A New Democracy


by Jeff McMullen
July 10th, 2013

Imagine a country where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are recognised as the sovereign owners of lands they have lived on for sixty thousand years or more.

Imagine the freedom to be yourself, culturally, spiritually, linguistically, regardless of your age, gender, colour or ethnic origin.

Imagine a Constitution that enshrines these human rights and upholds all of our international legal obligations. Imagine a constitutional prohibition on discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, ethnic or national origin. Imagine a positive mandate in that Constitution to ensure laws are made and programs enacted to end the impoverishment of so many of the First Australians as well as others.

Imagine an Australia where the Indigenous value of custodianship binds all of us to a shared responsibility to care for this land and for one another. In this Constitution there would be power and poetry. It would inspire us, expressing our true sense of place, acknowledging the longer timelines of history, defining us and unifying us as Australians.

This is my dream and I hope you have one too. It is a dream of a new democracy and a constitution that is inclusive of all Australians.

If you can’t see that far into the future to a brighter day that some day will come, then you risk settling for the status quo. Maybe you know some of those Australians who don’t know the Constitution exists, don’t know what’s in it or that we have the power to change it for the better?


Even a glance at the Constitution reveals the deep stain of racism and discrimination. It is one of the few constitutions in the world today with negative race powers allowing government to make laws and policy that pointedly trample the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In contrast to the constitutions of most Western democracies Australia’s says very little at all about human rights.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long been denied many of the most fundamental human rights including those Australia is obligated to uphold under many international covenants.

So any discussion of a new attempt to belatedly recognise their legal rights as well as the rightful central place of Indigenous Australians as the most ancient founding peoples of the many nations that were here for tens of thousands of years surely must begin with an honest statement of certain facts.

Despite the lie of terra nullius Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people occupied these lands longer than anyone really knows. Their lands were invaded and many of the settlers used brutal force to take what was never theirs.

To deny the invasion, the massacres and the theft of lands, and I say this with grim irony, would undermine any claim that the Australian Constitution has legitimacy. The nation constituted by the Australia Constitution Act of 1900, a British Act of Parliament, is founded on the misguided notion of white supremacy and the equal folly of that tragic concept of conquest. As some Australia judges have noted conquest is a facet of international use to justify claims by other nations to sovereignty. But having witnessed many of the worst conflicts over the past 45 years I am convinced this ancient belief in conquest is a vestige of our most predatory and barbaric traits as a species.

Yet conquest, of a sort, and extraordinary denial or reality is what has landed us all in this constitutional mess. Despite the fact that the original English invader, James Cook, ignored his orders to “consult with the natives”, despite the truth that Aboriginal resistance did occur, that there was no surrender of sovereignty and no negotiation of a treaty, the colonies established a constitution that looked right through Aboriginal people as if they were not there.

There were just two references to “natives” in the 1901 Constitution Act and they both tragically excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They were not even to be counted in the census because given the prevailing racism it was assumed that out among the flora and fauna they were doomed to extinction.

The Parliament was prohibited from making laws for the “natives” but this exclusion did not prevent shameful policies aimed at assimilation and at times acts of genocide. It was not until the 1967 Referendum that a 92 percent majority of Australians voted emphatically to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be counted along with all other citizens and yes the Commonwealth could make laws for them too along with other races.

You see the anachronistic, racist and scientifically false notion of a White Australia was built into the Australian Constitution. The race powers are still there today.

Section 25 allows the states if they wish to disenfranchise people on the basis of race. Section 51 (xxvi) allows the federal parliament to pass special laws relating to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

You can see what this means for Aboriginal people when you look closely at the crushing humiliation of the Northern Territory Intervention, as the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended again to allow official discrimination, sanctioned by a Prime Minister, an Opposition Leader and almost all members of the federal parliament.

An Aboriginal child born in one of those remote communities will spend the first 15 years of life controlled by the new Chief Protectors who dictate fundamental aspects of family life, cultural life, work, welfare and education from thousands of kilometres away in Canberra. Their genuine right to an equal opportunity for health, education, housing and a decent standard of living has never been honoured in this hollow Constitution.

At the time the Northern Territory Intervention was launched then Prime Minister John Howard declared that he was not concerned with constitutional niceties when the safety of children was at stake. What extraordinary hypocrisy.

The intervention was a very dangerous government big lie and it shows the tragic flaws in our current democracy that allows a government to discriminate. Gormless politicians playing to the applause of neo-liberals who want to assimilate Indigenous people pass many laws that clearly do not benefit the First Australians.

