220 years of saving the children

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Wednesday, 20 February 2008

I finished reading the collection of essays Coercive reconciliation, edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson, just prior to the parliamentary apology to the stolen generations. I read the first half of the book when the last government’s intervention in the Northern Territory was in full swing.

The Howard/Brough-Brough/Howard (it was hard to know whom was leading who on their sacred mission to save this generation of Indigenous children) was a time when only those wearing black arm bands were, what Padre Noel Pearson called, “naysayers”. Pearson and Warren Mundine, like so many white Australians who have never bothered to ascertain Indigenous Territorians’ perspectives, could not see through their white blindfolds and so could find little to criticise in the intervention/invasion.

Yes, the legislation rushed through the parliament by the Coalition Government (the Senate had a one-day enquiry into the more than 500-page Act) was racially discriminatory.

Yes, it would turn the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) – an Indigenous job guarantee scheme- into a “work for the dole” fiasco.

Yes, it would take half their social security payments from Indigenous families and quarantine them “in the interests of the children”. Few saw any irony in a government taking money from families irrespective of whether they were adequately providing for their children as a way to help them avoid passivity and paternalism.

Yes, it would cost millions to have a new generation of white welfare bureaucrats repeat the mistakes of the earlier white welfare and patrol officers who attempted to carry the white man’s burden in the Northern Territory.

And, yes the Labor party offered bipartisan support because they did not want to be buried under the avalanche of moral panic that surfaced in the wake of the announcement of the intervention.

Coercive reconciliation is an outstanding book which deserves to be read by every politician, bureaucrat, social worker, nurse, doctor, community worker, employee of Territory Indigenous organisations and others who have an interest in non-Indigenous/Aboriginal relations.

Like all collations of articles by a multitude of authors, it contains some chapters which are more appealing than others but the authors and editors have done a remarkable job of producing a consistent style. Many of the contributors will be well known to academics and practitioners who have an involvement in Indigenous affairs. I was glad I had not finished reading Coercive reconciliation before now as it places me in a position to assess its usefulness as a text from which to judge the performance of the Rudd Government’s efforts in Aboriginal affairs, at least in the Northern Territory.

The intervention was only announced on June 21, 2007 and the publisher, Arena, had Coercive reconciliation in the mail by September/ October. It was a remarkable feat just to get it onto bookstands in that time. Books pulled together so quickly usually abound in grammatical errors and proofing disasters: not this one.

It is a partisan text, not in the sense that it argues a narrow ideological line – the topics Coercive reconciliation contains are too broad ranging for that – but in the sense that it is critical of the rushed nature and extent of the intervention in Aboriginal communities without Indigenous involvement.

 This book does not make the same mistake. Nationally recognised Indigenous leaders such as Larissa Behrendt, Patrick and Mick Dodson, Michael Mansell, Pat Turner, William Tilmouth, David Ross and Tom Calma all contribute chapters criticising aspects of the intervention.

Professor Larissa Behrendt sums up the essence of the general Indigenous critique when she writes: “The discourse of a national emergency also works very effectively to ground the crisis firmly in the present, severing the issue of child sexual abuse from any consideration of the quagmire of past governmental neglect.”

In addition to these national leaders, several interesting chapters (written by Aboriginal people about their local community in the Northern Territory) are included in the volume.

Coercive reconciliation accepts that child abuse, overcrowding, lack of services, alcohol misuse, domestic violence and many other problems of which Indigenous Australians are all too painfully aware, are problems on which the government should focus urgent attention. It is not a book which excuses abusive behavior, whether that abuse is perpetrated by one Indigenous person on another, or by government on the Indigenous community. On the contrary, it is a plea for far more assistance to be provided in the form of improved health, community and police services, decent jobs, better housing and revitalised economic development – all of which should proceed on the basis of negotiation with Indigenous people in their communities.

Coercive reconciliation is a book which should be read now if people want to get an understanding of the situation confronting the Territory’s Indigenous population and an insight into the destructiveness of the Howard Government’s intervention in Aboriginal communities. And it should be read again in 18 months time to see if the Rudd Government has been able to move on from the glib Pearson/Brough clichés about “passive welfare” and the “real economy” and start to come to terms with the pressing social, housing, health and employment needs confronting remote Indigenous Australia and to start building on Indigenous enterprise and capacities.

Unlike many texts dealing with Indigenous issues, Coercive reconciliation provides an optimistic account of what Aboriginal people have achieved and can achieve in the future. It has several chapters which describe the successes of the wildlife ranger and health promotion programs.

Other chapters are more conceptual. Riamond Gaita points out “If there is no need for an apology, then there is no need for reconciliation, which is a form of political atonement … The real target of ‘practical reconciliation’ was not impractical, symbolic gestures: it was reconciliation itself.”

John Hinkson asserts that in settler-Indigenous relations, there is a denial of a shared humanity. He makes the point that “‘Innocent’ intentions have often justified what have later come to be seen as abhorrent institutional practices”, such as separating Indigenous children from their communities. Hinkson describes this process as “naïve unknowing” but accepts that others may interpret the lack of acknowledgement as having a more malign character.

An early chapter in Coercive reconciliation surprised me. It was written by a retired Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, and seriously questions the way the army was used in the early stages of the intervention. The book concludes with an interesting chapter in which Jon Altman describes the existing economic system as it operates on many Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory with its mixture of government funding and Aboriginal entrepreneurial successes such as in art, tourism or seafood enterprises. He points to some interesting options for the future.

So, though you might never, never go, if you really want to know, then cough-up your $27.50 – this book is worth owning.

Coercive reconciliation, Altman, J. & Hinkson, M. (eds.) [2007] Arena, North Carlton.