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With the Northern Territories National Emergency Response Act of July 2007, the Liberal government of John Howard suspended the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, in violation of international law, and sent in the military to enforce new draconian decrees on Aboriginal Communities. In part, this was a reflection of old fashioned racism and paternalism, which was still commonplace in Australia despite a thin veneer of shallow tolerance and multiculturalism. Racism had always existed against native peoples since colonial times, and not only in Australia but in Canada, New Zealand and, worst of all, the United States. Forced assimilation, segregation, and ghettoization had always been part of the pattern, as had the drive to eliminate Indigenous languages and cultures. Of course, physical genocide and outright theft of native lands and resources had also occurred in all these settler states, and only in recent times were Aboriginal peoples acknowledged to have human rights and civil rights of any kind. In the past, there was no pretense of treating them as anything else except inferior races, although this has no longer been acceptable in such an open and blatant way in the last forty years. In this respect, the actions of the Howard government really were a throwback to the 19th Century, which was also highly consistent with its free market, laissez faire ideology. This is most definitely not the type of power that the federal government should possess, and there is no conceivably way in which such policies could be implemented in a just and legal manner, even though they might be 'legal' on paper. Its intentions were malignant from the start and so was the manner in which the program was implemented and the goals it achieved. In the end, the Emergency Intervention only worsened the situation in the Aboriginal communities, especially for women and children, and the courts should overturn it as a violation of basic human rights and international law.
For public relations purposes, Howard claimed to be acting against the widespread child sex abuse outlined in a report called Little Children are Sacred, but that was merely a pretext for its true agenda. Alleged protection of children was a convenient justification for a more widespread intervention aimed at abolishing tradition customs, clans and communal landholding in favor of "neoliberal inspired individualist aspirations of private home ownership, career, and self-improvement" (Walter 2010, p. 103). Emergency Intervention resembled nothing so much as the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 in the United States, or the termination laws on the 1950s, which abolished native tribal governments and land holding in order to convert the Indigenous into individual land owners and wage workers. This was consistent with the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberalism of the 1980s, especially in its attack on the welfare state as the cause of minority poverty, crime and social ills rather than a (limited) attempt to deal with these problems that had always existed. Howard showed his hand by suspending half of all welfare payments for those considered noncompliant with the new laws and regulations. Aboriginal employment, education and land distribution programs were also cancelled and penalties levied against parents who children did not attend school. Community leases in 73 Aboriginal towns were also taken over by the federal government for five years, and all of these 'reforms' were continued by the Labour government elected in 2007. Overall, the true goal of this Emergency Intervention was not to protect or expand Aboriginal rights but to eliminate them, and apply "market economy principles and practices that are seen as the panacea for Indigenous noncompliance with the neoliberal nation-state's conception of the good citizen" (Walter, p. 103).
Like its conservative counterparts in Canada, the U.S. And Britain, the Howard government regarded the minority and Indigenous communities as crime-ridden, violent and dysfunctional, and it blamed the alleged breakdown in morality, family values and law-and-order on the welfare state. None of this rhetoric is new, and conservative parties in all the English-speaking countries routinely use the same political, racial and ideological themes in language that is interchangeable. Howard found that the Aborigines in the Northern Territories were "unruly subjects," "sociopaths" and "sexual deviates," typified by rape, incest child abuse and murder. Like its conservative parties in other Western nations, it lashed out against pluralism and multiculturalism, charging that such policies had turned the Aboriginal communities into "museum pieces" (Jennett, 2011, p. 121). Abusive parents regularly "molested and raped children while ignoring their more mundane rights to be fed, washed and educated" (Toohey, 2008, p. 2). Emergency Intervention had the sound of a New Age or postmodern code word, borrowing therapeutic terminology from the standard treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. In reality, however, it was a highly racist and paternalist exercise, and a throwback to the 19th Century carried out with no pretense of consultation with the Aborigines. This legislation assumed that Aborigines had "inbuilt character flaws and a generally weak genetic disposition that marked them for extinction," just as whites in all the colonies and settler states had believed without question in the past (Toohey, p. 3). Its suspension of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act was also a violation of international law, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Essentially, then, Howard had always been ideologically opposed to any type of special status for Indigenous peoples, just as he had an ideological agenda in favor of privatizing their lands. He also hoped to use the crackdown on Aborigines as an electoral issue in 2007, although his loss that year had nothing to do with Aboriginal policy compared to foreign policy and his strong attachment to President George W. Bush. Like the Republicans in the U.S. And Tories in Britain, Howard had calculated that a well-timed Intervention against a marginalized and unpopular minority group might bring an electoral payoff among well-off whites in the suburbs. In this sense, the "emergency was about himself as much as anyone else," but it was not enough to prevent his party from sinking at the polls. As a diversion and wedge issue, it turned out to be a failure, no matter whether objective conditions on the ground in Aboriginal areas required this type of "radical adjustment" (Toohey, p. 17). In the new globalized economy that has come into being over the past thirty years, however, Indigenous peoples have become even more marginalized than ever, and this is true even more for women and children than for men.
Neoliberal critics of multiculturalism and the welfare state often asserted that rural and bush Aborigines had become a class of rentiers as a result of the well-meaning policies of the 1960s and 1970s. Their land could not be sold or traded and they did not have to purchase or repair their government-funded housing. Their towns in the Northern Territories were managed by white bureaucrats, and a class of white middle class civil servants, educators, physicians and nurses made a living by servicing them. Aborigines might have had no jobs or businesses, but by leasing out their lands to whites they did not regard themselves as unemployed. Conservatives frequently complained that these people were "lazy" and "had become accustomed to doing nothing for themselves" (Toohey, p. 8). In the 1970s, legislation on land and civil rights had been considered a form of reparations for past abuses, but most of the businesses in the Northern Territories like mining, cattle and tourism were still owned by whites, who almost never hired Aborigines. Such enterprises as the Indigenous had would not have existed without government support, and no real middle class or capitalist class developed independently of the state. They may have been able to preserve their traditional culture, but that also included traditions of child brides, arranged marriages, patriarchy, and rape and murder of non-compliant women and girls. Contrary to what the Howard government claimed in public spin, however, the worst crimes in the Northern Territories were "routine, urban adult slaughter, not remote child sex abuse," such as the 1,440 stabbings in Alice Springs over a seven-year period (Toohey, p. 14). Most of these violent crimes were committed under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Even though many Aboriginal areas had complete prohibition, like Native reservations in the U.S. And Canada, the law was widely flouted.
Nothing in the report Little Children are Sacred proposed any of the policies that the Howard government enacted. Just the opposite, it opposed the "colonial relationship" that state and federal Australian governments had always had with Aboriginal communities and advocated "strengthening Indigenous communities and Indigenous-controlled organizations" (Jennett, p. 121). This had never been the policy of Liberal governments, of course, nor had Howard ever been particularly sympathetic to Aboriginal peoples. In 2003 he had cut the funding for the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders Commission (ATSIC) and in 2005 abolished it altogether. Howard regarded ATSIC as dysfunctional, particularly when its leaders like Geoff Clark were being charged with corruption, fraud, rape and other felonies. His leadership style left little room for compromise and consultation, and…[continue]
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