http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21977190-601,00.html and assorted links from this page.
http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/welfare-crusade-seen-as-a-land-grab/2007/06/26/1182623909300.html and other links.
This has been quite an interesting story, the first major intervention by the Australian government since the Stolen Generation days ended in 1969. (And let's not get too hung up on THAT example - we're talking about 10% of Aboriginal offspring according to some estimates (admittedly the lowest ones), all of them mixed-race rather than purely Aboriginal; but that is another debate for another time.)
Let's look at why this is all happening. Recently, a Federal government inquiry issued the Little Children are Sacred report. This was an analysis which compiled years of reports documenting sexual abuse and violence suffered by Aboriginal children throughout the Northern Territory into an account which all but forced Australian Prime Minister John Howard to announce last week that he would wrest control of remote communities from the Territory Government. (Remember that NT is NOT a state of Australia, but merely a territory; this gives the Federal government much more power to intervene than it would have in one of the six states.) Howard banned the sale of alcohol and pornography from within the affected area last week, and has now despatched members of the Australian Federal Police, supported by elements of the Australian Army, to remote parts of the Northern Territory to assess the extent of child sexual abuse and to restore law and order.
Some indigenous families, however, are reported to be fleeing their homes and taking refuge in the bush because of fears their children could be removed. According to Howard, “The whole object of the exercise is to help people, to protect people, to secure people, to reassure people ... It's got nothing to do with the election, it's got nothing to do with politics, it's got everything to do with caring for indigenous children and I don't really care what other people say about our motives, our motives are correct”. Various white professional-class liberals who should know better have been generating all kinds of scaremongering accusations, abetting the conspiracy theories of a small number of Aboriginals who believe that the Australian government want to steal their children and their desert. 90 welfare and indigenous organisations released a statement attacking the Howard Government's plan as a smokescreen to hide a land grab. Pat Turner, a former head of the now-defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, warned that "We believe that this Government is using child sexual abuse as the Trojan horse to resume total control of our lands."
However, the Australian Health Minister, Tony Abbott, has assured Aboriginal parents in NT that children will neither be forcibly removed nor subjected to medical testing without their permission. "The health checks for children are just part of helping make these communities safe and to have better lives in a civil society," he told The Australian. The penalty for non-involvement would be similar to refusal to participate in child immunisation - a modest reduction of welfare payments.
One of the settlements being targetted is that of Mutitjulu, near Ayers Rock / Uluru. Community leader Bob Randall said the townspeople would welcome anybody who will make things better, seemingly concurring with the comments of Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, who defended the government's drastic action by telling the Ten Network: "Tonight, tomorrow night, and the next night, kids could look forward to more hell. Well now we hope we can break that cycle ... Yes we know this is far reaching and interventionist -- but nothing else has worked till now."
On the other side of the rabbit-proof fence, Harry Wilson, a local resident, proclaims that this is another Tampa-like electioneering stunt, saying that this was "black children overboard … this Government is using these kids to win the election". His words echoed a joke drily recounted earlier to the Herald by one local official that the Prime Minister, John Howard, the magician politician, has pulled a rabbit out of his hat. "Only it is a black rabbit." Some locals question how much this action is to do with alleged abuses and problems - some of which they recognise, though they say they are now in the past - and how much relates to their proximity to the huge rock representing some of the richest tourist geology on the planet. "That bloody rock," observes one old woman, is the problem. Every day, to enter or leave their community, the people of Mutitjulu pass the parading silhouettes of the minga - literally ants but colloquially tourists - filing up and down Uluru. Pointing towards Uluru, Wilson asks: "As one of the poorest people living in one of the richest places in Australia - why is this community relying on government handouts?"
Meanwhile, at Cape York Institute's Strong Foundations conference, visiting academics and local figures have also been throwing their two cents worth into the mix. Leading US civil rights campaginer, Michael Myers of the NY Civil Rights Commission, has advised Aborigines to abandon their land and assimilate into the mainstream to escape their impoverished conditions. He said that indigenous cultures were an antiquated concept and Aborigines needed to move away from the land if they were to improve their lives. "People have to move out of their ghettoised attitudes, get away from the idea that people belong in certain lands." Mr Meyers said white Australians were threatening towards Aborigines and race relations were at least half a century behind the US. "It's like Australia is in the 50s compared to America," he said. "I've noticed that there is reticence and fear on the part of indigenous people in how they interact with white Australians. There is also an arrogance and intimidation on the part of white Australians towards indigenous people. There is very little opportunity for genuine interaction… I find it profoundly disturbing that we are still living in a world that we still think of people as indigenous."
