I have been reading a book by Rosemary Neill called “White Out – how politics is killing black Australia”. It was published back in 2002 but its core message is even more valid now than it was then – that the desire of people from across the spectrum to use Indigenous issues to reinforce their preferred political or ideological narrative is coming before ensuring public policy assists rather than hinders Indigenous Australians in overcoming the immense hurdles so many of them face.
There is nothing new in people selectively using information which reinforces their views while ignoring any evidence that challenges this, but it seems to be especially prevalent with Indigenous issues. But because the human costs of the comprehensive political policy failures and public noninterest in this area are so high, the consequences of this ideological partisanship are much higher.
I am reminded of this at the moment, as I am in the Northern Territory attending Senate Committee hearings to examine a few small amendments being made to the Northern Territory intervention laws which were put in place by the previous government.
The Committee has seven weeks to examine and report on these few amendments and is holding two days of hearings in the Territory – you can see the list of people giving evidence here. It is impossible not to contrast this process with what happened last year, where the Coalition used its majority in the Senate to force through a large number of far-reaching changes – which were technically complex and highly controversial – in the space of a week with only a one day Committee hearing held in Canberra just days after the laws were made public.
The main change being made by this latest legislation is the reintroduction of the permit system which applies for some Aboriginal communities and lands in the Northern Territory, along with a prohibition on pay TV licensees providing pornography channels into some Aboriginal communities.
The permit system has been a key symbol in some of the ideological stoushes regarding Aboriginal policy, with the issue of child abuse being the current battleground used. However, despite all the heat surrounding the issue, there has never been any evidence put forward showing any link between the permit system and child abuse in Aboriginal communities.
Whilst on balance I support the permit system, it frustrates me immensely that so much attention is being paid to this issue in the context of the Intervention, which is meant to be all about urgently tackling child abuse, when the permit system has at best a very minor link to child abuse. There is something very unsettling about a whole group of lawmakers and commentators, all portraying ourselves as wanting to reduce child abuse but actually spending most of our energy fighting about an issue which has very little to do with it.
It is hard not to feel complicit in a continuing failure of our political system and society to resolve Indigenous inequalities and disadvantage, sitting on a Committee piddling away in a corner about permits and pornography while there are so many major unaddressed problems facing Aboriginal children in the Territory and elsewhere. A few of the many problems with the running of the Intervention have come up in the hearings so far, but I still find it hard to be hopeful that the core issues will be addressed or the necessary ongoing political and financial commitment will be forthcoming.