Most alcoholics don’t accept they have a problem. Neither do racists. But sometimes, the evidence just overwhelms.
Professor James Anaya is the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous rights for the United Nations. An Apache man, he arrived in Australia earlier this month for a tour of the nation’s Indigenous communities.
Prof Anaya brings within him a big reputation. Or, in the words of Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, who greeted Anaya at a function when he arrived a fortnight ago: “Professor Anaya is recognised as one of the world’s leading human rights advocates and legal scholars,” Macklin enthused. “His advocacy and legal work on behalf of Indigenous communities command worldwide attention. This is an extraordinary opportunity for an honest and open exchange of views and experiences.”
That’s high praise indeed. So maybe Macklin had something else on yesterday, because she was conspicuously absent as Prof Anaya delivered his “preliminary observations” from his tour of duty, prior to writing a more detailed written report.
By United Nations standards it was a flogging of colonial proportions. After commending Australia for, among other things, endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Anaya got down to the real business of his visit: “After several days in Australia listening and learning … I have observed a need to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones in consultation and real partnership with Indigenous peoples to conform with international standards requiring genuine respect for cultural integrity and self determination,” he said.
“Of particular concern is the Northern Territory Emergency Response. These measures overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatise already stigmatised communities.
“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 of Civil and Political Rights; treaties to which Australia is a party.”
Not a lot of wriggle room there. Australia is in breach of multiple UN agreements, and the NT intervention is discriminatory.
But Prof Anaya didn’t stop there. Apart from noting that reparations “should be paid” to members of the Stolen Generations, Prof Anaya went on to use the ‘r’ word. In fact, to be more precise he used the ‘ER’ words.
“A common characteristic of countries where Indigenous people live today is entrenched racism,” Prof Anaya told an open mouthed gaggle of reporters and Indigenous affairs junkies. “And what I mean by entrenched racism is racism that has accompanied historical process of colonisation.
“I’m not pointing my finger at any particular individuals but I am saying that it has happened, it reflects itself in particular events, particular policies over time that have resulted in conditions that Indigenous peoples live in today.
“And I think one need not search very far to find that in various ways this historical racism continues to manifest itself in certain attitudes that we see throughout society.”
Prof Anaya also said: “I’m not saying that as an indictment against Australia, in the sense of singling it out from other countries. I am saying it though as a matter of reality that needs to be addressed, and a matter of reality that needs to be confronted.”
Indeed it does. And so how did we confront it? Well, Tony Abbott was out this morning describing Prof Anaya as an “armchair critic”. And of course, Mal Brough crawled out of to defend his Intervention.
“Let’s get real, look these people in the eye, instead of coming in and telling us that we’ve offended some law rather than offending the right of a child to be healthy and happy and to have a future,” Brough told ABC Radio, apparently without a hint of humour.
Brough continued: “I get very annoyed when I hear people pontificating about human rights when today there will be children sitting out there in abject squalor with diseases they don’t have to have, with inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health and we have some nicety about human rights legislation.”
Brough should have added: “… and we were in government for 12 years and did nothing about it until election eve 2007”. Or perhaps he could have added these words, straight from the mouth of Prof Anaya: “… I think the point is [the intervention] is not working”.
Which appears to be the point that media, politicians and commentators have missed in all this. Yes, the intervention is racially discriminatory — even Brough concedes that. But it also happens to be failing miserably.
The alcohol bans have not stopped the grog, a fact noted by Prof Anaya and acknowledged by the Northern Territory police.
The extraordinary coercive powers (and millions of dollars) handed to the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) to target child abusers have not resulted in the capture of a single paedophile, a fact acknowledged by the ACC.
The compulsory income management has led to increased anaemia rates among children in the Katherine region due to restricted access to food, a fact acknowledged by the Sunrise Health Service. The income management has also resulted in near starvation and demonstrable harm to Aboriginal people, facts acknowledged by the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory.
The emergency housing program has not built a single house in two years, a fact begrudgingly acknowledged by Jenny Macklin.
The p-rnography bans have not stopped p-rnography, nor have sweeping powers to catch people with p-rnography been effective (save for a government contractor brought in as part of the intervention, if my memory serves me).
The compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land to ensure that there are no delays in the construction of housing and emergency infrastructure has resulted in delays in the construction of housing and infrastructure.
The “tens of millions” that John Howard outlined would be spent on the NT intervention has blown out to more than $1 billion.
So the Northern Territory intervention is not only racist, but it’s not working. The experts on the ground are saying it. Aboriginal people themselves are saying it. And now the United Nations is saying it. And we’re denying it.
No-one ever said facing up to our racism was going to be easy, but surely it doesn’t have to be this hard?
Chris Graham is editor at the National Indigenous Times