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Aug 28, 2009

Racist, not working: UN bashes NT intervention

Make no mistake, the United Nations' criticism of Australia's Northern Territory intervention was a flogging of colonial proportions.

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Most alcoholics don’t accept they have a problem. Neither do racists. But sometimes, the evidence just overwhelms.

Professor James Anaya is the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous rights for the United Nations. An Apache man, he arrived in Australia earlier this month for a tour of the nation’s Indigenous communities.

Prof Anaya brings within him a big reputation. Or, in the words of Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, who greeted Anaya at a function when he arrived a fortnight ago: “Professor Anaya is recognised as one of the world’s leading human rights advocates and legal scholars,” Macklin enthused. “His advocacy and legal work on behalf of Indigenous communities command worldwide attention. This is an extraordinary opportunity for an honest and open exchange of views and experiences.”

That’s high praise indeed. So maybe Macklin had something else on yesterday, because she was conspicuously absent as Prof Anaya delivered his “preliminary observations” from his tour of duty, prior to writing a more detailed written report.

By United Nations standards it was a flogging of colonial proportions. After commending Australia for, among other things, endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Anaya got down to the real business of his visit: “After several days in Australia listening and learning … I have observed a need to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones in consultation and real partnership with Indigenous peoples to conform with international standards requiring genuine respect for cultural integrity and self determination,” he said.

“Of particular concern is the Northern Territory Emergency Response. These measures overtly discriminate against Aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatise already stigmatised communities.

“The emergency response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights; treaties to which Australia is a party.”

Not a lot of wriggle room there. Australia is in breach of multiple UN agreements, and the NT intervention is discriminatory.

But Prof Anaya didn’t stop there. Apart from noting that reparations “should be paid” to members of the Stolen Generations, Prof Anaya went on to use the ‘r’ word. In fact, to be more precise he used the ‘ER’ words.

“A common characteristic of countries where Indigenous people live today is entrenched racism,” Prof Anaya told an open mouthed gaggle of reporters and Indigenous affairs junkies. “And what I mean by entrenched racism is racism that has accompanied historical process of colonisation.

“I’m not pointing my finger at any particular individuals but I am saying that it has happened, it reflects itself in particular events, particular policies over time that have resulted in conditions that Indigenous peoples live in today.

“And I think one need not search very far to find that in various ways this historical racism continues to manifest itself in certain attitudes that we see throughout society.”

Prof Anaya also said: “I’m not saying that as an indictment against Australia, in the sense of singling it out from other countries. I am saying it though as a matter of reality that needs to be addressed, and a matter of reality that needs to be confronted.”

Indeed it does. And so how did we confront it? Well, Tony Abbott was out this morning describing Prof Anaya as an “armchair critic”. And of course, Mal Brough crawled out of to defend his Intervention.

“Let’s get real, look these people in the eye, instead of coming in and telling us that we’ve offended some law rather than offending the right of a child to be healthy and happy and to have a future,” Brough told ABC Radio, apparently without a hint of humour.

Brough continued: “I get very annoyed when I hear people pontificating about human rights when today there will be children sitting out there in abject squalor with diseases they don’t have to have, with inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health and we have some nicety about human rights legislation.”

Brough should have added: “… and we were in government for 12 years and did nothing about it until election eve 2007”. Or perhaps he could have added these words, straight from the mouth of Prof Anaya: “… I think the point is [the intervention] is not working”.

Which appears to be the point that media, politicians and commentators have missed in all this. Yes, the intervention is racially discriminatory — even Brough concedes that. But it also happens to be failing miserably.

The alcohol bans have not stopped the grog, a fact noted by Prof Anaya and acknowledged by the Northern Territory police.

The extraordinary coercive powers (and millions of dollars) handed to the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) to target child abusers have not resulted in the capture of a single paedophile, a fact acknowledged by the ACC.

