Difference of Opinion – on the NT recolonisation

The ABC’s Difference of Opinion show this week (18 Oct 2007) examined the Northern Territory invasion and recolonisation of Aboriginal communities. You can read the full transcript of “A New Deal for Indigenous Australians?” here, or access partial video from the main Difference of Opinion page. (I’m not sure how long the video will be there).

Dr Sue Gordon, magistrate and chair of the National Indigenous Council and the Northern Territory Task Force, was facing a hostile audience, and did not acquit herself well, coming across as cold and defensive. The other participants were received well, and I thought Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue’s contributions were particularly eloquent and moving.

Now – was anyone else here watching the show, or present in the audience? There’s a part I wish I’d written down at the time, because I can’t for the life of me find it in the website transcript. At one point, Gordon snarkily accused those who oppose the intervention not actually wanting any change in Aboriginal communities. This was met with angry shouts. Given that she was speaking to many committed, long-time Aboriginal activists, I thought this was supremely insulting and belittling; and given that the pretext for the invasion was widespread child sexual abuse, it was downright abusive. Did anyone catch it?

edited to add, 25 Oct 07: Found it! Lots more at the link, but here’s a bit:

DR SUE GORDON: Just listen to me. Just let me say this is to assist those people to have a better life. Now these are mostly traditional people.


DR SUE GORDON: Can I just finish, Jeff?


DR SUE GORDON: What I am feeling is that there’s a move that people don’t want change for traditional people in those remote communities.

[the angry shouts were here; not noted in the transcript]

OLGA HAVNEN: That is not correct. If I could just point out something here. I’m sorry you have that feeling, but I think, very strongly, people have been arguing for increased levels of funding, improved services and better housing for decades.


MAN: Sue Gordon, you’re a lawyer, an officer of the court, a sworn officer, an Aboriginal woman and victim of past racist policies. How can you possibly, possibly condone the overturning of the Racial Discrimination Act? How can you possibly…

JEFF McMULLEN: Sue Gordon, we’re running out of time. How do you explain that to Australia, that the legislation removed the Racial Discrimination Act to get this done?

DR SUE GORDON: It’s a special measure and not…

TOM CALMA: It’s not been tested.

DR SUE GORDON: It’s been assessed by the Commonwealth Government lawyers as not breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. You put a whole lot of things towards me as somebody who was taken away when I was four from my mother. What I’ve done is I’m trying to move forward and look at what can be done to assist other Aboriginal people. That’s the reason I took this on with the basic focus on child protection. The other things fall into place.

Tom Calma, you’ve been trying to get a word in here. Is this your principal concern, that to do this the Government and then Labor sign on to it, remove the racial discrimination legislation when this intervention began?

TOM CALMA: It is. It’s not been tested. Even though it could be argued the Government lawyers have suggested that it meets a special measure, it’s never been tested against the criteria for a special measure. We’ve yet to see what the international governing committees, treaty body committees, say about this in the near future. What I wanted to point out to the audience and to Sue particularly, I think it’s very relevant now the Prime Minister’s recognised a recommitment to reconciliation, that he needs to go back and look at the policies, because just yesterday the Australian National Audit Office released its report about the new arrangements in Indigenous affairs since 2004. Absolutely scathing of the Government and the way it’s been implemented and not been working across the country. Now, if we take that as a basis and even the Government’s own National Audit Office says that there’s problems I think we really need to go back and revisit the way it’s been applied. Sue and others can cite individuals who might need additional support. I say we take it from a human rights-based perspective. Let’s look at capacity development, education, let’s look at working with people in partnership. This is what the Government signed on to in the second decade of the Indigenous peoples, and yet they’re not practising.

Further Snippets:

Olga Havnen:

One first and foremost is that this isn’t about either/or situations, it’s not about having either an apology or practical reconciliation. It’s got to encompass all that and go further than that too and it’s got to be about fundamentally changing the nature of the relationship between Aboriginal people and this Government and the federal governments to come, but also between our relationships with other Australians. So to some degree I think this debate has got to open up the discussion about the legal and political status of us as first people.


I find it ironic this the Prime Minister says he wants to embark on this process of reconciliation in recognition of past injustices and yet this is within the same period of time in which they pass the most discriminatory and pernicious legislation in the history of this country by introducing the NT emergency response legislation. If he is – if the Prime Minister is absolutely genuine and sincere about this professed commitment to reconciliation and rectifying those past injustices I would strongly suggest that perhaps what’s absolutely needed is the repeal of that particular bill, but I would also suggest and argue there needs to be amendments made to the Native Title Act where it also suspends the application of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Tom Calma:

We’ve seen too much of Indigenous affairs being used as a political football to get cheap gains, political gains, at the time. What we need to do is work constructively and I suppose that’s where the bipartisan approach has been something that’s very successful. But it’s very early days. If we’re going to see any results we’re going to need all parties and all leaders to be genuine in what they want to do.


What we need not to see is on the one hand the Prime Minister or the leader committing to reconciliation, but on the other hand not pulling his ministers in line and allowing them to be denigrating Indigenous people, defaming Indigenous people in many regards.

Lowitja O’Donoghue:

Well, it’s certainly got to be a proper consultation with Aboriginal people in relation to any and I don’t support it being in the preamble. I think it’s got to be in the body of the Constitution. Not in the preamble. And so on. And I do want to say another word about how can we trust a man who in 1997 derailed the reconciliation process? Clearly demonstrated by his behaviour at the reconciliation convention, angrily thumping the podium and yelling at those of us in attendance? How can we trust John Howard?


What I did want to respond to that we were talking about, consultation, we have no effective Aboriginal voice since ATSIC has been abolished. So we’ve been silenced as a group of Aboriginal people, as a result of the dismantling of ATSIC and threats of funding cuts and our rights attacked or individuals have been attacked. So we’ve been effectively silenced as a group of Aboriginal people, with no effective voice. We have the NIC who are appointed by Government but nowhere can we in fact get that voice and that Aboriginal people to effectively lead us in the right direction now.

Sue Gordon:

Jeff, my problem is I’m different from the other three in as much as I’m a magistrate and I’ve taken an oath of office without fear or favour, ill-will or affection so I don’t get involved in politics. I can’t be involved in politics.


sorry, Olga, the National Indigenous Council has never been said to represent Aboriginal people. That needs to be very clear. OK?


I’ve never said that I speak on behalf of any Aboriginal person. The National Indigenous Council three years ago took on the role because we didn’t have a voice. We were chosen as individuals and as such we were there to give expert advice.

Categories: culture wars, indigenous, Politics, social justice

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. I only just picked up on “recolonisation”. It’s a perfect description.
    I’m sad to see how little the NT intervention has been mentioned by anybody (or at least anybody who’s getting press inches) this election campaign.

  2. And when the Intercolonivasion was extolled by Howard at the debate, the racist worm soared, and my heart sank.
    I know these things aren’t representative, but it was still a low moment.

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