The land

When I have consulted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people privately and publicly in many places and many forums around the country, overwhelmingly they speak of their land, the land that owns them, the sovereignty they believe is the essence of their being.

Sovereignty may mean many different things to different people but to most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people clearly it means the legal right to control their destiny on their land and waters. Polling by the National Congress of First Peoples tell us that this deep and abiding sovereignty is clearly foremost on the minds of Indigenous people, along with health and the education of their children.

Here then is the first great dilemma in the current approach to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The consensus paper prepared by the government-appointed panel of experts makes it perfectly clear that sovereignty is not going to be included in any referendum proposal for constitutional recognition and change.

One of the members of the expert panel, Noel Pearson, is quoted as saying that apart from being unachievable, “full-blown sovereignty” may not be necessary and that “local indigenous sovereignty” could exist internally within a nation state “provided that the fullest rights of self-determination are accorded”.

Given that the present policy towards Indigenous Australians is that crushing assimilation described euphemistically as modernisation or renovation of culture, and given the astonishing undermining of Aboriginal authority through the Intervention and the ten-year extension known as the STRONGER FUTURES legislation, the “fullest rights of self-determination” sadly seem lifetimes away.

This is where Australia lags behind the rest of the world. The United States government has more than 350 treaties with Native Americans. American courts have upheld Indigenous sovereignty repeatedly and affirmed the right of the First Nations to self-government. Importantly, evidence gathered by many decades of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development led by Professors Stephen Cornell and Joe Kalt shows emphatically that sovereignty, control of their destiny, is the real key to development.

The only Indigenous people in the world who have equal life expectancy with the rest of their fellow citizens are the Sami spread across Norway, Finland and Sweden. All three of these countries have Sami parliaments and Norway’s constitution recognises the country as bi-cultural, a guarantee that the government will consult and negotiate with Sami to maintain their distinct language and culture.

Positive recognition

Such positive recognition and progress by other First Nations shows up the limitations of the Australian approach and the negative restraints imposed by a political reality, a grudging willingness to make symbolic change perhaps but real doubt about how far the politicians or the people will go.

Whatever happened to the belief in a treaty or legal compact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to address their sovereignty and so much of this nation’s unfinished business?

The expert panel clearly states that it saw its brief as coming up with recommendations that contribute to a more “unified and reconciled nation, and be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the political and social spectrums. In addition they had to benefit and accord with the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and be technically and legally sound”. Specifically, the experts wanted a clear expression of support from a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for any statement of recognition.

But in truth, the panel of experts has inadvertently or intentionally reinforced the political reality that recognising Aboriginal sovereignty is not going to happen and nor is any legal compact or treaty that would in a meaningful way encapsulate land rights.

The panel notes that these are issues of great concern for future discussion.

What the panel is offering all Australians now are five strong recommendations that nonetheless clearly do not meet the priorities for action by the very people the changes are intended to benefit. I believe this presents a grave threat to any chance of unity on constitutional change.

Australia has only ever held 44 referendums and just eight have been carried. Here is the measure of our constitutional conservatism and of just how our nation has been held back by the timidity and lack of leadership by our elected politicians.

It is 36 years since Australians made any change to our Constitution. The last time we could ever find the two thirds majority of voters in a majority of states was for a referendum in 1977 that required federal judges to retire at 70.

A retired judge I hugely respect, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby, has summed up the situation we are now facing, understanding the record and noting the importance of recognising the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

White Australia

“Constitutionally speaking,” Michael Kirby said, “we are still basically White Australia, however much we boast that we have changed”.

Well, you have had months to mull over the expert panel’s five recommendations, what are the prospects that they will change the racism and the discrimination?

The first recommendation to erase forever section 25 of the Constitution would prevent the states from ever taking away the right to vote based on race.

The second recommendation to remove section 51 (xxvi) would eliminate the negative race power that has been used to make laws that harm the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The third recommendation is for a new power that would give the federal parliament power to pass laws that benefit Indigenous Australians. This new section would also set out a clear statement of recognition of the prior occupancy of the continent and the ongoing relationship with land and waters. Echoing the Sami Constitutional recognition, there is also a proposal in this section to require the government to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This may or may not give more of the right kind of support to programs that could bring equality in health, education, employment and life expectancy.

