Land Clearances, 21st Century Style

The film Our Generation, currently being launched around Australia, gives voice to the people targeted by the Northern Territory Intervention.  The Intervention, begun by Prime Minister John Howard and continued by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, has resulted in little discernible benefit to indigenous people.  It is arguably doing substantial harm, it has stigmatised and demonised people on the basis of race, it is blatantly violating the human rights and dignity of the people and is deeply resented by them.

So much may be fairly widely, if vaguely, appreciated.  What was less obvious to me, until I saw the film, was the pattern in the political sallies that preceeded and accompany the Intervention.

Six months before the Intervention, Howard’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, talked to the people of Arnhem Land, raising the prospect of better housing and greater support for their communities.  However when it came time to deal, Brough required that the people lease their land to the government for 99 years in exchange for the benefits.  The people refused.

The report Little Children Are Sacred, highlighting allegations of widespread child sexual abuse in indigenous communities, provided the trigger for the Howard Government’s Intervention.  Township lands were compulsorily acquired through five-year leases, along with the imposition of many paternalistic controls.

Subsequently, the delivery of funding for community services, promised as part of the Intervention, has turned out to be conditional on communities signing over their land through long-term leases.  The Yolngu community on Elcho Island eventually yielded and signed a forty-year lease.  Little evidence of child abuse has emerged, beyond what may occur, regrettably, in any group of comparable impoverishment.

The not-so-hidden agenda behind the Intervention is to circumvent native title to large tracts of Northern Territory land.  Why?  Mining.  The Territory’s ancient rocks are rich in minerals, and many more may lie undiscovered in tribal homelands.

To the abuses of the Intervention, the Northern Territory Government of Paul Henderson in 2009 added its so-called Working Future policy, as part of which resources, and by implication indigenous people, would be concentrated in twenty designated “Growth Towns”.

People are healthier, happier and much freer in their homelands.  There is less influence from degenerative Western influences, especially drugs and alcohol.  They can have more balanced diets and children can be educated in indigenous law.

Even existing population centres are unhealthily overcrowded and community cohesion is weakened.  There can be little doubt that the proposed larger Growth Towns will exacerbate many problems.  Their name gives the game away:  they are about the ideology of (economic) growth, rather than about the wellbeing of people.  Intentionally or not, the policy of vacuuming people into a few centres nicely complements the Commonwealth Government’s program to remove land from the control of indigenous people.

We can place these developments in larger contexts.  Australian governments are in fear of, and in the pay of, the mining industry.  Despite the desperate urgency of the global warming threat, nothing has been proposed that would significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, for the obvious reason that coal industry profits would be affected.  Governments persist in peddling the myth that carbon capture and storage is a viable (if long term) prospect.  Coal industry figures bragged that they were writing John Howard’s environment policies, and little has changed under Rudd and Gillard.

The power of the mining industry was displayed when Kevin Rudd proposed a sensible rationalisation of mineral resource rents.  The mining industry played Chicken Little, making preposterous claims of the dire effects on the Australian economy in a media advertising blitz.  Kevin Rudd was deposed and the government brought to heel.  The mining industry, mostly foreign owned, has continued to profit mightily from cheap access to resources that are supposed to belong to all Australians.

Indegenous land rights complicate, but do not prevent, miners’ access to tribal lands.  However shareholder profit and a (temporarily) growing GDP are more sacred than indigenous identity and life, so the latter must yield.

Modern governments indulge in orgies of spin, and the major media do little to cut through it and tell things the way they really are.  There is a need for some plain talk.

Australia is a land where legal asylum seekers are cast into remote desert concentration camps.  They call them “detention centres”, but we don’t subject convicted murderers to such arbitrary treatment.  Innocent men, women and children are grossly abused by such confinement, for indefinite periods that have often extended to many years.

Is it a big surprise, then, if we find we are now engaged in a twenty-first century version of the Enclosures and Highland Clearances of seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain?

The result of the modern land clearance will very likely be the creation of racial ghettos.  People are being further dispossessed, further disempowered and herded into crowded poverty.  Their health will decline, their communities will crumble and what remains of their culture will fade.  It is the same old pattern – conquest, dispossession, assimilation.

It is not just indigenous people who should be in fear.  Our country is being sold from under us Whitefellas as well.  Nothing less than a political transformation will save us.  There is a name for the kind of government that results from a merger of big business and big government, with the interests and dignity of ordinary people trampled underfoot.  Mussolini didn’t use gas chambers, but he was still a fascist.

The rise of the Greens and Independents is an encouraging, though small, beginning.  We need to reclaim and revitalise the emaciated body of our democracy, while we can.

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