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Suspect motivations behind stark Government rhetoric

  • 27 June 2007

Now that the politicians have flown out of Canberra and back home for the winter, it is time to take a deep breath and ask what can be achieved by John Howard’s announcement of a Commonwealth takeover of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

There can be no quarrel with the desire to act urgently to assist children in need. It has to be paternalism that actually helps. Everyone wants to heed Noel Pearson’s wake up call to the nation: "Ask the terrified kid huddling in the corner when there is a binge drinking party going on down the hall if they want a bit of paternalism".

The Prime Minister has said, "We are dealing with children of the tenderest age who have been exposed to the most terrible abuse”. He asks, "What matters more: the constitutional niceties, or the care and protection of young children?" It is not a choice of one or the other. There are grounds for suspecting the complex motivations of government which puts the choice that starkly. Canberra cannot care for and protect these children if it rides rough shod over the constitutional niceties of relations with Darwin. Canberra must co-operate with Darwin. In the end, Canberra cannot deliver helpful paternalism to these terrified, huddled children without Darwin’s co-operation.

The children must come first in this analysis. The objective is the provision of a sustainable solution to this national scandal. While there can be no doubting John Howard’s commitment to helping these children, we know that he also has an eye on his re-election.

In 1978, John Howard sat at the Cabinet table when Malcolm Fraser decided that the Commonwealth would intervene in Queensland. The Commonwealth Parliament passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Reserves and Communities Self-Management) Act 1978. There was conflict with Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government over two Aboriginal communities, Aurukun and Mornington Island, which had been conducted as Presbyterian missions. In the end, Fraser had to back down because Joh called his bluff. Joh knew that the feds could not deliver teachers, nurses or police on the ground for just two remote Aboriginal communities in Queensland. 

In those days there was a Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Now there is no Commonwealth department specialising in Aboriginal service delivery or policy. Back then, there was an elected National Aboriginal Conference set up by the Commonwealth Government to advise on these issues. Since the