The fourth recommendation is the one that I believe is the most urgently needed because it addresses so many burning injustices right now. It would prohibit the Commonwealth, States and Territories from discriminating on the basis of race, colour, ethnic or national origin.

Disappointingly, gender has not been included in this list. Why not emphasise that important human right while we are engaged in this effort to improve our Constitution?

Finally, in their fifth recommendation, the expert panel seeks a language provision that states that English is the national language but also affirms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders languages as part of our national heritage.

It is up to you, my brothers and sisters, to raise your voice wherever and whenever you can to let the Aboriginal voice ring out loud and clear.

I have shared my dreams with you and I will walk with you.

I am certain that more than words in any document what this nation needs most is a change of heart.

First published in The Beacon


Beer Goggles


By Tracker, November 19, 2012

NATIONAL: The politics of backing grog bans despite scant evidence they actually work.

With changes of government in both Queensland and the Northern Territory recently, alcohol restrictions in Aboriginal communities have been hotly debated in mainstream media. But ironically, the government’s seeking to relax grog bans are both conservative, the traditional political home of those who support government control of black lives.

CHRIS GRAHAM* delves into the politics of grog, and the reasons why some still support grog bans, despite strong evidence which shows they don’t work.

In the annals of silly things said by silly politicians, former South Australian Labor Treasurer and Deputy Premier Kevin Foley’s recent contribution to the debate around alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities raises the bar. No mean feat in the current political climate.

“Some pretty ugly and worrying politics dressed up as policy have been unfolding in the north of Australia in recent months,” Foley told Adelaide Now readers in his regular column earlier this month.

“The crushing victory of Campbell Newman’s LNP in Queensland saw the party win a large number of seats with a high proportion of indigenous voters.

“In the NT, Labor was swept aside after an unexpected loss of support in their country – and mostly Indigenous – seats, which they had obviously been taking for granted.

“What’s occurred since those elections should be setting off alarm bells in Canberra and Australia-wide.
“Long-held bipartisan policies of supporting mandatory alcohol bans within Aboriginal communities have been ditched in favour of allowing these communities to decide whether to maintain the bans.

“The violence and hopelessness that alcohol has bought to Indigenous Australians is well-known. The violence towards women and children from drunken men in these communities was at a level unimaginable in non-Indigenous Australia.

“Strong Indigenous leaders, together with government support, saw bans enforced years ago, with a dramatic decline in violence.

“It’s no secret men within Aboriginal communities are massively influential and dominate decision-making.

“I believe adding alcohol back into these communities will be a dangerous and explosive move.

“Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson and leading academic Marcia Langton have gone public with their dismay and opposition to allowing booze back. Why then are these two governments rolling back a successful and bipartisan moratorium? Simple.

“It’s both a reward and a continuing chase for support from an electorate previously shunned by conservative politicians. The blokes get their booze back; women are intimidated to remain silent and even vote the way their husbands tell them to.

“A clear differentiation with Labor is struck. A vote for the CLP or LNP is a vote to get grog.

“A vote for Labor is forced sobriety.

“This is a disgraceful development in Australian politics. It cannot be explained any other way.”
Well, it can actually. But we’ll come back to Mr Foley’s theory a little later, because the facts are a little more important.

Grog is a problem in some Cape York Aboriginal communities. Grog is a problem in some Northern Territory Aboriginal communities too. Indeed grog is a problem in many Aboriginal communities around the country.

And as anyone whose spent five minutes in Kings Cross knows, grog is also a problem in Sydney. A big one.

Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson.

A study funded by the Alcohol and Education Rehabilitation Foundation (AERF) in 2004/05 revealed that over a two month period, almost 30 percent of the 4,878 presentations to the St Vincent’s Hospital Emergency Department were for alcohol related injuries and treatment for intoxication. And that’s just one Sydney hospital.

The fact is, where there’s grog, there’s grog-related problems. Period.

One solution – which governments of all persuasions have tried for hundreds of years with varying degrees of success – has been to restrict supply.

The theory of alcohol restrictions or bans in Aboriginal communities is no different. If you restrict supply, you restrict consumption. And if you restrict consumption, you reduce alcohol-related injuries.

In particular, the pro-abolitionists claim – you reduce violence against women and children.

By far the nation’s two most high-profile promoters of this theory, at least on the Aboriginal side, are Professor Marcia Langton, and Noel Pearson.