Ken Henry, Secretary of the Treasury, blames decades of misguided government welfare schemes for consigning many Australians, especially Aborigines, “to a life of economic and social exclusion.” He said that the welfare system had discouraged recipients from seeking work that could lift them out of poverty. He suggested the creation of a system that encouraged people to leave home to find work if there were no opportunities in their community. Dr Henry said a couple with three young children could access about $36,500 a year in income support payments and family tax benefit without working. "The level of income support can discourage people from entering the workforce. The higher the base income support payment, the less likely it is that a person will enter or re-enter work after they become unemployed." He added that passive welfare had done little to encourage people, particularly young people, to embrace education. Achieving better results, he said, meant ensuring Australia had a welfare system that rewarded work and study above a life of "passivity and dependence".
Australia's opposition leader Mr Kevin Rudd said an important part of Labor’s Pearson reform plan for welfare was ensuring indigenous children attended school. This involved establishing a Family Responsibilities Commission, whose membership included local community elders and had the power to warn parents who were not sending their children to school. If that warning was ignored, it could "redirect" welfare payments to the person who was actually caring for the children.
Much of this seems to have been inspired by the comments of US poverty expert Lawrence Mead, head of politics at New York University, who told the conference yesterday that the welfare policies of the 1960s and 70s in the US had led to an increase in crime, a breakdown of families and made sections of society dependent on the dole. A reversal of these policies in the 1990s, the enforcement of existing laws and the restoration of the family had been the best way to tackle long-term poverty, he said.
Mr Mead said that "You need explicit policies to enforce work and restore the family. Dependency happens when parents do two things - first, have children outside of marriage, and second, when the men decline to support the family by working regularly. In America, research has shown it was not lack of jobs or childcare that kept people out of the workforce, but that welfare itself discouraged people from working. That's one reason why welfare and other societal problems such as crime all got much worse in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1980s, law enforcement has improved, and we've seen a recovery of order in American cities."
Professor Mead also said the best way to end welfare dependence was to let poor people know they were required to work. He claimed that the main reason long-term unemployment fell in the US was because people were told it was no longer acceptable to live on welfare. Mead's comments were echoed by the Young Australian of the Year, Tania Major, who said passive welfare, violence and government inaction had so ravaged indigenous communities on Cape York they were on the verge of collapse. Ms Major said sexual abuse, violence and alcoholism was now endemic on Cape York, and many communities would not recover unless they restored respect for their elders and improved educational opportunities. "We need positive social norms, which do not tolerate excessive drinking, which assume school attendance is compulsory, which condemn sexual and any other form of abuse," she said. Young people on the Cape grew up without educational or employment opportunities, were reliant on welfare and lived in communities that gave little hope. "The idea that Aboriginal people will die prematurely from diabetes and other preventable diseases, the idea that suicide is just a part of everyday living, the idea that excessive drinking is normal and necessary to prove one's blackness - these are the ideas that now underpin the identity of too many young indigenous people," Ms Major said.
Personally, my views are simple. The less government intervention in people's lives, the better. BUT if those people are dependent upon the government, and accepting welfare payments which are earned by the sweat on the brow of the honest hard working average citizens, then there should be some requirement that they do something for it. Nothing comes for free. If you take money from the government, then that same government is perfectly within its rights to investigate how it is being used. Remember, this thing isn't JUST about health checks on children. The Federal Government has put a six month ban on alcohol and pornography in place in the affected areas as well. And just as well. If these people have enough money to spend on grog and porn then they are obviously being 'paid' too much by the state.
Oh, and don't throw this whole 'cultural practice' thing at me. Cannibalism used to be a cultural practice just about everywhere in the world, but now its a crime and you can't do it. Full stop. I'm sure in some cultures, and not just in the Appalachians, it was once a cultural norm to ensure that your daughter or sister didn't go to her wedding bed without being 'broken in', but we're past that now too. It was once 'cultural' to hang or burn people that believed something a little different from you, or happened to be pretty hand with herbal remedies. Cultures are only alive if they move on and stay in touch with modern changes - otherwise they are dead, and therefore worthless.
I'll be watching developments with some interest.