John Ah Kit was right. The former Northern Territory MP was the only observer to condemn the motives behind the Howard Government’s current intervention into the NT Aboriginal communities. It signalled, he said, “the end of Aboriginal culture; it is in some ways genocide.”
The PM’s comments at Ntaria this week confirm the Government is indeed pursuing the end of distinct Aboriginal identity. “Their future can only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community,” he said. Everything is now falling nicely into place.
Since federation there have been four major landmarks in Indigenous affairs. Howard has now reversed them all. The first was the 1967 referendum decision to include Aborigines as Australian citizens.
The second was the 1976 Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) which gave Aborigines freehold title to their lands and power to veto mining and other intrusions.
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Third was the 1992 Mabo case in which the High Court overturned the legal fiction that Captain Cook “discovered” a terra nullius.
And fourth was the 1990 replacement of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council.
The combination of these four paradigm shifts laid the foundation – at long last – for Indigenous leadership to learn to lead and, in due course, resolve the challenges facing their people.
After 11 years of conservative Government, all four historic achievements are now history. The new laws passed on August 17 override the Racial Discrimination Act. This allows Aborigines to be treated in a pre-1967 discriminatory manner.
Hard-won rights to control traditional lands are now revoked. The Native Title Act 1993 which gave effect to the Mabo ruling was amended in 1998 to reverse that effect. ATSIC was abolished in 2004.
Just as potent as these legislated moves have been the symbols – by their presence or absence. Howard has never affirmed the worth of Indigenous culture with anything like Hawke’s Barunga meeting, Keating’s Redfern speech or Fraser’s Lingiari lecture. He has pointedly refused to say sorry for past offences.
In 1998 he added Reconciliation and Aboriginal Affairs to the ministerial responsibilities of Minister for Immigration Phillip Ruddock. The symbolism of giving this portfolio to the despised Minister for People We Don’t Want Here was not lost.
Until this week has Howard ever sat in the sand with tribal elders? Did he sit in the sand this week?
In his groundbreaking volume Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, Richard Trudgeon analysed the reasons for the social evils of Arnhem Land’s Yolngu communities, which include child sexual abuse.
One factor is what he calls the “multigenerational legacy of trauma”. Others are the diminished authority of traditional leaders, confusion about how the economy works, insecurity about land tenure and the non-recognition of ancient law that once brought peace and prosperity.
If Trudgeon and the many who agree with him are right, the latest interventions will worsen the despair and dysfunction and hasten the eventual demise.
We now know this is what the Government intended all along.