Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Mining Companies Behind Howard's "Emergency" Action

Prime Monster John Howard’s decision to declare that a state of emergency exists in relation to Aboriginal child abuse in the Northern Territory is not a knee-jerk reaction to the Wild-Anderson Little Children Are Sacred[1] report.

The elements of his response that have suggested a “land grab” to many people – scrapping the entry permit system, the seizure of indigenous land for five years, the empty promise of “compensation” (more flour, sugar and tea?) for lands not returned after the expiry of that five years, replacing communal title to land with individual title to homes on 99-year leases, or renting at market rates – were signaled last year in Mal Brough’s Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (DFCSIA) discussion paper Access to Aboriginal Land Under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act – Time for Change?[2]

The discussion paper was released in October 2006 with submissions due by 28 February 2007.
Despite a nod in the direction of “respecting the integrity of Aboriginal land”, the purpose of the discussion paper was clearly to support Brough’s view that “Liberalisation (of the restrictive permit system) would also bring economic benefits that would help to promote the self-reliance and prosperity of Aboriginal people in remote communities.”

There was no spelling out of the “economic benefits” that a removal of the entry permit system would bring to Aboriginal people. Nevertheless, abolishing the system was seen as facilitating “the normal interactions necessary for social and economic development.”

Alarm bells should have started ringing when these phrases were trotted out.

Did Brough have it in mind that only by removing the entry permits would Aboriginal people in remote communities be able to own a McDonald’s or a Jim’s Mowing franchise?

Because if that was the intention, the communities could have exercised their right to allow such businesses to be established by Aboriginal people and still have kept their legal right to determine who would enter their lands.

Clearly, something much bigger was at stake.

That “something bigger”, whatever it was, was clearly dissatisfied at changes introduced in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Act 2006 that already, as the discussion paper noted, “significantly relaxed the permit system in leased townships” (one assumes that “leased townships” rather than open bush country is where most “normal interactions necessary for social and economic development” might have occurred).

The 7-page discussion paper picks up speed a bit in the section entitled “Problems under current arrangements”. The “problems” are essentially two-fold. Firstly, the permit system has “contributed to denying Aboriginal people access to the normal advantages of mainstream Australian society. External scrutiny, from the media for example, while sometimes unnecessarily intrusive, acts as a check and balance on unhealthy or even criminal behaviour.” Without debating the propositions that the media promotes violence and sexual obsession in “mainstream society”, and that it needs crime in all its sensationalized manifestations in order to boost audiences or circulation figures, the idea that a clutch of journalists might have such an impact on each of 60 or so remote indigenous communities that criminal and unhealthy behaviour might be brought into check, is frankly laughable. The track record of the media in relation to indigenous issues does not inspire that level of confidence.

The second “problem”, according to the discussion paper, brings us back to the economic argument: “The permit system…has hindered effective engagement between Aboriginal people and the Australian economy…Individual Aboriginal people who have wanted to engage in the market economy or mainstream Australian society have, in effect, been prevented by gate keepers.”

Having identified these two “problems”, it is not surprising that the top two, of eight, “principles of a new system” are:

1. Ensure the normal interactions of society can occur, including external scrutiny.
2. Allow individual Aboriginal people to engage with and benefit from the market economy without hindrance.

It is a fact of Australian mainstream political life that no parliamentary party, when in office, sends out a discussion paper or engages in community consultation, without knowing in advance the outcomes that it seeks to achieve. Thus, the discussion paper presents five “options”, four of which suggest modifications to the current permit system. The shortcomings and drawbacks of each of these are outlined. The fifth option is to “Remove the permit system altogether”. Normal laws of trespass, with any necessary modification for Aboriginal land (i.e. sacred sites and ceremonial grounds) would operate. This option would “normalize access arrangements for Aboriginal land”. The only “problem” is that “The vastness of the Aboriginal land estate and associated coastline would however present difficulties for effective trespass enforcement”.

Clearly the preferred option and the outcome that the Federal Government was seeking from its October 2006 discussion paper, the removal of the permit system and the normalizing of access arrangements for Aboriginal land had been planned well in advance of the release in May 2007 of the Little Children are Sacred report.

The real intended beneficiaries of such a change are not Aboriginal people. Point 2 above might be more accurately reworded as “Allow giant multinational mining and agribusiness corporations to engage with and benefit from the Aboriginal lands without hindrance.” According to Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer with over ten year’s experience of visiting remote Aboriginal communities in which mining companies have an interest, “It is no coincidence that many of the communities targeted for ‘military style intervention’ are also areas that are heavily targeted for minerals exploration, particularly uranium, as well as for potential nuclear waste dumps.”[3]

It is interesting to note that not long after the discussion paper was released last year, a Senate Standing Committee released recommendations under the heading; “Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages”[4]. This referred to the “flour, sugar and tea” days of 40 years ago when pastoralists and government officials refused to pay or underpaid wages and withheld welfare entitlements from Aboriginal people. The Senate Committee called on the Federal and State Governments to act on its recommendations “as a matter of urgency”. Needless to say, teams of police and armed forces personnel have not been dispatched to archives rooms to assist in the recovery of wages stolen from indigenous people.

However, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia, where there are about 300 remote Aboriginal communities and outstations, have applauded Howard’s emergency measures. President Sandy McTaggart said “We’ve been suspicious of the way that Aboriginal affairs have been going ever since there was the equal opportunity and wage case decisions that were made back in the sixties.”[5]

So another way in which Aboriginal people might “engage with and benefit from the market economy without hindrance” is to return to employment as cheap labour on un-Australian Workplace Agreements (they remove the “hindrances”) in the pastoral industry. And what better way to “encourage” a return to pastoral employment than to quarantine up to 40% of some families’ welfare payments.

No wonder Pat Turner, one of the country’s most senior Indigenous officials, has denounced Howard’s “concern for abused children” as a Trojan Horse concealing a land grab[6]. (The Trojan Horse was a huge wooden “gift” presented to the Trojans by the Greeks, who were pretending to lift their ten-year siege of Troy. As the Trojans slept that night, the Greek soldiers concealed inside the hollow horse unbolted the city gates and gave entry to their armymen who pillaged the city and took its inhabitants into slavery – an apt metaphor indeed!)

While some aspects of the Prime Monster’s “emergency measures” show the signs of a hurried response (the intrusive medical checks, the bans on grog and porn, the rejection of suggestions for more teachers and better housing), the land grab that they concealed has been long in the planning and will be the one aspect of this sorry mess that will prove to be a sustainable component.

[1] Ampe Akelyememane Meke Mekarle: “Little Children Are Sacred”, Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, 2007.
[2] Access to Aboriginal Land Under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act - Time for Change?, Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, October 2006.
[3] Using children to nuke Aboriginal land rights, Gavin Mudd, Crikey website, June 27, 2007
[4] Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages, Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, December 2006.
[5] WA pastoralists back Govt abuse plan for NT,
[6] Aboriginal alliance says government plan ‘unworkable’,

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