Breaking clear promises, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has introduced legislation that will continue to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) until December 31, 2010.
Reading her new bills into parliament, Macklin argued that the suspension of the RDA by the Howard government had “denied dignity” to Aboriginal people.
But rather than immediate and unequivocal reinstatement, Macklin has used two strategies to get around the contradiction between racist Intervention laws and the RDA.
Firstly, the system of compulsory welfare quarantining, currently applied only to “prescribed” Aboriginal communities, will be extended to a range of Centrelink recipients right across the NT.
Secondly, all other Intervention powers that have been used to enforce the assimilationist agenda: compulsory 5-year leases; draconian police powers; Government Business Managers and bans on alcohol and pornography, will be declared “special measures” under the RDA. Special measures are supposed to benefit communities and be designed with their consent.
Minister Macklin has been blackmailing communities to sign 40-year leases over township land and has used the threat of acquisition to try and force compliance.
But Aboriginal resistance has set the project back—and the government is not about to put aside its key weapons. Maintaining the suspension of the RDA has allowed the government to push ahead with the takeover of the Alice Springs town camps.
Macklin’s new legislation may have deferred legal challenges under the RDA for another 13 months, but it solves none of her underlying problems.
Despite the threat of extension it is Aboriginal people who will, overwhelmingly, continue to bear the brunt of Income Management.
Aboriginal people living outside the “prescribed areas” are the main group of welfare recipients who will be caught in the expanded net. And a new system of “exemptions” for people who can get work, start training or prove they are “good parents” will undoubtedly be applied in a discriminatory way.
The transition from the old system in the NT will take 12 months. Pensioners and the disabled are supposed to be exempt. But those living in “prescribed” Aboriginal communities will have no legal right to get off the quarantine until July 2011.
In a recent paper, the Human Rights Commission explained that laws do not have to explicitly target a racial group to breach the RDA. It is enough that, just like these news laws, they have a disproportionate impact on a particular racial group.
Consultations and ‘special measures’
From mid-July, the government launched an extensive “consultation” process, involving over 500 meetings in prescribed communities. They have used these to claim there is majority support for the Intervention, making the laws “special measures” under the RDA.
But a report by the Jumbunna House of Learning and Alistair Nicholson, a former Chief Justice of the Family Court, closely analysed the consultation process and found it to be a sham.
The report looked at transcripts from a number of public meetings with communities and found fierce opposition to Intervention measures. This was despite the fact government officials running the meetings pushed heavily the “benefits” of the Intervention.
These conclusions are supported by a paper from CIRCA, a private research group employed by the government to monitor the consultations. CIRCA repeatedly complains that government reports did not register the “level of anger” towards the Intervention.
But Macklin has ignored the testimony from public meetings. Her claims rely almost totally on 444 private meetings between individuals or families and Government Business Managers (GBMs), the authority figures imposed by the Intervention. The only records that exist from these meetings are notes taken by the GBMs and Macklin has refused to make these notes public.
Some of the things being claimed as “special measures”, such as police powers, were never even explicitly discussed. In their own report, FaHCSIA admits that at no point in the consultations was there significant support for compulsory 5-year leases over Aboriginal land.
The new legislation gives the Minister the power to declare suburbs or regions anywhere in Australia “disadvantaged areas” and make them subject to the quarantine.
This move has been widely criticised. Dr John Falzon, chief executive of St Vincent De Paul said, “in a paltry effort to conceal racial discrimination, the Government has simply gone down the path of class discrimination.”
The CPSU came out strongly against suggestions by the Victorian Community Services Minister that the quarantine was needed to combat child abuse.
Macklin has said no move will be made to extend the quarantine outside the NT until 2012. Her primary goal continues to be the maintenance of the Intervention and its assault on Aboriginal people in the NT.
But the campaign needs to harness the outrage at the idea of a national quarantine and use it to expose the brutality of the Intervention.
Macklin’s new blueprint is an admission of deep policy failure. Labor still need the suspension of the RDA to force their agenda on communities who are continuing to resist.
By Paddy Gibson
Jumbunna’s report on the “consultations” is available at http://rollbacktheintervention.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/091123_will-they-be-heard.pdf