25 June 2007


With his announcement on sweeping interventions into Aboriginal communities, John Howard has achieved two things. First, he has finally neutered opposition from both centrist liberals and libertarians once and for all. Second, he has forced Kevin Rudd down the road of me-tooism that led Kim Beazley to oblivion. None of these things have, will, or can do anything to improve the lives of Aborigines.

Centrist liberals were starting to get all uppity at the prospect of someone other than John Howard becoming Prime Minister (what about Peter Costello ... yeah, right! The only ones who believe Costello has any sort of chance, and would be significantly different even if he did get there, have a savage case of Capitol Hill Groupthink). With this announcement you get gushy pieces like this and Laura Tingle's piece in Friday's AFR.

Politicians live for stuff like this. Before going into politics they comb the papers, thinking how cool in would be if they got press coverage. They then become MPs and wonder why the big-time journalists they've followed avidly for years, Laurie Oakes or Michelle Grattan or whomever, ignore mere backbenchers - while staffers in the PM's office crack down hard on backbenchers offering any tidbits that might feed their publicity habit. From there they go into a world-weary phase, like Costello or Minchin, where they would like you to think that if a journalist never asked them another question they'd finally be happy. They still love it and will suffer dreadfully from relevance-deprivation syndrome if media attention stopped. All this shows why politicians think that managing tomorrow's headlines is more important than investing in anything longer-term.

Yeah, the above paragraph is cynical - but so is this. If you're going to use Little Children are Sacred to have a go at Justice Michael Kirby, it's fair to call cynical politics for what it is.

Pieces like Hartcher's and Tingle's result from the very sort of "white guilt" that people like Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt or Gerard Henderson have built their careers on railing against. Because this is a Howard policy, rightwing commentators overlook where the money might be coming from, or the futility of any sort of investment in (or "throwing money at") Aboriginal issues. The libertarian angles against any government spending or the civil liberties of those who don't want to be corralled and examined have simply been overwhelmed by the sort of sentiment that allows bad policy to slip through, leading to logical chains like this:

  1. We must do something.

  2. This is something.

  3. Let's do this.

Australians need redemption from the moral taint of how all that we have and are is built upon, or even stolen from, Aboriginal civilisation. Voters appreciate Howard's economic management but resent being made to feel bad about issues like children overboard or David Hicks (and the Devines and Albrechtsens of this world, who offer resentment at being made to feel resentment, don't help). Howard offers this in his rhetoric, less so in the specifics. In Hartcher's piece is this bit of wishful thinking:
The Howard plan is a beginning, a necessary condition for dealing with any problem. Howard's plan, while necessary, is insufficient. His plan is essentially authoritarian and punitive. It is a plan for establishing control and stabilising the problem. It is not yet a plan for rebuilding deeply traumatised and dysfunctional families and communities. That will need to be the second phase ... There will be many quibbles about the Howard plan and it needs to be developed further. But he deserves all credit for the political courage to take responsibility for addressing a shameful and intractable national problem.

It will not ever be a plan for rebuilding deeply traumatised and dysfunctional families and communities, and nobody with any experience of this government has any right to expect that it might. Hartcher has no excuse for such wishful thinking, he is suspending the very critical analysis for which he is paid. Any opposition to a government policy is quibbling?

Thanking Liberal apparatchiks on the night of the 1998 election (or was it 2001?), Howard surprised everyone by claiming that there was no more important task for Australians than reconciliation with Aborigines. This prompted an elaborate pantomime where Aboriginal activists tried to prompt Howard to apologise for the way Aborigines have been treated - he didn't do that, nor did he do anything else for Aborigines either.

The most important thing about Howard's announcement is just that: it's an announcement, not a policy - not really, as Hartcher claims, a plan. It's a few badly thought-through stunts with no follow-through. It's built on lazy assumptions like:

  • all Aboriginal communities are dysfunctional

  • when it comes to Aboriginal communities, too many police is barely enough

  • the often painstaking and time-intensive policing needed to crack highly-organised and tightly-secretive pedophile rings is the same as the up-front and immediate tactics necessary to deal with the disorganised and blatant activities of a drunk

  • detecting a health problem and issuing a press release about it is the same thing as both curing the problem within the afflicted and avoiding risk of the problem recurring among the afflicted's community

  • grog is the only substance being abused. That's the problem with zero-tolerance: I can't see how you're going to ban petrol, and worst of all nobody in government can either. They don't even think it's an issue.

Aboriginal issues are regularly derided in Liberal and conservative as "trendy", even though every leader of government in this country since Arthur Phillip has had to deal with Aboriginal issues. No government can get over their own temporality by putting in place long term strategies to address long term issues affecting Aborigines. Government should work with Aboriginal people and communities, not on them as this announcement does.

Speaking of paternalism, it's interesting and rather sad that Cardinal Pell has had nothing to contribute on this matter of moral import.

Howard has also checked the Liberal State Oppositions. Scarce police resources are being sucked into an essentially political exercise which will deliver little lasting community benefit: any Opposition Leader should go in hard against such a proposal, but because it's Howard then O'Farrell, Baillieu, Seeney, Omodei, Hodgman and whoever is leading the SA Libs this week will just have to shut up. Howard has not really gone after any Labor state/territory leader, let alone dish out the kind of belting he has given Clare Martin - but the Clownish Loser Party won't be able to capitalise on that either (except, perhaps, exascerbating the career of a man who can't even keep his own domain name). As Louis Nowra points out, Iemma buried a similarly important report, with nary a word from Liberals O'Farrell or Howard.

This announcement hopes that the Howard government will be seen to be doing something about an ever-present issue, without the consequences of that short-termism and the hollowness of any long term hope becoming apparent, before the election. This announcement will demonstrate once again that any publicity is not good publicity in terms of drawing attention to Aboriginal issues, because nothing will come of it but more (publicly funded?) slim volumes from people like Louis Nowra.

It has succeeded in starving Rudd of initiative. He has no real clue about Aboriginal issues and, as Anne Summers all but admitted, is no longer setting the agenda but following that set by Howard (btw, which clown wrote the headline for Summers' article? Fancy doing that to a veteran feminist). Labor States have all gone the hundreds-of-extra-police promise and they always fall short, so this hasn't worked for Rudd. The only thing that can is if he demonstrates a commitment to addressing longterm Aboriginal issues - but the longer you spend with Aborigines, the less time you spend in marginal seats talking with non-Aborigines about mortgages and childcare. A dollar spent on health clinics in remote communities in a dollar not spent in a big city hospital or a nursing home. See? The more Rudd does, the more Howard can wedge him. The less he does, the more he looks like Howard's stringing him along. Aboriginal issues is one area that Peter Garrett could create real value for Labor.

This isn't enough to save Howard, but clearly it is enough to throw Rudd off his stride. How Rudd copes with that will determine whether this check to Rudd's momentum has become checkmate.

Update: Noel Pearson on this issue

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