The moral that most observers took from the Tampa affair of 2001 and the Coalition’s subsequent election victory was that “racism works”. So it’s not unlikely that among the mix of motives behind yesterday’s grand plan for intervention in Aboriginal communities is a coded appeal to racism, in the hope that it might again be the government’s electoral salvation.
So could this really be another Tampa? Has John Howard found the rabbit in his hat? I think not.
Even if they’d never met a refugee, everyone felt they understood the issues of immigration. But my impression, depressingly enough, is that in mainstream Australia hardly anyone knows or cares very much about what’s going on in Aboriginal society.
Fear of “illegal” immigrants, however unfounded, was genuine. But no-one in our big cities fears the Aborigines of the Northern Territory: they’re just too far away, both geographically and psychologically.
Just as importantly, there’s no energy on the other side either. Tampa provoked intense controversy: almost every serious commentator condemned the Howard government’s approach. That in turn was crucial to the government’s ability to frame it as a “wedge” issue, the battlers versus the elites.
But tearing up the rule book over Aboriginal governance won’t produce the same reaction. Kevin Rudd won’t bite, and nor will most of the usual suspects. It’s all too hard, and too remote. It might help the government in a few rural seats, but there won’t be the sort of seismic shift it needs.
Of course, there’s an alternative story about why this won’t matter electorally: the one that says both politicians and voters are genuinely concerned about Aboriginal welfare, and will support drastic measures to address the problems in a bipartisan way.
That’s the story the media are trying to sell us this morning. It would be wonderful to be able to believe it.