Angst over absence of action in Aboriginal affairs

Even before it is known who will form the next [Australian] government despair is being felt over Indigenous affairs.

Almost three years ago the previous [Labor] government began with great promise in this area. Newly-elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proudly announced a “new respect”. He urged that we “have our minds wide open as to how we might tackle together the great practical challenges that Indigenous Australia faces in the future.


“Let us turn this page together,” he enthused. “Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, government and opposition, Commonwealth and state, and write this new chapter in our nation's story together.”


This speech in February 2008, Mr Rudd’s first to the 42nd Australian Parliament, was the much-heralded formal apology to the stolen generations [of Aboriginal children]. It proclaimed “reconciliation across the entire history of the often bloody encounter between those who emerged from the Dreamtime a thousand generations ago and those who, like me, came across the seas only yesterday; reconciliation which opens up whole new possibilities for the future.”


Most Indigenous people and their supporters in Australia and elsewhere heard this as a promise of heroic efforts towards resolving profound challenges. These included poverty, housing, education, health and imprisonment.


For such resolution, of course, the underlying issues of Indigenous identity, confidence and hope had also to be addressed. These, it was anticipated, would start with an immediate end to the despised Northern Territory Intervention engineered by the [previous ultra-conservative] Howard government in its dying hours. And, most significantly, restoring a national elected Aboriginal decision-making body.


But the intervention continued. No peak body was formed. Consequently education and living standards advanced imperceptibly.


And then, less than a week after the election, the United Nations released its dismal findings on Australia’s efforts in eliminating racial discrimination. A comprehensive fail. The report condemned the continuing NT Intervention as proof that discrimination is structurally embedded in Australia.


Commentary on this has been swift and savage. The India-based claimed that “Australia's explicitly racist policies against Indigenous Australians and refugees have been slammed …”


“The human rights-abusing Rudd-Gillard Labor Government violated the Australian 1975 racial discrimination act in relation to Northern Territory Indigenous Australians … Australia 's own race discrimination commissioner says the next federal government must amend the constitution to make impossible further such racist suspension of the act.”


New Zealand media also highlighted this report. Thankfully for Australia’s reputation, it has not been reported widely elsewhere.


Since federation and before the formal apology, four major advances were achieved by Aboriginal people: the 1967 referendum decision to count them as Australian citizens, the 1976 NT Land Rights Act, the replacement in 1990 of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (ATSIC) and the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision overturning the legal fiction of terra nullius.


The [ultra-conservative] Howard Government in its 11 years in office reversed the first four, and steadfastly refused the apology. The Intervention laws passed in August 2007 overrode the Racial Discrimination Act. This allowed Aborigines to be treated in a pre-1967 discriminatory manner. Hard-won rights to control traditional lands were revoked. The Native Title Act 1993 which gave effect to the Mabo ruling was amended in 1998 to reverse that effect. ATSIC was abolished in 2004. So hopes for the Rudd government were indeed high.


Among Labor supporters responses to the glacial pace of reform were divided. Many openly expressed their scorn at the lack of effort and achievement. Others calmly soothed, “Wait for Kevin’s second term”.


The latter were certainly dismayed at the continuation of the Howard policy agenda. But they argued that a first-term government must establish its credentials with the voters, the majority of whom care little about Indigenous issues.

They anticipated strong indications in the 2010 election campaign that Rudd’s second term would fulfill his 2008 promise of “new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed”.


Oh, how differently the world now appears. There will be no Rudd second term. The election campaign was completed with scarcely a mention of Indigenous matters. Neither future PM - Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott - has made any commitment offering hope to Indigenous Australians.


None of the four all-powerful independent members of the lower house has listed reform in this area among their demands. The Greens, while having a strong platform on paper, have raised with the leaders of the major parties only the symbolic matter of recognising Aborigines in the Constitution.


The one gleam of hope from the recent poll is the election of the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives. The success of Liberal Ken Wyatt in Hasluck, Western Australia, has been highlighted around the world, though usually in reports which emphasise Australia’s racist history.


Le Nouvel Observateur reported the hate mail Wyatt received through the campaign. It added that “his mother belonged to the stolen generation, those tens of thousands of indigenous children snatched from their families, according to the law of the land, to be raised as Australian ‘whites’.”


Will Mr Wyatt make a difference? Will the 43rd Parliament, led by Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, surprise the world by fulfilling the promises of the previous one in 2008? Many hope so, in Australia and across the world. But it seems a fragile hope.