to cultural issues of who can do genital examinations on who in indigenous communities (skin group, etc)?
    – What will happen with 13, 14, 15 year old girls who are having consensual sex with their peers? Will their parents/guardians be accused and criminalised?
    – When will across-the-board examinations start on the children of white Australians? Has the government had a look at sexual assault stats for white people lately?
    – How will this truancy system work? How will it account for seasonal workers and people attending family funerals? There are a helluva lot of funerals in Aboriginal families.
    – How well has alcohol prohibition worked elsewhere? Show your work.
    – Are they actually trying to say that porn causes child sexual abuse? This is a first, surely? Is Canberra, porn capital of Australia, going to put the kybosh on their entrenched X-rated porn industry? Will pollies be giving up their Hot Black Anal Fisting collections for the cause?
    I have more. But I have to stop now.

  2. Excellent post, tigtog.

    So many aspects of the whole thing are sickening.

  3. Funny you should ask what does the HREOC have to say? It just so happens I heard them on ABC radio the other day being critical of Pearson’s report. This announcement by Howard and Brough just fortuitously happens to make their report obsolete as it was due for release on July 3 in Sydney I believe. It would certainly have been a different view from Pearson.

  4. “I should also indicate to you that Mr Brough is bringing to Cabinet at its next meeting some proposals to further extend the conditionality of welfare payments to all Australians receiving income support to ensure that these payments are used for the benefit of their children.”
    Tigtog, the smirk on Howards face when he spoke these words was something to behold. His sense of his own cleverness is enough to make me want to reach for a bucket.

  5. Makes me bloody ashamed of being white. Not for the first time.

  6. In fact, on any calculation of government expenditure per head, indigenous Australians have received less – in the past a great deal less, now just considerably less – on health, education, infrastructure etc.

    Curious. I was under the opinion that indigenous Australians actually received a slightly higher level of government services per capita. I did a little quick searching and found this report from 2005 which states:

    Despite major disparities in health status between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia, spending on health services per person is only slightly higher for Indigenous Australians ““ an estimated $3,901 per Indigenous person, compared to $3,308 per non-Indigenous person. Release12005?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4704.0&issue=2005&num=&view=
    Maybe it should be much more. But to suggest that indigenous Australians get “considerably less” per capita is wrong, at least on health, and probably also in other categories.

  7. In a strange irony it’s National Aboriginal Day in Canada:
    The Canadian attitude towards First Nations couldn’t be a bigger contrast. Not only is there a territory in the North with a legislature and its own spending powers, large settlements have been made, and there’s been much recognition of the wrongness of the Canadian equivalent of the stolen generation – the “Residential Schools”.
    Also, Ken Parish has a passionate post up looking at some other practical pitfalls in the Howard/Brough strategy:

  8. * half of family welfare payments will be “quarantined” to be used for children’s expenses

    Further question: was “family welfare payments” defined? If defined as income support payments (unemployment or single parent’s pension)for a custodial parent , will 50% of income support payments to non-custodial parents also be quarantined for children’s expenses?

  9. Well put tigtog. Same goes for Lauredhel.

  10. Spending per person is deceptive when the people live in very different circumstances (remote versus urban, accessibility of fresh food, teachers, doctors etc who stay permanently in the community & develop long term relationships).
    Remote scools funding has some sort of wacky funding arrangement based on average attendance, rather than all the kids in the local area who should be enrolled. So when everyone turns up on the first day of term in Wadeye, there aren’t enough desks. Not surprisingly, they don’t come back.

  11. I think just looking at health as Paulus did is not enough. In fact, changing “government expenditure” to “government services” might even be regarded as moving the goalposts.
    Education spending per capita is seriously out of wack, as is public infrastructure like roads and rail. (The lack of such infrastructure is why fresh food is virtually unaffordable in remote communities.)
    Lauredhel, “family welfare payments” was my phrasing, not Howard’s or Brough’s.

