Regressive Politics In Australia

New York Times, - Monday, June 14, 2004
Author: Sylvia Lawson

Abstract: Sylvia Lawson Op-Ed article scores Australian Prime Min John Howard's bill to abolish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Aborigines' strongest voice in government; hails work of commission's chairman, Djerrkura, who died in May;

Black Australian lives, men's especially, are generally 20 years shorter than white ones. The death last month of Djerrkura, the great Aboriginal leader from the Northern Territory, conformed to these statistics. He died early, at age 54.

Through three turbulent years in the mid-1990's, Mr. Djerrkura was chairman of the embattled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. His fight for self-determination and full participation in the Australian government endures among the Aborigines. And he was not long gone before they had to begin their battle anew.

Just two days after Mr. Djerrkura's death, Prime Minister John Howard introduced legislation to abolish the commission, the Aborigines' strongest voice in the government. Established in 1990, it distributed funds through a vast network of smaller indigenous peoples' organizations across the continent. For the first time, Aborigines had elected representatives with national clout.

The commission has always been in John Howard's sights. Mr. Howard doesn't really believe that the first Australians, with all their inheritance of dispossession, have special claims on the nation.

One of his most cherished fantasies is that the past is definitively over -- at least, the uncomfortable bits; he spends lots of time happily venerating Australian war graves.

After Mr. Howard announced in April his intent to do away with the commission, Mr. Djerrkura responded, "In the classic imperial fashion, without negotiation, without understanding, and with little empathy, the great white leader announced that Aboriginal people had, yet again, been a failure." He added, "No more paternalistic model of government could be found."

The commission was developed under the Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in a real effort to break down such paternalism. Then the conservative opposition leader, Mr. Howard opposed it bitterly. When his Liberal Party won and he took over the government in March 1996, he cut the commission's financing and gave the chairmanship to Mr. Djerrkura, a successful Darwin businessman and a known conservative. It was thought that this man would be the government's Aborigine, plausible and compliant.

Instead, Mr. Howard met dignified diplomacy. On the issues of land rights, native title and services to the disadvantaged, Mr. Djerrkura was coolly, patiently unyielding. In February 1998, he took a giant step: he invited Mr. Howard into his world to witness secret men's ceremonies.

This was a very high privilege; Mr. Djerrkura had to persuade his confreres that the experience might move the prime minister toward greater empathy. It didn't work.

I remember seeing a television image of Mr. Howard emerging from the forest, looking at once dogged and bemused. He did claim that he'd learned more about Aboriginal cultural life, but he didn't budge in his determination to push back land rights.

During the past few years, the commission has suffered from bad leadership, fights among factions, scandal and press hostility. Its strength has continued, however, in the regional networks: It has involved thousands of workers in programs for community housing, long-distance transport networks, cultural preservation, and projects to reunite families separated by government policies..

Under Mr. Howard's new plan, all of those services will soon be divided among no fewer than eight government departments. A group of Aborigines will be chosen as consultants to the government agencies, but Aborigines will no longer have a dedicated voice in the federal government. Thus they will again become clients of white power, buffeted by good intentions, cultural ignorance and bureaucratic confusion.

Earlier this month, protests broke out all over the country with Aboriginal demonstrators and their supporters lifting placards saying, "Don't Take Away Our Voice."

It's a moment for national vision, but the opposition Labor Party, pathologically cautious, isn't supplying it.

It was the Labor leader Mark Latham who opened the door for Mr. Howard to dissolve the commission by announcing that if Labor should win this year's election, the commission would be abolished; but Labor did propose putting something in its place. It suggested that a new indigenous peoples' body be created with more of the power based in the regional councils. The legislation has yet to be examined in the Parliament.

While the commission has been plagued with problems, there is no reason it cannot be fixed. Scrapping it is not the answer. Yet it is true that for this endlessly tantalizing country, better models are needed.

When non-indigenous Australians accept what Aboriginal people keep offering -- a share in their own extraordinary cultural and political recovery -- we begin to see what such models might be like.

Authors Note: Sylvia Lawson is the author of "How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia."

Edition: Late Edition - Final
Section: Editorial Desk
Page: 19
Page Column: 02