Following his apology to the Stolen Generation, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised to deliver an annual “report card” on the government’s progress in addressing Indigenous disadvantage. This report card was to be delivered on the opening day of Parliament each year, to mark the 2008 apology.
With this in mind, 500 people converged on Canberra this February to demand an end to the NT Intervention, but were met with silence from Rudd on Aboriginal issues. The “report card”, finally delivered on March 5, demonstrates how far removed the reality of Labor’s policies are from the promise of the apology.
Rudd called for reconciliation based on “relationships anchored in mutual respect and articulated through mutual responsibility”. This call came despite the continued suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975).
He said, “we are so fortunate to have among us the oldest continuing cultures in human history”, while supporting the dismantling of bilingual education programs in the Northern Territory.
He celebrated the “13,000 child health checks” that have been completed since the Intervention. But Dr Di Marchant, who participated in the 2007 health checks in the remote community of Oenepelli said recently, “(the children) are still waiting for dental and ear treatment”.
And Irene Fisher, CEO of the Sunrise Health Service in Katherine has said, “anaemia rates in children under the age of five in the Sunrise Health Service region have jumped significantly since the Intervention. From a low in the six months to December 2006 of 20 per cent… the figure had gone up to 55 per cent by June 2008.”
Apart from the Intervention, Rudd relied largely on funding announcements to demonstrate his commitment to “closing the gap”.
But many of these announcements—in areas like health, education and housing—were not commitments to Indigenous specific funding, but rather general spending programs “that Indigenous people will benefit from”.
Government plans for housing reveal clearly how “mainstreaming”—breaking up Aboriginal control of organisations and land—has become their central strategy for “closing the gap”.
Kevin Rudd claims that “80 houses have been completed or are near completion in the NT”. No mention that more than 50 of these houses have been for the “Government Business Managers” installed by the Intervention and other public servants and the remainder are from pre-Intervention projects.
No new funding is available for Aboriginal housing in urban and regional areas, despite chronic homelessness and overcrowding. Overcoming these problems will require Aboriginal people to fight for space in the mainstream public housing system.
In remote areas, Rudd made extensive funding commitments to housing for Aboriginal communities, but also made it clear this will be conditional on acceptance of the government’s “aggressive land tenure reform agenda”.
Held to ransom
A key aspect of the Northern Territory Intervention has been the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal township land for five years. Housing assets are forcibly transferred from community councils to the public housing agency.
Over the past nine months, 16 communities singled out for further housing construction have been given an ultimatum. They must sign township land over to the government for between 40-90 years before any construction can commence. While a handful of communities—desperate for housing and under extreme pressure—have signed these leases, the majority say they will never sign away Land Rights fought for over decades.
Just a week following Rudd’s speech, the details of his plans for national “land tenure reform” became public. A letter leaked from Aboriginal Affairs minister Jenny Macklin’s office revealed that no new housing would be built in any remote community across Australia unless long-term leases are signed.
Macklin was heckled as she outlined these plans to a statewide conference of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council on March 5.
NSWALC leaders denounced Macklin for failing to even alert Aboriginal landowners to the policy before it was announced.
Macklin’s announcement stands in complete contradiction to her previous position on long term leases. In 2007, commenting on Howard’s attempts to force leases on communities, Macklin quoted the land rights anthem “from little things big things grow” and went on to say “we do not want land tenure reform being made a condition of basic services”.
Michael Anderson, a long time Land Rights activist who attended the conference, said Aboriginal people would fight the new policy: “There is no other group of people in Australia who would be subject to such dictatorial policies… [we] are being held to ransom, because of our lack of resources and independence”.
By Paddy Gibson