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Tony Abbott and the Heart of Darkness Part 2

Infrastructure is a major issue facing Australia. Asylum seekers are also: the issue has been made so by successive governments. But what of Indigenous peoples?

Infrastructure: the NBN and Urban Transport

As Australia’s population has increased, its infrastructure, especially in transport and communications, has lagged behind. As other countries have invested and continued to invest, in high speed communications technology the Australian Labor government developed the National Broadband Network. The NBN will benefit schools in more remote areas, smart management of energy consumption and medical diagnoses. None of that convinced Mr Abbott who vowed to cancel the whole scheme and only supported bringing fibre to “the node” leaving the homeowner and business to replace the remaining copper wire which will cost a great deal more in the end than if it were done at the outset and will delay realisation of the benefits of the scheme.

National Party leader Warren Truss spruiked Coalition policies to improve infrastructure. Despite years of expert reports and considerations of the situation in every major city, another inquiry was proposed and procedures advocated to vet every major project. And then schemes which don’t stand up economically were advocated! As traffic queues grow along with frustration, as public transport is privatised as if that is the answer, tiny amounts of money are allocated and the Commonwealth and the States haggle, as they do over everything in what is supposed to be a single nation.

Only in Australia are toll roads established within cities rather than between them. Public support for expansion of the city rail network in Melbourne but the Coalition government in Victoria supports expansion of the road network for which cost benefit analysis is almost lacking and which best estimates consider uneconomic. But Tony Abbott supports roads because people like to drive cars! And Joe Hockey talks of Australia’s superior performance in public-private partnerships. On the basis of what evidence?

Despite borrowing costs being as low as ever in living memory, despite investment being critical for productivity and despite employment and other economic benefits which would flow so helping offset declining resource exploitation, as Tim Colebatch has pointed out, the neglect of the last 20 years remains unaddressed. What will happen when failure to invest in public transport leads to road traffic congestion resembling Beijing today? Again, some business people hardly help: Bernard Salt from KPMG when asked recently why we weren’t investing as we did years ago asserted the reason was higher labour costs!

But it has to be recognised that fundamentally the Constitution gives the States principal responsibility for infrastructure though the ability to borrow is regulated by the Loans Council. States continue with silly nonsense about not spending more money than they have and not lumbering future generations with debt. Presumably, lumbering them with poor public transport and roads – go to the potholed secondary roads in any rural area in New South Wales for instance and try to get public transport from almost any suburb of any major city – is OK. Buying more cars seems especially useful.

As many observers have said, the Rudd-Gillard Labor governments had three important policies which will survive, the school education plan, the NBN and the Disability Insurance Scheme. They were not sufficient reason for the electorate to give ongoing support. But elements of their achievements and their record are such as to make it clear that, especially when one considers the muddled ignorance of Abbott and his colleagues, Australia faced a challenge of reason not just in September 2013, but as must surely now be clear, in the future.


Multiculturalism, a word added in the Whitlam years with the appointment of Al Grassby as Minister, has been held up by many as a major achievement of Australia. It has by no means been easy with some major disturbances and the possibility of significant discrimination which marked the decades before 1972 re-emerging. Whitlam’s and Fraser’s and subsequent government policies, following the abandonment of the White Australia policy which itself followed the huge influx of European migrants after the Second World War, broadened and enriched the cultural mix of Australian community with many immigrants from Asian countries.

With vast increases in refugees following armed conflict in Eastern Europe, north Asia and the Middle East people with cultural practices markedly different from those of Europe and Asia joined the Australian population. In many, many cases they became successful citizens, as had those before them. However, increasing conflict in north Asia, the Middle East and sub Saharan Africa led to increasing numbers of people seeking to enter Australia and European countries also. From the later 1980s, the arrival of people seeking asylum  has become a major issue leading to policies challenging the basis of Australian political and cultural life and straining the United Nations Refugee Convention and other UN conventions including that on the Rights of the Child.

Though policies of both parties on asylum seekers involve detention and worse are disgraceful and objections to these people’s arrival could be surrogates for frustrations over employment and housing availability, any person seriously considering the issue surely comes to the conclusion that the claim that the Howard Government stopped the boats is simplistic: the flow of refugees to many countries declined in early years of last decade. Establishing Australian visa processing offices in Indonesia and countries from which most refugees flee could make a difference. Providing a great deal more aid to those countries, as Malcolm Fraser has advocated, would make some difference in addressing what is a worldwide tragedy and a worldwide disgrace: Australia after all is an agent in two countries wracked by armed conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan, from which many of these people come. Have we no consequent responsibility?

