Thursday, June 28, 2007

We're from the government, we're here to help

How would you feel if you lived in a remote community in the middle of nowhere, you had no money, no prospects and felt pretty much ignored and forgotten by the rest of the country. Your life expectancy was about 2/3 the national average; unemployment, alcoholism and abuse were endemic. Then one day, completely unannounced, the army rolled up and said "The government sent us, we're here to help."

Me, I'd be a little freaked out as I recount in this video:

This was the situation faced by some indigenous Australians this week. You can download an MP3 of a report that includes an interview with a bemused local here. The rest of the country knew what was going on because it had been a major story in the media but the news travels more slowly in these remote areas.

What it was all about was the federal government's plan to address a report into the rather appalling state of affairs in many remote indigenous communities. This issue has been growing in prominence over the last year, I blogged about one of the first major reports last year. The hot button issues have been alcoholism and child sexual abuse, both of which are widespread problems.

Some of the higher profile government initiatives include banning alcohol and pornography in these communities (that would tip me over the edge, if the army took away my booze and porn). Even some international media has focused on the banning of substances for a particular race. It isn't as if white government in this country has a very good track record with the indigenous population (aborigines were only recognised as part of the population after a referendum in 1967).

The government says that it's a complete coincidence that there's an election later this year and they're lagging badly in the polls. The fact that they have won previous elections by inventing dramatic issues shouldn't make you think that's what they're doing here. Their opponents disagree. Go figure.

The fact that the author of the report is saying the government is taking the wrong approach is rather telling. However, it's good to see that the people on the receiving end are keeping an open mind. I like to think that the people on the ground (police, army, welfare workers) have the best intentions and maybe their good work will rise above any political pointscoring by either side of politics.

If anyone is actually interested in the issue there are a few terms that might pop up that could require some explanation:

Children Overboard: The current federal government has had previous electoral success by whipping up paranoia about illegal immigrants/refugees. Prior to the 2001 election, the government claimed that a boatload of asylum seekers that had been intercepted by an Australian Navy ship had thrown some of their children overboard in an attempt to force the ship to pick them up.

The claim was proven to be false and it was also found that the government knew the claim was untrue before the election but never passed this bit of information along to the public. This made them look "strong" (dirty foreigners, they weren't genuine refugees but they forced us to pick them up) and the opposition look "weak" (they'd let anyone into the country). Some people are suggesting that the government's sudden focus on the plight of aboriginal children is similar political game-playing.

The Stolen Generation: This term refers to previous governmental policies of removing children (usually of mixed descent) from aboriginal communities and making them wards of the state. This makes some people understandably wary of government intervention regarding their children (there are already stories of families fleeing settlements at the sight of authorities). Some people say this is the past and should be forgotten. Considering this happened to people my age and younger this doesn't seem like ancient history to me. The government has some work ahead of it to convince indigenous people that this is more than another attempt to take away their right to self-determination.

I take it as a positive sign that there has been strong debate on the topic. Not everybody is swallowing the government's line and not everybody is rejecting it out of hand. I'll never stop being cynical about politicians of all stripes but whether this is fuelled by politics or by genuine concern for what the Prime Minister has rightly called a "national disaster" there's at least a chance of a positive outcome.

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