  12. Any move to reduce sexual abuse is good– but this makes me deeply uneasy. “Protect the children” was used to excuse the stolen generation, and it could be used again to implement something equally insidious. I can see this being used to demonise all aboriginal adults– they’ll all be tarnished with the “child abuser” brush. I wish I’d seen at least one indigenous person actually participating in these measures– I saw some Aboriginal groups responding to it, overall this smacks of “aren’t we great compassionate white people coming in to save the poor Aboriginal children from their nasty Aboriginal parents.”

  13. I can see this being used to demonise all aboriginal adults”“ they’ll all be tarnished with the “child abuser” brush.

    Exactly, when every single report on the issue has actually highlighted non-indigenous abusers as the major problem, deliberately plying addictive substances and porn to the adults of the community to make them ineffective protectors of their children and to desensitise the children to sexual acts, as well as modelling predatory behaviour for the adults within the community.
    The measures Howard/Brough are proposing will make it easier for non-indigenous predators to abuse vulnerable indigenous children through supplying the banned materials to their guardians.

  14. Thanks tigtog, for a clear post. So much of the news on this is disrespectful sensationalism.
    It seems to be true that kids will be subject to compulsory STD testing?
    From <a href=””“” rel=”nofollow”>ANTaR’s media release;
    Particularly horrifying is the plan to introduce compulsory health
    checks for all Aboriginal children to examine for signs of abuse ““
    regardless of whether this is suspected.
    I can’t find any details but that’s disturbing: those are invasive tests!
    Even adult survivors of sexual abuse may find tests with oral, vaginal and rectal swabs triggering. How could those tests be compelled, en masse for minors without their consent, without risking trauma and ethical misconduct??
    Especially in the context of negligent responses and under funded health services for indigenous persons who’re already reporting abuse.
    Child sexual abuse just shouldn’t be treated as a political football.

  15. Hmp, appears I don’t know how to make links work in WordPress.
    ANTaR press release:

  16. Good points, outfox. The insensitivity regarding the intrusion of STD testing is appalling.
    (To make links using the buttons above you don’t need to add the quote marks around the link – the software does that automatically. Just paste in the URL on its own.)

  17. A Central Land Council spokesman:

    In particular, Mr Ross said he was disappointed with the decision to scrap the permit system to open up all communal areas on Aboriginal land.
    Currently a permit is needed for non-indigenous people to enter these areas.
    Mr Ross said this would exacerbate existing problems and goes against the wishes of Aboriginal people.
    “Removing permits from major communities could provide a free-for-all peddling of alcohol and marijuana and pornography or the inflicting of further sexual or physical abuse on children,” he said.
    “At least with the permit system it was possible to ask somebody if they had a permit and what they were doing in the community.
    “This sort of top-down approach just increases the gap between Aboriginal people and the wider community and ultimately leads to further dysfunction and alienation.”
    Mr Ross said that for the last 30 years the CLC had operated a permit system to allow visitors, travellers, workers, contractors, researchers and government officials a system of regulated access to all Aboriginal land.
    “To imply that the permit system is responsible for disadvantage is simplistic and wrong,” he said.
    “The only economies scrapping the permit system is likely to foster is the dealing of petrol, drugs and porn as well as to assist the carpetbaggers and unscrupulous art dealers that hope to operate in Aboriginal communities.”

    Full article [link]

  18. Thank you.
    I just can’t quite believe it all. I used to watch Happy Days for the faux-1950s nostalgia. Now I just have to open my window.
    My first thought was that the end result will change the headlines from ‘aboriginal child abuse’ to ‘yet more deaths in custody’ with the socially irresponsible knee jerk increased Police response. Obviously that will be more palatable politically.
    Now the bastard will have to say sorry twice.
    Dear indigenous Australians: I’m sorry we have such a paternalistic fuckwad at the controls.

