It says much about the state of the left that the conservatives are taking a radical lead on issues of constitutional change in Australia.
Painfully highlighted by Prime Minister John Howard’s paternalistic assault on Indigenous Australians it should be clear to all except the myopists of the far left that there is a burgeoning crisis of federalism in this country.
Howard’s "war on sex abuse" in Aboriginal communities is clearly a last-minute attempt at wedge politics a few months out from an election. Apart from Howard apologists such as Noel Pearson, much of the reaction is ostensibly correct: where is the consultation, let alone the negotiation? Why hasn’t he done anything for the past 11 years? Why isn’t Howard addressing the underlying causes? What about other issues in Aboriginal health? What about abuse by non-Aboriginal men outlined in the Children Are Sacred report? What about the widespread sex abuse, alcohol abuse and unpunished/unreported rapes in non-Aboriginal society?
Forced intervention by the military and a land-grab by white bureaucrats will only add to the crisis in Aboriginal communities. Forced medical inspection of young children will only add to their trauma. And there is the growing panic in some communities that this whole process will see another generation of children taken away.
Out of fear of being wedged just outside an election campaign, the ALP has predictably - and unfortunately - backed the Howard campaign while reserving the right to criticise the detail. This has all the hollow echo of Kim Beazley’s “me-too” response to Howard’s Tampa gambit in 2001.
This is not to deny that there is a serious crisis but the government is using the issue as a Trojan horse to push through its ideological agenda.
The timing of Howard’s assault is pure cynicism. Aboriginal organisations have been crying out for help to deal with sex abuse and myriad other social and health problems only to be ignored by government.
Behind Howard’s assault is a deeper political process, however. This is the latest act of centralisation in the hands of the Commonwealth under a prime minister who has been nothing but radical in his corralling of powers for the federal government.
In the face of a conservative majority in both houses of parliament, this has led some leftists to actually trumpet states’ rights. With no positive program for change, with no narrative to take to the Australian people, such leftists merely respond to change in the most piecemeal of manners while sprouting off about socialism.
John Howard’s administration has seen the most undemocratic centralisation of power in the history of the Commonwealth outside of war time. Even in fiscal terms this has not gone unnoticed. Take Steve Burrell’s article, “Big Squeeze: states as branch offices” in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on May 29. Burrell points out that specific purpose payments - a form of tied funding - now make up 42 per cent of Commonwealth monies to the states and local government. These payments have been growing at the rate of 7 per cent a year since 1999-2000.
A petty example of such tied funding is money to state schools provided they fly the Australian flag, or the provision of funding to schools for a religious pastor for counselling. It is money tied to achieve the federal government’s policy agenda.
“So what?”, many on the left would argue. What’s this got to do with socialism? All governments, state and federal, are pursuing a fundamentalist market philosophy now.
This is an edited version of an article, 'Defend Indigenous land rights, fight for a democratic republic', originally published in the Labor Tribune, on July 8, 2007. The longer version can be found here.
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