Why do so few of the media reporters actually ask the Aboriginal demonstrators why they are so angry with being told to change tactics? Maybe the poor record of the past decades of more polite advocacy discourages beliefs that main party politicians listen to their needs and what works. There is little joy in the Closing the Gap figures, constant reports about what isn’t working and more pain in the pipeline but the only evidence of change is more programs that remove rights and fail to follow evidence of what works.

There is current legislation before the Senate that extends some of the punitive aspects of the NT intervention. Despite claims by the government to have consulted the targets, they do not have the consent and engagement of those affected, despite evidence that this is the crucial factor. The past few years have seen deteriorating relationships with often poor policy outcomes and a reluctance of government to use evidence to inform their policies.

Tony Abbott’s simplistic assumptions about progress over the past 40 years is unfortunately too often shared by others on both sides of politics. They confuse the passage of time and some relatively minor legal reforms with serious changes in the relative status and well-being of Aboriginal people. The ’70s optimism and some valuable changes to legal status and land have dissipated as little of serious value has happened recently. Nor do many of the people affected see evidence that there is still the goodwill to making what they would see as progress.

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Many of those, celebrating the 40th anniversary of an unexpected successful strategy,  gathered in Canberra to address some of the continuing problems. The government should stop quoting the Rudd apology as a landmark of change, as many current policies create injustice and disrespect, ignore criticisms and lack local engagement. There is widespread concern in the NT and elsewhere that the current bills in front of the Senate, ironically named Stronger Futures, will pass despite the lack of evidence that these measures have worked or will work.

Some of those in Canberra are already negatively affected by current laws, including the extended version of income management. Barbara Shaw, a highly competent articulate woman, is one who Centrelink policy deems to be unable to manage her own income support! There are thousand of others who share the indignity of not being allowed to make their own financial decisions, even if they are completely competent.  And it costs the government about $80 per week to administer this payments system.

This is an example of what creates the anger and disrespect.  The Income Management program has been “de-racialised” by extending it to other out-groups in five areas including Bankstown and Shepparton. Again there is no valid evidence it works. The government and opposition are inseparable on indigenous issues, an unfortunate bi-partisanship because the past records of both, over the past two decades at least, are dismal.  Both have consistently failed to follow the recommendations of the very dry Productivity Commission, which tracks “gap closing progress”.

This organisation sets out clear criteria for what works, as does the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Closing the Gap Clearing House. Some of their criteria show clearly where the NT policies fall short:

What works:

  • Community involvement and engagement
  • Respect for language and culture
  • Working together through partnerships, networks and shared leadership
  • Recognising underlying social determinants
  • Commitment to doing projects with, not for, indigenous people.

What doesn’t work:

  • “One size fits all” approaches
  • External authorities imposing change and reporting requirements
  • Interventions without local indigenous community control and culturally appropriate adaptation.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the Tent Embassy mob would resent being told they were doing OK and they should stop protesting like that. There is political diversity and some Aboriginal office but it is important to look at what is happening to those who haven’t benefited to see what structural issues remain to be solved. This is not the current direction of current social inclusion policies that seek to fixing the excluded by making them fit majority models, to fit in.The 1970s were, retrospectively, a decade of serious change, the final years of postwar optimism and growing the state to make a better world.  The Western “revolutions” of the sixties pushed changes in class, race, s-xual and other relationships and beliefs that we could make the world a better place by acting collectively for the common good. For groups who saw their pasts disrespected and their futures as limited by prejudice and legal discrimination, the reforms that started in the sixties and seventies offered hope.

However, times change and Aboriginal groups saw their desire for actual land rights and formal recognition of sovereignty moving further off the agenda from the early nineties onwards. So-called practical reconciliation imposed Canberra programs rarely worked, land rights became watered-down native title and recent policies in the NT, now extended, have been punitive and controlling, undermining human rights.

So a relatively minor demonstration, which was noisy and maybe scary, but with no evidence of violence, created an over-reaction and demands that anger be channelled into more acceptable lobbying. Many of the Aboriginal people I know are deeply cynical about the possibilities of advocacy for change because they see the government as only listening to those who agree with them.  The media and political over-reactions will only confirm to many participants and observers that it is increasingly hard to challenge, let alone change, either government or opposition’s bad indigenous policy and practices.

Public negative responses on all sides of politics will only be fuelled by the cynical use of the incident for political point scoring. Why a Coalition demand for an AFP inquiry into the so-called affray? This was hardly a major security breach and using it for a no-confidence motion makes no sense at all, unless Aboriginal demonstrators are to be seen as a major threat!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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