Melbourne University was the venue last night for Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough to present the annual Alfred Deakin Lecture, on “The emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory”. With considerable passion, he told both the audience and the small group of demonstrators outside that the problems in Aboriginal communities are the biggest policy challenge Australia faces, and that he is determined to do whatever it takes to fix them.
For what it’s worth, I think Brough is completely sincere about this, and I hope some of what he’s doing brings real benefits. But there’s something about the rhetorical approach of the government and its supporters that bothers me, and listening to the minister last night I worked out what it is.
The argument usually starts with a recital in graphic terms of some to the dreadful circumstances in remote communities. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; people need to know just how big the problem is. What’s troubling is the too-neat segue into “therefore you must support our way of dealing with it”.
The government is effectively saying that those who disagree with their solution are denying the seriousness of the problem. By opposing the government’s actions, they open themselves to accusations of complicity in child abuse, drug addiction and social dysfunction.
This reminds me of the anti-nuclear movement of about 25 years ago. Its rhetorical strategy was to dwell on the horrors of nuclear war – Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth is perhaps the classic reference – and to assert that because the threat was so apocalyptic, therefore it was necessary to agree with the movement’s proposed solution (essentially, unilateral disarmament).
In other words, those who disagreed about the answer were being accused of ignorance or callousness about the reality of what nuclear war would be like. That accusation was probably true in some cases, but in others it was manifestly unfair. You could agree about the awfulness of the threat but disagree about the best way to avoid it.
The same goes for the Aboriginal intervention. While some of Brough’s opponents may be victims of ignorance or callousness, I think the vast majority, including last night’s demonstrators, would agree with him about how serious the crisis is. They just think the government has the wrong way of dealing with it.