No-one should doubt the determination of Pearson, Langton and others to end dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. Both are passionate about grog bans. Both are passionate about Aboriginal advancement.

And both of them are wrong when it comes to the methods they advocate.

Noel Pearson grew up in the small Cape York community of Hope Vale, a 370km drive north of Cairns. He has long advocated for grog bans in Cape York communities, and he’s been very effective at it. With support from Pearson, the previous Beattie-Labor government introduced mandatory Alcohol Management Plans throughout Aboriginal communities in the Cape in the early 2000s.

With the bans in place, Pearson’s organization, the Cape York Institute, began compiling research for the Council of Australian Governments, a meeting of the federal, state and territory governments around the nation. The pitch to COAG was to urge them to keep the faith on grog bans, and indeed to commit to greater assistance for management of alcohol across the Cape.

Pearson’s research was being compiled in September 2004 – precisely the same time the AERF team was researching the affects of grog on admissions at St Vincent’s Hospital.

The differences in methodology couldn’t be more stark.

While the AERF based a research assistant within St Vincent’s emergency department “24 hours a day seven days a week in order to identify injury presentations and to collect information on alcohol consumption” direct from the patient, or from their medical records, the Cape York Institute found a much less laborious way to gather its data.

After extensively outlining its theory on grog restrictions, the Cape York Institute turned to the figures which it claimed showed grog bans actually do work.

Page 23 of their PowerPoint presentation is unimaginatively titled ‘Statistics show plans are working(1)’.

And what of these statistics? The Cape York Institute claims a 48% reduction in alcohol-related injuries across the Cape, and a 54% reduction in presentations for assault.

In specific communities such as Kowanyama, it claims a 65% drop in alcohol-related “offenders” and a 68% reduction in offences against the person.

In case you’re wondering what the small “(1)” in the headline means, it’s a reference to the Cape York Institute’s source on the figures.

You have to read the fine print for the details: “(1) Data from the Premier’s press release (6/7/04). Additional data not yet publicly available.”

The figures may – or may not – be accurate. But a press release from the office of former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie could hardly be described as scientific.

The official crime statistics for the Cape York region, however, are quite a bit more robust.

And they tell a very different story.

The Queensland Beattie Government began forcing Alcohol Management Plans on Aboriginal communities at the end of 2003. It followed an inquiry led by Tony Fitzgerald, the man who spectacularly rooted out police corruption in Queensland a few years earlier.

Aurukun was the first cab off the rank, on December 20, 2002. Napranum, just outside of the mining town of Weipa, came online in May, 2003, followed by Lockhart River, Wujal Wujal, Kowanyama and Pormpuraaw.

Mapoon, the communities of the Northern Peninsula Area (Bamaga, Injinoo, Seisia, Umagico and New Mapoon) and Pearson’s home-town of Hope Vale launched their mandatory AMPs in April 2004.

Their introduction came at a curious time, according to the official crime statistics kept by the Queensland Police Service.

During 2000/01, the assault rate in Cape York communities was almost three times the state average, at a rate of 1,419 assaults per 100,000 head of population.

That is to say, for every 100,000 people living in the region, 1,419 would be the victims of an assault in the course of a year.

In 2001/02, the rate dropped to 1,382.

And it dropped markedly the following year, to 1,216.

Enter the Beattie Government’s Alcohol Management Plans.

Over the next two years, after all AMPs had been implemented, the drop in assault rates slowed dramatically, then plateaued.

And in the year immediately after the introduction of AMPs across the Cape, it jumped markedly to 1,291.

By 2010-11, almost a decade after the AMPs began rolling out, assault rates in Cape York had dropped to 1,007, a reduction of 30 percent.

Supporters of grog bans will point to that figure as proof that AMPs work.

But half of that drop – 15 percent – occurred in the two years before AMPs were introduced.

Under the Alcohol Management Plans, it took another nine years to achieve a corresponding 15 percent reduction, and that occurred at a time when assault rates across Queensland were also dropping.

In fact, the assault rates in Cape York – while certainly much higher than the state average – have mirrored almost precisely the rise and falls of assault rates across Queensland.

At the same time assault rates were plateauing, the rates for offences in Aboriginal communities which are generally associated with drunkenness went through the roof.

In 2000/01, ‘liquor offence rates’ – which include things like illegal possession of alcohol – were at 142 per 100,000 people.

By 2009/10 they’d increased more than seven-fold to 1087.

