Much of what we are seeing in the Northern Territory is mediated by television images of diggers taking up positions in central Australian communities as part of the government’s “intervention and stabilisation” strategy.
But there are other things happening to tighten the screws on Aboriginal communities across the Territory. Despite the fact that the Prime Minister has said that he would fund “whatever it takes” to meet the objectives of the national emergency, government agencies are using the threat of withdrawal of money to bring blackfellas in line.
In the last few days, Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP) — a work for the dole program that has been operating on Aboriginal communities since 1977 — have received letters from Indigenous Coordination Centres threatening dire consequences if they don’t fall into line on the emergency.
Each CDEP project — employing some 6,000 Aboriginal people in the Territory –has been told:
You agree that if legislation is enacted in relation to the national emergency response that was announced by the Australian Government on 21 June 2007 regarding the protection of Aboriginal children:
(a) We may give You written directions about the action(s) You must take as part of the Project to comply with that legislation to the extent that it relates to the Project; and
(b) You must comply with any such direction within the timeframe specified in the direction as a term of this Agreement.
For the purpose of clause 1.3 of the Booklet, if there is any inconsistency between a direction issued by Us under this special condition and any other clause of this Agreement, then the direction will take precedence over that other clause to the extent of the inconsistency.
It goes on at length, the way government funding documents do (though it’s hard to remember any such document that supplies initial capital letters to “You” and “Us” in quite such dramatic style — it is quite revealing in itself).
But the long and short of it is that any failure to comply with any orders or directives under the “national emergency response” will result in withdrawal of funding to the CDEP project that is disobeys.
Which might cause some problems. Many Aboriginal health workers are employed through CDEP. What if they were to refuse to obey directives on coercive medical checks — or indeed perform actions that breach traditional law over age, gender or relation avoidance?
Is there any other group in Australia that would lose its welfare payments — even work for the dole payments so lauded by the Howard regime — for following their social or cultural beliefs or practices? It’s impossible to imagine — unless you have the misfortune to be Aboriginal in the Northern Territory.
But other groups are being threatened by the short and curlies.
The Aboriginal land councils — established by federal law — used to get a statutory share of mining royalty equivalents. The Feds changed that last year: land councils now have their budgets completely controlled by Minister Brough. The land councils have been told in no uncertain terms that, if they attempt to mount any legal challenges against, for example, moves to abolish the permit system or compulsory acquisition by the Commonwealth of leases over Aboriginal land they will be financially punished.
Aboriginal Territorians are living in interesting times.