When I've asked anyone black or white, in Darwin or Alice, during the last week what they think about the National Emergency, they've usually paused and said something like, 'Well, something had to be done.'
People are generally wary, generally skeptical about the Prime Minister's political motivations, suspicious that it's all about land, curious and doubtful about the level of detail in the proposed agenda. But there is tacit acknowledgement that the situation couldn't (or maybe shouldn't) continue as it was -- and that the women had been asking for more policing on the Lands for years. There are also some concessions that much of the social justice culture here is moribund and ineffectual (a point I made in my Island essay about Alice last year).
I haven't done the rounds of the blogs yet, but the national emergency has been playing non-stop here in the local media and also on Radio National. I'm a little irritated -- and cynical as usual -- that suddenly there should be so much 'care and concern' about Indigenous issues, when people have been hammering away for years about the need for interventions such as Koori courts and circle sentencing, and improvements to Aboriginal health, housing, infrastructure, education, etc. Does it take something like this to capture people's attention? And how long will these issues stay on the boil?
I can't help thinking this was what the Reconciliation process was meant to achieve: to alert people to the issues at hand and to encourage them to participate in rebuilding Aboriginal socialities, albeit on different terms. The Coalition kyboshed the process, refusing to exercise the leadership that might have channelled what interest there was. In the current situation, they've used ilicit, criminal sex as an 'in', as they did in the disbanding of ATSIC, and advocated coercion and direct intervention. But, on the other hand, exactly how receptive was the broader Australian public to a softly, softly approach? Perhaps we'll never know.
There was an interesting comment from an aboriginal Canadian on the Law Report this morning. Direct intervention, armies of social workers and police, hadn't worked in Canada, she said, as those involved had tended to act as if nothing was there, instead of recognising and building on the existing culture.
One of the effects of the culture wars waged by the Coalition over the past ten years has been to paint a wholly negative and depraved picture of Aboriginal people and communities. Much of the Coalition's platform on Indigenous issues has been couched in terms of a litany of vices in need of address: grog, violence, child abuse, welfare dependency, itinerancy, etc. These issues are in need of address, but if you start from such a ground zero approach, if you refuse to find anything of value about these people and their culture, how can you work with them to restore a sense of autonomy and control over their lives? It's potentially a further form of cultural ravishment.
On another note: although the 'child abuse' platform is doubtless a smokescreen for a land grab, another Tampa, etc, it would seem foolish for the Left to keep banging on about this. The general public isn't fooled by Howard's politics on this issue: for the Left to continue to bang on about this aspect of things would be to paint themselves as ideologically-preoccupied spectres at the Indigenous policy feast Howard and Pearson would have them be. This is the moment for the Left and the ALP to suggest the details, the culturally-appropriate social policy that the Howard-Brough plan doesn't have. But perhaps none of the Emperors have any clothes.