  19. Just in response to Steve’s comment (#3), the HREOC Social Justice Report is actually already public, although they are planning a major ‘launch’ on 3 July. It was tabled in the Parliament last week, but received minimal attention (although one Senator spoke to it briefly).
    Interestingly, and probably not surprisingly, it also emphasised how big the failures of government continue to be on meaningful consultation and engagement with Indigenous people in regard to the delivery of govenrment services and policies.

  20. As you say, interesting but not surprising.
    I just can’t see how this Emergency Plan as it is currently described can achieve its purported goals of actually decreasing the sexual abuse of indigenous children. I certainly hope it is possible for parliamentary debate to eliminate or ameliorate the most blatantly counterproductive and nakedly authoritarian aspects and replace them with measures that speak to the problems identified in the HREOC and NT Inquiry reports instead.
    Good luck, Senator.

  21. I’m going to copy this comment from Katz over at LP because I think it says it all, really:

    It is axiomatic that John Howard is a clever politician.
    And proof of Howard’s trickiness is to be found in the way he has fooled almost everyone with this simple little pea-and-thimble game.
    While most discussion and debate have swirled vehemently around questions of forced genital examination and the prohibition of porno, the real issue, the nullfication of Aboriginal property rights has passed almost without comment.
    It cannot be denied that flashing speculums and the worst sexual imagry that we can imagine serve as very distractive thimbles.
    But never forget that Howard’s pea, and his payoff, are under the dowdy thimble labelled “acquiring townships prescribed by the Australian Government through five year leases including payment of just terms compensation”. Yes the very words are soporfic.
    The colour and movement of squadrons of white-coated paramedics giving big ticks to Aboriginal wedding tackle and army chappies confiscating video nasties serve a purpose. That is, to win Howard another election. But after the election, the white coats can be returned to wardrobe and the army chappies can return to base.
    These spectacles are temporary. What is permanent, however, is the erosion of Aboriginal property rights. And thereby, Howard returns to one of his early crusades to deny Aboriginals as much satisfaction as is legally and politically possible from native title.
    Now, towards the end of his very clever career, Howard can get away with claiming that he is confiscating Aborigines’ property for their own good.
    Tricked once, shame on him. Tricked twice, shame on me.

  22. Let’s assume that the urgent protection of these children is not a political stunt by either report writers or politicians.
    Given that action is going to happen, I wonder if it has crossed the minds of readers and commentators on this blog to get up to the NT to serve in any way they can, even if it is to ensure that the aboriginal people affected are treated with utmost dignity.
    Surely it should not be left mainly to those who agree with this decision of the present federal Government.

  23. It cannot be denied that flashing speculums and the worst sexual imagry that we can imagine serve as very distractive thimbles.

    I don’t think they’re distractions at all, at least not for me. I guess I saw the wingnut land-grab and punitive-welfare agendas as more or less obvious; they’ve been talked about on a few blogs so far.
    The mandatory medical examinations illustrate the fact that it’s turtles all the way down. Paternalistic denial of autonomy and sovereignty is taking place not just at the collective level, but also at the individual level. By refusing (non-abusive) parents and children the right to their own medical decisions, they’re once again saying, “You are not a fit parent by default. The government is your child’s guardian from birth. Hand ‘em over.”
    Howard’s been keen on rolling back land rights forever; his public re-embracing of the Stolen Children mentality is new.
    Then there are the practical aspects of the examinations, which I expanded on because healthcare is my field, and I didn’t see anyone else looking at it at the time.

  24. I was glad you expanded on the practical aspects of the STD examinations, because I hadn’t fully thought those through.
    I reposted Katz’s comment because I thought it spoke to the broader public debate, not so much the particular discussion here. I should have been clearer about that.

  25. Surely it should not be left mainly to those who agree with this decision of the present federal Government.

    John Cruice, we all agree that protecting vulnerable children from sexual abuse needs to happen and needs to happen fast.
    WE just don’t see why our tax dollars should be spent on an unrelated land-grab and punitive welfare measures which won’t address the protection of the children.
    How about implementing the actual 97 recommendations of the NT Inquiry report instead of a sideswipe at lands rights and authoritarian bullying that won’t protect the children? And using tax funds to train indigenous people in implementing the 97 recommendations so that they’ve got actual jobs?