‘Good order’ offences – which include offences like public drunkenness – were policed in Cape York at the rate of 1,897 people per 100,000 head of population in 2000/01 (a rate three times greater than the state average).

With the launch of AMPs, they increased to 2,283.

So what does that all mean?

Alcohol Management Plans have had no real affect on lowering assault rates in Aboriginal communities. But the criminalisation of Aboriginal drinkers has been a raging success. And that’s not just the experience in Cape York.

As former South Australian Deputy Premier Kevin Foley notes, grog bans haven’t just been the topic of political conversation in Queensland.

They’ve also received wide air-play across Central and Northern Australia, hence Mr Foley’s recent stumble into the debate.

One of the key planks of the 2007 Northern Territory intervention was blanket grog bans in every Aboriginal community, and all Aboriginal town camps in urban settings.

While many aspects of the NT intervention caused, in the words of health bodies such as the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, “real and lasting harm”, for a substantial number of communities the grog bans had no real impact at all. That’s because they were already ‘dry’, and in many cases always had been.

Monitoring the affects of the grog bans has been an important part of federal government reporting on the NT intervention.

Twice a year, the Commonwealth releases a report into the policy. It makes for interesting reading.

In the first six months of 2010, the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk (an initiative of the intervention) seized 404 litres of alcohol from Aboriginal communities. By July 2011 it had increased three-fold to 1,233 litres, and then up to 1,445 by the end of the year.

And bear in mind, this is after four years of government intervention and grog bans.

At the same time, alcohol infractions grew rapidly.

The federal government’s monitoring report concedes that in 2007, there were 1,784 “alcohol related incidents”. By 2011, the number had more than doubled to 4,101 (it peaked in 2009 at 4,539).

Alcohol related domestic violence incidents also rose, from 387 in 2007, to 1,109 in 2011 – another three-fold increase.

The federal government frequently claims that the increase in crime statistics is a result of more police in the Territory, thus there’s more reporting.

But in truth, while assault rates have more than doubled since 2007, the number of lodgments (that is, charges that flow from an incident) is virtually the same as in 2011 as it was in 2008 (548 in 2011 versus 537 in 2008).

The NTER reports have been showing the same failures every six months since the intervention began.

But finally, late last year, came a concession. Of sorts.

Controversial Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton.(AAP IMAGE/ALAN PORRITT)

“On the basis of the existing evidence and the views put forward in the NTER redesign consultations, the Australian Government believes that alcohol restrictions should continue, but that there should be a change of focus from a universally imposed measure to a measure designed to meet the individual needs of specific communities.”

That’s about as close as any government will get to admitting that sweeping alcohol bans don’t work.

That it’s taken the Feds five years to get there is a measure of the pace at which governments face their own policy failures, particularly when tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are involved.

But even then, the Gillard government is only just arriving at the point at which the Queensland Government is now exiting – ie. ‘alcohol bans designed to suit individual communities’ is the Cape York’s failed grog bans, 10 years on.

Adds the Commonwealth: “Moving to local restrictions will be based on evidence about such matters as the level of alcohol-related harm in a community and whether a community based Alcohol Management Plan (AMP) is in place,” says the Commonwealth.

Which brings us back to Kevin Foley’s theory on why the Queensland Territory governments are walking away from blanket grog bans.


If the intent of grog bans has been to ensure Aboriginal people don’t get drunk and injure themselves, then they’re successful.

There have been many media reports (mostly without proper sourcing) of big drops in alcohol-related admissions to health clinics in Aboriginal communities following the introduction of grog bans.

Anonymous statistics aside, it does make sense.

If you reduce the supply of alcohol to any community – white or black – you will see a corresponding drop in the number of alcohol-related injuries.

Alcohol causes harm. Reduced alcohol results in reduced harm. That’s not in dispute.

But stopping people hurting themselves is not the argument being used to argue for the retention of grog bans and restrictions in Aboriginal communities.

This is: “The violence and hopelessness that alcohol has bought to Indigenous Australians is well-known. The violence towards women and children from drunken men in these communities was at a level unimaginable in non-Indigenous Australia.”

That was Kevin Foley again. And so is this: “It’s no secret men within Aboriginal communities are massively influential and dominate decision-making.”

Because, of course, men in non-Aboriginal communities are not “massively influential” nor do they “dominate decision-making”.

Foley is joined in his theory on men by Professor Marcia Langton: “[Grog] is causing severe endangerment to women and children in communities.”

