Padraig Parkhurst on justice for Indigenous Australians

There’s a lot of talk about dog whistling in Australian politics, and rightly so. Many statements taken strictly at their face value seem quite reasonable or innocent, but when taken in context of actions and popular response, appear to hold sinister underlying meanings.

One which has been analysed endlessly is the prime minister’s statement (lack of capitalisation intentional), regarding the subsidisation of “lifestyle choices”. Most of the analysis relates to the choice of the phrase “lifestyle choices”. And sure, it certainly implies a picture of privilege not merely at odds with the poverty and dysfunction present in a number of these communities, but also reminiscent of the worst racial rants of “giving them everything, and what have they done with it?”

What I find troubling though is the presumption. A good chunk of Australia was taken within the last hundred years. This is not an old theft. Native Title only came into play in the 70s, and the important Mabo case only came to a close in the 90s. Reasons for forcing people of their lands were wide-ranging. Blatant theft to mine the minerals under them, clearing the area (not very effectively) to test nuclear weapons there, forced assimilation in the name of famine prevention, the list goes on. No choice was given in any of these matters. This was not a step by step negotiation, a claiming of the land by guile, diplomacy and trade. From the first, the understanding was, “this our land now”. Not just the bits currently inhabited, but the whole damn lot, carved up on the map with a few clear lines. 

This is still the presumption, and will continue to be as there is little anyone can do about it.

There has been no treaty. There are no Aboriginal seats in Parliament. In the one territory where Aboriginals form the majority, the word ‘Territory’ as opposed to ‘State’ means that the entire area misses out on the rights that every other ‘state’ in Australia is entitled to. 

Even in areas where Aboriginal sovereignty theoretically exists, it can be overturned with a stroke of a pen, as happened in the “Intervention”. Even the wording is infantilising. An intervention is something you stage when a family member or friend has proved themselves incapable of making sensible decisions for themselves, through drug abuse or the like, and so forces those around them to “intervene”. 

Aboriginal law, for a while tolerated, now quite literally isn’t. “We cannot, and will not tolerate so called ‘payback’ ”, said the Administrator of the NT.

The Australian Government gets to do this because this is within Australia, and so the Australian Government holds court. Never mind that not one nor any part of the 500 or so cultures that make up Aboriginal Australia have no official say in the matter, no power of veto, this is all fair because this is all Australia, they are all Australians, so they have just the same right as the rest us of us to try and get elected by a 98% non-Aboriginal population.

In other countries, there have been agreements. Generally forced, generally the best of a series of awful alternatives, but there have been agreements. In America, Reservations still function under terms of treaties set out in the 19th Century in some cases, with guarantees of funding, of education, of food, and of a certain amount of tribal sovereignty. If a politician wants to renegotiate this, that’s exactly what they have to do: renegotiate. For these treaties have legal standing, and those politicians don’t get to back out on their responsibilities without consequences. 

The point is, the funding, the local legal rights etc, are understood to be trade, a very cheap trade, for the land that was stolen wholesale, and as much as some may resent it, they cannot simply choose to withdraw funding or support with reference to the common will.

We’ve had a few token gestures here towards correcting the impositions of the past. Funds to help Aborigines attend University, funds for legal aid to help correct the highest Indigenous incarceration rate in the world, and since the 70s, supplying electricity and water to a handful of communities still practicing language and culture in the one place they can: on their traditional land.

In Queensland, ABSTUDY was moved to be abolished by Campbell Newman upon gaining office. Recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty in their land was overturned in 2007 with the Intervention, and with it the blind eye that was turned to tribal law. Since coming to power, Tony has slashed Aboriginal Aid and withdrawn federal funding for the communities.

One very simple, very pragmatic way to look at the aforementioned “lifestyle subsidisation” is as rent-paying, and for the largest state in Australia, $48m a year is pretty fucking cheap in the scheme of things.

 

Padraig Parkhurst is a student at Griffith University.