One of the aspects of the Howard emergency that most deserves some dispassionate analysis is the way in which it’s been presented as something ‘above politics’.

Aside from the obvious angle of disabling and smearing criticism and critics, which has had the practical effect of completely obscuring the actual recommendations of the NT Wild/Anderson report (whose properly resourced implementation with an appropriate sense of urgency I would continue to support as a rational and effective response to the dire problems which are evident), it begs the question — what are our political institutions actually for?

The classic instance of a ‘state of emergency’ in the Westminster system is Lloyd George’s formation of a coalition government during the Great War excluding the followers of the party leader who had actually won the 1910 election, H. H. Asquith. This “national government” was followed by a ‘khaki election’ in 1918, comprehensively won by the effectively non-party PM in large part through the issuing of ‘coupons’ by the Tory whips to preferred candidates from all parliamentary parties. The implication was that the behaviour of MPs who’d continued in opposition was in effect treasonous. A precedent was set which would later be revived in the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Howard’s emergency is, of course, not on the scale of the Great War (though the bizarre comparison with Hurricane Katrina deserves its own analysis). But it’s worth noting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during the Second World War, was careful to insist that political opposition to his administration was legitimate, and that the values of democracy the US was fighting for included the right to freedom of political speech and the maturity to conduct election campaigning during a national emergency.

There are two ways I’d like to approach this whole question.

The first is by pointing to a thoughtful post from tigtog at her blog Hoyden About Town:

The oversight role of Senate needs to be hammered home in every discussion of the indigenous emergency plan. Those disappointed with the Labor response so far can be reassured that so long as they don’t give either Libs or Labs a Senate majority, then the Senate can exercise proper checks and balances to any government implementation of the NT plan.

That’s absolutely spot on, and highlights the way in which our parliamentary system can actually contribute to sensible scrutiny of government measures, even if they’re labelled “emergency” measures. Her call for electors to consider voting for candidates not aligned with either the Government or the Opposition in the Senate logically follows on from this, and is one that I’d support.

Secondly, tigtog writes:

Many people are, quite rightly, asking for a non-partisan response to the NT sexual abuse crisis. The big problem with that is that it’s almost impossible to abide by in an election year …

This is the only way that I can see to end up with a truly non-partisan implementation of long-term actions that will end up making a real difference to abused indigenous children.

The problem, of course, is that as well as the fact that emergency measures will fail (although the land grab aspect will surely succeed) without ownership and consultation, is that making the demand for bipartisan support after the measures have been announced is an end run around the foundations of bipartisanship rather than its basis. The way in which the measures have been announced (not, note carefully, their motivation and substance) can’t be interpreted in any other light than as a political maneouvre.

We can observe this through looking at the actual political content of the demands that the issue be treated as non-political. Gary Sauer-Thompson, for instance, examines a claim by John Hirst, writing in The Australian, that the state of indigenous community norms represents a failure of libertarianism. Aside from the dubious merits of this line of argument, surely what is happening here is that Hirst is projecting whatever political ideology he most dislikes onto the situation and falsely stigmatising it more generally by alleging its reponsibility for child s-xual abuse. A more political way of proceeding could hardly be imagined.

Similarly, The Government Gazette itself, in its leader today, gives the game away. In a piece that barely deigns to make an argument for the form Howard’s response has taken, the culture warrior editorialist thunders the paper’s disdain for critics — it’s they, not the Government, who are political, apparently, despite the fact that the whole point of the leader is to score political points.

THAT the Howard Government’s attempt to save a generation of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse can be portrayed as a political wedge shows how far sections of Australia’s so-called thinking elite are out of touch with the rights-and-responsibilities revolution sweeping the Western world. The very notion of seeking political opportunity by exploiting the tragic circumstances exposed by the Northern Territory’s investigation into sexual abuse in indigenous communities is repugnant. The irony is that a political wedge only becomes possible courtesy of the predictable protests of those who continue to favour symbolic gestures over practical intervention.

We could go on multiplying examples almost endlessly from the opinion pages over the last few days — Gerard Henderson’s column today being another case in point. But perhaps it’s not necessary to make the point. What we can see here is an enormous dose of bad faith, with viciously political and hyperbolically unfair shots being fired in this latest front in the culture wars.

And the sound and noise has the effect of completely eliding criticism of the proposal on the merits, through the oft repeated and ridiculous demand for a “policy alternative” (as if supporting the Wild/Anderson recommendations weren’t one) and the consequent implication that critics are being purely partisan. In fact, it’s very clear who’s stocking up on their political ammunition during this “national emergency”.

It helps that indigenous people in the Northern Territory themselves are very much the objects of this discussion and concern trolling writ large rather than the subjects of their own destiny.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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