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 government’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 ‘more than meets the eye components’ 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 government’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 governemnt’s opening bid has forced Labor to respond. Initially wrongfooted, Kevin Rudd has pointed out an obvious problem in the government’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 government’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 Brough’s initial promise of ‘whatever it takes’ 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 government’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, Howard’s bold plan might lead to some genuinely positive outcomes.

8 thoughts on “Virtue is its own reward

  1. Above all else I hope that Howard’s poorly thought out barbeque stopper of a plan, doesn’t make things worse. If it does I doubt I will ever forgive him or Mal Brough.

  2. Let’s hope that they can make a silk purse out the sows-ear of a ‘plan’. But the latest ideas from the Federal Govt on the alcohol ‘ban’ strike me as being as confused as anything else so far. The proposal is that photo ID will be required for purchases of 3 or more cartons, including providing the locality of where the alcohol is to be consumed. What exactly this is meant to achieve is a mystery.

  3. These policies should be debated separately on their merits, not rammed through in a crisis atmosphere.

    Unless it is a policy to ban semi-automatic weapons so that people who commit suicide have to rely on the first bullet only. If your banning guns no debate is necessary and crisis a fundamental democratic process. Opps, that was Howard the Good. {sarcasm alert!}

    The invasion of the Northern Territory is amoung the more stupid things that the Howard government has done. However what is the point of big central government if it doesn’t send in the army to save us. {sorry more sarcasm}.

    And still no academic opinion on why it is illegal to create low pay jobs for low pay workers in remote Australia but okay to create them in China. Minimum wage laws continue to foster a “no choises at all but to move to the big smoke” labour market regime. If nothing else we should hand the power to set minimum wages to local government. Maybe a minimum wage makes sence where unemployment is 2% but not where it is 60%+.

  4. The Australian is more or less self correcting now that it allows blog participation. The entries on Shanahans blog are mostly hostile to Shanahan . It is curious that as the Australian has drifted more to the right that it has allowed blogs, although it is unlikely that Shanahan looks at his blog.( This doesn’t really matter) The opening up to blog contribution has resulted in quite a few Australian journalists looking like fools, and in the long run if the Australian is to keep its audience its going to have to get rid of these hacks.

  5. the ‘times’ editorial (get out of iraq!) was reprinted in smh today- saves having to hire your own wordsmiths i guess. also saves having to remark on previous slavish submission to american policy, political and editorial. maybe print journalism is past just replacing a few hacks, as far as reflecting reality goes.

    but that’s not it’s purpose. those hacks get paid to shape mass opinion, and have done so quite well. even when you think they are wrong, they allow those who follow them to validate their opinions. this works on the web even more effectively.

    the internet has done little for democracy, because communication is not the core of democracy. it’s all about power, not talk.

  6. I wrote to Rudd just after his initial ‘wrong-footed’ness and got a slick mass distribution reply which, inter alia, promised about half a billion in spending (but didn’t mention housing).

    Terje, the answer to your question consists of several points:
    1) you are not the person setting the agenda, the academics are maybe a bit busy with analysing and commenting upon things which are actually on the agenda.

    2) what is on the agenda is what the politicians are actually doing and/or saying they will do.

    3) what should be on the agenda (but generally speaking is not) is what the Wild et al report recommended. These people are eminently more qualified than you to recommend solutions because they are not relying on a simple one-size-fits-all prescription derived from a priori assumptions. They have actually done some research, visited more than 40 communities and consulted hundreds of people. They have made no less than 97 recommendations – reflecting the complexity and inter-relatedness of the problems. There is a similar report that I’ve seen for NSW that has 119 recommendations. All of these recommendations have either been ignored or flatly contradicted by the current policy “initiatives” (which, as JQ points out, are essentially old wine in new bottles).

    4) why don’t you read the reports and comment on those?

  7. There is something strange happening on Blogocracy at news limited this morning. Tim Dunlop had posted an article questioning the editorial in The Australian this morning. The article is gone now and new comments do not appear to be getting uploaded to the site.

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