The compulsory income management has led to increased anaemia rates among children in the Katherine region due to restricted access to food, a fact acknowledged by the Sunrise Health Service. The income management has also resulted in near starvation and demonstrable harm to Aboriginal people, facts acknowledged by the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory.

The emergency housing program has not built a single house in two years, a fact begrudgingly acknowledged by Jenny Macklin.

The p-rnography bans have not stopped p-rnography, nor have sweeping powers to catch people with p-rnography been effective (save for a government contractor brought in as part of the intervention, if my memory serves me).

The compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land to ensure that there are no delays in the construction of housing and emergency infrastructure has resulted in delays in the construction of housing and infrastructure.

The “tens of millions” that John Howard outlined would be spent on the NT intervention has blown out to more than $1 billion.

So the Northern Territory intervention is not only racist, but it’s not working. The experts on the ground are saying it. Aboriginal people themselves are saying it. And now the United Nations is saying it. And we’re denying it.

No-one ever said facing up to our racism was going to be easy, but surely it doesn’t have to be this hard?

Chris Graham is editor at the National Indigenous Times

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106 comments

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106 thoughts on “Racist, not working: UN bashes NT intervention

  1. Jim Reiher

    When voices deny Professor Anaya’s findings, I am left in despair. What will it take in Australia for us to face the facts and do the right thing?

    Rudd and Labor could have been heros. Instead they maintain the system Howard’s gang set up. Labor sees political advantage and practical use for the intervention laws. How disappointing has this all turned out to be.

    All we need now is the Andrew Bolt response, to prove Anaya’s point!

  2. JaneShaw

    As with almost every indigenous population in the New World, what happened to the Australian aborigines is an appalling tragedy. And, as many well meaning but possibly misguided folk have discovered, there is no easy solution.

    One thing I don’t understand though: we acknowledge that the indigenous population is severely disadvantaged and needs assistance that is not required by the rest of the Australian population, but every time someone attempts to do this, it fails and the 20/20 hindsight folk tsk tsk about racism.

    I daresay there are some truly racist people about, but I also think that this is not true of most Australians. It’s not racist to acknowledge differences, it’s not racist to admit that particular sections of the community need specialized assistance and try to find a way to do that. It’s not even racist if you try to do this and fail. It’s misguided, ill informed or even incompetent, but it’s not racist.

    Genuine racism, like genuine sexism, is utterly abhorrent, but it’s trivialised when the word is applied to anyone who acknowledges that differences exist.

  3. Gavin Mooney

    Chris Graham reports that Tony Abbott has declared Prof James Anaya ‘an armchair critic’. Now isn’t that the same Tony Abbott who infamously said about Aboriginal people:

    “There seems to be an inordinate amount of time taken up with funerals and ceremonies.” And went on:: “If you’re going to develop a work culture, you can’t have a three-month ceremonial season (each year) and you can’t take six weeks off because your cousin has died,” he said.

    ”Why not get them out shooting the camels,” he said. “It gives them something they would love to do and it beats petrol sniffing.”

    Nice chap, this Tony! But at least he is a thing of the past.

    There is entrenched racism in this country (and not just in Tony Abbott) – look at the death of Mr Ward burnt to death in the back of a prison van; the epidemic of Aboriginal youth suicide, etc etc. Who cares? Certainly not our government who seemed to have uses up all their moral strength in saying sorry.

    What now? Surely in the wake of the continuing shambles on housing in the Territory, the failure of the NT intervention and now this damning report, Macklin MUST resign.

    Jenny, for God’s sake just say ‘sorry’ – and go.

  4. petethegeo

    Well, he’s right. The intervention is a racist act.
    Compulsory income management for the indigenous; there can be no denying that this is racist. Apply the same regulations to ALL welfare recipients, then it would not be racist. Heck, bring in foodstamps in lieu of cash…
    Anyone who’s been to town on the day the “sit down money” (as it’s called up here) is paid will see where the money gets spent. Restricted trading hours, logging alcohol purchases over $100 and the big blue and white signs plastered up and down the Stuart Hwy aren’t helping anyone.