Immigration Minister Morrison can claim to have stopped the boats. But at what cost? Ongoing astonishingly dreadful costs in human suffering as people are held in detention for years. Astonishingly high costs in financial outlays for the maintenance of the detention centres in other countries. Ridiculous proposals for resettlement of asylum seekers in countries like Cambodia, hardly recovered themselves from decades of armed conflict and worse! The situation is extraordinarily complex: every week more refugees emerge terrified from conflict in which they may have little role. Might we work harder to address the reasons for the conflicts and economic disadvantage? What happened to the important agreement which one time foreign Minister Gareth Evans worked so hard on, known as “Responsibility to Protect” which addresses the fact that conflict now is almost always within countries.

Allowing settlement, after initial processing, in rural areas as advocated by Julian Burnside, has great merit. These people pose security and other problems t no greater extent than other peoples including those already resident in Australia; those who come by plane are by far the major abusers of visa overstaying. The persecution of ‘boat people’ is an inappropriate excuse for not doing what is really difficult: as advocated by Laurie Ferguson that is the opening up of proper discussion and advocacy of a genuine humanitarian response. It is the same as advocating flexible employment policies instead of urging business to do a better job of the much harder task of developing leadership and learning from best, not worst, business practice. The entire area is complex and fraught. But surely unending incarceration in situations where those interned self harm at alarming rates, export to completely alien countries or return to the countries from which they escaped and where on return they would be threatened or even killed makes no sense. Quite apart from the marginalisation of Australia’s obligations under United Nations instruments. In the last week in September 2014 Immigration Minister Morrison tabled legislation to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas and at the same time remove most references to the United Nations Refugee Convention from the Migration Act thereby removing Australia’s obligations under that Convention.

Indigenous Australians: First Peoples

And Australia’s First Peoples? A people who survived drought and flood over 60,000 years, adapted the landscape to their own purpose, developed belief systems tying them to the land giving them identity and demanding intimate knowledge of every feature and possibility for use, embraced a kinship system of astonishing complexity and an art lately recognised for its vibrancy and sophistication. A people whose language was denied, whose connections to the land were ignored, whose family relationships were destroyed by forced removal of children, whose engagement in the pastoral industry made that industry possible only to be severed from their involvement once they had to be paid. A people now important to the mining industry. A people increasingly educated contributing to more than the best dance, the best contemporary art, the best music, the best film.

Mr Abbott claims to be a Prime Minister for Indigenous Peoples! Really? Will he recognise the importance of self-determination as demonstrated by the Harvard studies of Native Americans? Will he change the policies of the intervention at least in respect of housing so that Indigenous communities can gain skills? Will he do more than support recognising Indigenous peoples in the Preamble to the Constitution? Will he acknowledge the disparate allocation of funding of basic services everywhere? Will he acknowledge that huge advances in personal achievement have been made despite all this and the ongoing survival, accompanied often by astonishing courage and humour? And will he point out that the drunkenness and family abuse is a terrible tragedy everywhere, in indigenous and non-indigenous communities alike?

Then there is the appalling continued incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples two decades after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody, especially in Western Australia: 1 in 13 Aboriginal males are in prison! Deaths in custody are common, not always in prison. Mandatory detention, such as the infamous 3 strikes and you’re out, are leading to people being in prison for such trivial issues as failing to repay minor debts or for minor shoplifting offences. In the US the same policy has led to vast amounts of taxpayer dollars being spent on prisons, spending reaching so great a level that petty “criminals” have had to be let out of jail before budgets were consumed by the costs of running the prisons!

Abbott’s response to ongoing Indigenous issues has been to have billionaire mining magnate Andrew (“Twiggy”) Forrest prepare a plan which in the end recommended further discriminatory income management imposing more control over people’s lives. Where else is that thought to be appropriate? Are Indigenous people themselves not capable of working through solutions? The view seems to be that they cannot, that assimilation into the western economy is the proper path. It is simplistic and uninformed, grounded in a wholly unsupportable nineteenth century view of non-Indigenous superiority. Perhaps Mr Forrest could have been asked to inquire into the deaths in custody in Western Australia.

The late Alistair Cook, in his Letter from America in 1992 on the cinquecentenary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America, said, speaking of the heightened attention to the brutality of Columbus’s men, “when we compare such men with our sainted selves – so enlightened, so compassionate, so – well, in a word – decent.” [Our brutality] is “a truth always difficult for us to remember”. To acknowledge! The relevance is the treatment of “the other” – minorities – everywhere and it reflects on what we think it means for a community to be civilised.


The Eva Valley Statement, the High Court and Native Title

On 5 August 1993 more than four hundred Indigenous people from around Australia gathered at Eva Valley, near Katherine in the Northern Territory. The meeting was called in response to concerns about Commonwealth proposals for legislation on native title in the wake of the Mabo decision (3 June 1992). The participants insisted on a national standard of rights to be given to all Aborigines and issued the Eva Valley Statement.