That was the Professor earlier this month in the Sydney Morning Herald, arguing against the scrapping of the NT grog bans. A week earlier, in The Australian, Professor Langton described the plan by the Newman government to scrap the bans as a cynical political move aimed at keeping “a small group of men” happy.

To build her case, Langton even credited the grog bans in Cape York with a rise in school attendance rates, a surprising claim given how easily it can be disproved.

In 2009, after the grog bans had been in place for the better part of a decade, school attendance rates at Aurukun were averaging around 37 percent. They did jump to over 60 percent in 2010, but that was thanks to a concerted effort from the school community and, locals say, the work of respected Aboriginal educator, Chris Sarra, who began working with the school to boost local pride.

Langton rounded off her argument by suggesting that Cape Yorkers were being treated the same as everyone else.

“We can’t go and buy alcohol at any time of the day or night . . . There are restrictions everywhere in Australia now on drinking in public places and specified places.”

Professor Langton clearly hasn’t visited the Crown complex in her hometown of Melbourne of late, where you can get a drink whenever you like. Or the one in Sydney. Or Brisbane. Or the Gold Coast. Or… you get the point.

And she seems to be of the mistaken belief that Aboriginal leaders in Cape York are arguing for 24-hour liquor licenses. Which of course, they’re not. And which of course they’d never get anyway.

But bold claims and less than sober theories are not just the domain of black political players. The white ones have been weighing in as well, and their claims are dripping with hypocrisy.

Delia Lawrie, the new leader of the Opposition in the NT argued in The Australian recently against removing grog bans in the Territory, noting that ‘where drinking clubs had been established they had often become “swill houses and centres of political power within a community”.

“An insidious co-dependency has emerged as the clubs produce income through the sale of alcohol and proceeds are used to endow favoured projects.”

Lawrie could equally be describing any state of Australia, where licensed clubs laud over hundreds of millions of dollars, and allocate them to projects they like. Nowhere is that more the case than in the ACT, where the Labor Party has been a major recipient of substantial funding direct from a series of union-owned licensed venues.

If that’s not “endowing favoured projects”, I don’t know what is.

As to the motives behind the grog bans, there’s one particularly popular political theory doing the rounds, and both Langton and Foley have embraced it.

Foley again: “The crushing victory of Campbell Newman’s LNP in Queensland saw the party win a large number of seats with a high proportion of indigenous voters.

“In the NT, Labor was swept aside after an unexpected loss of support in their country – and mostly Indigenous – seats, which they had obviously been taking for granted….

“Long-held bipartisan policies of supporting mandatory alcohol bans within Aboriginal communities have been ditched in favour of allowing these communities to decide whether to maintain the bans…..

“Why then are these two governments rolling back a successful and bipartisan moratorium? Simple.

“It’s both a reward and a continuing chase for support from an electorate previously shunned by conservative politicians. The blokes get their booze back; women are intimidated to remain silent and even vote the way their husbands tell them to.”

Or in the words of Professor Langton: “This is a cheap electoral trick for the big men in Aboriginal communities who want their cases and slabs of beer…”

In fact, it’s nothing to do with ‘big men’ – at least, not ‘big black men’ – and we know this because of simple political maths.

In Queensland, the Cape York region (including the Torres Straits) is serviced by a single electorate – Cook.
Campbell Newman’s government holds 78 seats in an 89-seat parliament. With the largest political majority in any parliament in the country, Newman doesn’t need the voters of Cook to support any policy he puts forward.

NT Chief Minister Terry Mills addresses media after his party, the Country Liberals won an historic NT election last month, courtesy of the Aboriginal vote in the bush. (AAP IMAGE)

The story in the NT is different in numbers, but it’s still about politics.

NT Chief Minister Terry Mill’s mooted lifting of the grog bans has nothing to do with Aboriginal aspirations.

Yes, the CLP won office courtesy of the bush seats, after black Labor voters abandoned a party that abandoned them.

But Mills’ grog policy is about placating white Australians who live in regional centres, and who have seen an influx of Aboriginal people and drinkers since the introduction of the NT intervention.

As the Herald notes in the Langton piece: “According to a prominent member of the Country Liberals… there had always been an element in the CL that believed that if Aboriginal people were free to drink in their communities, fewer would end up staggering around the streets of Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek.”

In other words, Terry Mills is not lifting the alcohol bans because they don’t work. He’s lifting them because white residents – predominantly in Alice Springs and its surrounds, which is home to five CLP seats – are sick and tired of their pristine town bursting at the seams with Aboriginal people.

