There are some questions in my mind as I read the release.
It is strange that the intervention will be restricted to “Aboriginal land”. Have the reports on widespread s-xual abuse of children found that the problem is worse on Aboriginal land than in places where there is another form of tenure — such as in the suburbs of Darwin, Alice Springs and in Katherine, and Tennant Creek?
In what way is land tenure a factor contributing to child abuse? In particular, how will the creation of five-year leases in Aboriginal townships contribute to better child protection?
Many of the measures announced today are about the stricter enforcement of existing laws and zonings and the enforcement of new ones. This implies one of two things: either that Aboriginal people will become more rigorous in self-policing (a possibility put at risk to the extent that Aborigines see today’s announcement as heavy-handed) or that more police will be deployed on Aboriginal land.
Yet the information to hand does not say where these extra police will come from. Will parts of the Northern Territory that are not Aboriginal land be policed less? Or will the Commonwealth make a rapid transfer of resources to the Northern Territory government to lift the number of police patrolling on Aboriginal land?
The report implies that the Howard government is saying two things about what it calls “constitutional niceties” . In the Northern Territory, these ‘niceties’ (the rule of law) must be swept aside because they would inhibit “the care and protection of young children” via the stricter enforcement of the rule of law. But in the States, the Howard government sees limits on its constitutional power, and will respect those limits: it will merely ask for the States’ cooperation.
It is not possible to see in any of this a consistent approach to legality by the Howard government. As well, we have just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the constitutional amendment that gave the Commonwealth power to legislate, nation-wide, on matters to do with ‘Aboriginal natives’. Does the government really lack constitutional power to do what it thinks necessary, anywhere Aboriginal people live?
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Recently, we heard through the Prime Minister’s leaked analysis of the Government’s electoral prospects that he has no ‘rabbit to pull out of a hat’. In 2001, when the Howard government needed a rabbit it found one in the alleged ‘child abuse’ by unauthorised refugees (Children Overboard). The government won a mandate to deal firmly with refugees, and it exercised that mandate, in part, by imprisoning children.
Now the government is facing defeat, and it has found — in the dire circumstances of some Aboriginal communities and families — the ‘rabbit’ that it needs. Again, the protection of children will be the Howard team’s rallying cry. Today’s announcement has the stench of 2001’s rotting rabbit carcass.