Alcohol-proof fence

The following article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 21 June 2007.

The Australian prime minister’s approach to dealing with child abuse within Aboriginal communities is nothing short of jackbooted political opportunism.

Apologies to Phillip Noyce for corrupting the title of his outstanding film on the human consequences of early 20th century Australia’s attempt to wipe out its indigenous population through child kidnap and eugenics. My doing so was prompted by current prime minister John Howard’s plan to remove the autonomy of Aboriginal areas in the Northern Territory, and impose state controls that do not apply to white society.

The Australian federal government plans to curb child sex abuse through a six-month ban on the sale, possession, transportation and consumption of alcohol in Aboriginal areas (which, incidentally, will have their special legal status rescinded). In addition, hardcore pornography will be banned, all Aboriginal children medically examined, welfare benefits controlled so that alcohol cannot be bought with them, and dole claimants forced to clean the streets.

There are many low-flying statistics in this debate, and impassioned calls from Aboriginal community leaders to “curb this river of grog”. But the proposed solution seems to me like a regression to the ancien régime, where indigenous Australians possessed no civil rights, and were seen as being in need of the civilising influence of white society.

Reports into child abuse the world over normally contain caveats about the difficulties in collating accurate figures. The caveats are then cast aside, and the focus is exclusively on worst-case scenarios. In the Australian case, Northern Territory officials claimed to have found child abuse in every Aboriginal community they looked into. I dare say that abuse could be found in every white community if you looked hard enough.

Can the situation in Australia properly be defined as a “national emergency” justifying such severe restrictions on individual and community autonomy? To me it smacks of political opportunism, and the government of the Northern Territory is the whipping boy in Howard’s national political games.

But what of the underlying issues which critics of the federal government say are being neglected? Few would deny that the issues have been neglected, although opinion is sharply divided on how they should be addressed.

Noel Pearson, Aboriginal human rights lawyer and critic of welfare dependency culture, has weighed into the current debate in support of the government. So here we have a respected advocate of self-determination and the establishment of an enterprise culture within Aboriginal communities supporting a jackbooted approach to dealing with their social problems.

That doesn’t sound right to me, and neither does the artificially-polarised debate between “PC do-gooders” and “common sense” reformers. Pearson is gathering a groundswell of support from Australian right-wingers, and has been urged by them to launch a political career.

Quite frankly, this stinks. If John Howard were to declare a state of emergency in Sydney’s Macquarie Fields, and turn that blighted housing estate into a concentration camp for feckless white chavs and chavistas, what would be the reaction?