Friday, June 22, 2007

“Constitutional niceties” vs naked racism

Bizarrely missing from the extensive coverage in today’s Australian of PM Howard’s plan for Indigenous land and communities in the NT is a straight legal commentary.

The “constitutional niceties” point is given some minor coverage by Susannah Moran. She wheels out ubiquitous “expert” George Williams, who has seemingly forgotten that the NT’s mid-1990s euthanasia bill, as overruled by the Commonwealth at the time, has long since settled the non-existence of a hands-off-the-NT (and ACT) “convention” that he claims existed, until yesterday at least.

More seriously, Williams fails to grasp that the constitutional issues he opines on are a red-herring at best; it is breaching the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 where the Howard plan will either come unstuck, or if not, will render that Act worthless.

A few weeks ago, High Court judge Michael Kirby gave a pre-recorded video speech at a Melbourne panel presentation discussing the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. His main topic was the High Court Hindmarsh Island case, in which a majority left open the prospect that, under the constitution’s race power, the federal government could make laws to the detriment of Indigenous Australians. At the time, I thought that Justice Kirby’s topic was either a bit obscure, or else a just a Judge-as-Dissenting-Hero set-piece, with the dissent de jour chosen to fit the event, but otherwise traversing a well-worn rut. I now wonder whether Justice Kirby perhaps knew something in May about yesterday’s announcement. In any event, it is going to be interesting to see just how the Howard plan will either trash or circumvent the Racial Discrimination Act.

As to the underlying issue – extreme dysfunction in remote NT Indigenous communities – of course something has to be done. Today’s Australian uses the “generation” word several times, without quite making express which generation/s is going to supposedly benefit from the Howard plan – today’s young children, presumably, but what about the rest? I don’t grudge a better future for those children, but on behalf of Indigenous Xers, I say that there’s definitely unfinished business:

“Nursing sister Elke Zalfren, who has spent many years treating renal failure in the Western Desert, suspects the dramatic spike in kidney failure in the [thirty-something] generation may be the result of scabies sores, which were not aggressively treated in the 1970s and ‘80s”. *

That is, a large chunk of the current remote-Indigenous health crisis rests with a minor (at the time) oversight, left to just fester and fester. And all this happened on boomers’ watch, of course.


I’ve added some links. Just to be clear about it, the red-herring “constitutional niceties” I’m referring to are the states’-rights (or quasi-states, in the case of the NT) nonsense – you know, all that life-or-death stuff like who regulates lighthouses: states or Commonwealth? I suspect that the constitution’s race power, as amended in 1967, will be a real issue.

Further Update 23 June 2007

Was the 1970s Indigenous land-rights and self-determination movement a mistake?

No, in the sense of it was well-meaning, and it could have worked – and may yet work.

Yes, in the sense that it was a naïve, boomer-centric (i.e. young adult-centric at the time) experiment, which like every other aspect of the c.1968 cultural revolution in the West, had no follow-up plan, and so was reckless, or worse, about the next generation having to pick up the pieces, once the fun times and cultural chaos inevitably ended with the mother of all backlashes.

The backlash of course brought more than two decades, and counting, of economic fundamentalism – my entire adult life. The sexual revolution inevitably led to the Aids epidemic – again perfectly timed to start around my 18th birthday. Yet boomer morons still pretend the late 60s to mid 70s counter-culture party, which lasted less than a decade, is raging on, or at least is suitable for fond reminiscence. It ain’t – that mini-decade is and was an adolescent embarrassment that boomers haven’t even begun to atone for.

The 1970s young adult-centric Indigenous movement, and its lack of a follow-up plan (i.e. what was the next generation supposed to do?), has meant one step forward and two steps back. Indigenous Xers are dying today as a result of an obscene chain of causation that started in their childhoods, as I’ve pointed out above. As if on cue, a letter to the editor in today’s Age tries to pretend the 1970s Indigenous movement has done at least some leasting good, by significantly reducing Indigenous infant mortality:

In the early 1970s, the Northern Territory's indigenous infant mortality rate was 110 per thousand. By 1980 . . . it had fallen to 31.3 per thousand. By 2000, it was 17 per thousand . . . Those who say that changes introduced in the 1970s had no positive impact are ignorant about how bad things were before then”.

- Rod Hagen, anthropologist, Hurstbridge

One six-month old lives, and probably then two 15 year-olds (or two 35 year-olds) die later on, eh Rod? Sounds like a good plan to me. Just as well I’m, like you, maintaining the rich-white-kid rage like it's forever 1975 – otherwise I might get distracted enough to remember it's 2007, and do the simple maths.

*Nicolas Rothwell, Another Country 2007 Black Inc p134


You weren't there at the time, Paul. I was.

You didn't see Aboriginal kids tarred and feathered by white vigilantes and left on the railway line.

You didn't know the 19 year old at a Stuart Highway roadhouse, caught in a coolroom , tied up with wire around his wrists, dragged around the floor, then burnt with cigarette butts by the whites in the bar, and then having a piece bitten out of his ear before being arrested for being "illegally on premises".

You didn't have people knocking on your door at 2 in the morning just about every night because they needed to get their kids to hospital, the only two vehicles on a community of 300 belonged to the whitefellas, and the manager on the community you were living in (who was paid for just such things) had a 12 foot wire fence around his government funded dwelling and a couple of pit bulls on the inside of the fence, so people couldn't bother him.

You didn't spend times when half a dozen young adults you knew died in the course of less than week because of problems caused by malnutrition as children.

I'm sorry Paul, but don't make foolish , remote , judgements about this stuff. Yes, things are bad enough today but they were a damned site worse when the assimilationists last ruled the roost in Central Australia. "Back to the future" is no answer to this stuff.

Rod Hagen
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