Some of those Aboriginal people are in Alice Springs to drink. No question. But the majority aren’t.

The reason for the ‘urban drift’ – as locals call it – is because in 2009, the NT Labor government relied on the federal NT intervention legislation (which it claimed to oppose) to abolish Aboriginal community councils, and with them hundreds of jobs in remote towns.

At the same time, it continued the NT intervention introduced by the federal Liberals.

The combined affect was to empty remote Aboriginal communities.

Alice Springs – the hub of Central Australia – has bore the brunt of that urban drift, and the NT intervention-led grog bans, which were once strongly supported by conservative Alice Springs residents, are now vehemently opposed. The whities want the blackfellas on the first bush bus out of town.

As to motivations, the Newman government is partly moved by cost (AMPs cost money) and partly a realization that they don’t work.

For the Mills government, it’s about appeasing a conservative white voter base.

But in both cases, it doesn’t matter what the motivation is, because the policy – giving Aboriginal people control of Aboriginal lives – is the right one. Alcohol bans have never worked. Not in the Cape. Not in the Territory.

So what will?

The relaxing of grog restrictions in Aboriginal communities – be it Cape York or the Northern Territory – will not lead to a new river of grog, because that river has never dried up in the first place, as government report after government report has shown.

In the absence of employment and in the face of ongoing trauma, people drink, regardless of whether they’re black or white.

What the axing of grog bans will do is lead to Aboriginal communities deciding what’s best for Aboriginal communities.

It’s also worth re-iterating that prior to the introduction of grog bans in the Territory, many of the intervention communities were already dry, a choice made by community elders. So the ending of grog bans in the Territory will, for many Aboriginal communities, represent a return to business as usual, where grog was never welcome.

Of course, a relaxation of drinking laws does not excuse governments from their obligations to provide proper services in Aboriginal communities.

Relaxing grog laws alone – while maintaining gross under-investment in Aboriginal communities – will have an inevitable negative outcome. But maintaining control over Aboriginal lives will too, and continues the many failures of the past.

There are a multitude of reasons why some Aboriginal people – and they’re very much in the minority – drink to excess. Chief among them is a lack of control over their own lives, and a sense of hopelessness and desperation about their future.

That is something over which government can have limited policy affect. It’s about putting up the cash to finally invest in communities, and then standing aside and letting Aboriginal people make the decisions on how it’s directed.

Handing back control of Aboriginal communities is the only long-term strategy that will work, as countless studies both here and overseas have shown.

Which brings us back to former South Australian Treasurer Kevin Foley, who, the rumour goes, knows a thing or two about grog.

Indeed, he knows more than most about drunken violence as well.

In late 2010, while Mr Foley was both the Treasurer and the Deputy Premier, he was infamously king-hit by a man outside a well-known Adelaide nightspot in the early hours of the morning.

The assailant claimed he was coming to the aide of a young woman who was being harassed by Mr Foley (a claim Foley denies). The brutal assault was caught on a closed-circuit television camera.

A few months later, after Mr Foley was dumped as Deputy Leader and Treasurer and given the portfolio of Police, he was again assaulted late at night, this time in the toilet of a restaurant.

The charges against a man accused of that assault were later dropped.

How the Deputy Premier of South Australia thought he might best advance the parliamentary interests of his state so late at night at licensed venues is yet to emerge. But what is known is the race of the men with whom he clashed.

They were not Aboriginal.

Thus Mr Foley, in future rants on Adelaide Now, might like to restrict his columns to topics on which he has some knowledge.

Drinking? Yes. Grog bans. No.

* Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and a monthly columnist and contributor.


White myth-making and a State of Denial


By Gary Foley, April 4, 2012

Members of the audience at Federation Square turn their backs on Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson after the national apology. (AAP IMAGE/JULIAN SMITH)

NATIONAL: White Australia must first develop a greater awareness of the issues confronting Aboriginal Australia before we can advance, writes GARY FOLEY*.

White Australia has a Black History, but it also has a long history of denial of that fact.

It also has an extensive track record of carefully constructing and reinforcing its own mythologies that help to maintain its denialism.

But we don’t really have to go far back into history to gain an understanding of how white Australia creates and embeds its own mythologies, we have examples happening around us right here and now.

