Last week, the Howard Government, via a sleight of hand connected to the grant of lands in the 1970s, imposed a de facto apartheid system on Australia. You may want to argue that this was necessary, desirable, a last resort, etc etc, but first you have to acknowledge that this is apartheid. A section of the population will be prevented from exercising their legal rights in the places where they live and rarely leave.
This denial will extend to what they can buy, how they raise their children, what they can do with the benefit money to which they, as citizens, are entitled to receive. İn other words, such people have been legally ruled – if the law survives a High Court challenge – to be denied the right to equality under the law. Aborigines in these areas are once again the exceptional case.
How did the editorial writers of The Australian mark this occasion? By arguing that it marks the end to “Aboriginal exceptionalism”. That’s pretty much the screwy non-logic that has dominated this episode, and which will dominate the inevitable failure of what is de facto, the military occupation of Aboriginal Australia.
Forty years ago the Aborigines got full citizenship and the beginnings of land rights. Neither of these were due to white beneficience, but to the pressure put on sluggish governments by political movements – the ‘freedom rides’ in the first place (started by Charles Perkins and black and white members of the Communist Party of Australia) and the Wave Hill strike on the other (sparked at least in part by communists such as Frank Hardy, who would later draw Fred Hollows, another communist, into Aboriginal Australia).
İn the ’70s these grew into full-scale urban and remote political campaigns, which generated medical services, legal services, campaigns on land control and ultimately the successful Mabo et al lawsuit establishing native title.
To understand this is to understand why Howard’s initiative, should it be implemented, will inevitably fail. Nothing that Aborigines have won or achieved has come from outside. İt has come, as it can only come, from movements built from within that force white Australia to cede power, not to re-extend it.
Yet much of the criticism of Howard’s initiative has been misplaced or misunderstands why it is wrong and counterproductive. That it has a political dimension is without doubt. Howard, who can retrieve a majority with a thimble and a line of thread, has performed a dialectical two-step that would have done Lenin proud. Moving on Aboriginal suffering makes him look like a man of action and compassion, and using the police and the army to do it appeals to the right who would dismiss any other type of move as more wasted money. Rudd is left with nothing to do, except bleat agreement. Going to the liberal-left of it and talking about rights would be suicide. Going to the right of it – well there is no right of it, save for reintroducing forced child removal.
But the political maneouvring is beside the point. İf the policy was right its genesis and motive wouldn’t matter. İts inevitable failure is obvious with a moment’s consideration.
İ mean really, try and think about it, really think about it for a minute. What are the constituents of the policy? That troubled Aboriginal communities will develop self-determination and autonomy by having key decision-making powers over their own lives taken away from them? That school attendence will be enforced by the army? That chopping up land into freehold title will magically introduce the idea of home ownership and bourgeois individualism into a culture that had not yet developed agriculture when Europeans encountered them? Come on.
Can you think of somewhere where this policy of military modernisation has been tried before? That’s right. İraq. The place where 24-year-old interns were sent to establish stock markets and private health systems etc, where it was assumed that, once a dictator was deposed, a society pretty much like Akron, Ohio, would emerge.
As it unaccountably failed to do so, relations between occupier and occupied detoriarated to the point where a situation of open conflict developed. So, too, will it occur in the north when Aboriginal Australia unaccountably fails to become a southern Switzerland, organised crime breeds from prohibition (as it always does) and Aborigines increasingly define themselves against the army of experts – military and therapeutic – sent in to “help” them.
And as in the Middle East, such exuberant manoeuvres will delegitimise a whole generation of failed leaders. Abbas, Al-Maliki, Khazai have now been joined by Noel Pearson, rubber-stamping the surrender of Aboriginal power when the minister calls.
One consolation of this policy is that it will fail more quickly and more visibly than previous ones, and people can then move on to really thinking about how power is formed and held. Another is that the next generation of leaders will be formed not in the muddy waters of ATSİC and reconciliation, but by seeing their parents and elders bullied by cops and social workers, with vastly more powers than they now possess. Given the way prohibition usually works, the cops will be running the illegal market in booze within six months anyway.
What this new initiative represents above all is cowardice. İt is cowardly because it has little to do with blacks, the movement they have to rebuild, the power they have to take from us.
This policy is for and about white people. İt is about assuaging their guilt and shame of white people by being seen to be doing something, anything, in the face of horror, the unwillingness to look deep into the heart of colonialism and face what really needs to be done with determination and resilience.