    Perhaps consultation with the people most effected by this horrendous state of affairs is in order….?

  5. Gary Stowe

    Absolutely predictable stuff Chris. Now before you leap at me as a racist, be aware (publicly aware) of the following. I grew up next to an aboriginal camp so my first (and for a long time only) playmates were aboriginal. I married an aboriginal woman and my children, obviously, are part aboriginal. I’ve had frequent close contact with outback communities in the last dozen or so years. Enough on that.

    All that said, the UN regularly jams its head up its arse in this sort commentary. You can bet that if aboriginal people were being herded into compounds then machine gunned by a renegade militia then the UN would be silent. Just like Darfur, or Rhwanda or any of those other vast slaughters. They’re good with soft targets but timid and hopeless in the face of real violence.

    Second, you can call me and the society at large to account for the failure of the intervention in its stated aims (and I’m not arguing that it has or hasn’t, I think it’s probably been both good and bad) when I can call aboriginal people to account for their demonstrated failure to care for their children, their homes or their land.

    Chris, until you can see that aboriginal people have to be held responsible for what they choose to do, just like other people, then you are the racist.

  6. RaymondChurch

    Alas for Ms Macklin do we do her wrong? Is she another Minister in the Rudd Govt being made the scapegoat for policies she has no control over? While we may insist every Minister be brave, be strong and go where their hearts, minds and sense of honesty and fairplay would direct them, it doesn’t work that way. Cabinet majority rules, or perhaps Rudd rules in Cabinet. I feel Minister Macklin is relunctantly firing bullets from someone elses gun. This is not a hard cruel woman. Interested in others views on what appears to be dictatorial policy.

  7. Pedro

    Gavin, nail yourself to the cross son, you are obviously a saint!

    As I am heading out, I will be brief (I would love to right more but am out of time).

    Someone who disagrees with you is not always a racist. This often a cheap, hollow arguement thrown up by useless and ignorant fools who have nothing else to offer. And if Tony Abbott said that, then he has to live with it, not Jenny.

    Personally, I don’t see how you can walk in and declare yourself an expert on an issue after 2 days of talking in conferences. The real problems are not in a conference room, but out on the ground.

    The policy of both the current and previous government have been in place for 2 years, the previous policy was in place for 30 years – did it work?

    As I said earlier, disagreeing with someone does not make you a racist, and being an expert does not make you infallible – or more right than someone else. Experts are often wrong.

    And yes, before anyone asks, I have worked (briefly) in the NT with the aboriginals, but no Gavin, I’m no saint.

  8. Pedro

    Sorry meant Jane, not Jenny.

  9. Chris Graham

    JANSESHAW: Appareciate the tenet of your comments, and your intent, but have to pull you up on several things: There’s no 20/20 hindsight on the intervention; a great many people were sxaying from the outset this policy would fail. And they were right. It has. And in relation to the word ‘racism’ being bandied about… your comments are best directed to Professor James Anaya – I’m simply reporting to you what he said (much as you might not like to hear it).

    As for Gary Stowe… what I’m about to say you might find confusing, but someone has to tell you… this issue is not about you. Sorry.

  10. Jenny Haines

    Interesting that no one has taken up Chris Graham’s point that not only is the intervention racist but it is also failing. Its stated objectives are not being met and in fact some measures are causing harm. No wonder the Government was very pleased to announce in the last 24 hours the establishment of the Indigenous Congress as some sort of replacement for ATSIC. Given that they have been in office for two years now, this announcement is well overdue. But it seems the Indigenous Congress will have a starting budget of $5 million and an advisory role only. So what role will the Indigenous Congress have in ensuring that future strategies to address indigenous needs are not racist, and that they are practical strategies that address real needs and reach real goals? Or will they just advise and then have to sit and watch with frustration?

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