A classic example of a current myth in the process of being assembled and propagated can be seen in the description of events at the Aboriginal Embassy on January 26th this year as a ‘riot’.

It should come as no surprise that the commercial media should enthusiastically embrace this inaccurate description, but even the once respected ABC News has now taken to using this term on every occasion the events of January 26th are mentioned in its news bulletins.

Yet eyewitness reports and even the television footage of that day are clear evidence that suggestions that there was some sort of Aboriginal ‘riot’ are pure fantasy.

But White Australian ‘journalists’ appear determined to maintain the lie that what happened was our Prime Minister was under grave threat from some sort of Aboriginal riot.

However, it is obvious from the television images that the only threat to Julia Gillard that day was from paranoid, over-zealous police officers manhandling her in a most undignified way.

And was that a smile I saw on Gillard’s face as I saw her being closely cuddled by that large and manly police officer?

That otherwise seemingly intelligent purveyors of information can so blatantly misrepresent what the television images clearly show is a remarkable illustration of a myth in the process of being constructed.

It should prompt us to think about other recent examples of myths that have now become embedded as part of the continuing denialism that pervades Australians perceptions of themselves and us.

Two of the worst examples that immediately spring to mind are the myth that the Mabo Decision of the High Court in 1992 and the subsequent Native Title Act 1993 gave “land justice” to Aboriginal people, and that Kevin Rudd has apologised to the Aboriginal people.

Australians like to cite these two ‘facts’ as evidence that this nation has progressive policies in relation to Aboriginal people.

When the Native Title Act (NTA) was passed in Parliament it was hailed as a great moment for Aboriginal Australia (amid the clinking of champagne glasses) by the then Prime Minister Paul Keating and his retinue of Aboriginal “advisors” who had “negotiated” the deal with him (key ones being Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and Pat Dodson).

Noel Pearson was particularly effusive of the Act back in 1993, after all he was one of its main creators, but by February 2010 he had done a double back-flip now describing the NTA as “a travesty and a quagmire” as he accused the judicial system of “failing to serve Indigenous Australians”.

This about-face by Pearson was possibly because he had finally come to realise what Michael Mansell and I had said in 1993, which was that the Native Title Act was a fraud and a farce and certainly did not give land justice to Aboriginal Australians.

Yet most Australians cling to the belief that their country had resolved Aboriginal claims for land and sovereignty through the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993. This is white Australian myth-making and denialism of a high order.

Then we have the famous “apology” by Kevin Rudd in 2008.

This is already firmly embedded in white mythology as “Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people” and is viewed (at least by ALL in the mainstream media) as a cathartic event that has now absolved White Australia for past misdeeds and was therefore an important step towards an intangible creature called “reconciliation”.

These notions belie the truth. The fact is that Kevin Rudd did not apologise to the “Aboriginal people”, but rather to a small segment of the Aboriginal community known as the “Stolen Generations”.

This may well have been good news for those who were of the Stolen Generations, but Rudd’s intricately constructed and carefully worded apology deftly avoided apologising to ALL Aboriginal peoples.

But that didn’t matter because Canberra’s spin-doctors and the Parliamentary Press Gallery instantly misconstrued it into a general apology and that was that.

We now again have the ABC news service repeating this myth on a daily basis, and the not so subtle falsification of history continues unchallenged.

But as most Aboriginal people know, the apology ultimately served the purpose of appeasing the guilt of White Australia, rather than bringing about any meaningful change in the circumstances of most Black Australians.

What we are seeing happening around us is a perfect example of how myths are manufactured and embedded in a society’s sub-consciousness through mass media, government propaganda and the education system and then become accepted “truths” of history.

This is why it is so important for Aboriginal people and their genuine white supporters to remain ever vigilant to the lies and distortions that creep into mainstream society’s perceptions of itself.

If we too get sucked in by some of the white-mans mythology we can become our own worst enemies.

It is only through an informed, rational and intelligent public debate that we can really counter some of the dangerous myths that are being created in our midst.

And we can only have such a debate when all Australians have a greater awareness of the real situation that confronts Aboriginal peoples and when they are able to see through many of the lies that currently constitute Australian ‘history’.

Can this ever happen? I am not sure, but somehow I doubt it.

* Gary Foley has over the past 40 years been an activist, actor, academic, arts bureaucrat, museum curator and writer, and today describes himself as an “elderly anarchist agitator”, as well as being a historian and lecturer at Victoria University. Gary is currently completing a PhD in History at the University of Melbourne.