Abbott’s attitude to Aboriginal people shows a new paternalism

The latest “Closing the Gap” report, released February 13, shows deteriorating conditions in Aboriginal communities across the country—a result of years of bipartisan support for assimilationist, pro-corporate policies such as the NT Intervention and attacks on Aboriginal organisations.

Launching the report, Abbott repeated his patronising mantra: “All children must go to school, all adults must go to work and the ordinary law of the land must apply”. But the number of Aboriginal people employed has decreased markedly since 2008—from 53.8 to 47.8 per cent.

The main driver of increased unemployment has been the abolition of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). But the government’s support for mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s Australian Employment Covenant—which promised 50,000 jobs to Aboriginal people in the corporate sector—has been a spectacular failure. Employment in the “mainstream employment market” actually decreased over the period, despite millions of dollars in subsidies to the corporate sector, supposedly for training and employment of Aboriginal people.

Abbott announced a new “Closing the Gap” target, school attendance, with an “army of truancy officers” nation-wide to herd Aboriginal children to school. Yet Liberal state government attacks on Aboriginal education are pushing already under-resourced schools to breaking point.

In February, WA Premier Colin Barnett cut 100 full-time positions for specialist Indigenous staff spread mostly across disadvantaged remote schools.

Aboriginal teachers in the Northern Territory are fighting savage cuts proposed to similar support officer positions, with a series of strikes last November. Following an adverse ruling in Fair Work, teachers have suspended further strikes until after March 3. By then they could have plenty more to strike about, with an NT government review into remote education recommending the closure of high schools across remote communities in favour of boarding schools for Aboriginal children.

Meanwhile, 300 Indigenous controlled early-childhood centres across the country face an uncertain future, with the Abbott government refusing to commit ongoing funding beyond June 2014.

Far from “the ordinary law of the land” applying to Aboriginal people, they are currently subjected to routine police harassment. Aboriginal children are 31 times more likely to be incarcerated. But the Liberal government in Queensland is set to change legislation dealing with juvenile offenders, removing clauses citing detention as a “last resort”. Abbott has moved to silence opposition, cutting all funding to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) peak body, part of a $13 million cut to Aboriginal Legal Aid nationwide.

Angela Webb, President of Aboriginal Early Childhood Support and Learning in NSW, whose funding was also cut just before Christmas, spoke out at the recent Sydney “Save Medicare” protest, urging unionists to fight the cuts to Aboriginal services.

By Paddy Gibson

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