The Statement insists that any proposed legislation should advance Aboriginal rights to land, and that the Government should only move on the issue with the full support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It demanded that:

– the Commonwealth take full control of native title issues to the exclusion of the States and Territories to ensure a national standard for all Aboriginal peoples;

– the Commonwealth honour its obligations under international human rights instruments and international law; and

– the Commonwealth agree to a negotiating process to achieve a lasting settlement recognising and addressing historical truths regarding the impact of dispossession, marginalisation, destabilisation and disadvantage.

The Statement set out principles under which the Commonwealth should take actions in response to the Mabo decision by the High Court recognising that the land was indeed settled on first arrival by Europeans and nominated a representative body to put forward the Indigenous position on these matters.


The Keating Government’s response to Mabo – the Native Title Act 1993 – codified the High Court’s decision.  It established the native Title Tribunal to facilitate the process of recognising enduring title to the land by people able to show rights and interests under traditional laws and customs that continue to be observed and established that such people had a right to be consulted in all decisions concerning those lands. Enactment of the legislation was marked by conflict amongst non-Indigenous Australians and assertions about serious negative economic impacts. It attracted criticism especially by mining and pastoral interests. That reaction paid no attention to the powerful criticisms of non-Indigenous peoples since 1788 in the Redfern speech by Prime Minister Keating on 10 December 1992, a speech considered by many to be amongst the most important made by any Australian leader in the last 240 years.

One of the first acts of the Howard Government was to enact the Native Title Amendment Act which responded to the High Court Judgement in the Wik case in 1996 that showed that the Native Title Act did not deal adequately with the situation of native title rights co-existing with other rights. It is commonly referred to as the “10 point plan” because it set out arrangements to recognise what Howard called “practical reconciliation”. It severely limited the provisions of the Keating legislation. The Act changed provisions for primary production activities and gave more powers to the States.

Proposals to recognise Indigenous peoples in the Australian Constitution, recommendations on which were handed to the government in recent days by Indigenous member of Parliament West Australian Ken Wyatt, are far from agreed. How far have we come in 20 years, let alone the nearly 50 years since the 1967 referendum which recognised the rights of Indigenous peoples to vote and to be counted in the census, rights that had been ignored in the 1901 Constitution?


Investment in the future, not fixing up a few issues like balancing the budget and regulating immigration, not even defence hardware, are the critical issues. Investment in the future is not just critical to the economy and to prosperity now: it is just as controlling wages growth is not the issue in advancing effectiveness in organisations though it is not unimportant. Leadership is vital because it so influences commitment and innovation in the workplace as well as influencing the non-working lives of everyone. It is no less important in a nation! Leadership means considering the long-term, the future of those who are children now and of those unborn.

The economies of Europe from post World War 2 through the 1980s recognised these things and some of those countries still do. They have not been helped by IMF enforced austerity programs based on careless spreadsheet construction, phoney economics and careless arithmetic, which instead of encouraging growth have driven young and old alike into desperation and legitimised simplistic politics marginalising everyone who seems different. We see the outcome in the increasing concern about Germany despite some improvements in some of the peripheral countries such as Spain. Not the least fall out has been the appalling decrease in job opportunities for young people: in Italy youth unemployment is around 50 per cent! The economic divergence which has accelerated since 1980 is now recognised by many world leaders and former leading politicians as well as executives of some of the most important institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England and many leading policy institutes. But not by the Abbott government.

Australia faces huge challenges. As Australian Lord Robert May, former scientific advisor to the British Government and President of the Royal Society, said in addressing the Lowy Institute a few years ago, understanding the issues requires post enlightenment thinking but implementing the solutions probably requires pre-enlightenment behaviour antithetical to the enlightenment. Is it possible that Australian intelligence can overcome the need for such behaviour?


As Willard approaches the enclave of Kurz, he meets French rubber plantation owners. Over dinner they tell him that the situation in Vietnam is of America’s making: they simply did not understand the situation. The scene appeared in Apocalypse Now Redux but not the originally released film version: it was just too sensitive.

Independence for Vietnamese – freedom from domination by the French – was a goal of decades, not adherence to communism by Ho Chi Min. That was something that Franklin Roosevelt had pointed out, as he had to Winston Churchill in respect of British colonies. That the escalation of the Vietnam War from 1964 on was based on the lie of an attack on an American warship in international waters is subsumed by America’s ongoing mythology about an “American Future”, so dramatically illustrated by Simon Schama’s wonderful four part TV series.

In March 2006, the John F. Kennedy Library hosted a landmark conference, Vietnam and the Presidency. It brought together some of the nation’s foremost historians, journalists, veterans and policy makers to discuss the lessons and legacy of the Vietnam War. In question time Henry Kissinger was asked whether if he knew then what he knew now would he have advocated involvement in Vietnam. He described the question as unhelpful!

This is Part 2 of a two part series. Part 1 can be found here.

A subsequent essay will examine the major challenges facing Australia, the way that the first Abbott government’s budget ignored them and the ongoing marginalisation of the courage required to address the real issues.