Finishing unfinished business in the NT

Aboriginal affairs in the NT has always been a mess. It certainly became worse after the 1976 introduction of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) and the replacement of jobs with “sit down money”.

Then came a quarter-decade rule by the CLP, who were hamstrung both by the Act (supported largely by insipid latte-sippers) and their own happiness with allowing the whiff of racism to float about their policies in order to secure the skeptical, largely non-aboriginal urban seats. But calling CLP policies racist is actually a lazy copout, because the NT Government was powerless to change the policies — the Act and welfare — that made the difference.

There’s slow, very slow, change going on. Say what you like about the Intervention, it acted as a political circuit-breaker. What was previously unspeakable became discussable. Essentially, NT politics was a meeting point of political continents: the NT’s Legislative Assembly, the Land Councils and the Senate in Canberra. The Intervention was the earthquake that came after years of building pressure.

While the policies of the 70s were well-intentioned, they failed. It’s as simple as that. The prior policies of assimilation gave us the Stolen Generations, but the policies of the 70s-2000s gave us the Wasted Generations.

About six months ago the NT Government hired a “Remote Services Coordinator” in Bob Beadman, a long-time observer and participant in aboriginal affairs in the NT. His first report has been published, and it makes for refreshingly blunt reading. Usually these sorts of public reports are written by invisible shinybums, couched in the most obtuse and polished bureaucratese possible. But that’s not for Bob: he lays out his own opinions without the usual “it could be argueds”, “some have observeds” and “in some quarters”:

I want to hammer one final point, before turning to what I am supposed to be doing.
The building of houses and roads and sewerage systems is the easy part of this development effort; the social reconstruction, the rebuilding of people, the restoration of their pride and self-worth is the far more difficult, and more important.

And bearing in mind the old adage that the single most important social welfare measure we can take is to provide a person with a job, Governments must be even more proactive on the social side of the infrastructure/social scales, else all of this will be for nothing.

If, again, Indigenous people sit under a tree and watch this frenetic effort by government agencies of every kind with increasing astonishment, we will have squandered another opportunity for social reconstruction. We are unlikely to get another one with all of the features available to us right now. … As noted anthropologist Peter Sutton recently said ‘the incentives for remaining outside modernity must be withdrawn’.

Up until about 3 years ago, this sort of remark got you blackballed in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne as a flat-out racist. It probably still does, actually. It’s the Tyrany of the Far-Aways, which I have complained about before. But now, for once, it’s coming from an insider.

The report talks about concrete policy in a fair amount of detail, and continues to be free-wheeling and anti-bureaucratic in tone. I found it to be very positive reading. Whether Beadman will actually achieve anything will depend on why he was hired. High-profile appointments are frequently bought either to shut up the press, or to provide political insulation for the Minister. It’s horrible, but true. Policy depends on the wishes of an influential Minister to make it actually occur and stick. Not being conversant with the internal workings of the NT ALP, I can’t say whether Malarndirri McCarthy has the clout to get anything over the several lines (NT Government, the Land Councils and Canberra) that aboriginal policy needs to cross in the NT.

An irrelevant whinge

Before I finish up, how about a quick whinge about the NT News? In particular, their sometime reporter, sometime editor Nigel Adlam. I don’t know if Nigel actually read the report past the introduction, in which was found this paragraph:

Already there are worrying signs that people are not taking up the available work. Shires, and Stores, for example, are unable to fill vacancies. Job Centres report that many job offers to unemployed are declined. We must start to see some ‘breaching’ of welfare recipients who decline work.

This tied into Beadman’s point that cultural change is as important as houses and roads if lasting improvements are to be achieved. But here’s how Nige wrote it up in the NT News:

Some Aboriginal people are refusing to take jobs offered to them, the public servant heading one of the Northern Territory’s main indigenous policies said.

Sure it’s a single anecdotal reference out of the entire 118-page report, but don’t let that distract you from only reading the introduction, Nigel. Good journalists don’t have the time for detail. Or the interest. Or the training.

OK, that’s unfair. Nigel read at least one page past the introduction to find this para:

For it is the natural tendency of Ministers and Departments to portray themselves in the best possible light, to promote the positives, rarely the negatives, so consequently Parliaments and the public alike develop a skewed picture because the broader truth has been suppressed.

He rephrases this slightly with a total lack of irony, given that his wife is the chief media advisor to the Chief Minister, Paul Henderson. I’ve known that Nige is an unreconstructed old ALP-left-style warhorse for ages now — for instance, during his tenure as editor every story about Terry Mills always had a negative headline and an unflattering photo — but that’s apparently forgivable in modern newsrooms.

But frankly I can’t trust him because he cannot be objective. If I was a journalist peddling shares in a company employing my wife I’d be rightly excoriated. Basically I don’t think he can be relied on to write objectively about NT politics while his household finances are directly connected to the success or failure of one side of politics. It doesn’t help that he’s happy to resort to lazy “find a controversial sentence” journalism rather than engaging with the meat, the substance of the report. Journalists love to look up to themselves as bold defenders of the public interest, but it’s total self-serving bullshit in most cases. If they’re defending the public interest, then the public interest better have something shallowly controversial to say before 4pm or it can go jump in a lake.

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2 Responses to Finishing unfinished business in the NT

  1. Amy Kimber says:

    Jacques who are you?? This article is great.

  2. Jacques Chester says:

    Amy — just a concerned Territorian in exile.

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