Post #13 – Aboriginals and Liberals: An Uneasy Relationship

On February 12th, a report titled Closing The Gap was released. This is an annual report that details where we’re at in regards to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’. So to quickly sum up what issues the report is trying to address, I’ll quote Oxfam:

Most Australians enjoy one of the highest life expectancies of any country in the world — but this is not true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Indigenous Australians can expect to live 10–17 years less than other Australians. Babies born to Aboriginal mothers die at more than twice the rate of other Australian babies, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes. The mortality rates for Indigenous Australians is on par with some of the world’s most impoverished nations. The United Nations Report, The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (2009) indicated Australia and Nepal have the world’s worst life expectancy gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

You know when you’re on par with frick’n Nepal, you’ve got some issues. So it’s for this reason that every year, in our parliament, our politicians get together on the date the report is to be published and assess what it says. It’s only been going on for a few years now, but the tradition stands that both good and bad aspects of the report are aired, with both major parties giving each other a pat on the back when there are improvements to be reported – irrespective of how small they may be. But this year, the report didn’t follow the same narrative as previous years. This is because this year the report was pretty much all bad news. As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald,

…targets in relation to early childhood education and literacy and numeracy have either not been met or are not on track, while employment outcomes have gone backwards.

Bill Shorten, an ardent critic of Abbott’s sweeping austerity cuts (and according to Liberals’, a crass opportunist) leapt on the findings of the report to hammer the government. This led to around 10 Coalition MPs, including at least one minister, leaving the House of Representatives in protest. It’s fair to assume they didn’t leave the building in a hurried attempt to look into alternative ways of closing the gap. Maybe they left to run off and let the tobacco behemoth and major donor of the Liberal party, Phillip Morris, know that the scrapping of $130 million in anti-smoking programs directed at Indigenous Australians’ was finally paying off! Who knows…

The new chief government whip Andrew Nikolic, accused Shorten of “an appalling lack of judgement and lack of leadership” for including “a party-political attack in his reply speech”. So as any mature adult does when they hear something they don’t like – they melodramatically cross their arms in disgust, mumble curse-words and then storm out of the building with their fingers in their ears repeating ad nauseam, ‘lalalala I can’t hear you!’. Let us not forget that the new chief whip isn’t the best at hearing something he doesn’t like – last time someone wrote something he didn’t like he threatened to contact the employer’s of anybody who ‘liked’ what was written about him. Ahhh yes, the adults are truly in charge! The part that is most disturbing about this whole saga is that there are those within the Liberal party who fail to make a correlation between savage budget cuts to Indigenous programs across the country and a widening of the gap between Aboriginals’ and us white fellas. How savage were these cuts, I hear you ask? Well, to the tune of about $500 million – give or take. I’ll be the first to admit that you don’t fix a problem by throwing money at it, but you certainly don’t fix it by taking money away either. Again, here’s the Sydney Morning Herald discussing what these cuts mean in the real world:

The Abbott government’s reorganisation of indigenous funding has created uncertainty among indigenous organisations. Hundreds of organisations will find out next month whether they will continue to receive funding through its indigenous Advancement Strategy, which has collapsed more than 150 programs into five broad areas. Aboriginal health services are waiting to see what funding they can expect beyond June 30.

Celeste Liddle, writing for The Guardian, came out and thanked (I’m assuming tongue-in-cheek) those Liberal MP’s who did storm out of Bill Shorten’s speech. She said it was “the most honest representation of the government’s approach to Indigenous affairs I have seen since they took power 17 months ago”. So can we just write-off the modern day Liberal party, and specifically those that left the speech, as rednecks and racists in denial? Well personally, I think yes – but there’s also something more to this, something that isn’t so obvious about their reactions to the report. It lies at the very core of what it is to be a modern day Australian Liberal. The main issue Liberals’ have with hearing the truth about the difficulties in closing the gap stems from the fact that Indigenous Australians’ relationship with the state cannot be fully encompassed by liberal concepts of citizenship. According to your average Liberal, Indigenous Australians’ are Aussies’ just like everybody else. Yeah sure, Liberals’ will agree that they have a distinctive cultural heritage, but this is a multicultural society now – man up and join ‘Team Australia’ they would say. According to Judith Brett, an expert on the Liberal/National Coalition, the “limits of Australian Liberalism is reached when claims are made that go beyond non-discrimination and equal citizenship to a recognition of indigenous rights”. This is the main factor in John Howard being so pig-headed and stubborn about issuing an apology to Indigenous Australians – there’s no clear place for secondary associations, and therefore no clear place for any apology. Liberalism is all about the nation-state, the family and the individual – if you’re not able to be lumped into one of those three categories, well then according to Liberals’ the onus is on you to join in. Australian Liberals’ struggle to grasp the urgency of Indigenous Australians’ desire to maintain their traditional social structures and traditions because, evidently, it doesn’t fit neatly within their world view. To quote Brett (p. 200) once again,

Its [Liberalisms’] historic mission was to free individuals from the obligations and superstitious practices of traditional society, in order that they and their land might participate in the rational markets of capitalist society. Faced with traditional social formations the Liberals’ natural response is to see them as holding back, rather than as sources of strength for people as a necessary base for their identity formation

Kinda reminds you of George W. Bush’s ultimatum that “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists”, doesn’t it? In the mind of a Liberal, there is no middle ground, no greys – just black and white. So when austerity is announced and the sharpened scalpel comes out ready to slash some spending, those cuts to Aboriginal welfare programs aren’t purposefully about increasing the gap – from a Liberal perspective they’re about helping the budget for all Australians’ and encouraging Indigenous Australians’ to stand on their own two feet. It’s this kind of thinking that allows Abbott to have to gall to say things like, “closing the gap is not something to be granted by this Parliament to indigenous Australians; closing the gap is to be grasped by them” and, “Governments can fund and governments can urge, but governments can’t change attitudes and behaviours”. Can’t you see it Indigenous Australia? According to Abbott the problem isn’t institutionalised racism – it’s your attitude! So imagine their surprise when the report came out and said that matters were getting markedly worse for Indigenous Australians’! Those Liberal MP’s didn’t storm out because they’re a bunch of pricks, they stormed out because they were in such a state of shock. True story, Abbott told me so – and he wouldn’t lie… would he?


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