  26. Let’s assume that the urgent protection of these children is not a political stunt by either report writers or politicians.

    I absolutely won’t assume that, so far as the conservative government is concerned. There is no current or historical reason to do so, and there is a huge amount of evidence for the exact opposite.

    Given that action is going to happen, I wonder if it has crossed the minds of readers and commentators on this blog to get up to the NT to serve in any way they can, even if it is to ensure that the aboriginal people affected are treated with utmost dignity.

    What makes you think it hasn’t? I hope you’re posting in good faith, and I’m going to assume you are without a good reason not to. You should know that it is a very common troll tactic to start lashing out about how people speaking out about injustice online are lazy whiners and cowards who never actually do anything useful.

  27. Am I the only person with skeevy red-flags waving about Howard’s ”Rah-Rah Volunteers!” talk in the papers today?

    Mr Howard aknowledged that it would be difficult to find enough doctors to carry out full medical checks of Indigenous children in the Territory.
    He says the Government will offer incentives to doctors, but he wants them to donate some of their time.

    So the government completely fails to have any interest in equitably funding community-controlled health services for years on end, then suddenly turns around and says “Well, we won’t fund this properly either, so hey random people, come join in.”
    There has been no mention of adequate supervision or appropriate cultural and medical training for these “examinations”. Are they just planning to offer unfettered access to the most vulnerable children in the country to a pile of random white doctors, and hope for good intentions to save the day?
    Cos that’s always gone well in the past.

  28. I can asure you Aboriginals in their community wont enjoy much bunches of people wandering through gawking at them in some sort of poor-fella way. Doctors, dentists, nurses etc can make themselves available – but we are talking about long term commitment here, not Howards Six Month Stunt.
    We should all be prepared for Howard’s media machine to be wandering around the communities putting together stories that promte their crusading master. It is sad to see Satan take credit for ‘saving’ a community while he is really ruining it for the sake of votes.

  29. I totally see your point, Vatvitcha.
    Anyone who hasn’t read Vatvitcha’s comment over at LP today should take a look at the perspective of someone who knows how the permit system for indigenous lands works (i.e. not as broken as Mal Brough represents).

  30. Have any of you people ever even been to and/or worked at any of these communities? Have you ever been to/at/near any of the grog shops on welfare day?
    Simply bizarre and sickening…Take a trip soon ok, then come back with your easy PC solution.. (try and make it before next welfare day will ya, people get hurt while you are out hunting howards)

  31. Oigal, why don’t you share your story? I’d love to hear it.
    I’m basing my comments on a combination of reading and personal experience. I feel the people we should be listening closely to on this issue are, firstly, the people who know the most about it: the people in the communities themselves – we have talked about this in a number of posts here. Tigtog has a numerical roundup here if you don’t want to go searching. Secondly, we should be listening to the people who actually conducted the NT inquiry and wrote their very detailed recommendations for action, which you can read here at Polemica. These are not “easy” solutions, they will take a long-term, real, commitment.
    I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts I have lived and worked in an Aboriginal community-controlled health service for orders of magnitude longer than John Howard ever has; and I know in excruciating detail exactly how Aboriginal people are treated and talked about in non-community-controlled healthcare settings, both hospital and outpatient.

  32. “excruciating detail exactly how Aboriginal people are treated and talked about in non-community-controlled healthcare settings”
    Then you would also know about the dangers and risks involved for those medical staff working in those communities, the grog fueled rages, the dread of waiting for the men too come back into the settlements.
    Go sit outside Roper Bar for awhile, want something a bit more touristy try Mataranka Springs on welfare day..
    Been talking for 20 years, what say we act now, get the kids and women safe..Then talk about how to draw back.


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