Virtue is its own reward
Today’s Oz is an impressive contribution to the literature on silk purse manufacture, drawing on extremely unpromising raw material. Faced with a poll showing an unchanged and massive Labor lead, the Oz uses a (statistically and effectively) insignificant improvement in Howard’s score on the preferred PM question as the basis of a string of screaming headlines, plus an editorial and the obligatory Shanahan opinion piece.
More interesting though is the premise that this huge upsurge in support is due to the new policy on NT aboriginal communities, for which the poll reports 61 per cent support. The problem is that an earlier Galaxy poll, prominently reported in the Murdoch showed that most people thought Howard was motivated by political self-seeking rather than genuine concern. So the head of Newspoll is wheeled out to explain why the direct question “Do you support the policy” is the right one, and the Galaxy question the wrong one. He’s right of course, if you want to find out about support for the policy. And of course, there’s nothing surprising about the outcome. While some people have opposed the policy outright, most, including Kevin Rudd, have given at least partial support, complaining about the ideological baggage and lack of real resources. (My view, from last week’s Fin, is over the fold).
But the Oz has been too clever by half here. All of its coverage is about how the policy has been politically advantageous for the government. In other words, it is confirming with acres of print the majority judgement of the respondents to the Galaxy Poll. Clearly, for the Oz it is all about political self-seeking.
Old policies, loudly restated AFR 5 July 07
Elections inevitably take on the character of auctions. The only question is what kind of bids will prove most electorally appealing. If the past week or two is anything to go by, the parties at the 2007 election will try to sell themselves as having the answers to the problems of indigenous communities, problems that have defied the efforts of governments of all political persuasions for decades.
The Howard governmentâ€™s opening bid sounded bold and impressive. Banning alcohol, sending in the army, making welfare payments conditional, and compulsory health checks for young people seemed like daring moves, putting practical outcomes ahead of civil libertarian sacred cows.
But as with the $10 billion water plan announced earlier this year, the initial response to the crisis proved to be both less and more than meets the eye. In large measure, it consisted of a loud restatement of existing policies.
Banning alcohol might sound draconian, but the majority of remote indigenous communities have been legally dry for decades. Sadly, enforcement of the bans has proved almost impossible. To have any chance of making an alcohol ban effective, it would be necessary to restrict the sale and possession of alcohol for all residents of the Northern Territory, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. There are, however, some cows too sacred to be slain.
Conditional welfare payments are also nothing new. The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), introduced in the Fraser years and greatly expanded under Labor requires recipients of unemployment benefit to participate in community projects.
Similarly, sending in the army sounds dramatic, but the military role will be confined to logistical support. The Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program has been providing similar kinds of assistance to indigenous communities, including health services, ever since the Howard government was elected.
AACAP has made some valuable contributions on a modest budget, but clearly not sufficient to prevent the tragic outcomes that have led to the current intervention. The idea that sending in the army will work where government as a whole has failed smacks of magical thinking.
Then, there was the proposal for compulsory health checks, now being revised on the run. It turned out that the civil libertarians had a point. Doctors who made enforced physical checks would potentially violate both criminal law and medical ethics.
The â€˜more than meets the eye componentsâ€™ of the package include the abolition of the permit system restricting access to indigenous communities and the end of communal land tenure. These policies have been high on the wishlist of the governmentâ€™s ideologists, but are irrelevant as an emergency response to sexual abuse of children. The end of the permit system might well be counterproductive. These policies should be debated separately on their merits, not rammed through in a crisis atmosphere.
Despite its flaws, the governemntâ€™s opening bid has forced Labor to respond. Initially wrongfooted, Kevin Rudd has pointed out an obvious problem in the governmentâ€™s strategy. Although increased school attendance is necessarily a central element of any response to the crisis, there was no commitment to fund the teachers, school buildings and so on that would obviously be required.
And once this point has been made, the examples keep on coming. The money required for housing alone has been estimated to run into billions of dollars. Health and alcohol abuse services will be similarly expensive. The governmentâ€™s plan includes more police, but this is just the start of an effective response to the breakdown of social order in many communities
And, as Noel Pearson has pointed out, there is little point in providing improved services if people are sitting in idleness. Creating and sustaining employment in disadvantaged communities is bound to be expensive. Yet far from spending more, the government withdrew funding for urban and regional communities under the CDEP plan on June 30. Its replacement, the STEP program, is expected to save the government nearly $40 million over five years.
So far, apart from Mal Broughâ€™s initial promise of â€˜whatever it takesâ€™ to fix the problems, there is no sign of a counterbid from the Howard government. Recent statements from the Prime Minister have fudged the earlier commitments and sought to push funding responsibility back on to the states.
However, with the favorable headlines fading and the polls indicating public cynicism about the governmentâ€™s motives, standing pat is not an option. There is still time for both parties to commit real resources to overcoming the national disgrace of our treatment of indigenous communities. If this happens, Howardâ€™s bold plan might lead to some genuinely positive outcomes.