The Guardian 11 October, 2006
All-out attack on Aboriginal rights
The Howard Government is currently engaged in an all-out attack on the rights won by the Aboriginal people over the past quarter century. Among other reactionary measures, the government is pressing for an end to the consideration of customary law and cultural practices during sentencing in the courts. It wants an end to the permit system which restricts the entry of outsiders to Aboriginal land. It is promoting private land ownership and undermining the established system of collective ownership. And now it wants to cut Aboriginal community leaders out of the administration of welfare, including the much-vaunted Shared Responsibility Agreements.
The Federal Government has introduced legislation to force the states and territories to disallow the consideration of customary law and cultural practices during sentencing. It is playing on the widespread misconception that these factors can be a defence against a criminal charge. They cannot. These are only a consideration in sentencing and even then can be outweighed by other considerations like the severity of the crime and its impact on victims. Errors in sentencing can be appealed.
The Howard Government has manufactured the controversy over sentencing to further its overall agenda and to divert attention from the real origins of the problems besetting Aboriginal communities.
"If we are serious about preventing family violence in Indigenous communities we need to focus on the root causes of the abuse", Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald last week. "We need practical strategies to target the poverty, substance abuse and low levels of education and employment, which continue to destroy Indigenous men, women and children’s lives."
The Commissioner added that "circle sentencing", which involves the communities, might be part of a solution to break the cycle of repeat offending. The Howard Government, however, is hell-bent on excluding Aboriginal people from the administration of their own affairs.
A policy paper is now being prepared to look into scrapping the permit system which restricts outsider access to Aboriginal land. "Most Australians are uncomfortable with the permit system", Howard told the media last week. According to the PM, it creates barriers "both real and perceived" that prevent Indigenous people engaging with the rest of the nation.
Mal Brough, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, argued in an opinion piece in the Australian recently, that the permit system was a cause of the crises facing many remote Aboriginal communities. He contrasted the neighbouring Daly River and Wadeye communities in the Northern Territory. Daly River does not have a permit system that, according to the Minister, allows problems to be kept from public scrutiny and hampers the economic development of the community. Wadeye does require a permit from visitors and its problems have been given intense media attention for some time.
The Howard Government will use any argument to push for less autonomy for Aboriginal people. In June, Health Minister Tony Abbott argued that the factor that determined whether an Aboriginal community was harmonious and prosperous or not was whether it had a government-appointed administrator or was run by a council of local people. The communities run by an administrator were far superior, according to Abbott who conveniently ignored the fact that the troubled Wadeye community has such a manager.
The Government’s latest attack on any notion of Aboriginal autonomy is to move to exclude traditional community structures from the administration of welfare. The government wants to deal directly with individuals and families in connection with their Shared Responsibility Agreements, which could see welfare payments cut for failing to improve the attendance of their children at school or other objectives such as keeping their children’s faces clean. Community bodies will lose any control they had over the CDEP work-for-the-dole scheme, which is being starved of funds at the moment.
Glendle Schrader, the controversial entrepreneur who directs a number of businesses on remote Aboriginal communities, made a very insightful comment about the Howard Government’s "concern" for conditions on these neglected communities:
"They [the Federal Government] are trying to focus public attention on paedophilia and alcohol. They want to mainstream Aboriginal Affairs, and squeeze the outstations and communities out of existence. Every time there’s negative publicity about a community, people tend to leave. When funding is withheld, people are forced to leave. The Pitjantjatjara lands are in danger of emptying out."
How handy that would be for the transnational mining corporations — a 21st Century Terra Nullius ready for exploitation!