Sorry . . . for what we’re about to do
Were you proud when Kevin Rudd apologised to Australia’s indigenous peoples on behalf of the nation? Did you, like me, hope that it meant that, at last, progress would really be made on closing the gap in health, education, and employment? So many people were so optimistic, swept away in part by the relief at having Howard and his racist, punitive ways gone at last. Now the honeymoon is over, has the hard work of commitment begun? Was the promise fulfilled?
Yesterday I went to a talk by Mark Fordam, organised by the NTEU and the QUT Student Guild. It is the second time in the past year that I’ve gone to listen to someone with first-hand experience of the Northern Territory Intervention. The first one was by an anthropologist, I think, and what I remember most was her description of how difficult she found it to find fresh food, or afford it even if should could find it, and how much more difficult it was for the indigenous residents who could only use their basics card in approved stores.
Yesterday’s talk was by Mark Fordham. By his own admission, he started off on a good wicket with his early working life, made good money, and had skills that were highly sought after. At the point where his mother asked him to come and work on one of the indigenous communities, he was inclined to believe that those on the new CDEP were probably just lazy. He changed his mind after working with them for a time, seeing their willingness to work, and seeing the odds stacked against them. After fighting for the people he was working with, he lost his job and ended up subject to the same conditions as them.
While nobody is about to say that the old CDEP was without fault, it did top up unemployment payments and provided for necessary services in the communities. According to Fordham, these services are just not being provided any more, in some instances meaning that some communities are not even getting regular rubbish collections. Furthermore, he claims that implementation of the new Indigenous Employment Program, which replaced the CDEP, has resulted in widespread unemployment, exploitation, training certificates not worth the paper they are written on, and a refusal by some organisations to employ people on IEP even when they do have worthwhile qualifications. We were given a statement at the meeting, to be launched at rallies this Friday, which outlines some of the problems with the program. It would seem that the on-the-ground implementation of the program is a far cry from the positive spin put on it by the government.
That, basically, was the point of the meeting. A number of us there admitted that our only knowledge of the NT Intervention is what we hear from politicians through the mainstream media. Those at the meeting who have experienced the conditions or who work with these communities say that one of their greatest problems is getting accurate information about what is going on out to the rest of Australia. We were told that the information is available in the government’s own reports on the Intervention, but that the press releases to the media put a positive spin on policies and that is what gets printed and believed. One example given related to compulsory income management; those present pointed out that the government would always be able to find some people to survey who felt that this program was beneficial, and this is what the government publishes, but this was not a majority view. Most did not approve of it, found it degrading and the conditions exceedingly difficult to manage under.
You can find the Government’s latest Northern Territory Monitoring Report here and the Close the Gap Campaign’s Shadow Report to the previous one here (the government reports are released six monthly).
In the government report you’ll find things like the fact that substance abuse incidents have increased by 10% in the past two years, drug related incidents by 28%, and confirmed assault cases have increased, although the report suggests that this is because there are more police and thus reporting of crime is easier. Also, there have only been 33 child sexual assault convictions over the period 1 July 2007 to 30 June 2010, even though the Intervention was launched and justified on the basis of a report citing widespread sexual abuse of children.
Raw figures in themselves, though often shocking, are not terribly helpful, but nor are they necessarily the main point, as the Shadow Report makes clear. Also at stake are: the sustainability of the communities; the sustainability of services to those communities and real, qualified, indigenous employment in those services; genuine consultation and community involvement, and maybe that even means self-determination in some instances; the dignity of the people; and equality of economic, social, political, and welfare rights for all Australians.
Less obvious, but no less important, is the fact that most Australians don’t even know what is going on in other parts of the country (mind you, compulsory income management will soon be coming to a welfare recipient near you!). Whether it’s exploitation of IEP workers in remote communities or the effects of industry deregulation on farmers, most of us don’t know and have few effective ways of finding out. Yes, the information is out there somewhere, as a requirement of ‘transparent’ reporting on the use of public money, but you’ve got to know where and when to look and have the time to wade through whole reports and not just the executive summaries. Usually, there are also plenty of ‘independent’ reports or counter information and publications on any given topic to wade through as well. The word used in the meeting the other day was “smokescreen” – a good word for governance by impression management and press release. In contrast, without even trying I seem to find out when Lindsay Lohan is in rehab and the difficulties she is having paying the bills.
Some of the topics above are important to me as a citizen, important to anyone who considers (or wants to consider) Australia a just and equal society, and of interest to me as a private individual. But it’s the last one that gets served up to me regularly in the mainstream media. Something’s amiss there.
Some places to look for information:
If you know of more, please mention them in the comments. Not all indigenous Australians live in remote communities in the Northern Territory either, so feel free to mention sites that talk about closing the gap in urban areas as well.