June 14, 2008

Future abandoned

Under the new beaut Rudd Rapture government, current and future generations of Aboriginals have been abandoned, tossed into the flotsam of history.

No hope to see here.

"Brough's replacement, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, had said pre-election that she would remove two key tenets of the intervention by reinstating the CDEP program and keeping townships closed to outsiders by reinstating the permit system. She kept her word. So when intervention funding took a heavy hammering in federal Labor's first budget, the whole thing was looking shaky. Federal Labor maintained it supported the intervention but quietly began dismantling it.

What had been achieved? The NT and federal governments, having long neglected the bush, seemed finally to accept they had a responsibility to improve Aboriginal towns. There was better policing and broad, non-invasive health examinations of 15,000 children that uncovered, at the softer end, thousands of minor but hindering ear, nose and throat problems. The interventionists identified hundreds of remote-area children who had never spent a day at school (as distinct from the thousands who rarely attended). The real question was what Aborigines had learned from it. Would they send their kids to school?

In early April, I took a 6am stroll down the Todd River in Alice Springs. It was illegal to drink along the riverbed; all Alice's public areas had been declared dry. It was a sea of green cans. The Aborigines there were playing hide-and-seek with the authorities. They were shadow drinkers. These were not people who started wondering about that gin and tonic at 5pm; they were chronic alcoholics who needed to drink all the time.

The town camps looked like they always had: places of wreckage. Income management meant half of the welfare money went into a bank account and the other half came in the form of a voucher to be swiped for food or essentials at accredited stores. Liquor and cigarettes could not be bought. Locals I spoke to said the cards -- not linked to anyone's name -- had become highly tradeable. If you had $200 credit on a card, you could sell it for $150 in cash and head to the bottle shop.

There were reports of people shifting away in numbers, to Mount Isa and Port Augusta. Thirsty liquor refugees were arriving in Darwin in unprecedented numbers to make their homes in the long grass, where they could be left alone to drink.

It became possible to consider the intervention in the terms of a spectacular but short-lived life. It was more or less over, 10 months after it had begun. Brough's departure had been fatal. If one definition of conservative was someone who liked things how they were yesterday, not tomorrow, it was clear now who the real conservatives were."

Life and death of a crisis

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