Grip eluding PM's legacy


Grip eluding PM's legacyWith so many matters in John Howard's political calculus beyond his capacity for influence or control – Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pacific crises, wheat scandals and water reform – he must be thinking it would be nice to have a hold on something. Especially if it becomes important for a political legacy. Targeted programs for some disaffected constituents needing stroking may well be on the agenda for this election year.

One constituency which will not be uppermost on the mind of John Howard is that of Aboriginal affairs. Why should he bother, he may well ask. There's no votes in it for him, and not much prospect of thanks. He never expected much praise and has been surprised, if anything, at how low the criticism level is – a sign, indeed, that the chattering classes have more or less given up.

He is in any event entitled, on the evidence that he has, to doubt whether anything on anyone's agenda will make much difference. Admittedly the natives of this country are restless, but their rage and frustration is at the moment more directed at state governments and the legal system, particularly in Queensland, than at the federal government. Distracted from the real game, in much the same way as
they have been over the past ten years.

Furthermore, they are morally on the back foot. Out in the electorate, Aborigines are now well understood not to be victims or the dispossessed, but criminals, drunks, welfare layabouts, wife bashers, people who neglect and sexually abuse their children and do not send them to school. Honestly, what more could one do, he might ask. Maybe tough love, as applied to our Pacific neighbours, is in fact good

Yet by almost any benchmark – social, economic or political – there is hardly any area of failure in Howard Government policy more abject than in Aboriginal affairs. For five years, perhaps, failure could be blamed on the legacy of the Keating years, or the fact that practical policy had not much changed, except in terms of what Howard would have called political correctness. In the past six years, radical new Howard policy has been in play, and it too is going nowhere. On the face of things, the Howard Government must be judged to have been routed in its war on Aboriginal poverty, disadvantage and


John Howard had consciously abandoned the notion this was a struggle depending on symbolism; it was, he said, about 'practical reconciliation' and material progress on the ground. Eleven years on from his taking power, and about five from the time he took an active interest, particularly with policies of mainstreaming, there are no bootmarks on the ground, just fresh ruins. The position of Aboriginal affairs is still going, irretrievably it seems, backwards.

The very few signs of progress – more Aboriginal doctors perhaps – are obliterated by signs of regress. There's plenty for Labor to criticise, but precious little to which they could hearken back with any pride. One might say, indeed, that March 1983 – the date of the election of the Hawke government – is as good a date as any from which, in retrospect, it can be said that things began going backwards again, after a decade or so of fitful progress.

Grip eluding PM's legacyNot that Labor is criticising. Or offering alternative policies. If there is a mystery greater than the question of what Labor thinks about what has been happening, it is what it proposes to do about it.

My despair about all this is prompted in part by the 'revelation' by Paul Sheehan, in the Sydney Morning Herald, that those accused of being responsible for the bashing murder of a Griffith teenager recently were 'feral Aborigines' of the local district, and that their conduct is all too common around Aboriginal country towns. Sheahan is right, of course.

As he points out, many of the children of this underclass are from generations of dispossessed, angry and unemployed people, where cultures of violence, family dysfunction and disintegration are all too common. I'm not sure that throwing everyone into jail, or forcibly separating the children from the adults will help much, however.

We need to deal with the root causes – poverty, disadvantage, disengagement and despair. As things stand, net per capita government spending, at federal state, or local government level, or collectively, on Aboriginal Australians is still well below average spending on other Australian citizens anywhere, and even more significantly, below spending in white communities in comparable degrees of isolation, aridity or other disadvantage. Funny how this translates into worse outcomes.

This is an abridged version of the original article. To read the full version as a PDF, click here.



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Existing comments

I feel the first thing that needs to be done is giving them back the respect, that is every mans right. They are looked upon as dirty, drinking and not to be trusted
theo Dopheide | 24 January 2007

I think the Howard government has failed spectacularly with regard to aboriginal policies. the amount of money spent is pitiful, as the full version of this article makes clear. Incidentally, why did this not run on the page itself?
Thomas D | 24 January 2007

Great to see Jack writing regularly for Eureka Street again. As a long time print subscriber, it makes me very happy to have this kind of commentary still getting an airing on the pages of Eureka Street, even if in a slightly different medium
Peter J | 24 January 2007


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