No. 27

STONE the crows! When will people stop focusing on indigenous rights in the abstract rather than on how to help individual black Australians in struggling circumstances?

On Friday (see below) Northern Territory chief justice Brian Martin announced his early retirement, despairing that prison had failed to stop the cycle of violence, especially against women, in remote communities. On that very morning the Australia Council released a report deploring the absence of airtime for indigenous musicians.

The two events say a great deal about attitudes to addressing indigenous dispossession. Mr Martin’s despair at the inability of the legal system to protect vulnerable people in dysfunctional communities demonstrates the failure of orthodox opinion, which holds loss of land and lack of respect for culture is the cause of most of what is wrong in the lives of Aborigines.

Mr Martin certainly tried to uphold traditional indigenous practice in the past. In 2005 he sentenced a 55-year-old Aboriginal elder to two years in prison, suspended after a month, for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. Mr Martin accepted the attacker believed he was acting according to custom as the child was promised to him as a bride, when she was four.

Perhaps people who believe in respecting indigenous culture saw some sense in the decision. But it is impossible to imagine that anyone, who was interested in the human rights of the victim, would agree – especially since the victim wanted nothing to do with the attacker. The case starkly set out the dilemma of what to do when the customary law that governed indigenous Australia for millennia ignores individual rights.

It is hard to imagine a better example of this attitude, that collective cultural concerns are especially important, than the Australia Council worrying that indigenous musicians are under-represented on the radio. Sure, less than 2 per cent of the music the ABC plays is by indigenous bands but given the Australian Bureau of Statistics records the indigenous population as 2.5 per cent of the total this is hardly an especially outrageous example of discrimination.

There are a plethora of problems set out in ABS statistics released last week that certainly need fixing first. Like the fact that indigenous Australians die ten years younger than the national norm. Like the fact their 2008 unemployment rate was three times higher than average.

For years regular reports have rolled in of the absence of discipline, be it imposed by indigenous culture or the law, in remote communities where there is no work but a great deal of drug and alcohol abuse which is accompanied by sexual violence. In 2006, Northern Territory Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers stunned Australia when she appeared on ABC TV’s Lateline and calmly described sexual assaults in remote communities.

That alcoholism and substance abuse is endemic all over Australia is beyond doubt and the ABS estimates binge drinking rates are much the same among indigenous and other Australians overall.

But there is no denying that crime born of indolence and intoxication curses remote communities, blighting generations. The Howard Government’s intervention program, policing how people spend their welfare payments, addressed this. To her great credit, Labor’s Jenny Macklin is extending a version of it across Australia and, in the process, ending the undoubted discrimination against indigenous people when it only applied in their communities.

Yet advocates of abstract indigenous rights fiercely oppose the principle of protecting the vulnerable by restricting the rights of others.

Many claim that specifying what welfare should be spent on does not work, which is fair enough. Others argue that the intervention insults people capable of managing their own lives, also true.

But the overall argument against welfare restrictions is that they breach indigenous human rights and blame the collective victim. As indigenous leader Pat Dodson put it last year:

“Community dysfunction is now understood as the fault of the colonised and their persistent cultural practices, rather than as a result of violent dispossession, brutal colonisation and authoritarian state intervention.”

Which is all very well, but it does not help women who are beaten by drug and drink addled men, nor the children of dysfunctional families who are

doomed to follow their fathers and mothers into lives of welfare dependency unless the cycle of misery is broken.

And increasing indigenous music on the radio will not do a damn thing to help.

'2012